Are You Teaching or Coaching?

Most of us realize that there is a big difference between possessing a skill and teaching a skill. There are many great athletes who find themselves unable to break down and teach their superior technical abilities in a way that they can share with others. We don’t often make such distinction between teaching and coaching, though they are similarly different activities. We use the terms interchangeably in conversation, and often assume that because a person is competent in one area they’ll be effective in another. While that is sometimes the case, it surely cannot be counted upon.

What is a Teacher?

To put it simply, a teacher is one who teaches a technique, a skillset, or a system. A good teacher possesses knowledge about the subject matter and can clearly convey that knowledge to their students. They explain the way an activity should be done. They layout information so that it is easy to understand and absorb. Teaching is primarily a one-way circuit in which information flows from teacher to student. If we were in a college course, it would be reading a book or attending a lecture. Teaching is theory. It is the “book smarts” of the martial arts world.

What is Coaching?

Coaching, on the other hand, is interactive and almost entirely based upon context. It is concerned with performance of the skill or a set of skills. It is being able to help another person best use the knowledge they’ve acquired. It is seeing the athlete and the situation clearly, assessing said situation, and then understanding how to adjust accordingly. Good coaching is less focused on what should happen, and more focused on what is happening. It is a two-way circuit, in which information flows back and forth between the athlete and coach. If we were in a college course, it would be working in the lab or on a thesis. Coaching is theory in practice. It is the “street smarts” of the martial arts world.

The Difference Between Being Taught and Being Coached

Usually, when someone is teaching us, we aren’t under pressure. Nobody is really watching us or our teacher. It benefits us to have an analytical mindset. An ideal teacher has vast technical knowledge and can answer the whens, whys, and hows we have for them. They help us add to our toolbox. We can slow things down and think about getting them just right. We have time to think before we act. We can ask questions and work through the answer. Adjustments can be explained a variety of ways. We get as many do-overs as we want! We aren’t limited.

Usually, when we are being coached, the pressure is extreme. Everyone we know may be watching, and sometimes everyone our coach knows is watching. We are depending upon them to manage their own emotions about the pressure, possibly even help us manage ours, and show up 100% focused on the goal. We do not have time to have an analytical mindset — we must go. Coaches offering too many suggestions are cluttering the air. Athletes do not do well if they stay in a “learning mindset” during competition or even in live training. We need to act without much thought and hope that our habits will come through for us. Effective coaches must be observant. Athletes can’t really ask questions mid-round. It is up to our coach to anticipate the questions and offer an answer without being asked. They need to be able to see the path to victory and to guide us there — and there is always a path.

What Makes a Good Coach?

It is quite easy to assume that because a person has extensive technical knowledge, and is a good teacher, that they will also be a good coach. That is an erroneous assumption. The cognitive and emotional demand for these two activities is not even in the same ballpark. We’ve all known someone with a stellar memory for information but is unable to think critically, particularly when they are under pressure. Similarly, we’ve all known great critical thinkers who would score terribly on a memorization test. While there are definitely some people who excel at both, it is hardly a given.

Many teachers use elements of coaching in their practice, teaching concepts rather than only individual techniques. Students then learn to become more self-reliant and able to make good technical decisions with the information at hand. On the flip side, some students prefer to simply be told what to do and prefer instruction with more specific direction. We’ve all seen the way that different instructors collect a following of students who prefer their style, so it can be quite beneficial to have a variety in your academy. If we are coaching a student, it’s helpful to know what they have been taught, which tools are at their disposal, and the best way to ask them to make adjustments in a hurry. There is undeniable overlap between coaching and teaching, but they are not one in the same.

Teaching AND Coaching

If we are to offer both services to students, we should take care that we are actually qualified in both realms. What is our teaching experience? What is our coaching experience? Have we had success with a variety of students in both areas? If the answer is no, either because we haven’t had success or we haven’t been there enough to know if we’d be successful, we need to be transparent and not speak with authority in a position where we have no authority. This can be awfully difficult to grasp for a person who is used to being at the top of the totem pole in another realm (a champion fighter who is not a skilled teacher, or a skilled teacher who is not a skilled coach). It can be difficult to admit to being a beginner in an area we view under the same martial arts umbrella. However, just because a fact is a kick to the ego doesn’t make it any less true. We don’t want to lead athletes astray because it hurts our feelings to admit that we’re underdeveloped. Just as we’ve learned in our own training, we can develop the skills we’re lacking if we’re willing to put the time in and learn from others who have more experience in the field. We cannot preach humility and self-reflection to our students and then not hold ourselves to the same standard.

It Depends on the Athlete

An astute learner, who is capable of coaching themselves, can extract a lot of knowledge from a mediocre teacher who has high technical ability. On the other end, some athletes struggle, no matter how well a technique is broken down. It is important that we look at patterns for our self-assessment as both teachers and coaches, rather than the results in individual cases. Do students tend to improve quickly from attending our classes? Do fighters tend to perform better or worse with us in the corner?

Some people make better teachers. Some people make better coaches. Some people function well in both roles. The beauty of most gyms is that there is enough room for us to contribute to student development by doing whatever it is we do best. Everyone is there to learn. There is nothing wrong with specializing.  There is nothing wrong with hiring other instructors who are strong where we are weak. There is certainly never anything wrong with growing. When we walk into the gym or arena, we should be conscious of whether our intent is to coach or to teach, or perhaps actively blend the two. When we walk out, we should consider how well we accomplished that goal. Students don’t often question us. As their teachers and coaches, we owe it to them to question ourselves.