Coaches: To Be or To Do?

As coaches we are privileged to be in a position that allows us to witness some remarkable achievements from our players. We have the pleasure of helping others along their path to success, whatever that may be, to reach heights they thought they would never reach.

Along this path to success the player’s will meet many others who will have an equal, or greater influence on their journey to the dizzy heights of elite football, it’s not an easy path to take and every player and coach will experience the ups and downs that come with success.

A part of coaching is self reflection and in order to evolve as coaches we must continually question our philosophy and purpose – the why of our coaching practice. We must look deep inside ourselves and decide do we want Credit or Influence? Or as American Fighter Pilot John Boyd said, “To Be or To Do”.

You have probably never heard of John Boyd.

Boyd was a quite brilliant fighter pilot, he was undefeated and earned the nickname “40-Second Boyd” for his famous ability to win an aerial dogfight in less than one minute,  Boyd served in the United States Air Force for twenty-four years and through three wars.

However, despite his celebrated career and his contributions – he was never promoted above colonel. Despite never reaching the heights of colonel, Boyd stubbornly refused to stray from his principles for the sake of advancing further.

In his excellent book, Ego is The Enemy, Ryan Holiday describes Boyd:

“Boyd undeniably changed and improved his field in a way that almost no other theorists since Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz. He was known as Genghis John for the way he never let obstacles or opponents stop him from what he needed to do. His choices were not without their costs. He was also known as the ghetto colonel due to his frugal lifestyle. He died with a drawerful of thousands of dollars in uncashed expense cheques from private contractors, which he equated with bribes. That he never advanced past colonel was not his doing; he was repeatedly held back for promotions” 

Boyd was, in a way, a non-conformist. He refused to follow orders down to the final detail just because they were orders, his superiors criticised his abrasiveness while his peers described him as brilliant. Despite his brilliance many of his superiors tried to sabotage his career  frequently passing him over for promotion.

However, Boyd did not quit his job and he continued with his work and was assigned to the Pentagon, although he quickly realised that he hadn’t joined the military to look good in a uniform glittered with rank and file badges.

According to his biographer Robert Coram, Boyd was driven by his desire to “change people’s fundamental understanding of aviation”  He wanted to make a change in the way people thought about air conflict.  John Boyd, despite regularly being pushed away from promotion, understood that the best way to change an institution is not from outside, but to stay in and work for change within it from the inside.

Despite his constant disappointment of not being promoted, Boyd continued his work and used his influence to stick to his principles.

Ryan Holiday describes a conversation between Boyd and one of his mentees:

“One day you will come to a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.

If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises, you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club, you will be promoted, and you will get good assignments.

If you go the other way, you can do something. Something for your country, and for your airfare, and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments. And you will certainly not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and yourself. And your work might make a difference.

To be somebody, or to do something.

In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.

To be or to do, which way will you go?”

To Be or To Do? This question is relevant to coaches during self reflection; do we want to take credit for someone else’s success or do we want to be proud of the influence we have had on that success, however large or small that may have been?

Is Boyd right?? Totally.

There will come a time as a coach when you have to decide if you want to be someone that just does stuff, or just talks about doing stuff, if your goal is taking action and constant progression or if your goal is credit and accolades.

John Boyd despite being anonymous to many of us, was a man who stuck to his principles and influenced from within whilst leaving a legacy. Credit, medals and promotions never  made him tick, influencing others through his work was driven by his desire to be the best he could be.

“To Be or To Do – life is a constant roll call” (Ryan Holiday)

Further Reading:

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Coram, 2004)

Ego is the Enemy: The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent (Holiday, 2016)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: