Simplicity as a Coaching Objective

If three of the most successful coaches in their respective sports all employed the same basic consideration as part of their coaching philosophies, would you care? If I mentioned the names Phil Jackson (basketball), Jacques Lemaire (ice hockey), and Brad Gilbert (tennis), would you care then? These three excellent coaches have all achieved success for themselves and their athletes by enshrining simplicity in their programs. Simplicity enables everyone to more successfully share in your winning ideas about coaching. But more than this, it assists in communication between coach and athlete and allows superior evaluation of their shared objectives. A simple objective is more likely to be correctly understood and implemented by both coach and athlete.

Simplicity does not mean stupidity. Einstein’s Relativity is fundamentally simple but I dare you to explain it to me! Some things are naturally complicated. The behavior of the body’s glucose cycle over the course of a day comes to mind. Complicated things still need to be understood by ourselves and others – this is where simplicity comes in. Ideal communication is just that; real people sometimes misunderstand each other. A simple message is more likely to be properly understood by both listener and speaker. It is also important to remember our mental capacity during periods of physical exertion. Our ability to focus on numerous or elaborate concepts greatly diminishes. Apart from these and other very common-sense arguments, there is a strong body of evidence (NBA, NHL, and ATP championships) that coaching philosophies that value simplicity work.

An Honest Look at Communication
Let us begin with idealized communication. I conceive an idea in my mind. I encode it in words and sentences. The message makes its way to you. You decode it and assimilate what I have said. Easy enough, right? Wrong. Errors happen at each and every step. Sometimes I struggle to understand my own thoughts let alone those of others. This is particularly true of new and complicated ideas. When I encode my message I choose symbols I think are appropriate but I may slip up or not fully understand the words I choose. Transmission of the message can be impaired by many common external distractions (noise, fatigue, emotional blockage, etc.). When you receive my message, you may not fully understand everything I have told you. Furthermore, when you want to add this new information to your stockpile it could be ‘filed’ inappropriately. Engineers have made a discipline out of recognizing the practical limitations to communication – it is time we coaches paid it more heed. The quest for simplicity is a practical recognition of our actual limitations as people. By recognizing problems with communication in general before we start, we can use this knowledge to prepare simpler programs that have a much greater likelihood of being correctly understood.

If communication is difficult under ideal or normal circumstances, what is it like during athletic training and competition? Both are typically intense, short duration events. Athletes and coaches work hard together on a few things for a brief time. Fatigue and physical punishment become a serious factor. It is unlikely that an athlete’s physical resources (exhaustion, sunstroke, dehydration, pain, etc.) or the time-scales involved (tennis service return, running play in football, etc.) will allow her to remember and implement anything but a simple course of action. For recreational athletes, the demands of everyday life will always impinge on their concentration and focus upon the task at hand – a simple program will account for this and use their available time as profitably as possible. Competitive athletes will generally want to take some ownership of their training program as well – a simple program will help them understand what you have designed and desire, and also allow them to supplement it in approved ways.

Professional Practitioners of Simplicity
I have touted the merits of simplicity on an abstract level so far but it wouldn’t be very convincing if I couldn’t draw on some visible real-life examples. Fortunately they can be found easily in almost every sport.

If you have followed basketball at all in the last 15 years you are familiar with the name Phil Jackson. His Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have won 9 NBA championships with the help of his coaching philosophy, a simple ‘triangle’ offence, and a few good players. His basic concept is the importance of team play: “a vision in which the group imperative takes precedence over individual glory.” (Jackson 6) His players are required to focus on their small specific role within the team so that the total product will be harmonious and exceed the sum of its parts. The simplicity of the triangle – basically, pass inside/outside and around the perimeter until an open shot can be taken – allows a player to concentrate on a set of simple, repeatable actions so they can “focus [their] full attention on what’s happening right this moment.” (Jackson 4) Limiting the scope of any one player’s responsibility allows each player to perfect their own contribution as best they can.

