Don't Have Assistants

I got my first “assistant” coach in 2013. I was an assistant myself, coaching at Georgia Tech. I had a big group (18 swimmers) and therefore I often found myself in the company of our volunteer assistant at the time.

I didn’t know what to do with her. I mean, I had ideas like holding a stop watch and taking times, sometimes I would assign her to work with a certain swimmer on a certain thing. I now realize that having an “assistant” in that capacity is a massive waste of resources.

As I stand here in 2019, I simply don’t believe in the concept of assistants. Nicholas Nassim Taleb sums up part of why in this tweet:

Now, I say partially because there is a second part of this. You may infer from the above that I believe in working alone almost exclusively. Not at all. What I have come to understand is that no matter the relative level of experience or skill or knowledge, you should look for partners in what you do.

This is no semantic difference. An assistant is part of a hierarchy. A partner is not. The nature of many of our sporting structures is that they are very hierarchical, and for reasons well beyond pure performance, I think there’s a much better way to do it.

Autonomy Matters

In order for someone to be at their best in a workplace, there are three things I find absolutely critical. One is that they are highly motivated to do good work. Another is that they have applicable strengths to bring to the table. Finally, that they can work autonomously, that is, they can apply their strengths without constant supervision.

Let’s talk about autonomy first, because it bleeds into the other two. Autonomy is about the ability to make decisions for yourself. None of us have “full” autonomy. We are always limited by external factors in our ability to make decisions.

However, you want someone that works with you, even if you are the boss, to be making a lot of decisions for themselves. Otherwise, you will waste time with them checking back with you about what way they should go, often missing critical windows to do the right thing.

In order to cultivate that kind of autonomy, you’re going to have to let go control a bit and be willing to have your assistant/partner do things differently than you. You’re going to have to have a forum for discussing those differences which both recognizes when you know better but also allows you to be wrong.

Finding Strengths

Which brings me to my second point. The great part about working with other people is that nobody has identical strengths. So, the synergy of two or more people working together is incredibly powerful. Hierarchies diminish the potential to leverage different strengths by creating more fixed paths for problem solving.

Again, you’re going to need a way to evaluate and discuss what strengths each of you bring to a partnership. I am a fan myself of the VIA Strengths, but you may find your own model.

The great thing about a model like the VIA strengths is that no matter the experience, knowledge or skill level of who you partner with, they have strengths. Knowing what they are is key to understanding how they might work autonomously to apply those strengths to the problems and challenges that you face.


Motivation is such a tricky subject. It often gets mixed with other terms. I don’t really like when it is used as a verb or an adjective. Let me give you a couple of examples:

“Coach is not motivating me”


“I don’t find this environment very motivating”

What I really think the two statements above are conflating is inspiration. Inspiration is very much about how external factors augment internal drive. Motivation, while influenced by external factors, is far more about internal emotional states and thinking.

How does it feel to be trusted and treated like a partner versus an “assistant”. Better yet, how does that feel when you’re keenly aware (and the person you work with/for is keenly aware) of just what strengths you have to bring to the table? I’d argue that’s an environment where I would feel a lot of motivation.

Let Them Draft Their Own

Within the first year of coaching in Denmark, I found myself pulled away for Junior National team duty. On training camp with the National Head Coach, he walked up on me with a furrowed brow typing a workout into an e-mail.

“What on earth are you doing?” he exclaimed. I explained. My assistants couldn’t write workouts themselves, so I just HAD to do this.

“Why have assistants if they can’t write a bloody workout?” was his retort. And he was write.

Later on in my coaching career, I actually scheduled a practice where I was not present, but my two assistants were. They designed the entire workout and coached it cooperatively.

They loved it, the swimmers loved it, and I should have found ways to do more of that or incorporate the same energy into the practices that we coached together. Good thing there’s still time.

Chris DeSantis coaching is currently on vacation, so if you have specific questions regarding this or other posts, expect some delay in response.