The apprentice must murder the master

The apprentice must murder the master

Every assistant coach should seek to supplant his teacher. Many ‘master coaches’ are threatened by the idea of their apprentices supplanting them and exist in a paranoid relationship conflicted between educating the apprentice and allowing them only enough room to maneuver to remain ‘in their place’ or, even worse, choosing second-rate apprentices because the best candidates prove too much of a threat to the master’s ego.

Any coach who teaches coaches or coaches who teach athletes who show an interest in the fine art must grow beyond this and accept that every apprentice you should take should ideally wish to supplant you. Darth Vader, villainous a character as he is, murdered his teacher Obi-Wan with the words ‘now, I am the master’. This aspiration of the apprentice is necessary or they will remain mediocre unable to grow beyond the dogmas of the master.

Since we know that it is a universal law that the sum of ‘anti-knowledge’ (what we do not know) will always remain higher than the sum of knowledge (‘what we do know’) staying within the boundaries of your master coaches’ knowledge will put a halt to the development of our coaching practices. Apprentices of such coaches will only ever be able to teach less than the master coach – with the result that the sum of the knowledge passed on to their apprentices and athletes is lower than the sum of the knowledge passed on by the original master coach. Each generation in this relationship becomes less wise on matters of how to train and live to optimise running. This rule, however, applies outside running culture and in general culture as well.

* For more on the concept of anti-knowledge read Nassim Taleb’s ‘Umberto Eco’s anti-library‘.

The master who has outgrown his own ego and can see further therefore seeks apprentices with potential to outgrow them and with that twist of ‘impatience’ and lingering impudence. They know that the break-up in their relationship – whether amicable or bitter – is inevitable. They do not seek to delay the apprentice’s maturation into full-scale teacher in their own right and if they are envious that their apprentice outgrows them and their success, they keep it to themselves so as to not become a lodestone around the neck of the new generation of coaches.

Too often great coaches have left no permanent dynasty in place to improve and maintain their teachings. As years pass by so the details of their wisdom fades and warps until it is a watered-down low-performance method. Instead, you can be more like Socrates and leave a Plato or more like Caesar and leave Augustus. This does not mean that delusional apprentices, unable to meet the standards of the master coach but convinced they are destined for greatness, should not be cast aside and resisted by the teacher. But a coach of coaches, or prospective coaches, must look at themselves and ask ‘am I merely threatened by this apprentice and frightened of the inevitable day when he surpasses me’. This concern takes on new social dimensions in a world of professional coaching and teachings where ‘losing control’ of your apprentices becomes similar to losing talented employees – to see them make money for themselves instead of for you.

As coaches we must accept this. We are trying to teach birds to fly the nest and not remain in it – content to feed on the scraps we feed them, grateful and dependent. I see too many coaches who try to educate ‘followers’ and ‘servants’ – watered down clones of themselves – instead of true heirs. Culturally enormous precedent exists – after all kings and emperors regularly murdered their most talented and ambitious sons. In athletics, we must resist this. We must subordinate our personal ego and needs to the needs of the sport. If educating a great student and letting him loose before you can personally profit fully then this is the sacrifice you place at the alter of our sport. (master coach: you never will ‘be completely satisfied’ with the term of service and the gratitude you receive – so do not look for it. Your reward is the survival of your teachings). Does this mean a master coach cannot be a human being an expect loyalty or gratitude? No, only that this should not be the prime motive in educating servants – because this shows that the master coach does not practice his craft for the right reasons. The coach with a true love for the sport of running, will accept the risk of no reward as long as the sport is advanced and see himself gratified in the success others create with his methods. The jealous and dictatorial master coach likely practices his craft for merely cynical or practical reasons – motivated primarily by personal glorification or enrichment. These coaches should not be welcome in our sport. We have enough raw material with a true passion – we do not need to tolerate interlopers. Showing them the door is not a negative act that leaves them ruined but instead a favour – even a mercy – because we push them out of an area for which they have no true passion. This will force a reflection on their part and hopefully set them on the path to coach in an area where they have true passion and will, happily and without promise of reward, educate worthy successors to carry on their passions and teachings.

Authors note 03/05/2016: This somewhat cynical title and seemingly negative portrayal of the master-coach to apprentice-coach relationship is not new. In recent times, it was painted by Robert Green in his excellent book ‘Mastery’. I have influenced many athletes and coaches while never formally accepting ‘an apprentice’. Should I do so my first words to him or her would be ‘it is your job to surpass me in all ways’. Among those I have influenced informally, I have seen this same dynamic at work – the learner takes from you what he believe he needs and ‘moves on’. I believe the net sum of frustrations on both coach and apprentice side will be lower when we embrace, upfront, the premise of this post. The long-term gain for our culture is less resistance in the path of future master coaches to train the next generation of athletes – with no barriers of jealousy and petty financial interest (portrayed as ‘protecting myself’ by those with a scarcity mindset rather than abundance mindset – a topic for another post).