Football and workplace coaching, part four: Don't be a coach of players, be a coach of coaches
Those unfamiliar with American football might not realize that there is more to the game than size and strength. Toughness and force are important to a player's success, but limitations in size and strength can be overcome through technique, precision, and cinematic montages.
I spent my playing career on the offensive and defensive line, positions that I now coach. The best players on the line are those whose first steps are quick and decisive. I've always found that the best linemen are the players whose hand placement and pad level are calibrated to maximize leverage, and whose attention spans are capable of constantly critiquing the minutiae of the form. The adage "the low man always wins" remains true in the sport of American football - but being the "low man" requires a decisive mastery of a surprisingly complex skillset.
It's my belief as a coach that to be successful in the most physically demanding position in the world's most physical sport demands a commitment not just to aggressive play, but to consistent execution, evaluation, and improvement.
Yet despite the necessity of great technique, most football teams have only one coach to work with dozens of players in a given position group. In a fast-moving sport where up to five linemen can take the field on one side of the ball, the best coaches quickly realize that there's far more coaching than one person can realistically provide. There are too many movements to watch, too much technique on which to focus, too many moving pieces in the system. As a linemen coach, I am responsible for watching more than my eyes can take in.
In the workplace, people leaders are increasingly finding their coaching efforts limited by time and space. As remote working arrangements and geographical distribution of employees become normative in the digital workplace, people leaders have fewer opportunities to coach their teams, aside from a few minutes set aside for a weekly Zoom or a bi-annual performance review.
That's why the most influential coaches, in football and in the workplace, are not the best coaches of players. Rather, they are the best coaches of coaches. The most effective coaches build a culture of coaching, erasing the arbitrary demarcation between coach and contributor so that all are empowered to coach in the moment.
To be a coach these days is about training others to become coaches themselves. Coaching is about upskilling others on the team to ask powerful questions. It's about encouraging others to provide realtime, contextually relevant feedback. It's about helping team members to step back from subjective judgments and to lean into conversations about actions that will affect performance outcomes.
I regularly remind the linemen I have the privilege to work with that my role as their coach is to put them in a position to coach one another. When we get into a game and I stand on the sidelines, some 80 feet away from the action, I and the other coaches don't have a great vantage point. In these moments, there's not much that I can do to affect the outcome of a game. If I want the unit's performance to improve throughout the course of the game, I need to empower the players to make themselves better. I need to be a coach not of players, but of coaches.