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How Great Coaches Think

Professor Damian Hughes

13 August 2015

In this latest blog, Professor Damian Hughes discusses how great coaches think.

One of the most persistent myths about great coaches – who are, of course, interchangeable with great parents, great teachers and great leaders – is that their primary job is to come up with Big Ideas.

You know, those creative, last minute, improvised bursts of genius that change everything: the revolutionary strategy, the brilliant eleventh-hour gambit, the heart-lifting, pre-game speech. This myth is built on the governing idea of the coach/leader/teacher as a visionary artist – a special one who sees something no one else can see. In other words, the coach is a wizard.

It’s a tempting view – because, from a distance, it seems to be true enough. The problem is, when you look closely, they’re doing precisely the opposite. They’re not thinking like wizards. they’re thinking like construction workers.

For a revealing glimpse into this mindset, check out the Willstrop Words column, a weekly column by the man currently regarded as one of the greatest coaches working in sport, Malcolm Willstrop, a squash coach who has produced some of the world’s greatest players.

In the column, Willstrop analyses key plays from the biggest matches. The remarkable thing is what he considers to be key plays – and what he doesn’t. The coach doesn’t focus on big moments that we would notice. Instead, he focuses exclusively and obsessively on small moments.

This is not an accident, this is his construction-worker mindset in action. This mindset focuses on three qualities, which can be approached as questions. Think of these questions as the filter in a great coach’s mind, governing his attention and action:

1. Is it Replicable? – Is this a one-off fluke, or is it an action that can be applied to a variety of situations? If Willstrop were a guitar teacher, he wouldn’t care about that solo – instead, he’d obsess about thumb position and finger angle, the stuff that matters on every single chord you play.

2. Is it Controllable? – Is this something that has to do with effort, awareness and planning? If you watch the games, you’ll see how he makes heroes of players who pay attention, who anticipate, who get to the right spot at the right time.

3. Is it Connective? – Is it related to a successful outcome? Willstrop understands that every big play is built on a scaffold of solid technique. So he focuses on the foundational things that made success possible. Each of those small moves is, in fact, vital, because without it all the good stuff never happens. If Willstrop was a sales consultant, he would focus on the first ten seconds of the sales call – because, without a warm emotional connection, the sale would never happen.

So, what are the foundations of your success?


This blog is adapted from the Raise the Bar book ‘Raising the Bar: A Leader’s Guide’ by bestselling author Damian Hughes. The book takes twenty-five great lessons from the most engaging leaders.

Click here to find out more about Damian, or get in touch with our team at for more information on his availability.

Professor Damian Hughes


Professor Damian Hughes is a bestselling author who combines his practical
and academic background within sport, organisational development and change psychology, to help organisations and teams to create a high performing culture.

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