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The Most Coachable Wrestlers Are Also The Most Flexible

Two people are standing in opposite directions (pause to think), and yet they can see each other. How is that possible?

The answer may determine if you are coachable — or uncoachable.

In 1974, Chuck Patten, head wrestling coach at the University of Northern Iowa from 1965 through 1982, wanted to tell the difference between a coachable athlete and an uncoachable athlete. A chance meeting on an airplane with Dave Whitsett — a psychology professor at Northern Iowa — led to a conversation about the subject.

Whitsett was unsure how to differentiate between the two. He was, however, willing to help Patten find out.

A coachable athlete — as Patten explained it to Whitsett—is someone who takes a coach’s advice and makes the necessary change. The uncoachable athlete — receiving the same advice — does not make the adjustment.

For example, a wrestler uses a move four or five times in a match and it is clearly not working. During a break the coach tells his wrestler, “The single leg is not working, here is what I want you to do.”

Both athletes — the coachable and the uncoachable — say, “I got it, coach.” The coachable athlete makes the adjustment; the uncoachable athlete does not. Or, the coachable athlete shifts his behavior; the uncoachable athlete behaves in the same way.

“We figured out that coachable kids are more cognitively flexible than uncoachable kids,” said Whitsett. “Uncoachable kids have what we call cognitive sets. What that means is once they have a certain way of doing something they are unable to switch to a new way.

“Coachable people do it for themselves actually. They’ll try a solution to a problem and if it doesn’t work they’ll figure out what to do that’s new.”

How did Patten and Whitsett figure out the difference between coachable and uncoachable?

Whitsett asked Patten to pick three wrestlers on his team that were defined as coachable, and three wrestlers on his team that were defined as uncoachable. Whitsett, not knowing the coachability of any of the six, gave the wrestlers tests to see if he could tell the difference.

Following the tests, Whitsett provided Patten his answers.

The result? Psychology prevailed. Whitsett could tell which wrestlers were coachable and which were not.

Now, how did Whitsett figure out the difference? He used water jar problems.

Whitsett told each athlete that he has two containers. One holds five cups of water and the other holds two cups of water. The goal is to finish with one cup of water, but you don’t have a one-cup container. How will you get there?

A coachable athlete will figure out that dumping the five-cup container into the two-cup container twice (after dumping the two cup container out twice) leaves you with one cup in the five-cup container. An uncoachable athlete trips over his preset method and cannot figure out the problem.

A simpler example is the lead question to this column: Two people are standing in opposite directions (pause to think), and yet they can see each other. How is that possible?

“The coachable kid may say there are mirrors in front of him,” said Whitsett. “And you say ‘Nope, that’s not it.’ And then he goes, ‘Ah, they’re facing each other.’ That’s the answer.

“The uncoachable kid says there are mirrors. And you say ‘no.’ He has this image in his head of two people back-to-back. He can’t get rid of it. He can’t say, ‘Oh, maybe I was wrong, maybe they’re not back-to-back.’ He’s stuck with this set that they’re back-to-back. He starts making up stuff like they’re at the North Pole. (The uncoachable kid) can’t go back and rethink that.”

The best predictor of what a human being is going to do, regardless of coachability, is what has been done before. Most people don’t change their behavior dramatically.

“If I was going to identify who the coachable athletes are, I would be talking to the people who coached them before,” said Whitsett. “We have all met people who face tough problems but they keep making the mistake over and over. They don’t seem to learn from anything. Those people are uncoachable.”

And it is important to note that Patten and Whitsett are not saying that uncoachable athletes are not willing to learn. The athlete simply looks at the coach, nods, says “I’ll do it,” but then he goes on the mat and doesn’t do it. The willingness to be coached might be there; the ability to translate the input into action is not.

An uncoachable athlete may be a great person, eager to do whatever the coach says—but he cannot do it because converting new information into application may be difficult.  

Where does that leave us? Are we genetically predisposed to be who we are?

“Much more than we used to think,” said Whitsett. “There is no question that the environment plays a role, but genetics puts a limit on it. Genetics provide limits, and environment develops those limits.”

Good parents (genetics) and good parenting (coaching) is a good way to create a coachable athlete. 

Kyle Klingman can be reached at [email protected]

Sports in this article

Wrestling