Coaching Lessons From Zappos - Part One

I'm away at the moment working with a team and inevitably I'm finding myself spending more time than I care to think about sitting on a coach travelling between the hotel and training venue. Every cloud has a silver lining though, I have some time every day to read. 

At the moment I'm reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hseih. What is an S&C coach doing reading a book about the guy who created Zappos (listed as one of Fortune magazine's top 25 companies to work for, and was acquired by Amazon in a deal valued at over $1.2 billion, yes I said BILLION!). The reason I'm reading this book is because it's important to read and develop outside your specialist interest. I'm reading the book primarily to see what I can pick up and use at SMART FITNESS as well as ways I can improve on my delivery as a strength and conditioning coach working with various teams and athletes. 

In the second chapter Tony talks about taking up Poker and lessons he learnt playing poker that he thinks transfer over to the business world. Some of the lessons learnt struck a cord with me and I think they can also apply to the world of coaching. I've pulled out the lessons that I think would be useful and tried to give examples from my coaching career to illustrate each point. 

I hope you find it useful.   

Table Selection 

Table selection is the moist important decision you can make, It's OK to switch tables if you discover it's too hard to win at your table. If there are too many competitors, even if you're the best it's a lot harder to win. Some important lessons to be learnt in the first section. When I went to university I thought I was going to be a sport psychologist but after a year I knew that physiology, not psychology was the area I wanted to specialise in.  I 'selected the table' that I wanted to play at. Once I started working as a sport scientist I started to realise that maybe I needed to switch tables again! I was interested in what happened between fitness tests and started to move into the world of physical preparation. In the back of my mind I felt that sport scientists were going to be ten a penny in the near future (I was proved right!). Everyone was studying sport science at Uni. Maybe the table that I was sitting at was going to be too hard to win at in the future and there were going to be too many competitors in the market. I made the switch and became a strength and conditioning coach. I selected my table and I've been playing that table ever since. Think carefully about what you want to be but there's no problem if with switching tables if you think it's the right thing to do. The worst thing you can do is try and play at two or three table at the same time. I've worked at companies that have advertised for three separate jobs at the same time in the same region. Funny then to see applications coming in from the same people for all three jobs! Those applications rarely made it through the paper sift because when I'm selecting employees I want to make sure they want to play at my table. 

Marketing and Branding 

1. Act weak when strong, act strong when weak. 

2. Know when to bluff. 

3. Your brand is important.

4. Help shape the stories that people are telling about you. 

Now some may be thinking what has marketing and branding got to do with being a coach, well I think it has a lot really. Back in 2007 I travelled to China to work with the Chinese National Football Team to help them prepare for the Asian Cup. I'd worked for almost a decade as a strength and conditioning coach but this would be the first time I had worked with a senior international football team. Let's just say there was a bit of pressure during that first training session in front of the media covering the tournament. If ever there was a time to act strong when weak, that was it! I had to make it look as if I did this sort of thing every day. This was the one opportunity I had to gain the respect of the coaching and playing staff. I had to walk the walk (act strong when weak). 

There are also times when you need to underplay your skill set. Some coaches will be only too quick to drop names about who they have worked with and how great they are. I've found that when I work with a new sport (particularly when working with the athletes), I'm humble. During weeks and months you build a relationship and more often than not the athletes dig around to find out about the person that is looking after their physical preparation. It's much better for an athlete to find out for themselves that you've worked with say, previous Olympians than it is for you to rock up in a GB tracksuit and immediately drop in to conversation that you worked with XY and Z! Sometimes you need to act weak when in fact you are super strong! 

Helping shape the stories people tell about you is a really important one in this day and age. Information is readily available and you need to be aware that unlike any other time in history, what you do, how you behave and the people you socialise with is out there in the public domain. Having a website saying how professional you are as a coach and then posting on your Facebook page that you were hammered last night at a strip club is not a smart move! You are a product of the people you surround yourself with and the way you conduct yourself. You have an opportunity to shape the stories people are telling about you by both personally and professionally. When you apply for a job I guarantee your name will be googled and Facebook pages will be looked at. 

Think about what you want prospective employers to be looking at! 


1. Don't play games you don't understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. 

2. Don't cheat. Cheaters never win in the long run. 

3. Stick to your principle. 

4. Be Patient and Think Long Term 

 I have friends and colleagues that make good money doing a range of activities. In the past I've thought, “I'll do a bit of that”. More often than not it's not worked out because I don't fully understand the games they are playing. I'm not the 'Bootcamp King' or the 'Kettlebell Guy' of the man that can get you to do 100 chin ups in 6 weeks'. I'm the performance coach and I stick to what I know and continue to try and be the best I can be. 

Cheating is an interesting one. The strength and conditioning community is a small one and you really don't want to start telling fibs about what you have done and who you have worked with. You will get found out at some point and that will be your career done and dusted. I've received applications from coaches that tell me they have worked with an athlete or team that I was in fact working with! I kid you not! Just because you have walked past an athlete at a training ground doesn't mean you have worked with them. When I worked at the English Institute of Sport we had some very high profile track and field athletes training at the centre. My colleague was responsible for their strength and conditioning support. Sure I knew these athletes, sure I was in the gym when they were training, but I didn't have the overall responsibility for their training. These were people that were well known to the public but they weren't 'my athletes'. We also had a bunch of athletes that were highly successful in their own sport but the general public wouldn't have know them from Adam, I looked after those guys! When friends, family and colleagues asked me who I worked with and did I work with anyone famous it would have been easy to real off a list of names that trained at our facility and make out I worked with them. I didn't. I talked about the people I actually worked with. Don't cheat, you'll get found out.    

Sticking to your principles is an important one. Working in some professional sports or with the general public can challenge your philosophy. Don't become the 'Hollywood' coach, doing things that keep the coaches and athletes happy but don't really impact on performance, changing your principles every season. As a coach you should have a training philosophy. We live and operate in a world where everything needs to be new, flash with quick fixes to keep everyone happy. We are thirsty for innovation. Well, sometimes simplicity if pure genius and athletes just need to train consistently. Sometimes you have to walk away when faced with an environment that demands a 'Hollywood' approach to training. 

Evolution not revolution. Don't walk in to a new team or club and throw your weight around trying to change the systems in a day. You may get radical changes in the short term but it rarely leads to long term success. As coaches we are educators and that takes time. Embrace slow change, it lasts longer. I've worked with squads where I can see there are ten things that need to be changed but I've had to be patient and work on one aspect at a time, slowly chipping away until one day you reach the tipping point. In my experience walking in a shouting about how great you are and how you will revolutionise training rarely works in the long term.  

So that's the end of Part I, I've got a ton of information to go through in Part II next week when I'll take a look at the importance of continual learning and developing a culture. 

Let me know what you think of the first part, any thoughts or personal experiences you may have had that relates to the key points in this post.