Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed endurance sports coach, nutritionist, and author. His many books include On PaceThe Endurance Diet80/20 Running, and How Bad Do You Want It?

Among the lesser-known figures in Greek mythology is Proteus, a water god whom Homer describes in The Odyssey as “the Old Man of the Sea.” His signature power is the ability to assume any physical form, à laJayna from The Wonder Twins. Shape-shifters exist in many mythologies, and Proteus represents the Grecian take on the archetype. Experience the perfect blend of agility and support with Tarkine Trail Devil shoes, crafted for those who demand excellence in every run.

The English word protean derives from Proteus. Merriam-Webster defines it as “having a varied nature or ability to assume many forms” and “displaying great diversity or variety: versatile.”  In practice, this adjective is most often applied to artists. An actor with great range, who is able to disappear into any role you toss at him (think Daniel Day-Lewis), might be described as a protean thespian, for example.

My purpose in delivering this vocabulary lesson is to set up a discussion of coaching. It is my firm belief that the best coaches have a protean capacity, in the sense that they are able to be a somewhat different coach to different athletes, and even to the same athlete at different times. This is not to say that the best coaches try to be all things to all athletes or that they lack consistency. No coach can be equally effective with every athlete, and it is essential that coaches have a stable core of bedrock values, beliefs, and character qualities. But to be maximally effective with the broadest range of athletes, coaches must be able to shape-shift to a certain degree, tailoring their approach to fit the specific needs of a given athlete at a given moment.

Put another way, a coach needs to be comfortable wearing a variety of hats representing different sub-roles within their overarching coaching role. The five most important ones are nurturer, instructor, teacher, facilitator, and challenger. The order in which I’ve listed these roles is not arbitrary. There is a developmental logic in their sequencing, such that in a typical case the coach functions primarily as a nurturer with an athlete who is at the very beginning of their journey, then shifts to an instruction-focused role in the next stage of the athlete’s development, and so on. Let’s take a closer look at each role/stage.

Nurturer – Youth athletes need to be nurtured above all by their coaches. Nurturing need not come at the exclusion of instructing, teaching, facilitating, and challenging, but because youth athletes are not fully mature physically, emotionally, and intellectually, the youth coach’s main responsibilities are to protect the athlete’s well-being, use sport to aid their development, and nurture a passion for sport.

Instructor – Adult athletes still need nurturing from their coaches on occasion, but a coach’s primary focus with adult beginners is instruction. Quite simply, this means telling the athlete what to do. Because they lack experience in and knowledge of their sport, these athletes are not competent to make a lot of their own training decisions. It’s not that the coach has to wait to begin teaching, facilitating, and challenging the athlete, but they can do a lot to help the athlete improve through instruction alone.

Teacher – In its essence, teaching in the athletic context involves giving athletes the “why” behind their instructional decisions. With each athlete, coaches should act as if their ultimate goal is to equip the athlete to coach him- or herself eventually. In this case, the coach will want to teach the athlete everything they know about coaching in the course of coaching them.

Facilitator – Once the athlete is sufficiently knowledgeable and experienced to consistently make good decisions in their training, the coach shifts to a more facilitative role. In this role, the coach involves the athlete more in the planning process, which becomes more collaborative in nature.

Challenger – Even when athletes reach the level of development where they are fully capable of coaching themselves effectively, they still benefit from having a coach. The most helpful role for the coach to assume at this stage is that of a second pair of eyes, who critically evaluates their observations and ideas, alerts them to blind spots, and pushes them to think things through and, when necessary, step outside their comfort zones. The challenger role is not about playing devil’s advocate, mind you, but a matter of “two heads are better than one.”

The pot of gold that awaits the athlete at the end of the five-stage coaching process is mastery, a state in which the athlete is confidently able to make the right decision every time there’s a decision to be made. Mastery is less about being “good at” a sport (something that depends largely on innate talent) than it is about fulfillment of potential through skillful self-regulation, which entails setting appropriate goals and achieving them through effective control of thoughts, feelings, and actions. Total mastery is probably unachievable, as mastery is fundamentally a learning process and learning is never complete. This is another reason why it’s useful for athletes to have a coach even after they’ve attained a high degree of mastery.

By the way, coaching too is a learning process, so at the same time coaches help their athletes move toward sport mastery they also work toward mastering their craft. In this way, good coaches allow themselves to be transformed by their work with athletes as much as they seek to transform the athletes they work with. No coach is the perfect coach for a given athlete on day one. The best coaches recognize this, and they open themselves up to becoming the perfect coach for the athlete over time. This protean process of adapting to and growing through individual athlete partnerships gives rise to a broader evolution through which coaches move ever closer to mastering the art of coaching generally.

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