Finding and Building Coachable Athletes

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Welcome to this edition of the ‘Coach Doc’. I’m Dr. Wade Gilbert, coach education advisor to Human Kinetics.

Much has been written in the past week about Jordan Spieth’s record setting performance at the Master’s golf tournament. At only 21 years old, Spieth broke multiple scoring records and became the first golfer in 30 years to lead the tournament from wire to wire (first day to final day).

However, it was what he did in between shots that impressed the world more so than his athletic prowess. He is being lauded as the future of American golf not just because of his golf ability, but equally as much for the type of athlete he represents. Spieth has won over sponsors, fans, and competitors alike because of his humble and respectful attitude, competitive drive, and willingness to learn.

According to his coach, Cameron McCormick, Jordan has always embodied these characteristics. McCormick reports many examples of how Jordan was willing to adapt and follow coaching suggestions all along the journey from 12-year old sensation to the reigning Master’s champion.

Jordan Spieth is a prime example of that most highly sought athlete by every coach—the coachable athlete.

Coaches spend considerable time and energy trying to find, and build, coachable athletes because they are eager to learn, fun to work with, and in the case of team sports they make their teammates better.

In my classes we often do an activity where I ask coaches to identify and rank characteristics of the coachable athlete. After preparing their list I then have them compare their list with a list generated in a national survey of over 100 college basketball coaches. The list includes the following nine characteristics, ranked in order from most important to least important:

• Willingness to be coached
• Willingness to sacrifice for the team
• Acceptance of criticism
• Acceptance of individual role
• Positive response to discipline
• Attentiveness
• Respect for authority
• Selflessness
• Agreeableness with coach

Notice that ‘willingness’ and ‘acceptance’ rank at the top of the list. Coachable athletes approach their sport with a willingness to do whatever it takes to improve performance. They also are eager to receive feedback and open to making adjustments. For athletes who play on teams, this is most evident when athletes eagerly accept new roles or new positions on the team, instead of complaining or challenging the coach.

Although I have found that most coaches agree with the list, there seldom is consensus on the order of the list. For example, two of my students asked their former coaches to comment on the list. The coaches included Margie Wright, college’s all-time winningest softball coach, and Brian Reynolds, who has coached his swim teams to 33-time national collegiate championships.

Interestingly, both of these legendary championship coaches rated ‘selflessness’ as the number one characteristic of a coachable athlete.

What these exercises illustrate is that taking time as a coach to reflect on how you define a coachable athlete is more valuable than the list itself. As you evolve and grow as a coach your list will also surely become more fine-tuned. The most coachable athletes for each coach will likely be the ones who model the coach’s core values and program philosophy.

Take a moment and think about the athlete characteristics you would put on your list. Then ask yourself how you model and teach these qualities to your athletes. Wouldn’t we all benefit from passing along a more coachable athlete to the next coach in the athlete’s journey?

Connell, J. (2015, February 21). Prestige in the pool: Drury’s unmatched swimming success. Springfield News-Leader. Retrieved from

McIlroy, J. (2015). Do some athletes know how to be coached? Sports coach UK. Retrieved from

Peter, J. (2015, April 14). Under Armour scored big on early signing of unknown Spieth. USA Today Sports. Retrieved from

Stier, W. F., & Schneider, R. C. (2007). Effectiveness of basketball coaching methods and player qualities – A national survey of men’s NCAA Division 1 basketball coaches. Applied Research for Coaching and Athletics Annual, 22, 1-22.

Van Sickle, G. (2013, December 1). Q&A with Cameron McCormick: The coach behind the phenomenal rise of Jordan Spieth. Golf: Tour and News. Retrieved from

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