Zen & the Art of Performance Coaching

Part 1: The Classic and Romantic Split in Coaching

I recently finished reading a book that had a huge impact on how I think about coaching, performance and my path to becoming the best I can be in both disciplines. The book had nothing directly to do with coaching or performance, it was ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig (ZAMM). This is a theme that I frequently notice – my greatest jumps in thinking about coaching and performance come from reading or thinking outside the subject area, I know many other coaches have also found this to be the case. I think this is because ultimately everything is connected, the lessons to be learnt from coaching and performance can be applied to many areas of life and vice versa.

Connecting dots between disciplines is something I enjoy doing and I believe through reading broadly, key themes rise to the surface. Through complexity comes simplicity but we have to embrace the complexity first to arrive at simplicity. This reminds me of the quote below from Ch’uan Teng Lu in reference to Zen Buddhism:

“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.”

By no means am I at the point where I see the simplicity of coaching and performance; I am in the midst of complexity, exposing myself to as much as possible whilst trying to make sense of everything I come across. But after finishing ZAMM, the path that I need to take towards a true understanding of these disciplines is becoming clearer. In this article, I’d like to take some of the concepts raised in the book and apply them to coaching and performance, along with sharing how the book has influenced my view of the path necessary to take in these disciplines.

Most of the book centres on the author’s previous attempts to understand ‘Quality’ as a metaphysical concept, a search that previously drove him to insanity, from which he is now recovered, and is attempting to make sense of his previous self and thought process. Preceding his explanation of Quality, the author starts with a dichotomy and introduces two new terms; classical understanding and romantic understanding. I feel these terms have significant importance to how we view performance development and since using any definition other than Pirsig’s would be a disservice to him, I will use his own words to describe the two worlds here:

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as the underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. It has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint or schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or bylaws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and aesthetic conscience.

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by-laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form.

Although surface ugliness is often found in the classic mode of understanding it is not inherent in it. There is a classic aesthetic which romantics often miss because of its subtlety. The classical style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an aesthetically free and natural style. It is aesthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which control is maintained.

To a romantic, this classic mode often appears dull, awkward and ugly, like mechanical maintenance itself. Everything is in terms of pieces and components and relationships. Nothing is figured out until it’s run through the computer a dozen times. Everything’s got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endlessly grey. The death force.

Within the classic mode, however, the romantic has some appearances of his own. Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure-seeking. Shallow. Of no substance. Often a parasite who cannot or will not carry his own weight. A real drag on society. By now these battle lines should sound a little familiar.”

When I first read this passage the existence of this divide within the coaching and sports performance world was very clear. As Robert Pirsig puts it:

“Persons tend to think and feel exclusively in one mode or the other and in doing so tend to misunderstand and underestimate what the other mode is all about.”

My thinking is that we see this divide frequently in the world of performance sport and I’ve seen many articles recently that refer to it. A great article below from Jason Weber tackles it head-on, with regard to Strength & Conditioning and Sports Science:


Jason recognises the divide between classically based PhD students and romantically based S&C coaches, he also comes to essentially the same conclusion about these worlds that this article will. I think this divide though is also evident in the wider performance team. More and more it seems the S&C coaches, sports scientists, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, performance analysts and nutritionists are classically biased, having usually come from an academic, theoretical background. Whereas, the head coach and coaching team lean towards being romantically biased, having usually come from an experiential, empirical background of many years playing their sport. This can often result in a relationship where neither group fully understand nor appreciate the viewpoint of the other.



I don’t intend to provide an argument for one side or the other, my belief is that a blend of each needs to be present for the successful development of a player, athlete or team. What I want to find is a way of thinking that does not compromise either of these two kinds of understanding, my thinking is that what we need is something that unites them into one and enables each to flourish. This is where Pirsig’s idea of ‘Quality’ fits in.


