Traits of Elite Coaches and High Performing Practitioners

In this latest offering we explore some of the traits that differentiate the best coaches and practitioners in their fields. One disclaimer before we start is that this post is based on observational study. To some degree the themes we explore reflect wisdom shared by prominent individuals via different forums and media. However, I unapologetically give more weight to traits and behaviours that I have directly observed. I have been fortunate to interact with a representative sample of these exceptional individuals across multiple sports in various contexts; this has provided the opportunity to see how they approach their work with ‘live’ athletes in different scenarios, as opposed to how individuals claim they act and operate in practice. The themes we explore are therefore more a product of this direct observation, rather than simply distilling what has been presented elsewhere.


One striking attribute of the best coaches and practitioners I have encountered is that they manage to blend boundless curiosity with a very healthy dose of scepticism. The insatiable curiosity these individuals possess leads them into diverse realms as they seek to discover and explore what is not known. The search for answers and drive to discover fuels a commitment to lifelong learning, which is another characteristic that is commonly cited.

Curiosity is however tempered with scepticism and a propensity for critical thinking; this allows the same individuals to take nothing at face value. This is important as it allows these individuals to avoid chasing novelty for its own sake, and falling prey to the fads that afflict others in their respective fields. In essence, the stance they adopt is that @@every idea merits consideration, but nothing should be swallowed whole@@.


@@A trait that the best have in common is a predisposition to take their own path@@. Part of what makes these individuals exceptional is an extraordinary ability to see things differently.

@@The type of vision that the exceptional few possess is not shaped or unduly influenced by the consensus viewpoint@@. The mental models that these individuals deploy to make sense of the world (and the sport) are thus not constrained by the dominant narrative or conventional wisdom of how things work. Being able to perceive the problem differently opens up the possibility of new solutions.

@@Freedom of thought requires a certain level of bravery@@. What allows these individuals to fully explore these alternate views and deploy alternative mental models is that their vision is combined with the requisite conviction and obstinacy to entertain ideas that differ to the consensus position, even in the face of scorn.


@@Taking the path less travelled requires a propensity to resist the urge to follow the herd and societal pressures to conform@@. A first step is a willingness to defy the conventional viewpoint on the given problem, and go against the conventional wisdom of how things work in order to conceive different solutions.

@@The best instinctively rebel against herding mentality and ‘sameness’; they are discomfited when they find themselves among the crowd@@.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority it is time to pause and reflect
— Mark Twain

Whilst on the surface it may appear similar, there are fundamental differences between this type of non-conformity and simply being a contrarian. The exceptional few do not take the opposing side merely to be perverse; when they do so it is because the alternative position has real merit.

All the same, these individuals do possess the mental agility to entertain multiple and diverging viewpoints in their head at same time. Being adept at ‘what if’ thought experiments allows them to explore differing arguments and propositions. Hence when they ultimately adopt a position you can be assured they have fully explored the alternate positions, and have an intimate understanding of the supporting arguments and rationale.


@@A trait that differentiates the best is that they dare to stand apart from the crowd@@. They are not unduly troubled by the prospect of being ridiculed for adopting a position that contradicts the wisdom of the crowd.

Part of what permits this freedom of thought and action is that these individuals are uniquely immune to peer-pressure. The best are uncommonly secure in own skin, and as such to not seek the approval of their peers, or those in authority.

This immunity to peer pressure can in part be explained by the fact that the best generally do not have the same need or desire for affirmation that tends to handicap most mortals. Certainly external validation is not a major consideration or driver for how they choose to practice.

The missing element that explains the rest is that the best are clear on what and who they are doing this for. In particular they are clear that it is not to impress authorities in the field or their peers; after all if you are the best, by definition you have very few peers.


@@The exceptional few perceive truths that others do not. A major part of this is the propensity to look beyond the obvious and grasp things that are counter-intuitive@@.

