Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Have we beat the “authenticity in coaching” topic to death yet? I don’t think so. Because, inherent in authenticity, is individuality. And it is the individuality, the ability to offer something that no one else on this earth has, that lends power to authenticity. So, here is yet another take on the subject, from a perspective only I can offer.
A piece of the pie - not the whole thing.
We are not meant to have a profound impact on every single athlete we come across. We are meant to take part in the overall breadth of impact the individual will feel across their lifetime as an athlete. The impact that summates from every bit of influence imposed upon them and will create the person they become. Don’t overestimate your place in their journey. Don’t make yourself more important than you are. Don’t take credit for the parents who raised them, the bus driver that got them there, and the hero they aspired to be since they were a kid. We are doing ourselves & them a disservice. Let’s be real, we are doing everyone a disservice any time we are not being authentically us. When we overstep and overestimate our importance, when we are striving, we are not being authentic. But, when we allow our individual authenticity to shine through, we reach those who it resonates with on a deeper level, while gaining the respect & rapport of those that our particular brand of authenticity doesn’t resonate with, simply because they witness us being “us.” This opens up the athlete to feel, at a baseline level, that they can trust us to instruct them.
In coaching, we see a lot of ego, grandstanding, & name-dropping to demonstrate importance. I have been guilty of all of these on various occasions. Most of these, I would argue, stem from insecurity. Insecurity stems from trying to be something you are not, or trying to fit somewhere you don’t belong (or think you don’t belong). Realize that if you made it there, you likely belong there. Be humble, keep learning, and stay in your lane.
Imposter syndrome is real.
Early in my coaching career, I was so concerned with being taken seriously as a female coach. And likely, this was a well-founded concern, since I began coaching high school volleyball players when I was in college at only 17 years old. Even so, when I switched to Strength & Conditioning at 22, with 5 years of coaching under my belt, I was stepping into a more male-dominated arena of coaching, and on some level, I questioned my qualifications. I questioned if I belonged. No one would ever know this. I don’t even know if I was consciously aware of my insecurity. I was a good coach. I came with confidence. I already had a lot of reps, but I had not yet tapped into the power of authenticity.
This manifested when I was assigned a trial for a high school boys’ basketball team. The head basketball coach expressed disdain that his team was given the “girl coach.” So, I proceeded to show him “what a girl coach can do,” in the worst, most untrue-to-me way possible. I ran his boys into the ground. At the end of the session, the coach was happy. The players wanted to puke from exhaustion, and I wanted to puke from disgust with myself for not actually coaching those boys. No one would have ever known the difference, but I did. I had not been honest with myself, and in turn, I was not honest with others in the way that I coached them. My disappointment in myself brought about a realization that my rarity, the unique skill set that only I can offer, is my worth as a coach in this field. I never coached like that again. I began leaning into my authenticity. And I went on to be trusted in coaching professional athletes, entire high school football teams, and be sought out as a football combine coach because of my attention to detail in technique, my ability to cue & convey a message and my ability to gain rapport with the athletes under my care. I felt comfortable stepping onto a field or into a weight room to coach any athlete. And the reason I believed I could do this, is because I didn’t believe I was anything other than what I am.
This brings me to my first “rule” of authenticity, and a philosophy that guides my life in the small daily decisions and profound moments alike:
Be honest with yourself & others.
Being authentic requires unapologetic honesty with ourselves. Where am I lacking? What do I need to work on? And vulnerable honesty with others. Being able to say, “I don’t know.” “That’s something I would love to learn more about.”
That leads to my next “rule” of authenticity:
The more I know, the more I don’t know.
We have all probably read something about the Dunning-Kruger Effect or, my favorite, the Pessimistic Meta-induction from the history of everything (from Kathryn Shulz’s book, Being Wrong). We’ve been wrong about something we so adamantly believed before. We will likely be wrong again. And that’s ok! Be sure in your reasoning & justification for doing something, but hold onto your philosophies loosely. Be humble enough to know that you will need to adapt as we uncover more & more “right ways'' of doing things.
And, the third “rule”...
Take responsibility without excuses.
Excuses are a form of dishonesty, removing responsibility from yourself. When, if you were truly honest about it, you would admit that you made a mistake. Excuses are inauthentic. Before you make an excuse, ask more of yourself. Give yourself a foundation to stand upon when you ask more of your athletes.
You are going to be much more effective being authentic than you are being anything else… at least not sustainably. There is so much “you” to offer through your coaching. And the world needs it. If you don’t provide it, there doesn’t exist another person in this world who can. How beautiful and weighty a responsibility is that?
Johannah comes from a diverse athletic background, with a demonstrated history of coaching in high school, collegiate & private industry for over 15 years. She currently holds the position of Metabolism & Exercise Testing Lab Coordinator & Adjunct Faculty at George Washington University. She was recently appointed Director of Sports Performance for Soldiers to Sidelines, a non-profit that expands the inherent coaching skills of military veterans & service members.