Have you ever been on the giving or the receiving end of this type of exchange? Be honest, especially if you are a giver:
Athlete: Coach, I want to improve my performance in <insert chosen athletic endeavor here>! Can you help me? I’m really motivated!
Coach: I’d be happy to! First, let’s take a look at your training schedule. I know you’re training twice a week now, and I’d recommend you increase that to three to four times a week, if possible.
Athlete: Oh, I can’t do that. My schedule is pretty tight with work and family.
Coach: Okay, well what about your diet? I know you’d been talking about wanting to drop a few pounds, and that could help with your movement and your conditioning. We could take a look at your eating habits and find places to make different choices.
Athlete: Well, that’s tough, because the holidays are coming, so there are going to be lots of parties and lots of treats in the office, and I don’t want to deprive myself.
Coach: Um, how about your sleep patterns? A lot of recent research suggests most of us need more sleep than we get, and that it has lots of benefits beyond just keeping us from nodding off in boring meetings. Can you commit to getting eight hours of sleep a night?
Athlete: Ha! Maybe in an alternate universe! It’s a great idea in theory, but I’m lucky if I get four or five hours, given everything I have to do in a day. So, can you help me improve my performance at <insert chosen athletic endeavor here>? I’m really motivated!
And, scene.


When You Ask for Help and Then Refuse It

The hypothetical described above is a classic case of “yes, but.” Yes, Coach, I see your point, but I have made an a priori decision that nothing will change. I have convinced myself that I simply cannot do anything related to your advice, rather than that I simply will not even consider how I might be able to implement even some aspect(s) of it.
It’s fun to speculate why athletes ask their coaches for advice that they then end up categorically dismissing. I know I’ve been guilty of this at different times, and the reasons usually have to do with me rather than with the quality of the suggestions. But even if we think we are justified in acting this way, here are some reasons we aren’t:
  • First, we go to our coaches for help ostensibly because they know more than us about how to succeed in what we are trying to do. When we “yes, but” our coaches, we are basically telling them - to their faces - that this isn’t actually true.
  • Second, with this behavior we have revealed something about ourselves - something we shouldn’t be proud of. And that is that we are the kind of people who draw knee-jerk conclusions about new information that we may not like or that feels uncomfortable without trying to integrate it meaningfully with what already exists. We refuse to face the dislike or the discomfort as possible indicators that what we are being asked to do would be good for us, and instead use it as a rationale for dismissing those suggestions out of hand.
  • Third, we have just wasted our coach’s time. This one is near and dear to my own heart. There is little that aggravates me more than when someone devalues my time. I suspect I speak for more than a few busy, harried coaches and instructors on this one.
I’m not saying we should blindly follow every suggestion our coach gives us. But I am saying we should consider every suggestion for a possible fit with our lives, motivations, and goals. 


Turning a “Yes, But” into a “Yes, And”

Many years ago, I participated in a series of classes at The Second City, a Chicago institution of comedy and improvisation. During those classes, I learned the concept of “yes, and.” Since improv is happening in the moment and requires collaboration, “yes, and” is very important. If two people are working together to create a scene, the goal is to build on each other’s offerings. (Read this for a brief description of how “yes, and” works). 
Arguably, the coach-athlete relationship is similar. If I go to my coach for advice but then systematically shut down every suggestion or option, there’s really nothing more to say. Advice requested. Advice offered. Advice refused. (And, scene.)
What about if instead of immediately saying no, we tried to “yes, and” with our coaches? Here’s how I propose we do it.
  • First, listen to the advice. Make sure we have heard it. We can do this by repeating back to our instructor what was said. “So you are suggesting I get eight hours of sleep per night?” This enables you to ensure you have understood your instructor and articulate the action you need to take.
  • Second, briefly explain any obstacles you see to this advice, but in a reframed way. Instead of, “There’s no way I can get eight hours of sleep,” consider something like, “Okay. This will take some thinking and some planning. I work a swing shift and my kids get home from school when I’m trying to sleep, which usually wakes me up. Maybe I can hold a family meeting to get everyone on the same page about my goals and how they can help me, by being quiet for an extra hour before they wake me, or by going to the library for a while after school.” 
  • Or, if you don’t think well on the fly, decide ahead of time that once you have heard the advice, you will repeat it to your coach and then ask for some time to think about how you might implement it. Then, go home, think about it, and come back with some ideas like the ones described above.
This is a “yes, and,” because it gives your instructor something to work with and demonstrates to him or her that you are working through how you could reasonably act on this advice. It could start an actual dialogue about what you think is realistic and doable (“I am concerned that eight hours might be too tall an order to start with. What if I were able to commit to between six and seven per night, at least for now?”)


Open Your Mind and Say Yes

Coaches understand that changing behaviors is difficult and can sometimes be a process. But what they don’t understand is when we athletes expect them to work harder for their progress than we are willing to ourselves. Shutting down advice without thinking it through and honestly getting at whether the advice is impossible to follow or whether we are simply unwilling to make ourselves uncomfortable doesn’t constitute working hard. 
So, before the next time you ask your coach for advice, open your mind, make certain you are truly willing to consider changing your behavior, and promise to “yes, and.” Tell your “yes, but” to butt out.
Do the exchanges in this article sound familiar to you? Post your experiences - and advice about how to take advice - to comments.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit LA.