Holding Paradox: How to Stop Being a Unidirectional Coach

“My summary of my last 37 years' work can be stated in six words: Hard is soft. Soft is Hard.” - Tom Peters

When management guru and author of The Excellence Dividend Tom Peters wrote this on his blog, he was referencing four decades of experience in business. I’ve used the same phrase repeatedly in our coaches’ meetings to describe the tensions and contradictions I’ve been noticing between opposing ends of the personal, relational, and situational spectrums we see in the gym. In their new book The Dichotomy of Leadership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin explore a similar hypothesis through the lens of their battlefield experiences (and now with their consultancy Echelon Front, through corporate leadership case studies).

The fact that four people from different backgrounds are essentially saying the same thing suggests that the ability to hold paradox is a necessary, universal skill rooted in a deep understanding of human nature.

Our job as coaches is to grow an athlete, client, or student three-dimensionally. To do so requires range and the ability to be multi-directional, so that we can adjust our tactics depending on what the person and situation demands at any given moment. You will become a better coach if you’re able to balance opposing forces that are in a tug of war with one another, identify paradoxes, and use them to inform and improve your coaching tactics and communication.

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Paradox in Coaching

We must first settle on what we mean by paradox. Not to go all Webster’s on you, but an explanation I like is: “A situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.”

So, to Peters’s point, a seemingly hard skill has soft qualities, and vice versa. In business, on the coaching floor, and beyond, this can mean that something which appears to be quantifiable, definitive, and numerical also has qualitative, mutable, and uncertain human elements underpinning it. We simply cannot extricate one side from the other – seemingly soft and hard factors are always present. If we’re going to help our clients achieve the positive growth they seek, we’ve got to improve our awareness of such paradoxes and adapt our practice accordingly.

It’s all too easy to be unidirectional as both a coach and a human being. Part of this involves how we see and label ourselves and our preferred way of doing things. Maybe you like to project toughness and dominance, so your coaching style is like the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (RIP, R Lee Ermey). Or you might see yourself as the exact opposite – an upbeat, positive encourager. And both of these have their place.

Such self-definitions can profoundly impact how we communicate. As a rookie coach, you might have believed that your way is the only way, and so were determined to be the drill sergeant or cheerleader, come what may. But as you gained more experience and knowledge, you (hopefully) began to develop more self AND social awareness. In which case, you’ve likely started to see that this one-size-fits-all approach is effective with some clients, but doesn’t always work.

Why? Paradoxes and the inconvenient truth that our words, actions, and expectations don’t exist in isolation, but rather interact with those of other people. What they need and the situation demands doesn’t always jive with what you’re delivering. You could resolve to remain stubbornly unidirectional – “That’s just who I am – take it or leave it” – but this is a fixed mindset that’s going to hamper your clients’ growth and your own development.

Instead, you should start reckoning with and becoming able to hold paradox. Great leaders exemplify this in their ability to recognize and expertly manage the contradictory tendencies of the people they seek to lead.

An Example of Coaching Paradoxically 

With the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson not only won the elusive NBA championship “three-peat,” but also did it twice. Doing so required harnessing Michael Jordan’s ferocious will while tempering his desire to dominate to the point that he trusted role players like John Paxson and Steve Kerr enough to pass to them at game-winning or losing moments in the Finals.

At the same time, Jackson had to also manage the strong personalities of two other stars. He convinced Scottie Pippen, who so desperately wanted to be THE MAN, to utilize his diverse skillset as the secondary scorer behind Jordan. Jackson also found a way to let free-spirited Dennis Rodman continue being his Madonna-dating, casino-frequenting self, while staying focused enough on the court to lead the league in rebounding year after year.

It’d be impressive enough for Jackson to pull this paradox-holding trick off once, but he did it again with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant was almost a carbon copy of Jordan, with the same turnaround jumper and fierce demeanor. Then there was the big man in the middle of the triangle offense – Shaquille O’Neal. Though a dominating destroyer of backboards on the court, Shaq was an affable teddy bear away from the hardwood.

The stories of Kobe and Shaq’s clashes are now the stuff of legend, including one confrontation that almost came to blows. Somehow Jackson allowed both his All Stars sufficient space to be themselves, while also subjugating their own interests to the overall goal for the team: to win. And win they did, claiming three straight titles.

Certainly, the physical gifts of these Hall of Famers on both teams did Jackson some favors, but it was ultimately his understanding of human nature and group dynamics that empowered the Bulls and Lakers to summit the NBA mountain. He helped his star players learn to behave so they could be the best FOR the team versus the best ON the team, while preparing his role players to be ready to take and make the big shots when called upon.

You might never win 11 championship rings like Phil Jackson. But learning to hold paradox like the Zen Master can still help you AND your athletes to grow self/relational management skills.

Take an Assessment

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To start, you’d benefit from an assessment of how you’re most likely to act in certain situations. This requires time, a healthy dose of humility, and resolving to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. At our gym, the coaching staff utilizes Athlete Assessments' version of the DISC methodology to help us identify blind spots in how we view ourselves and evaluate how our preferences can undermine our ability to hold paradox with our students.

DISC is a behavioral (not personality) assessment based on the work of psychologist William Marston (who also invented the lie detector and Wonder Woman – how about that for potential paradox and diversity of behavioral accomplishments?). Marston came up with DISC in the late 1920s and business consultant Tony Alessandra popularized its use in the corporate world during the 1990s.

DISC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. In contrast to other assessments – in particular Myers-Briggs – it takes into consideration how situational context affects behavior.

By underscoring the importance of context, DISC distinguishes itself as more of a behavioral assessment, providing insight on how you’re predisposed to behave in a given environment, as opposed to proclaiming fixed descriptors about who you are.

