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The Impact of a Truly Great Coach

I’ve been boxing for 9 years. 15 different men have had the challenge and pleasure of being my coach in this time period. Most held the title individually, but there have been times where I have simultaneously been under the tutelage of two different masters. The longest continuous time I’ve been under one coach is 4 years (my current coach) while the shortest has been just over two and a half weeks. Each has made their impact on me, not just as a fighter but as a human being. The boxer I am today is an amalgamation of their individual instruction and contribution.


With each teacher there have been successes and failures. The easy strolls on the path to greatness are contrasted by treacherous obstacles that temporarily halt progress. I have learned much from both the highs and the lows. Along with the obvious lessons of sportsmanship and ability, I have also learned what traits make someone a great coach.


There is great debate about what is the most effective way to bring along a student. On one side of the fence are the supporters of positive reinforcement. Opposite of them are those that believe in harsh criticism. Positive feedback praises constructive action. Negative feedback criticizes mistakes. Good coaching is a mix of both approaches, but every coach leans one way or the other. Which method should an ideal coach subscribe too?


My experience and observation has shown me that the best coaches don’t subscribe to either. Instead, what takes place is neutral feedback. The best way to explain this is via a deeper look at motivations and goals of positive and negative feedback.


Negative reinforcement is the least effective method of instruction because of the fear that it creates in the learning environment. There is an old saying: “An expert is a person that has made every mistake they can in their field.” While a coach’s job is to instruct a pupil so that he develops efficiently, part of the learning process is solo experimentation, the mistakes that come with it, and learning from those mistakes. By working through problems, self-confidence is developed. In other words, a coach has to let his pupil make mistakes. If the student fears making mistakes then the student will hold back, never fully testing the limits of their abilities and knowledge. The confidence that comes with successful navigation of the unknown with never develop.


Positive reinforcement is an improvement because it does not create a restrictive growth environment. However, it has drawbacks. Coaches that lean heavy on praise and tread lightly on critique create within themselves an aversion to enforcing corrective action. Practice sessions, by definition, have a highly repetitive nature. During this process, we aim to maximize what is correct and eliminate deficiencies. An instructor that gives too much praise feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar with this process of correction because his method is to only highlight what is right. At best this type of coach will ignore your bad habits. At worst, he will encourage the development of traits and habits which contribute to your eventual failure.


Despite being complete opposites of one another, positive and negative styles of coaching have a common root: fear. Fear of losing students is the primary motivator, but it could be any number of things. This is why neutral feedback—a coaching style that is neither positive or negative—is preferred.


My most talented coaches gave me feedback that was neither angry or ecstatic. The corrections used minimal words that were absent of superfluous ego stroking or soul crushing rhetoric. The mistake was noted and rectified through proper instruction. Effective teachers are neither praise or criticism focused. Their only concern is achieving the proper execution.


Great coaches, teaches, and instructors are purely focused on the result. When praise or criticism is an effective tool for helping the student reach their objective then it is used. Introductory classes find praise particularly useful in guiding a student through the initial challenges until they are confident and proficient. But for those of us seeking top level performance, praise is mostly useless.


Criticisms are necessary to correct errors, but any more than an adjustment is a distraction to the student. Along with creating an atmosphere of fear that is not conducive to taking necessary risks, the other danger is misinterpretation. I have observed situations where a student erroneously corrects something that was working because they believed it was coming under criticism. This is because heavy criticism stems from a teacher’s lack of thorough understanding. Let me give you an example from my boxing studies.


For a long time, I had difficulty throwing my punches straight. They always came out with a little arch or pull back that prevented them from being as fast or effective as they could be. It’s a surprisingly common problem. Despite it being a common problem, I went through quite a few coaches before someone had enough understanding of boxing mechanics and teaching to correct my error. Prior to that, it was simply accepted that punching straight would not be my cup of tea. My hooks—which are excellent but needed more development–and knockout power were praised by some coaches while others criticized my straight line punches. This stunted my growth. However, once a coach corrected this error in a very straight forward manner, it was no longer an issue.


Criticism and praise can be used, but leaning on one or the other creates an imbalance that will weaken your development. Look for the instructor that effortlessly switches between the two and the students are encouraged to make mistakes while avoiding recklessness. Short instruction, to the point, with little flair or excess. These are the marks of a coach who understands neutral feedback and will use it to develop you along your individual path to keep you competing at your highest level.