The 4-hour coach


American author Tim Ferris published the bestseller ‘The 4-hour workweek’ in 2007 as a response to the cultural institution of ‘going through the doldrums’ in a regular profession from leaving school to the days you retire. He presented the wealth of the ‘new rich’ as: mobility, time and money

I enjoyed the message of the 4-hour workweek but its message is often misunderstood in such a way that people  begin to ignore a fundamental dynamic of human relationships: value, in the form of money, flows to people who are valuable to others*. Provide value and you get rewarded in return. A person who earns money but provides little or no value to his fellow man is a parasite. Ancient societies easily dealt with such leisure-riders by simply shunning them or depriving them of their share of the days foraging and hunting (as detailed by Saltin in his seminal ‘Stone Age Economics’).

It is possible to provide more value in 4 hours than some people provide in a life-time, of course. Money is linked to value not to ‘hours worked’ and the greatest achievement of the 4-hour work-week is to put a stake through the heart of this nonsensical notion. I could sit down at my kitchen table and, let us say, invent a cure for cancer in 4 hours and few would begrudge me living off the earnings and never lifting a finger for the rest of my life.

* Let us ignore for a moment that there are ways to corrupt this dynamic and hoard wealth off scamming, fooling or misleading others.

In most cases, however, this is not what people attempt to do. They are looking for a life-style business which means ‘a regular income from few work hours, with no nagging boss and the ability to work from anywhere’. I was charmed by this notion myself but as I threw myself at ‘business-building’, I learnt a key lesson: You do not become top of any sport or industry part-time. Anyone who dominates in the world of business or sport lives and breathes their calling every hour of the day. If you want to live part-time and still earn and income you have to prepare to be mediocre and you definitely need to embrace a minimalist lifestyle as your earnings are likely to be low (as they should be – a mediocre performer has low to medium value).

I noticed this lesson because my business of choice was coaching athletes. My value to athletes comes from the depth of my knowledge and my ability to apply it complex individuals to provide them solutions. A ‘4-hour coach’ will never truly achieve the coaching ability necessary to become top-class. Human beings are too complex and the fields of knowledge a coach needs to master to numerous. It takes years of immersive practical experience to achieve any kind of competence as a coach.

Our culture has a challenge here because running and athletics as a sport does not generate the revenue for profitable careers for coaches .You cannot walk away with millions like Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp even if you are the world’s top coach. This means our education relies primarily on amateurs and they serve an important function although they are also a curiosity in the modern world. We are happy to have amateur coaches but not amateur therapists or amateur mechanics. The reason is partly convention and partly that coaching is not valued highly. This has to do with supply and demand. You do not value an episode of your favourite tv-show highly enough to pay for it if you can download it for free off a pirate-site, but you still enjoy the tv-show. Likewise, most of us value coaching but not enough to pay for it as it can be done cheaply. This is not the runners problem, it is up to the professional coaches to demonstrate their value and change this perception. The same goes for our sport in general – to get more money flowing we must create a better product and not lament that ‘soccer is more glamorous’*. To achieve this the standard among professional coaches and their ability to communicate needs to be heightened.

* I’ll explore this topic in a later post

Here we finally encounter the issue of with the ‘4-hour coach’. A perception exists, especially among office executives, that working in physical education, coaching or personal training is glamorous and a natural choice to build a ‘lifestyle business’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to be successful without being an expert, you need to pick a very well-known ‘fitness concept’ such as Zumba and simply be good at marketing and selling as well as a reasonably capable instructor. These instructors will not lead to innovations and revolutions in our running culture, however.

Anyone who moves into coaching runners needs to embrace it as a full-time profession. They should follow Dan Pena’s advice and do it only because they are passionate about it – only this way can you put enough time aside to practice and perfect your coaching to create the standard we need in order for the general runner to perceive professional coaches as highly valuable individuals on par with physiotherapists, mechanics, dentists, psychologists, university lecturers and other such professionals. A coach needs to hang up his attachment to being merely ‘a trainer’ and understand he is a ‘human consultant’ and a ‘physical educator’.* His or her knowledge in all the fields related to human functioning needs to be supremely well developed – deep, wide AND linked to hours and hours of practical application. Someone truly passionate about the sport he coaches will not look to ‘clock out’ at 4 hours – he will be happy to spend the majority of his hours ‘breaking the code of performance’ – because his sport is also his vocation. These are the teacher we need. The teachers who opportunistically select our sport because they believe it is a ‘fertile market’ to be milked for ‘another stream of revenue’, we need, as runners, need to show the door. It may sound discriminatory but we need ‘real running coaches for real runners’. Passionate teachers who will perfect their craft and conduct themselves to the highest professional standards. With an army of such individuals, Ireland’s running success can be turned around.

* There is also a circular cultural effect at play here. We value things more highly if we have to pay for them. If we pay for something we are more likely to use it or listen to it. Consultants have known this for a long time: by charging more they command more respect – but the caveat is that they do have to deliver the results as well. If athletes perceive coaches merely as ‘stop-watch holders’ or ‘the guy who picks up the cones’, it becomes more difficult to command the necessary position to teach effectively. 

Authors note (15th May): If you do not find this argument convincing, read a few articles online about the resurgence of German soccer and compare the amount of coaches they have in their system compared to the British system. What we have to increase is the total sum of available top-class coaching knowledge. You could write the equation this way:

Average competence of each coach available x number of available coaches = sum of coaching competence available

It is irrelevant whether the coaches are professional or amateur a coach with a ‘negative competence’ (doing more harm than good) would draw the average down. Being a professional is a fail-safe against such individuals because people who provide negative results go out of business – as they deservedly should. This ‘culling of the herd’ effect is necessary in a coaching profession.



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