Coaching Reflections: Avoiding Your “Expert” Phase

Rob Assise Coaching Blogs, Illinois HS Track & Field, Philosophy/Ideas 9 Comments

By Rob Assise, Homewood-Flossmoor High School

I am still relatively young in the profession of teaching and coaching. I am halfway through my 14th year teaching high school math and I have 25 seasons of coaching under my belt between track and field (14), cross country (6), and football (5). In terms of coaching, there was a point in my career where I felt I knew enough, and that was partially correct. I knew enough to have success, but not nearly enough to be considered an expert. I’ve heard ITCCCA Hall of Fame coach Tony Holler say, “I was a pretty good coach before I knew anything.” I definitely think that applied to me. Most of the time, I was able to motivate athletes and provide an atmosphere for them to thrive. I made mistakes, but for the most part, athletes improved and we had success as a program. The result of this? A false reflection of what I was.

The graph below depicts the Dunning-Kruger effect, a phenomenon observed in a series of experiments by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. It is my personal favorite (which is saying a lot because I teach math and I really like graphs). It is one that I view every day because it serves as a reminder to spend time each day acquiring knowledge.

Dunning summarizes the effect by saying, “Incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge” (2014).

Somewhere around 10 years ago, I was at the peak of the “I’m an expert” phase. I felt I had a reasonable answer to just about any question I was asked. I was unaware that saying “I don’t know” was the most empowering phrase I could say because it would provide me with an opportunity to learn. According to Dunning,

“Wisdom may not involve facts and formulas so much as the ability to recognize when a limit has been reached. Stumbling through all our cognitive clutter just to recognize a true ‘I don’t know’ may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we are traveling in the right direction toward the truth” (2014).

My bias to thinking I knew enough was further fueled by hearing much of the same material whenever I attended a professional development function (both in teaching and coaching). However, I slowly began to pull myself out of the “I’m an expert” phase. There were many moments along the way that caused my inflated opinion of my knowledge to begin to deflate, and as I write this, I am fully into the “I know nothing” phase, though I certainly do not feel that I am an expert.

As I have worked my way through this journey towards higher expertise in coaching, one item that has really begun to bother me about coaches at the high school level are ones who are completely entrenched in their ways. When challenged, the typical response is, “This is the way we have always done it, and we have had success.”

This bothers me because I was completely guilty of saying it myself, and there is no doubt that every time I said it, it was the most unintelligent phrase I could have said at that particular moment! It truly exudes ignorance. A much better response would be, “This is why we do it: __________. This is why we feel it translates to success: __________. What do you see that could make it better?” Dunning supports this thought-process by saying,

“The trick is to be your own devil’s advocate: to think through how your favored conclusions might be misguided; to ask yourself how you might be wrong, or how things might turn out differently from what you expect. Most importantly: Seek advice. Other people may have their own misbeliefs, but a discussion can often be sufficient to rid a serious person of his or her most egregious misconceptions” (2014).

When I devote my time to sport, most of it directed to track and field, which has the “simple” objectives of getting athletes to run faster and jump and throw farther. A track coaches “x’s and o’s” are based in finding ways to get athletes to achieve those objectives. We don’t have to worry about running offensive or defensive sets or game plan for our opponents. Training our athletes is our game plan. We constantly self-scout.

From this perspective, I find it unfortunate when I see coaches who:

1. Feel their training programs (workouts) are the prime contributor of their athletes making progress. I see this a lot in the track and field community. I feel the primary reasons the vast majority of high school athletes improve over time is because they have a low training age and they are still developing physically. If a high school athlete is exposed to a reasonable training stimulus, he or she will tend to respond favorably. I would even argue that the stimulus doesn’t even have to be completely specific to the task. For example, imagine a 16 year-old who has little to no experience in athletics and begins running to get faster in the 100 meters. On day one, he gets timed in the 100 meters. For the next 6 weeks, his training consists of running a mile as fast as he can 2-3 times per week. At the end of the 6 weeks he times himself in the 100 meters. I think there would be a very good chance that his time would be better than it was on day one. Just because your program has produced athletes who have improved and had success, it does not necessarily mean that you have achieved optimal improvement and success for those athletes. You can be happy about what your program has achieved, but you should never be satisfied. Therefore, you should always be open to criticism and investigating ways to improve.

