Coaching is Reading and Reacting

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With the start of the season, we are all looking for an edge in coaching our programs and in our coaching. “Read and React” is a phrase used in this essay to describe a possible path to “highly successful” coaching. The phrase “highly successful” is taken from the subtitle of Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code.  A while back, when thinking about coaching, I wrote a small piece called “Coaching is Caring.”  It was based on the familiar notion that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,” a sentence which I first heard uttered at an ASCA World Clinic by Sports Psychologist Thomas Tutko. I always believed that and so does everyone really, but other than intuition, I never really knew why it was a path to “highly successful” coaching

Now, I know.  I have just finished reading Daniel Coyle’s new book, The Culture Code (Bantam Books: New York, 2018). His subtitle is “The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.”  Teams, I thought, are groups that want to be and sometimes are highly successful.  So,  I picked up his book and read it. My recommendation is that you do the same. My first reaction was to write this recommendation. My second reaction, I hope, will be to do a better job of coaching and caring.

Daniel Coyle, remember, is The Talent Code (Bantam Books, New York, 2009) guy. In that book, Daniel Coyle took the familiar “champions-are-made-not-born” idea, de-mystified it, put a little neurological science behind it, and taught us, as his subtitle says, that “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.” His book told the story of “myelin” and the “myelin sheath” that has now become familiar.  “Every human skill,” Coyle writes in his introduction is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse...

Myelin’s vital role is to wrap those nerve fibers the same way that rubber insulation wraps a copper wire, making the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out... The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become (p. 5).

That’s it.  Talent/skill acquisition is as simple – and as challenging -- as that.  Myelin is universal. Everyone has it; everyone can grow more of it, and it can be grown to enhance any physical or mental skill.  These thoughts led to the notion of “deliberate practice” (see Anders Ericsson’s Counsilman Lecture at the ASCA World Clinic, 2009) and even to the 10,000 hours notion, written by Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, as a prerequisite for excellence.  From “deliberate practice” to high level and enthusiastic motivation to masterful coaching (there is even a “Talent Whisperers” Chapter, chapter 8), this early book of Daniel Coyle’s attempted to chart a path from talent/skill acquisition to excellent performance.

Now Daniel Coyle has done it again, this time de-mystifying, explaining, and pointing out how highly successful groups function.  As he did in The Talent Code, The Culture Code is filled with stories, studies, research evidence, pages of notes at the end, and a 20 title list of recommended readings. He even includes “Ideas for Action” at the end of each of the book’s three sections.   It is clear from the titles and obvious when the two are placed side by side that these two books are a pair and are intended to be read together. One has a white cover; one has a black cover. In these two books, Daniel Coyle puts it down in black and white. His writing is clear, direct, and so much to the point that the points become (almost) obvious.  Read them in either order. They build and complement each other. But do read them – and lay down a little more myelin in your brain as you think about and contemplate what makes great coaching and highly successful teams.

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle begins, before page one and on a page by itself, by defining the word “Culture:” “CULTURE – from the Latin cultus which means care.”  The word “culture” also comes from the same root word as the word “cultivate,” meaning to “nurture” or to “care for.”  In highly successful groups (and on highly successful teams), people are “cared for,” and “nurtured” by a leader who “cares” about them and who “cultivates” their excellence.  The “secrets of highly successful groups,” Daniel Coyle teaches us in this book,  is in their “culture code,” meaning in their caring code.  Indeed, it is.  For the next 243 pages, Daniel Coyle explains how and why this is so. “Culture,” he writes at the end of his introduction “is a set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do”(p. xx). 

“Culture [“caring”] is something you do.”
— Daniel Coyle

Read that last sentence again. “Culture [or caring] is something you do.” It is the action that counts.  That is why “React” is part of the title of this book review and recommendation. And that is why there are “Ideas for action” at the end of each of the three sections of the book.

Begin at the Bottom

There are three main steps to this “Culture Code” (just as there were three main steps to The Talent Code). The first is to begin at the bottom by creating and building within the group a sense of safety and belonging. “Build Safety,” in fact, is the title of his first section.  Before they can perform at a high level, group members need to know that they belong to the group and that they are safe here. “The deeper thing to realize is that you can’t just give a cue once. This is all about relationships, conveying the fact that I’m interested in you, and that all the work we do together is in the context of that relationship” (p. 24). Building this ongoing sense of belonging and safety is not an orientation or an “onboarding” exercise, it is a way of daily life.“Belonging,” he continues “needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced” (p. 24).  Examples abound, starting with the work of the amygdala in our brain and continuing through the Army, the Navy Seals, Pixar, Zappos, the San Antonio Spurs, etc.   Highly successful cultures begin with caring, with safety, and with belonging. There is even a discussion of how to give strong, “magical feedback.” (p. 56) that leads to improvement. “Building safety,” Coyle writes toward the end of that section isn’t the kind of skill you can learn in a robotic paint-by-numbers sort of way.  It is a fluid, improvisational skill...It requires you to recognize patterns, react quickly, and deliver the right signal at the right time.  And, like any skill, it comes with a learning curve (p.75). [Italics mine]. In short, building safety and a sense of belonging requires us to learn to “read and react.” And learning this skill takes what Anders Ericsson refers to as  “deliberate practice.”

Share Vulnerability

Daniel Coyle titles part II of his book “Share Vulnerability.” Sharing Vulnerability is what the leader does – and it is something that, as coaches, we might not be very good at or accustomed to doing. “It goes against our every instinct” (p. 97), writes Coyle.  “So far,” he begins we’ve spent this book in what you might call the glue department, exploring how successful groups create belonging. Now, we’ll turn our attention to the muscle, to see how successful groups translate connection into trusting cooperation (p. 96).

