Coach: generalist or specialist?

Coaching is a multi-faceted job, with many different aspects, amongst others: talent detection, recruiting, motivating, educating, coaching, scientific aspects, etc. At one level: coaches can be more science and technology oriented or more human oriented with a focus on “people skills”.  At another level (of course dependent on what kind of sport the coach is working in)  coach A can be a specialist in conditioning, coach B is great in technical and tactical skills, whereas coach C is a great psychologist, and even at a  third level e.g in the conditioning some coaches display a great knowledge of  biomechanics and motor learning, but having little knowledge of biochemistry and physiology, whereas others are great nutritionists as well.

Many coaches tell me: you cannot know all or be good in everything, which is their argument to specialize as described above. So should the coach be a “jack-of-all-trades” or a “master-of-none”, a person who knows “almost-nothing-of-everything” or “everything-of-almost-nothing”? Should the coach have a panoramic view or a microscopic view, in other words: be a generalist or a specialist?

Myself, I tend to support the opinion that a coach should develop him- or herself as a generalist and  at least try to know and learn as much as he can about all aspects of his or her sport, probably shifting attention periodically, but never neglecting the knowledge and new developments in other aspects over a longer period of time.

I have met coaches who regarded psychology as completely irrelevant to performance and only focussed on velocities and angles. In the end their athletes left and he wondered why.

Also coaches who e.g. thought nutrition or biochemistry did not play a role in performance, and when their athletes showed a performance dip, they looked at biomechanical factors, they looked at psychological factors and they looked at their planning and periodization, but did not find the reason of the slump. But they simply overlooked the possibility of iron deficiency (anaemia).

Our job should be unlike medical specialists: all are doctors who know little about other fields of medicine outside their own speciality – the orthopaedic specialist doesn’t know much about cardiology and vice versa.

Now many coaches will know about the popular 10.000 hour rule of Andersson, which many of them would like to apply to the training of their athletes. But they forget to apply that rule to themselves! In 10.000 hours you can learn quite a lot about almost every aspect of coaching. And who said that coaching is not a lifelong education and development process?  I don’t have to stop after 10.000 hours trying to improve myself. It mainly depends on how you perceive your mission as a coach: as a job, as a trade, as a craft or an art.

But we could be much more efficient. Again back to Timothy Ferriss in his Four Hour book series in which he himself seriously challenged the 10.000 rule. An example: he became World Champion in tango dancing in less than a year, competing against competitors with 20 years of practice.

He also comes up with an old concept that I started using 35 years ago in coaching athletes: Minimal Effective Dose, or how little (training) does one need in order to improve, instead of how much.  In his last book, the Four Hour Chef, he uses learning how to cook like a chef as  an example of  learning, assuming that normally it takes many years of practice and experience to become a master chef.

Now the key factor in here is: getting the fundaments right, in each field. It is like chef Thomas Keller of two three star restaurants says: “Once you understand the foundation of cooking – whatever kind you like, whether it is French, or Italian or Japanese, – you really don’t need a cookbook anymore.”

Or take basketball player Julius Erving: “I had to spend countless hours, above and beyond, the basic time, to try and perfect the fundamentals” (Italics are mine).

Also writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had something useful to say about this: ‘As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble”.

And I again agree with Timothy Ferriss here: we are able to accelerate the learning process or reduce the training load and time tremendously.

When you know the foundation of anatomy, kinesiology, and biomechanics, you can design your own exercises and don’t have to buy books or visit other coaches to feed you with “new exercises”

Many things in politics, social life, economics, health care, etc. go wrong due to the abundance of specialists and “experts” and the lack of generalists. 

And if you do not believe me (and please feel free to do so) here is some food for thought in the citation below, albeit a humorous one:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take order, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently,  die gallantly. Specialization is for insects,” Robert A. Heinlein


  1. Lovely! Hearing a very experienced trainer/coach talking about fundamentals! That's probably why aikido has such an important role in the way I coach my people. Take a look at the principles of a human being, not looking at their role as CEO, public performer or something like that.
    Great article (again), my friend!

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