Confidence: The Be All and End All of Coaching?

I Need a Training Plan

I always do my best not to be too critical of other coaches. On talking about coaching mind-sets, Myles Downey suggests that:

– People have huge potential.
– People have different ‘maps of reality’.
– People have good intentions.

These are really important to me, and probably my greatest skill and worst enemy is to see their perspective and give them the benefit of the doubt. However, there’s a type of coach that really annoys me. He, and I say he intentionally, is the super-confident alpha-male with the permatan who states everything with absolute certainty and believes what he says is fact. He’s the autocratic type who expects you do something because he says so. There is one coach I have in mind who elicits such an emotional rant in me that my partner mentions his name just to wind me up. My Buddhist training flies out the window when I hear THAT name.

There’s another type that I struggle with. It’s the type who uses bad science to sell the dream, the ones who endorse products or use methods that emanate from a marketing man’s Mac. I met a coach recently who sold a product that has little basis in fact, claiming performance benefits. I actually liked this guy but I didn’t find him a credible coach because he was one of two things:

a) Guilty of intellectual idolatry or
b) Intentionally scamming his coaching clients to make money.

The video below is good to watch to get the message. Woops, will Gillian McKeith sue me for posting?

I hear lots of moans about remote coaches, who typically only prescribe training, have the odd weekly chat and manage 30-40 clients. However, I don’t mind this type of coach because they are serving a demand in the market, are giving athletes what they want and charging a fair price for the service.

But hey….. The most important thing in life is to be responsible for ones own actions rather than whine about other people. Lets talk about my favourite types of coach instead.

They are overt, think carefully about what they and speak with humility rather than absolute certainty. They have two ears and one mouth and use them proportionately. They also tend to be female coaches! OK, I’m bias but as a rule of thumb I think females make better coaches than males. They only make up about 20% of all coaches and the percentage is far less at the performance end of sport.

However, I think I’m in the minority because my perception is that Coach Permatan, supplement selling man probably makes more money than the type of coach I prefer. Of course, I don’t buy the neoliberal perspective on judging success on the size of someone’s bank account. It’s relative anyway as the majority of coaches, even those at the highest level are paid a pittance.

Reading a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by Tenney, Spellman and MacCoun (2008) helped explain my ire. Although it did not report on sex differences or even examine sports coaching, I’ve paraphrased a few quotes from the paper:

– People prefer confidence in others, not ambiguity.
– People rarely independently verify what others tell them, and without that verification they cannot fully assess their sources’ reliability.
– People who are good judges of their own knowledge are rewarded, and those who are overconfident in what they know lose face.
– People are often drawn to highly confident coaches believing this confidence has some basis in reality. However, when they receive evidence to demonstrate this confidence is not matched by ability, then the coach may appear less credible, likeable, and honest.

A few years ago, I was chatting with an Olympic Gold Medallist who had successfully transitioned into being a coach and had supported a multitude of other athletes to podium finishes. He wasn’t the alpha-male type but he did engender confidence in others, maybe because having been an Olympic Champion gives immediate credibility. However, he was found out. One particularly bright and confident young athlete who had won a few world medals wanted to know:

– Why am I doing this training?
– What are the alternatives?
– Why should I listen to you?
– How will you help me go faster?

He said he felt challenged, exposed and ill equipped to answer her questions. The fact that he was sharing this with me showed humility and a desire to be able to answer her questions. His ego was damaged but he retained credibility because he was honest in his responses.

In the world of age-group triathlon coaching, confident and less humble coaches who big up their credentials and/or successes as athletes despite being ‘full of shit’ are often more successful (in financial and performance terms) than a less confident coach who has far more knowledge.

I believe there are a few important reasons for this:
1) When dealing with most athletes, simply getting them training consistently, regardless of methods, is likely to result in better performance.
2) We know that placebo is one of the most effective treatments known to human kind and bullshit coaches use confidence in their own perceived ability to good effect.

Much as it pains me to say it, a crap coach with confidence can help most athletes get faster and make money out of doing so. This may seem unfair but as as Prof. Steve Peters says “It is a fact that life is not fair”. It’s pointless getting upset when Coach PermaTan Placebo is rolling with cash and getting plenty of glory.

The bottom line is that a coach without confidence but plenty of knowledge is as much use as a chocolate teapot. Credibility gained through being a top athlete is typically a bigger commodity than having the coaching skills and intellectual capacity of Einstein. Of course many top coaches such as Brett Sutton and Daz Smith have never been top athletes but they both have the intellect and confidence of a bull elephants. This confidence is what athletes need and expect, especially when the going gets tough. Saying, “hmmmm, I’m not sure…..such a paper suggests but I think we need further research to confirm” just does not cut it.


Most coaches who consistently deliver success at the very top of the sport have the intellectual rigour to support their confidence and credibility. They are normally willing to justify themselves, admit when they’re wrong and say when they don’t know, all with confidence.

“Tell me what you think?” is a great question because it allows them to calibrate their answer, relative to the athlete’s beliefs (or give them thinking time). I’ve learnt the hard way…..even if you think a coach is talking out their bum, only challenge them in a way that allows them to maintain credibility, usually in a one-to-one conversation, not on pool-deck in front of the rest of the group.
However, if you’re Mr Permatan Placebo Coach man reading this, mark my words, you will always be found out. You should have the lesson of Tenney et al in your ears:

“when confidence is not matched by ability, you will appear less credible, likeable, and honest”.

You will have to hope your clients don’t ask you too many difficult questions or know more than you do. When I’m teaching or coaching, I always assume there’s someone listening who knows more than I do, because that’s often the case. I know that’s hard to believe!

In the academic world, fellow academics typically only ask questions, not because they want to know the answer. They already know it and want to clarify you know your stuff! Particularly cruel ones will be looking to shoot you down and if you come across as over confident, even the nice ones will have a pop too!

Although most athletes don’t like to challenge a coach, some do. I like to be prepared for most eventualities and know that every time I open my mouth, my credibility is at stake.

2016-01-22 TrainingPeaks


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