Do you remember when you were a kid and you had your favorite athlete? That one person who had the talent you wanted to have, the swagger, the on/off the field success? I had a bunch, but now I have began having that same admiration for coaches. It doesn’t matter what the sport or discipline, I love watching other coaches interact with their athletes and fellow coaches. Right now, my favorite coach is Bruce Arians. If you haven’t heard of him, you should. He’s coached in the NFL for years and has worked with some of the best players. He has a sailor’s mouth, but a wealth of knowledge and a unique style for coaching players. The biggest compliment former/current players have given him is that he wants you to learn. His job is not simply to instruct players what to do, but rather to teach them to think and learn on their own with his guidance. So, this led me to think about the different types of athletes and how many there are. For this blog, I wanted to break athletes into two distinct categories; robots and free-thinkers.
Let’s talk about robots…. These are athletes who follow directions explicitly. There is rarely any deviation from what coach tells them to do and they often don’t even realize what they are doing. Robots generally see steady progress as a whole, but will often have a hard time learning new skills or augmenting technique. These athletes struggle to provide in-depth feedback to coaches on how a lift or skill felt. Robots have a tendency to be present and simply go through the motions. Is this all bad? Not quite. Sometimes athletes need to turn their brains off and just move. However, committing to being a robot full-time will present certain challenges and will place a ceiling on an athlete’s potential. If you just do as you’re told without ever wondering why you’re doing it or curious as to why coach wants it done a certain way, you will never fully comprehend the process. This will limit how an athlete is able to respond when faced with adversity. Right now we are in the middle of the 2019 CrossFit Open, workouts are announced each week and a lot of athletes struggle to know whether or not they should go as prescribed, how they should break up reps or what pace they should aim for. Fortunately, there is usually a coach there to provide insight to all of the questions above. But, what do you do when there is no coach?
Insert your free-thinkers. These are athletes who ask questions and want to learn more about the ins and outs of how things are done. Free-thinkers are athletes who will see slower progress on the frontend of their training, but will have a better capacity at learning new skills and adding in a variety of techniques depending on the situation. These athletes will be able to provide feedback and have more intricate conversations concerning training. Free-thinkers are also present, but are more active in their participation during training sessions and begin to acquire their own base of knowledge. Is this all good? Not quite. Sometimes athletes are so concerned with knowing everything about something at the first introduction that it develops a barrier to entry. Free-thinkers are also resistant to change and can be stubborn when presented with a new challenge which can impede the progress they might have experienced otherwise. If we go back to the CrossFit Open example, athletes often times will refer back to their comfort zones and avoid a situation that could place them in an unfamiliar environment. Going scaled as opposed to doing a workout as prescribed. So, do you want to be a robot or a free-thinker?
The simple answer is both. As with most things, balance is the key to success. We don’t want to be so set in our ways that we are exclusively one or the other. Being a robot all of the time will present its own set of challenges in an athlete’s life. But, so will being a free-thinker. The real question is, how do we balance being a robotic free-thinker? Athletes need to be curious about how/why something is the way it is. This will allow athletes to apply the knowledge they acquire towards new skills, techniques and strategies. However, this curiosity cannot dominate and take over an athlete’s mind. There will be times when you need to act and ask questions later. Robotic free-thinkers also need to be patient. Patience is something robots typically have more than free-thinkers, because their concern is in the moment and not wondering about the impact situations will have on their goals. Free-thinkers can find themselves caught up in calculating exactly how something will benefit them and seek to find a solution that might get them there faster. Lastly, athletes need to be self-aware. Robots typically just go through the motions and perform tasks as they are written. Free-thinkers on the other hand, will deviate at times based on how they are feeling. This can lead to personal bests, self-discovery and a multitude of other things.
It is rarely one way or the other, life and training can be complicated and will require us to respond in a variety of ways. Being stuck in one lane will eventually get us to where we want to go, but we might miss out on some of the sights along the way. The best athletes in any sport are curious. They ask questions and want to comprehend why things are the way they are. But, they don’t allow this curiosity to consume them and prevent them from continuing forward. Elite athletes are self-aware. They recognize the ebb and flow of training, competing and life as a whole. Times will call for them to be robots and simply perform a task, while others will require them to be able to adapt. That adaptability only comes as a result of their desire to learn and apply that knowledge to new situations.
Lastly, they are patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your goals won’t be accomplished in a day either. Instead of looking for the short cut to success, stay the course and enjoy the scenery along the way. Have you ever listened to a Lebron James’ interview after a game? He has an uncanny ability to recall nearly every play, every situation and what the plan was at any given moment. Free-thinker or robot? Sometimes it is hard to tell, but he is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Striking a balance between being a robot and a free-thinker has allowed him to continually transcend his game year after year. What type of athlete do you want to be?