You’re the boss vs. you’re a sucker

One of my favourite kinds of coaches is Coach Hardass.

You know, the coach who’s probably ex-military or worked as a cop. The 1950s gym teacher who walks around with a whistle and clipboard, snapping wet towels at weak-ass Commies.

Coach Hardasses have impeccable grooming and posture, except when they’re chewing tobacco and spitting it at you as you do pushups in the dirt.

Their praise is limited to an occasional “That wasn’t shitty” when you’ve done something really great. They don’t so much smile as show their teeth, and when that happens, you better avoid eye contact.

It’s funny, because in my own coaching style, I’m the opposite of that.

But perhaps we intuitively seek balance.

One of the things I like about the Coach Hardass types:

They naturally get the idea of self-determination.

They are people of action who like to solve problems, escape from prison camps, and arrive in North America with a nickel in their pocket that they eventually turn into a billion dollars.

They say things like:

Pain is weakness leaving the body.

You have to want it bad enough.

The only easy day was yesterday.


Learned helplessness, self-flagellation, and self-imposed powerlessness in clients turn Coach Hardasses into raging righteous beasts.

And perhaps correctly so.

After all, they clawed their way out of The Nam or a Burmese bamboo cage or poverty or a raging alcoholic marriage or some other similarly terrible situation. They chewed off their enemy’s arms and used them to splint their own broken legs before crawling across a mountain pass to safety.

Stuff like that.

They’re on the other side of personal victory, with the battle scars to prove it.

Now they want to know: Seriously, why the fuck can’t you do some goddamned burpees and put the cookie down, you pathetic sack of shit?

Perhaps some part of them knows they walk around with weakness and frailty too.

This fills them with shame and fear, and they attempt to purge this vulnerability. Burn it out, stamp it out, crush it out. Get rid of it.

Typically, Coach Hardasses are their own harshest critics. If you think they make you cry as a client, you should see the sharknado shitstorm inside their own head.

Coach Hardasses get fired up about taking action.

For Coach Hardasses, the world is simply a set of opportunities to impose one’s will. They’ll try to kick someone or something in the ass with their last dying leg twitch.

To them, life is a constant fight against stasis, sloth, and status quo. There are no excuses and no crying in baseball or any other sport, unless it’s tears of victory.


Boston U women’s basketball coach Kelly Greenberg, who got fired after accusations of bullying players.

Understandably, Coach Hardasses get pissed off at Coach Compassioneers.

To Coach Hardasses, Coach Compassioneers look like lily-livered wimps.

Coach Compassioneers work hard to understand their clients, to praise, and to look for strengths.

Coach Compassioneer is a helper, a caregiver, and a service leader. More likely to hug you than kick you in the ass (although Coach Compassioneer will also sometimes give you a little butt swat, in a loving way).

Coach Compassioneer understands that shit happens, and generally plays the long game. Today, maybe their client can’t pack a lunch or squat without falling over. But there’s always tomorrow. Hope springs eternal.

Along the way, Coach Compassioneer will gently provide structure, loving guidance, mentorship and support.

Coach Compassioneer often looks for underlying reasons for things.

Why did this client struggle?

Why is Goal X important to this client?

What are this client’s competing priorities that seem to be blocking their health and fitness progress?

What does this client value?

What does this client need in order to move forward?


To Coach Hardass, “understanding” is wasted time. Competing priorities or lack of clarity are simply excuses or distractions. Either the client shows up for practice with their A game, or they don’t.

There are no shades of gray or layers of meaning in the Coach Hardass world.

There is no one “best” coaching style. Each style has advantages and disadvantages.

Coach Hardasses often get shit done, but they also walk around pissed off a lot of the time, raging at human idiocy and fragility, angry that the rest of the feeble, anemic world can’t live up to their standards.

The best Coach Hardasses are tough yet fair and principled; the worst are power-tripping bullies and sadists.

Coach Compassioneers often form strong bonds with their clients who feel respected, cared for and understood. Yet sometimes, Coach Compassioneers struggle to move their clients into meaningful action, or disrupt the cycle of self-sabotage. They may feel emotionally drained by needy clients who want to avoid taking responsibility for themselves.

The best Coach Compassioneers inspire change through support and empowerment; the worst create a sodden, paralyzing martyr-muck of feels.

So where does the balance of care, compassion, responsibility, accountability, and action lie?

“When the gods created humans they allotted to them death, but life they retained in their own keeping… [Human] days are numbered. Whatever they might do, it is but wind…The river rises, flows over its banks and carries us all away, like mayflies floating downstream: they stare at the sun, then all at once there is nothing.”
Epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2000 BCE

The question of “free will” (and its companions, such as responsibility) has entertained philosophers, social scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, political theorists, and a variety of other thinkers for thousands of years.

Recent books such as Sam Harris’ Free Will, Michael Gazzinga’s Who’s In Charge?, Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, James Miles’ The Free Will Delusion and so forth have explored the question of “free will” and what it means for our choices and sense of independence.