  • Dominance measures how you directly approach issues/problems
  • Influence evaluates how you prefer to deal with people you encounter and also can be thought of as synonymous with the introversion/extroversion continuum
  • Steadiness assesses the pace at which you act
  • Conscientiousness measures the degree to which you follow rules, systems, and processes

Once we made DISC an integral component of our coaching development initiative, we were able not only to identify our individual tendencies, but also to better understand how we function as a team.

We saw that many of the coaches are more inclined to be analyzers or facilitators (steadiness on the DISC quadrant) who gently guide clients on how to advance skills and increase work capacity. Others are in the conscientious quadrant, meaning they favor a careful, organized, and logical approach.

This works fine for certain clients, but not for many of the hard-driving athletes, executives, and A-listers in our community. Their expectation is both to give and get definitive instructions and to be forcefully corrected when they make mistakes. The language they speak is one of control, power, and decisiveness. So the softly-softly approach doesn’t go over so well.

This can create a paradox that juxtaposes what we’re providing and what they want, leading to frustration and a diminished learning experience that, when repeated enough, reduces adherence and stunts progress.

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Another important point is that a paradox can exist between two people whose personalities are very similar. Pair a coach and athlete who are both dominant and you can end up not with harmony, but with an epic blow-up. Going back to our basketball example, it probably wouldn’t have worked out well if Bobby Knight had tried to coach Jordan or Bryant. Insults would’ve been traded and chairs thrown. Yet Phil Jackson, on the other hand, knew how to take dominant leaders who are used to behaving one way and manipulate the environment so they and their teammates who had different tendencies could all accomplish their individual aims while still serving the needs of the team.

Evidently, Phil Jackson was not only able to spot paradoxes, but he deliberately managed them for the good of the team and his individual athletes as well.

Similarly, as coaches, it behooves us to use tools like DISC and our own processes of reflection and evaluation to discover paradoxes and then manage those contradictions accordingly.

Identifying Paradox

Over time, it becomes easier to identify a paradox at first glance, such as the hardness of programming and the softness of context. Yet if you’ll invest time and effort to go farther down the rabbit hole, you’ll start noticing many subsequent layers of opposing hard and soft tensions below the surface.

Let’s apply the diagram below to Phil Jackson’s title-winning Bulls team from the ’96-’97 season. Outcome (winning a championship - hard) and feeling (the entire squad feeling valued - soft) are in opposition in the strata below, with the dichotomies of achievement (winning 72 games in a season - hard) and expression (the team experience - soft), and external (hard) and internal (soft) situations underneath.

On the other side is adaptation (better on court performance - hard) balancing out engagement (keeping the stars motivated to keep winning - soft) with metric (beating the Utah Jazz again in the Finals - hard) and style (the poetry in motion of the triangle offense - soft) holding ability (Jordan, Pippen and Rodman’s capacity to get the job done - hard) and skill (Jordan’s gravity-defying forays to the basket - soft) in tension.

As the graphic implies, there’s no end to the number of sub-paradoxes we can discover if we keep peeling the onion. As you get closer to the middle, you start to see the meaning of each side of the sub-paradoxes getting nearer to each other. In this way, hard is becoming soft and soft hard – a paradox within a paradox. 

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Exposing myself to the scrutiny of two DISC assessments (the first as a leader/gym owner and the second as an “in the trenches” coach) while also processing my fellow coaches’ feedback about me led to an epiphany: your capability to help your students grow (and continue your own development) depends on your ability to coach paradoxically. Therefore it will benefit you to treat your athletes how they would prefer to be treated based on their behavioral tendencies.

As for the experience of the athlete, I believe it will benefit him or her to have their “buttons pushed” and “levers pulled” contextually. This requires building trust, so they have confidence in your ability to guide them to the outcome they seek and take care of their best interests. Such trust between a coach and athlete allows for an adaptation/result (hard) to be balanced with feeling/engagement (soft).

Paradox Reversals

With time, hard and soft qualities within a paradox can reverse themselves.

An athlete like Kobe was relentless for most of his career, but entering his final season he recognized that as his playing days were numbered, he’d better start enjoying the ride. I’ve worked with other pro athletes for whom this was the opposite. One NBA All Star I’ve been coaching for several years began his career as very context-oriented and was all about the journey. Recently, he has started to see more value in achieving certain personal goals and putting the movement quality-focused work we’ve been doing together into practice to increase his longevity in the game. The way he learns best is experientially in a softer way, but he recognizes the need to now apply these lessons in a harder context.

Such a transition is partly due to how we grow as humans, and also shows how our environment can shape us. An older player might be teetering on a knife edge between being out of the league and earning one last good contract before retirement. Such circumstances can push even the most process-oriented person to focus more on outcomes.

This doesn’t just apply to the pros, but to all of us. And it isn’t only applicable to sporting endeavors, but also the growth curves in our careers and personal lives as well. With the passage of time, the entire paradoxical picture can start to invert itself, like the curl of a barreling wave or that city-bending scene from Inception.

In coaching as in life, hard is soft and soft is hard.

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About The Author

Kenny Kane holds multiple certifications and is a graduate of SealFit’s Kokoro Camp. The practical and spiritual teachings from Kenny’s diverse athletic training have culminated in his context-driven coaching methodology where body, mind, and heart are given equal weight in the portrait of good health. Kenny has implemented his mind-body training protocol whilst coaching Olympians, NBA players, Premiere League soccer players, A-list celebrities, CrossFit Games athletes, and nine-to- fivers alike. He has also developed and directed several fitness programs for kids, coached an adaptive athlete to compete alongside able-bodied competitors, and continues to contribute to broader philosophical discussions concerning public health in podcasts and other forums with elite athletes, movement and human bioenergetics specialists, and thought leaders from around the world. He is the owner of and head coach at Oak Park, home of CrossFit Los Angeles.

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