As coaches, our job at the core is to develop our athletes. As performance coaches, our goal is to optimize strength, speed, power, etc. Sport coaches teach skills specific to the sport like throwing, tackling, plays, etc. Oftentimes, we get into coaching because we care about the ultimate development of our athletes. We want them to be successful in everything they do. Whether we’re talking about physically, mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually. At our core, our athletes’ development is what brings us into this field.

In this article, I want to bring light to what I believe is one of the more ignored concepts with coaches. This concept is decision making. Throughout my career, I have worked in multiple private sector gyms, multiple collegiate weight rooms, with several different sports teams and sport coaches. One of the most consistent things that I have seen is the lack of training that gives athletes’ the ability to make their own decisions.

In the weight room, coaches program specific percentages, tell athletes exactly what exercises to do, exactly how much weight to use, what to do for the warm-up, what to foam roll, what to stretch, the list goes on and on. Sport coaches are often not much different. They will tell athletes what plays to run, where to stand, when to wake up, when to go to sleep, what meetings they need to go to. You see this even more frequently at the collegiate level, where almost every single hour of an athlete’s day is planned out and scheduled. However, in the middle of competition (think more directly in the middle of a play), when will a coach be able to tell a player exactly what to do, especially when the play doesn’t work the way it is supposed to? Or even better, what is the athlete supposed to do after their playing day is over and they realize they have no idea how to make a decision on their own?

As coaches, do we only care what happens to our athletes while they’re under our direct care? Do we not care about our athletes’ development as people, as well as athletes? If your answer to these questions is no, I would argue that you probably shouldn’t be a coach. In an earlier article I’ve written, I noted how we are in the business of people, not just performance. If this remains true, we need to consider how we are developing our athletes as people, not just machines that play sports. After their athletic career is over, they are going to be pushed into the real world and asked to solve problems in whatever their chosen profession is. However, if they’ve only ever been told exactly what to do and how to do it, how could you ever expect our athletes to just start figuring out how to problem solve and make their own decisions?

If you do want to focus specifically on their athletic performance, which I will still furiously argue against, I can still make the argument for decision making in their training. How many times in sport have you seen a play breakdown, or something happen that can almost never be practiced? In the heat of the moment, do you want your athlete to look at the sideline and just start yelling, “COACH! WHAT DO I DO?” Hell, I hope not. The fact of the matter is that sports are controlled chaos. More often than not, things do not go as planned, and athletes have to problem solve in less than a second off platform to find success. How can we expect our athletes to accomplish this feat proficiently if we never give them the opportunities to problem solve and make decisions in their training?

“But Coach C, if I don’t tell my athletes what percentage to lift at or what weight to put on the bar, that will only encourage my lazier lifters to be lazy. Then only my hard workers will work hard.” Ok, and what is your point with that? At the end of the day, isn’t that what is going to happen anyway? That’s what is going to happen on the field, and that’s what is going to happen in their everyday life. I would argue that you could then use this information to figure out who to put on the field. More often than not, those hard workers are your better teammates, and frequently more successful athletes. You can use that information to teach a lesson. If you don’t take responsibility and work hard, you don’t play. Even if you do, someone on the other team is probably better because they have been working hard, and then you will lose your individual competition. That’s what would happen in the real world. Why not have our athletes start to develop and understand that lesson?

The more we incorporate decision making, problem solving, and taking responsibility for their actions into our athletes’ training, the more we prepare them for both competition and life after sport. Telling them exactly what to do and when to do it at every turn only cripples them in all of their endeavors. Our job as coaches is to develop our athletes in every facet we can, if you don’t want to assist in their development as people, you should probably pick another career. We want our athletes to leave our influence better than when they entered it, and that includes their ability to be successful after their playing days are over. Finding ways to make them think, giving them freedom to choose, and allowing for mistakes and lessons will only allow them to develop into their true optimal selves.

  • Cortland Smith, CPT, CSCS