“It’s not about you” is a Coaching 101 lesson from Glen Mills, Usain Bolt’s coach (see my blog here). But whilst this is a necessary condition for being a great coach, it is not sufficient. There is a lot more to coaching as we can glean from interviews, articles and videos of Glen Mills:
He coaches a person, not a speed machine. “You try to be involved in the rest of their lives as much as they let you” he states. He well understands his charges, their youth, love of partying and other activities. Bolt has credited Mills with not just making him a better athlete but also a better person. And in his interviews, Mills speaks about the importance of motivation and training the mind. One interesting piece of advice to his charges? “Learn to lose in order to learn to win.” His thesis is that doing so will build the mental strength of the athlete by removing the fear of losing.
He cares. When you look at videos of Bolt and Mills, you see the interaction and genuine mutual love and respect. Note in this video, how Coach Mills, whilst giving Bolt feedback, brushes the gravel from his back. You can feel the love.
He looks for potential, and it’s not always obvious. For example, Glen Mills saw something in Asafa Powell as a teen, a poor performer in competitions at high school, who holds the title of “Sub-10 King” i.e. athlete with the most sub-10 second 100m times. At track meets, he has his eye peeled for the back of the field.
He’s not always right. Bolt and Mills had a rare disagreement leading up to the Beijing Olympics – Mills wanted Bolt to run the 400m and Bolt was fixated on the 100m. Bolt prevailed, Mills yielded and the rest is history.
He pays attention to detail. When he started coaching Bolt, he had recognised the raw talent, but terrible technique. He spent 2 years breaking apart and then rebuilding his technique from scratch. You can see in the videos how closely he watches his charges, his eyes penetrating every movement. “You. Yes. You pick” pointing to Bolt. “Before mi blow the whistle you start move.” Nothing misses him.
He improves his own skills. Coach Mills has studied extensively, and seems to read widely to improve his own skills. His interviews demonstrate a keen understanding of the science of all that goes into producing star athletes, including the mind.
He loves coaching. Mills is somewhat of a prodigy himself, coaching since age 14. He was not a good athlete at school (a heartbreaking admission in sprint-crazy Jamaica), but loved the sport. So, he attended practices, observed and helped the coach, who gave him duties resulting in his coaching the junior track team whilst he was still in high school. He has been coaching for over 40 years. Look at him in the videos, and you see a man who really loves his work.
So how can a leader transfer these practices of coaching greatness in athletics to the workplace? Here are my thoughts, inspired by Coach Mills:
View your team members holistically. They are not just the accounting clerk, the sales representative, the business analyst, the engineer. They are human beings, with lives outside of work, with histories and life experiences that have shaped them, with relationships and roles in many other spheres and yes, with emotions and beliefs that travel with them wherever they go. I have heard too many managers say, “Leave your personal problems at home.” A great leader, like a great coach, understands that they are leading a whole person.
Genuinely care for your team members. Go out of your way to show this. And remember, it’s the little things, like brushing the gravel from someone’s back, that really demonstrate your caring.
In your team, you are likely to have stars, average performers and some duds. Look carefully at those duds to see what potential lies within them. Do they have the right attitude? A natural talent for something? Do they put their heart into their work, over and over despite success eluding them? These could be indicators of a future super star! Don’t write them off – look for potential.
Give up the need to be right. Sometimes you will be wrong. Listen carefully to your team members. Listen to what motivates and excites them, and what their own goals are, and then work with those. It’s not about you.
Pay attention and observe. Note the small, seemingly insignificant aspects about your team members’ performance. And give immediate and detailed feedback on how to improve.
Commit to your learning. Read widely about leadership, attend courses, get a leadership coach. There’s always more to learn.
Ask yourself how much you love your work; how much you love leading others. Frankly, if you don’t, then perhaps you should be doing something else. Greatness needs more than talent and skills – it needs passion, commitment and love.