They do it, he says and illustrates with examples, by sharing vulnerability, especially when the leaders share vulnerability. “Science shows that when it comes to creating cooperation, vulnerability is not a risk but a psychological requirement” (p.111).   In another place, he writes: “Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust – it precedes it”(p. 107).  What is true for individuals is also true for groups. Cooperation, trust...what we might call “teamwork” follows a pattern of shared, sometimes risky, and generally rewarding mutual vulnerability.  In one way of looking at it, this is what teams and seasons are about: approaching a risky endeavor together in which everyone shares some vulnerability. Becoming highly successful only comes about through trusting one another and working together without reservation toward a mutually shared goal. In highly successful groups, you don’t “focus on yourself,” you “focus on the team and the task” (p.121). In the book, he is talking about the Navy Seals in this sentence, but we get the point as it relates to our teams as well.

“One of the best ways I’ve found to improve a team’s cohesion,” he writes “is to send them to do some hard, hard training”(p. 140).  Check.  We’ve all got that one. And we all know how much good, in addition to improved fitness, can come out of a hard training camp. “Embrace the discomfort”(p. 166). “The key,” he writes, “is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group”(p. 166). It’s not all just hard physical work either.  The shared vulnerability necessarily involves having the courage to face the hard truth and to tell it to each other(p. 147) – a skill already learned in the safety and belonging stage. A leader who admits to a mistake, who listens to and accepts ideas from others not only shares and communicates vulnerability, s/he also builds trust and cooperation within the team at the same time. One term for this kind of leadership and coaching is “Servant Leadership.”  It is a kind of leadership that can be very effective in our sport. In short, read the cues (results/data...) and react in a way that focuses on the goal, shares vulnerability, builds trust, and moves forward with a clear focus.

Establish Purpose

Part III – “Establish Purpose” sounds a little like, and is a little reminiscent of, the “motivation/ignition” section of The Talent Code.  In simple terms, Coyle notes that successful groups define their purpose clearly, and tell their story often. “Purpose isn’t about tapping into some mystical internal drive but rather about creating simple beacons that focus attention and engagement on the shared goal”(p. 180). Everyone in the group or on the team needs to know the purpose and mission of the group and to see it often. They need to see and know the organization’s priorities so that they know how to act and what to do in every situation. “High purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and the future ideal”(p. 180). “Successful cultures,” he emphasizes, “relentlessly seek ways to tell and retell their story”(p. 180).

Telling and retelling the story of where we are as a group and where our ideal-and-achievable goal will take us builds group awareness and cohesion through the process of “mental contrasting” (p. 181). This constant focusing and refocusing attention on the contrast between where we are now and where we want our group/team to be builds energy, commitment, motivation, and teamwork. When the story is the same story in everyone’s mind, it becomes the team’s story and the team’s reality. There is no need for goal setting in the traditional way with this approach.  The contrast between the obstacles we face here and now and the clear, specific, achievable goal we want to reach is enough. “The surprising thing, from a scientific point of view, is how responsive we are to this pattern of signaling”(p. 180).

All this may sound simple, but it isn’t.  It takes a lot of work, a lot of deliberate practice and a lot of attention to detail. “It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases [although repeated catchphrases can help, he says, p. 231]. It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning (p. 228).”  Try, fail, reflect, learn, and repeat -- again and again until you get it right – one small successful step at a time.  This is exactly what Anders Ericsson means by  “deliberate practice.” And, Coyle argues, this is also precisely what highly successful groups do to become highly successful.

When we look at our seasons, our years, and even our practices, we come up against this last sentence over and over again. Our team and our team goal for each year is our “high purpose environment.” Our daily and seasonal coaching is our “never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning.”  And for our team members, it is the same story: a “never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all learning.” Ideally, that is why we have so many “repeats” in our workouts.  Practice by practice, day by day, instruction by instruction, a team, and a coach build their highly successful season together, one small successful step at a time.  Amen to all that. Coaching is like that. Coaches “read” what the team is doing and “react” with the next instruction over and over and over again throughout this and every season. Coaching is reading and reacting.

“Writing a book,” Coyle writes at the beginning of his Epilogue “leaves a person changed” (p.237).   I have been changed by reading this book. I hope you will be too.  I have left out of this review lots and lots of his effective coaching and leadership advice.  The book is filled with it. At one point near the end, he even charts different strategies for leading for “proficiency” vs. leading for “creativity.”  With our drills and our biomechanics, we may be more on the “proficiency” side, but that too is for you to determine as you read and react to this book.

One final note of swimming trivia: In his acknowledgments section (p. 246), Daniel Coyle thanks our 2016 Head Olympic Coaches, Bob Bowman, and David Marsh.  He does not mention them by name in the text, but it is intriguing to note that he has paid attention to our sport while doing his research for this book.  I hope you enjoy reading and reacting to this book.

Tim Welsh

One of the most respected coaches in the nation, Tim Welsh brought the Notre Dame men's swimming and diving program to unprecedented levels and the verge of becoming a national force when it entered the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013.

Under his guidance, the Fighting Irish captured the program's first BIG EAST title in 2005 and repeated the feat in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013.

Welsh was not unaccustomed to success, as student-athletes and teams under his care have exceeded expectations and broken barriers throughout his 36-year career as a head coach. Welsh's squads experienced great team success over the years. In 1978 and 1979, he helped Johns Hopkins to back-to-back Division III national championships, while being named National Coach of the Year on the latter occasion. In all, Welsh has coached 33 teams that have claimed conference championships and 21 that have won nine or more dual meets in a season.

A published writer and master motivator, Welsh and his wife, Jacqueline (who served as curator of education in the Notre Dame Snite Museum of Art prior to her retirement), are the parents of two sons. Tim, a 2002 Notre Dame graduate, participated in the University's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program before completing his English Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. John is a 2005 Notre Dame graduate.