2. Say, “If that athlete was in my program, he/she would be performing at a way higher level.” Honestly, how the heck can anyone say that with complete certainty? Furthermore, many coaches go to another level and start coaching kids who aren’t on their team. While the intentions may be good, I think it just leads to additional confusion for the athlete and performance suffers even more.

3. Defines a high school athlete’s experience by discouraging them to participate in other sports, mainly because they feel their program will do a better job developing the athlete. This often combines the concepts in #1 and #2 (my workouts are the best and the athlete will end up being better by only being involved my program). Current statistics and research continually show that being involved in multiple sports is healthier and allows athletes to reach a higher ceiling, but even taking that out of the picture, shouldn’t our student athletes get to choose what their high school experience will be? We have already had our high school experience, let them have theirs. Don’t make them live with regret in the future.

A huge component of being an educator and coach is going through honest self-assessment on a regular basis. I’ve made every mistake mentioned above except #3. I am sure I will make more mistakes, but it will not be due to living in a self-imposed world of absolutes. As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” (Dunning 2014). It’s important to have a set of governing principles, but they need to be malleable and progressive. If you are a young coach, do your best to avoid the “I’m an expert phase.” One of my biggest regrets in coaching is spending time in that phase. If you feel you know enough, start asking different questions and look for information in different places. If you are a coach with substantial experience, asking yourself if any of this applies to you may be difficult. Recognizing that it may and implementing changes would be even more difficult, but I guarantee your future athletes are already thanking you.

Feel free to contact me directly at rassise@hf233.org.


Dunning, David. “We Are All Confident Idiots.”
https://psmag.com/we-are-all-confident-idiots-56a60eb7febc#.at06x01mo. October, 2014.

Comments 9

  1. Your first premise is one that we should all realize. Everyday we learn as the world changes no matter how long we have been coaching and/or teaching which is really the same thing.

    We all share information with each other and keep examining new trends in physics and biomechanics as well as physiology and dismiss old myths. Some trends have withstood the tests of time.

    1. Patrice,

      Thank you for reading! There is no doubt that a world with nothing else to learn would be pretty boring to live in! Happy Holidays!

    1. Thank you for reading the article Jeremy! You are correct, there might be one or two teenagers out there who think they know everything 🙂

  2. Fantastic stuff, coach! I was asked a year or two ago, if I could go back and give myself advice when I was a first year coach, what would it be? I responded: avoid confirmation bias. Beware of the story you tell yourself. That is something I constantly remind myself of. I love your advice “start asking different questions.” Thanks for sharing! (I love that you got Dunning-Kruger in there!)

    1. Thanks for reading John! Excellent advice regarding confirmation bias! Even though one can be aware of it, confirmation bias is still so hard to avoid. What is “known” is comfortable. Others agreeing with what you “know” is comfortable to the nth power. I posted this on Twitter this summer after attending Track/Football Consortium 3:

      Being comfortable = stagnant. TFC 3 has me very uncomfortable which will equal progress!

      Full disclosure, I’m sure I stole the “start asking different questions” from someone 🙂

  3. This is excellent advice and perspective. I love the “unfortunate things coaches say” list. I am sometimes torn when I wish athletes would see that track or cross country would be their better or best sport. But finally that choice has to be their own if they are going to be successful at whatever they choose.

    1. Ed,

      Many thanks for taking time to read the post! I agree with you completely. It is difficult to let students/athletes choose their own path at times. It really is a delicate balance. They need guidance, but they need to develop independence and find their own way. We always need to make sure that we have their best interests at heart and always evaluate if our rationale is rooted in something that is self-serving. Ultimately, they will be best at what they are most passionate about. If that happens to be track, XC, another sport, or a subject in the classroom, we need to provide the best possible environment for them to find optimal success.

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