I spoke to sports coach Troy Engle about what it takes to win and how we can apply athlete's training insights to leading a business.
Alison: As a sports coach for over 30 years, you’ve worked with athletes with a wide range of abilities. How are average versus elite athletes similar or different in their discipline and mindset? And how do you think this might relate to average versus top-performing leaders?
Troy: I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide range of track and field athletes; from raw college beginners to top-level US athletes including Olympians. While I’ve seen the whole gamut of commitment levels, ability levels, and competitiveness, I’d have to say that the primary difference between average and elite athletes is their focus and attention to detail.
Everyone “wants” to be an Olympian, top-performing leader, or their personal best. But those that consistently do it combine talent (I don’t think you can underestimate that), a solid daily training environment (that includes good support and guidance), and laser-like focus on getting where they want to be.
Alison: What are the most common mistakes elite athletes make both early on and later in their careers? And how do you think this might relate to leaders at different stages of their careers?
Troy: The biggest mistake is looking for the “quick fix”—excellence is not achieved overnight. It requires a plan, setting the stage for the implementation of that plan, and trust that the plan will work—even in the face of inevitable bumps in the road to success.
“Peak performance” really is about the margin—physiologists say that a peak is measured by a 3% incremental improvement over the norm. One of the traps many athletes fall into later in their careers is focusing on that 3% at the expense of the 97% basic factors for success that got them there in the first place.
Alison: Have you observed that there are any coaching techniques or approaches that work or don’t work for female athletes as they do for male athletes?
Troy: I’ve been lucky to have always coached both men and women. From a physiological standpoint, there are some very minor differences, but the bottom line is you coach the person, not the athlete. (There are differences in adaptation to training for EVERYONE!) I hate to make sweeping generalisations, but I think there are differences in what men see and what women see with regard to team dynamics and culture. There is an old coaching adage that “men battle to bond but women bond for battle.” I often missed what later turned out to be glaring team culture issues that my female team leadership saw. During my career, I learned to value the perceptiveness and input of my female captains on things like social networking and team dynamics and ways that we could improve the team culture.
Alison: As an endurance athlete, I find that my own motivation waxes and wanes. Sometimes I can’t wait to get out the door and other times I’d prefer a pin in my eye! We see the same issue with so many of the leaders we coach in Organisation Solutions. As a sports coach, how do you leverage motivation and how do you help athletes get the right kind and level of motivation?
Troy: In coaching circles, we talk about “athlete-centred coaching.” This is about giving ownership (and ultimately responsibility) for athletic performance to the performer. Good coaches empower athletes to make critical decisions that make them less coach-reliant—even if that means giving up our own control. Ultimately, that not only results in a better athlete, but moreover, in a more motivated, committed person.
Of course, the flip side is that an athlete can be TOO motivated and may lose sight of the intention of the training—specifically they may not understand the value of pacing or “easy days” and over train (for example), so another big element of effective coaching is to give ownership AND a deep understanding of why you are doing the work you are doing. It’s kind of a shared training vision.
Alison: What do you most love about coaching and why? If you couldn’t be a coach, what kind of work would you want to do?
Troy: I was destined to be a teacher or coach—and I don’t separate the two. Both my parents were educators and I was called to serve in education, but in a different “classroom” than theirs. So, I don’t know what I would be doing… In the movie Moneyball, there is a scene about giving bad news to an athlete. Brad Pitt asks Jonah Hill if he would rather be shot in the arm and bleed to death or be shot and killed instantly. Hill’s response was like mine: “Are those really the only two options?” I can’t see myself not coaching.
Today I only coach coaches, rather than athletes, on a daily basis. In my last few years of college coaching, it became harder and harder for me to stay focused on the important relationship element of coaching. In retrospect, I think I became a bit too focused on winning over the people I was coaching and my staff. I only realised that after leaving and, frankly, haven’t shared that with many people.
So, what do I love most about coaching? Helping athletes learn about themselves, helping them challenge themselves to do things they never thought they could, and smiling with them along the journey.
Alison: Troy, you read my book, Pacing for Growth, which is about how leaders can use a concept I call “Intelligent Restraint” to lead their business to perform while they also build capabilities for the future and not burn everyone out. Tell us about any ideas that you took from the book that you are applying as a teacher of sports coaches? How might leaders use this idea to coach their team?
Troy: I’m a strong believer in the principle of maximum capacity. We need to be keenly aware of our current “fitness” and capacity—identify that margin and train at it but not beyond it. That’s the critical element to establishing a training program that works and that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout.
My favourite rule from the book is “focus overrules vision” —a great plan doesn’t work without the commitment to working the system. As I mentioned, I think that “eye on the prize” focus is what separates the elite from the “also-rans.” Make a plan, trust the plan, and WORK the plan!