Coaching Lessons From Boxing’s Greatest “Corner Men”

There’s more to great coaching than meets the eye. We see premier sports coaches yelling, pacing the sidelines, or looking silently but intently at a game. We see them sitting with their skating or gymnastic protégé awaiting the scoring at the Olympics. What we don’t see is the behind-the-scenes work, the actual coaching, that has led up to the moments that we do see. That’s why I love Ronald Fried’s book, Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers. It gives us a window to the behind-the-scenes coaching that made boxing’s great champions.

Here’s what the Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion for twelve consecutive years (1937-1949), said about his coach:

“All that I am as a fighter, a champion, I owe to Jack Blackburn. He was teacher, father, brother, nurse, best pal to me… I won’t forget his confidence in my corner… He never scolded. He spoke so plain like. He was easy to understand because he had a way of showing you your mistakes in his simple way… He didn’t rush me. He didn’t scold me. He didn’t point out my mistakes like a showoff in front of the crowd. So he went downstairs away from them and he put the gloves on with me. That was real teaching.”

What Joe Louis describes rings true even for the coaching that happens at work. It’s the coaching relationship, the coach’s mindset, and the coach’s skills and strategies that creates champions. Consider the following questions, gleaned from boxing’s great corner men, to see where you standout and where you might improve as a coach.

Is your coaching relationship mutual?

Boxers often get to choose their trainers. The same isn’t always true at work. Your job typically defines who coaches you or whom you coach. Sometimes this arrangement works well, sometimes it doesn’t. For the relationship to work you have to want to work with and learn from him or her. Your coach must see you as willing to learn and stretch as well. It’s not enough for a manager to be a defacto coach. To be a coach, you must want to coach the person and the other person must want to be coached by you.

Are you collaborative?

A coaching relationship is a collaborative one. People have to work hard together to achieve change and development. The days are gone when you could say, “I’m the expert, do what I say.” Even if you are the expert, you need to look closely at the people you’re coaching. You need to understand their goals and motivations, which are the impetus for growth and development. The people you’re coaching will not change because you say so. People change when they want to, and when they’re given the help and opportunities they need in order to change. You’ll know you’re collaborative if you invite those you coach to talk about their goals, debrief their performance before giving feedback, and ask for their insight in solving problems.

Do you see strengths?

Most coaches think their work is about fixing the flaws in performance. If you’re one of those people, think again. It’s far more important for you to see, name, and draw out the strengths of the people you’re coaching. Sure, you’ll see areas for improvement. It’s easier to see people’s weaknesses than their strengths. The secret to winning as a coach is looking at the people you coach through strengths-colored glasses.

Charley Goldman, one of the trainers profiled in Corner Men, described his strategy as working from strengths: “If they’re short, make ‘em shorter. If they’re tall, make ‘em taller.” He didn’t see the person’s shortness as a weakness; he saw a potential advantage in the boxing ring. Likewise he didn’t try a strategy to make the tall person shorter. Instead he tried to figure out a way to capitalize on the strengths of what a tall person brings into the boxing ring. Think of that person you coach and consider what attributes that person brings to his or her work. Can you find the strengths in those attributes, as Goldman did? The more strengths you find, the more successful you can help the other person to be. As Ray Arcel, who trained over 2000 boxers, said, “Everybody has their own style. Never change a style. Improve it, but never change a style.”

Can you name what’s in the way?

Great coaches have an uncanny ability to name what’s getting in the way of strengths. They don’t try to correct everything that’s wrong. They put a finger on the few things that a person could change to be successful. They know that if the performer can change one or two of the most important things, so many other things will change because of it.

Do you focus on development?

Coaching is about the development of a person’s skills and abilities. Sometimes people try to take a coaching approach for issues of accountability instead of development. If a person has trouble consistently with time management for projects, that’s a development issue that coaching can address. If a person is consistently late to work, coaching will not fix the problem. A basic guideline is this: If they can do it, but won’t, the issue is accountability. Coaching will get you nowhere. If they would do it, but can’t (don’t know how), the issue is development. That’s where coaching shines.

Do you have a dream for this person?

Once you become clear on the strengths of this person, you need to shape these into a vision for what this person could accomplish. If they could fully express their strengths, what could they achieve?

If you’re not careful, your vision of the person you coach could look an awful lot like… you. “Here’s what I do,” you say. But what works for you may or may not work for other people. Coaching is not about how people can be like you; it’s about how they use the best parts of themselves to achieve. That common vision becomes the long-term coaching plan, the context for all the coaching you do. Without it, you have a band-aid approach to development: fixing little things here and there, but no direction.

Are you more concerned with the fighter than the fight?

How you handle a performer’s mistakes and setbacks is critical. To grow, people must push beyond their competence zone. Failing is part of that process. Learning from those failures is the way people get better, but it’s hard for the performer to remember when they’re feeling unsuccessful. That’s where you come in. While it’s natural to react negatively when things go wrong, great coaches channel that energy into their teaching. They’re interested in the arc of a person’s development and performance. In Ray Arcel’s words, they remain “more concerned with the fighter than the fight.”

Conclusion

These are some of the behind-the-scenes qualities that great coaches cultivate to help people become their best. It’s a commitment to ongoing learning, not only for the people you coach, but for yourself as a coach. And if this post has you questioning your own coaching ability, apply these principles to yourself. What are your strengths as a coach? What’s getting in the way? Where can you develop? What kind of coach do you want to be? Once you have the answers, it wouldn’t hurt to find a corner man or woman of your own.

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