Part 2: In Search of Quality in Coaching and Performance

In the book, Robert Pirsig deals with ‘Quality’ as it pertains to general life but this is a complicated area. We are fortunate that in the sporting world ‘Quality’ is much easier to spot. This is because Quality is essentially linked to some sort of ‘betterness’ and in sports, this betterness is clearer to see – we know the aims and expected results of the sport and the rules, so those that achieve the desired outcome consistently can be placed higher up the Quality scale. I’m sure we can all agree that in sports Quality isn’t exclusively linked to outcome, but it is a lot closer to this than in the rest of life, where the rules and aims are harder to determine.

Within high-performance sport, or high performance of any kind, there are times when we watch a performer and can’t help but appreciate the almost effortless flow of talent they are expressing in that moment. Those that we call the greatest of all time are those that do this on a regular basis, or at least much more frequently than the other mere mortals in their respective disciplines.

There is something unexplained in this type of majestic performance. Messi, Sugar Ray Robinson, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Jerry Rice, Richie McCaw, Usain Bolt, Flo-Jo… What is it that these performers possess that others don’t?

We can all (mostly) agree that these athletes have more quality than anyone else in their area of expertise. But what is Quality? Can you define it? As coaches of elite performance, surely we should have a consistent definition of Quality and a clear understanding of how to get to these majestic performances on a consistent basis? Or should we?

Returning to the classic/romantic divide, both worlds believe they understand the path to absolute ‘Quality’. In the wider realm of life, the classically biased thinkers tend to believe science is the path to absolute Quality or what they may term ‘truth’, whereas romantically biased thinkers believe that spirituality is the path to Quality, where they may term Quality to be God (eg. God is truth), Buddha, Dharma, or the Tao, among many other things. The Quality each world is aiming for is essentially the same thing.

Now back to our more focused area of sports performance; the classically biased thinkers, the scientists, researchers and academics, believe they understand the path to Quality performance, through further and more detailed analysis of the gritty details of performance along with further advances in sports technology. And the romantically biased thinkers believe they also know the path to Quality performance; through more practice and more ‘hard work’. Again, they are both aiming for the same thing. Progress can only be made when both worlds respect the other and endeavour to aim for Quality itself while appreciating both romantic and classical modes of thinking.


Part 3: Practical Applications for Coaches

To create true Quality performers we need to be Quality coaches. I have thought about the best coaches I have researched/worked with and, they tend to possess a superior understanding of both worlds. Coaches like Dan Pfaff, based at the World Athletics Centre, come to mind. An individual who can explain the training process down to the smallest detail if prompted to, a coach who has amassed over 43 years of classical based information from science, research and other classically biased practitioners he has worked alongside. Someone who can implement all that knowledge with a fantastically simple coaching cue delivered with a laser-beam-like focus on where it’s needed, wrapped up with a healthy amount of intuition.

That is Quality in coaching and that is what leads to Quality performance. Coaches at all levels, but young ones especially, need to seek out these coaches that have an appreciation of Quality, the coaches that respect both the classic and romantic realms of thinking. Once these coaches are found, the developing coach needs to spend as much time around them as possible, absorbing and analysing everything. Alongside this, they need to seek to gain classical understanding through degrees or personal research of peer-reviewed journals, as well as romantic understanding through investing significant amounts of their own time in coaching. Obviously, all this takes a lot of time and this is what the young coach needs to accept: the journey to becoming an elite coach is not a quick one and takes a lot of time! Once this is accepted then understanding of both worlds can slowly and gradually take place – this is the only way it takes place, time on task and time spent with those who have lived it are crucial.

I believe that if you commit to becoming the best you can be, everything else takes care of itself. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has given me a narrative to better understand this path and increased my confidence in my beliefs. I’m aware that the path isn’t always going to be smooth and I am prepared to go through the periods of perceived understanding along with the periods of complete confusion in order to arrive at a level of understanding beyond what I can even currently conceive. I think all coaches can benefit from respecting the journey, they should also try to ferment or instil this thought process within the minds of their athletes or players. Success takes time and there are no shortcuts, the quicker you accept this, then the quicker you can stop wasting time and start to focus on getting there.

If you would like to access the reading list for this article or have comments on the above please do get in touch via Twitter (@arete_tom) or email me at info@arete-performance.com

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