Brad Gilbert has been at the head of the tennis coaching ranks for the last decade, guiding Andre Agassi to his greatest achievements (6 Grand Slam titles) and pushing Andy Roddick to a U.S. Open title and the world #1 ranking. Gilbert is a cerebral coach. He believes in total mental preparation before a match so an athlete can give herself the best possible chance of success. However, he teaches this in (perhaps) the most fundamentally simple way possible. It revolves around only two questions:

“1) What do I want to make happen?
2) What do I want to prevent from happening?” (Gilbert 6)

A coach and athlete can explore these questions until they are blue in the face and mentally exhausted but this is contrary to Gilbert’s method. Focus on the essentials, keep your game plan simple, and you will succeed. A recount of one of his own game plans perfectly illustrates the product of a simple program. “Keep some balls in play. No pace. Make him try to hit winners. Nothing fancy.” (Gilbert 18) Not complicated, just successful.

Jacques Lemaire is a recent (and 2-time) winner of the NHL’s Jack Adams award for most outstanding coach. He is credited with inventing the neutral-zone trap, has coached the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup, and is considered responsible for the rise of the expansion Minnesota Wild. What is his secret? Simplicity. “I just want you to do what you're supposed to do. If you're a goal scorer, then that's what you should do. If you're a defensive player, then do that. If you're a physical player, then be physical. But I don't expect a checker to score 30 goals, because he's not capable of that. Do what you're here to do.” (Jones) Like Phil Jackson, Lemaire requires his players to perform a select role successfully. For all three coaches, their athletes must focus on a small set of skills. They must repeat them until they can execute them at a high level regardless of fatigue and/or pain. By doing so, the sum of each player’s simple efforts adds to breathtaking displays of consistent excellence.

Professional coaching programs are interesting but are hardly practicable for most coaches due to time and resource limitations. But we can glean important lessons from their example and apply them to very real-world athletic situations, including program testing, feedback, and change.

Applications for Real Coaches
One of my first coaching mentors provided one of the simplest performance measures I have yet experienced. As Canadians, we dissect hockey like no other nation as coaches, parents (assistant coaches?), and simply fans. This gentleman measured his players’ performance based on their plus/minus rating (Plus/minus is simply the number of times a player is on the ice when her team scores a goal discounted by the number of times they are on the ice when the other team scores. For instance, in a game with no spare players where Team A beats Team B 2-1, all of Team A’s players have a plus/minus rating of +1 (2-1=1) and all of Team B’s players are –1). Why was this statistic such a useful focal point for his coaching plan?

It is simple to understand for coach and players alike.

It is simple to measure. It is an objective way to evaluate and track performance.

It is fundamentally inclusive to every player – for instance, strong checkers can be compared favorably with offensive superstars.

It is simple to plan practices around. The many specific ways to improve one’s performance on this measure can also be contextualized (have you ever heard, “Coach, why are we practicing this?”)

It is simple to modify and expand as needed. Two useful modifications might be a) plus/minus divided by ice time, and b) even-strength plus/minus (goals during penalties are not included).

The coach cited above considered his program an unqualified success. His athletes understood what would be considered important in their performance. Their performance was easy to measure and did not strain available coaching resources. Their individual performances could be simply compared with one another. And they understood the reason behind their coaching drills and how they applied to their collective success.

Conclusion
Some things in life require the application of high-risk programs or techniques in order to achieve success. The problem with this is that something with a small probability of success usually fails. As coaches, we would ideally like to give our athlete’s the greatest chance possible to succeed. A coaching philosophy founded on simplicity takes this as its starting point. By conveying simple information to your athletes and by focusing them on simple objectives you are improving their chances for success and, more importantly, enjoyment.

References

Gilbert, Brad. Winning Ugly. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Jackson, Phil. Sacred Hoops. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

Jones, Tom. “Lemaire’s success measured in steps.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 8, 2003.