Embracing Doubt to Be a Better Coach

The behavior expectation of anyone with leadership responsibilities, such as the coaching profession, is to exhibit confidence with all decisions and be all-powerful in their body language. Exhibiting a miniscule dose of self-doubt is verboten. I want to make a case for the positives of embracing doubt as a positive component for coaching success. A coach lacking in a healthy dose of self-doubt ceases to grow intellectually and with coaching skills. Of course, without guardrails, possessing doubt can be debilitating to the point where decision-making becomes impossible. Equally, the absence of doubt creates a monster coach incapable of any reflective analysis of their methods. 

“Please run, do not walk, to the nearest exit when you hear so-called leaders being certain of any particular policy. Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility, and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.” ~Robert Burton, Neurologist

Coaches at all levels should be cautious in mindlessly following those with the loudest megaphones, who inevitably start most sentences with “the science says.” Coaches are told there is a right and wrong way to run a practice, only one defensive system to implement, or the most preferred manner to pass, hit, or serve. These prescriptions for success are pronounced with such confidence and authority that one can understand the tendency to follow along without doing one’s own study. Equally, coaches should take caution in allowing their own biases to impact their philosophy and decision-making mechanisms. A true scientist is always open to new information and demonstrates an unrelenting commitment to the Scientific Method as a tool for forming their opinions.

I was raised in an era of coaches where the leading voices, among others, were Doug Beal, Jim Coleman, Terry Liskevych, Carl McGown, and Mick Haley. All of these great coaches had advanced degrees in various scientific fields. All approached the game critically and were intellectually curious about how to impact their teams in the best way possible to foster improvement. Coleman was one of the first to attach a statistical evaluation to performance. Beal won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, implementing a two-person reception pattern in all six rotations. Haley won a national championship at Texas, implementing a defensive system I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. Liskevych was great at adapting his systems to the talent on the team. McGown was very innovative in attaching motor learning principles to teaching. The common thread to all of these Hall of Fame Coaches is that they meticulously scrutinized the game, performed a substantial amount of research, experimented with various approaches to skill development, examined the strengths and weaknesses of their teams and systems, and pursued a variety of innovative ways to achieve great things.

Coaches need an open mind that there might be a better way. The best coaches are in constant pursuit of a better way. We ask our players to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Possessing doubt or having questions is as uncomfortable for the coach as it is for the player. As threatening and uncomfortable as it may seem to replace a mindset of certainty with one of doubt, we will not succeed unless this feeling is embraced. Having a manageable degree of doubt in your methods fosters the curiosity to move forward and accept new ideas.

I encourage coaches to implement their own form of the Scientific Method into their coaching routine. 

  • Identify what isn’t going well. Is the problem a stand-alone problem, or is it the by-product of another problem? Make sure you’re focusing on the correct challenge.
  • Do your research. Seek resources that provide relevant information. Invite coaches you trust to visit your training sessions and share their observations. Arrange a meeting with successful coaches to study their approaches to our sport. Read everything related to our profession.
  • Experiment with different systems, communication skills, physical training, and skill development methods, and record the results. For example, do we dig more balls and raise our dig to kill efficiency with the libero in center-back or left-back?
  • Evaluate your data or observations. Using the above example, perhaps there isn’t a difference in defensive performance. Then, pursue other factors that might impact your decision. Do we want to run a backrow attack with a center-back player? If so, that might be a factor in your decision.
  • Move forward with your choice while being aware that no decision is so final that additional study is abandoned. 

Science is always about asking questions. If something is working, why? If something isn’t working, why not? Not all of a coach’s problems are solved by the attitude of “I need better players.” Moving forward might entail thoroughly reviewing your methods and pursuing a different recipe for your success.