Being Coachable ... How Do You Take Feedback?

Ultimately, how well you hear and apply feedback determines whether or not you are “coachable.”  And there are arguably no bigger determinants to your long-term success than your coachability.

In his book Practice Perfect, Doug Lemov makes the following point:

“People get feedback all the time … This means that they probably practice ‘taking’ feedback quite a bit – they learn to get better at nodding with eye contact, making their tone free of defensiveness, and taking notes even.  Recipients may signal that they take feedback seriously … but this does not necessarily mean that they use feedback.  Nor does it make them better at employing feedback over time.  In fact, the opposite may happen.  People may practice ways of taking feedback that help them avoid doing anything about it.” (emphasis added)

The point he makes is tremendously powerful: listening to feedback does not mean you actually hear it, and hearing it does not mean you actually apply it to get better.  Ultimately, how well you hear and apply feedback determines whether or not you are “coachable.”  Here is a great definition on what it means to be coachable (from a great article on the qualities of coachable and uncoachable leaders):

“Coachability is the willingness to be corrected and to act on that correction. When we are coachable, we are prepared to be wrong. We can withstand a high degree of candor. We are willing to let others evaluate — and perhaps even plumb the depths of our performance because we understand that the journey of personal development cannot be traveled alone.”

Being coachable, according to Forbes , involves displaying 5 distinct traits.  Three of them stand out particularly, especially considering the prior quotes and definitions:

  • Humility … coachable people understand that the “important things we need to learn require fundamental changes in our behavior and outlook.”
  • Willingness to Surrender Control … “unwillingness to surrender control is the single biggest reason for the lamentable fact that most authentic change is precipitated by a crisis.”
  • Faith in the Process … coachable people understand that “the benefits of change are often only obvious after the change has occurred … usually things get worse before they get better.”

People that are not coachable, almost always reach a plateau in their development (often quite quickly, especially in difficult circumstances) – no matter how many times they keep doing an activity.  They simply stop getting better, despite numerous repetitions.  Thankfully, like most other things, coachability is a skill. 

One of the keys to avoid reaching a plateau in growth, (or to being coachable), is (as put by Mr. Lemov again), “to stay out of autopilot.”  So, how do you do this in training, and how do you display these traits as an athlete:

  1. When you make a mistake in a technical training activity, if possible, start over.  Go back to the beginning and do it right.
  2. When you receive feedback, keep the feedback first and foremost in your head on your next repetition or action.  Be determined to correct the one detail you were just provided.
  3. Do not debate or rationalize feedback; simply implement it.  It is amazing how much better you can become if you simply apply feedback before you rationalize why it doesn’t apply to you or your situation, and before argue about it.  In fact, if you actually wait to reflect on the feedback until after you have tried to apply it, you may find yourself far more informed as to its relevance.
  4. Remember that struggle is the only thing that ultimately builds success.  Moments of intense struggle are when learning happens fastest.

In other words, stay attentive to the details of the execution.  Mr. Lemov illustrates these principles by contrasting how most people practice with how top learners practice:

Most People
Top Learners
Get Feedback
Get Feedback
Reflect and Discuss

Do Over Multiple Times

Possibly Do Over


Sounds easy right?  Not so much.  That may be why being coachable is one of (if not the) biggest determinants of long-term success – and why people that are completely coachable are very rare,  but in the long-term, are also the very best.  As former NBA coach Eric Musselman stated: “More opportunities come to those who are willing to be taught.” 

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