If you think the same as everybody else you will take the same action as everybody else

If you take the same actions as everybody else you will have same performance as everybody else

By definition this cannot result in above average results
— Howard Marks

What Howards Marks describes as ‘second order thinking’ is the ability to not only think differently, but also to think better than the crowd. Adopting a different view and course of action is merely the first step; ultimately you must be proven to be right.

The divergent thinking shown by exceptional individuals in the field of investing has parallels to coaching. This is what allows the best coaches to perceive extraordinary potential in an athlete when others do not, or when the consensus view has written the athlete off. More importantly they demonstrate the confidence to go out on a limb and the courage to back these assertions with action. It is this conviction that permits the athletes in their charge to make exponential improvements and ultimately achieve remarkable things.

A good example from track and field athletics is the exceptional jumps coach Fuzz Caan, who staunchly backed his athlete Robbie Grabarz (rated 85th in the world at the time), even supporting him with financial assistance independently when the national body withdrew his funding the year prior to a home Olympic Games. With Fuzz’s support Robbie Grabarz won Olympic silver medal in London 2012.

Once again @@what makes the best exceptional is that they are able to not only think differently to crowd, but also think better than the crowd@@ - and then possess the courage of their convictions to put money down and stake their reputation on this judgement.


I was interested and surprised to hear a former navy seal (and trainer of navy seals) state that one of the traits that distinguished special forces operatives is that they bring a healthy disrespect for authority when they enter as recruits. Whilst this is tempered and harnessed with training, effective leaders in these elite squadrons nevertheless retain the capacity and willingness to bend rules, according to what the situation demands.

Willingness to defy rules and conventions is likewise a trait that differentiates the best coaches and practitioners. Rather than being a slave to authority, they are willing to bend rules to do what needs to be done. A common observation is that these individuals do not ask for (or require) permission.

Once again, part of what makes these individuals exceptional is the clarity that they act in service to the athlete, and ultimately obey their own moral compass. As such they do not blindly obey orders or show unquestioning loyalty to the particular organisation that employs them. This profound sense of service and duty of care means that they are willing to defy authority and conventions in order to do what they deem to be morally right and in the best interests of the athlete(s), and accept any repercussions for doing so.


A trait that I have repeatedly observed with the best coaches and support staff is their insatiable pursuit of better, and a general contempt for mediocrity. Part of what separates these individuals is that they are unwavering in the standards they demand of themselves and others. In essence, @@the best never lower their expectations@@. Effectively this forces the athletes and staff around them to rise to their level (or make their exit), rather than the other way round.

What is also remarkable is that these individuals constantly strive for excellence regardless of tenure or what has been achieved previously. What explains this extraordinary longevity is that they remain enamoured with the puzzle itself and fully immersed in the process of solving it. Essentially, reaching the destination was never the major source of satisfaction; it is the process of getting there where these individuals derive the most enjoyment.


A final trait of the best coaches and practitioners is that they are unfazed by the spectacle. How these individuals conduct themselves and behave towards other humans remains impressively consistent despite the spotlight and profile that accompanies working in professional sport and involvement at high profile sporting events.

What makes these individuals particularly remarkable is that they are able to maintain a level of equanimity, even in the crucible that is major competition. Despite being utterly committed to the pursuit, the exceptional few nevertheless possess a rare ability to retain some perspective. In doing so they are a reassuring presence and provide a source of calm and strength for the athletes, during what can otherwise be an overwhelming experience.

Amidst all the drama and emotion, the exceptional few are able to maintain sufficient distance that they do not lose their sense of self.


Aside from the more obvious elements of drive and commitment to excellence, a strong sense of self, independence, moral fibre, courage, perspective, and empathy are all recurring themes of the previous sections.

The apparent importance of such character traits harks back to the contention I have made a number of times that to be a good coach (or practitioner) you must first be a good human. It would seem to follow that to be an exceptional coach, you must be an exceptional human.

Enjoyed the read? For long form content on a variety of topics relating to coaching, physical and athletic preparation, and sports injury check out the Books section of the website.

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