The paradox of free will is that many things are simultaneously true:

1. We have the ability to act independently and rationally, and to make informed choices.

We can respond intelligently rather than react instinctively.

To some degree, we can choose what we do or do not do.

2. We can choose to act in the service of a goal.

This can be a short-term or a long-term goal; avoiding pain or seeking pleasure; looking for immediate gratification or adhering to deeper principles.

No matter what the goal is, we can usually decide to do things that move towards that goal.

3. We can choose to delay gratification or endure discomfort in the service of a larger or directed purpose.

Most of us learn not to pee our pants in public, to stay in school, and to avoid killing people we don’t like. We can stay married even though Would it fucking kill you to put the goddamned toilet seat down???

4. We don’t really know why we do things most of the time. (But we think we do.)

We can make up post hoc (“after this event”) stories afterwards about why we did what we did, e.g. “I chose the yellow shirt because I like yellow more than pink.”

Or we can make up reasons about why we want to move in a certain direction, e.g. “I want to lose weight because I want to fit into my skinny jeans.”

But mostly, those rationalizations are just that: stories. Not factual depictions of the chain of neurological events that led to us making particular decisions.

5. In reality, most of our reasoning is hidden from us by our brains.

Neurological studies show: Our brains make decisions well before we are aware of them. It only feels like we have “chosen” freely.

We think we’re in charge, and to some degree, we are (which fuels the illusion). But not completely.

We act, we feel a small jolt of power or gratification, and we reinforce our sense of being a reasonable person. Yet like an iceberg, about 90% of that decision / action was below the surface.

6. No choice is made in isolation.

We are products of everything from physiology to social connection to environment.

Research shows conclusively that our thoughts, beliefs, worldviews, assumptions, perceptions, emotions, sensations, and desires are based on:

  • What is happening inside us
  • Who is with us or influencing us (which can be a real or imagined other)
  • What is around us — socially, physically, culturally, etc.

Ever notice that:

  • When you’re over-tired, rushed, and/or stressed, you make stupid decisions, or can’t make decisions at all?
  • When your hormones change, your mind changes? (If you’re a manperson, compare your brain at age 15 to your brain as an adult. If you haven’t yet grown a prefrontal cortex, come back around age 40 and review this question.)
  • When you’re in pain or ill, your personality changes?
  • When you’re around certain people, or in certain situations, your decisions change — perhaps even you change?

It’s no accident that cities with no sidewalks, terrifying car traffic, sprawl, pollution, crappy weather, and/or a culture of the automobile have a more sedentary, unfit population.

Conversely, cities with walking paths and sidewalks, cycling routes, good weather, robust public transit and lots of natural spaces have a more fit, health-conscious population.

For instance:

  • Vancouverites can be found jogging or biking around the stunning vistas of Stanley Park during mild winters.
  • In Boulder, they’re hitting the trails in the summer and snowboarding in the winter
  • Sydneysiders enjoy sea breezes, outdoor pools, and abundant parks.

Is everyone living in Vancouver, Boulder, and Sydney just better, smarter, and more motivated than everyone living in, say, Sudbury, Saint JohnHouston, or Mallee — comparable areas with the least fit populations?

Of course not. Environmental, social, cultural, and other factors strongly shape what people do.

We are still in charge. But not as “in charge” as we think.

There are literally hundreds of examples — well-substantiated by clinical research — of how factors beyond our conscious control affect our decisions without us realizing it. This is pretty clear-cut stuff.

The bottom line is that choice is complex.

“I’m completely in charge” or “I’m completely out of control” are both too simplistic.

So let’s say you’re sick of being pushed around by your subconscious. What do you do?

Maybe you’d like to feel a bit more in the driver’s seat.

Maybe you’d like to make some productive changes in your life, perhaps ditch some harmful habits and add some helpful ones.

Maybe you’d like to feel more empowered, more in control, more self-directed and confident. Less at the whim of random change or brain noise.

The good news is that you don’t have to go all the way to Coach Hardass to do that.

Barring some kind of fucked-up CIA brainwashing situation, you cannot harass, push, force, berate, or bully anyone to change — including yourself.

That being said, we can steal the best elements of all kinds of coaches.

Here’s what you can do next.

To improve “free will”, improve your self-awareness and choice-making skills.

1. Before worrying about changing anything, get a handle on what’s actually going on right now.

Start with self-awareness. Notice and name your own patterns.

Look especially for what you do when you’re uncomfortable, anxious, or threatened.

  • Where is your safe place?
  • What’s your safe script?
  • What is the burrow (whether ideological or real) into which you retreat?
  • What is your drug of choice? (e.g. food, work, self-righteousness, self-criticism, zoning out, actual drugs, etc.?)

Don’t judge or criticize. Just notice. Take some notes. Observe.

2. Listen to your voice and your stories and scripts as you explain your choices.

“I always…”

“I never…”

“I’m the kind of person who…”

“I’m not the kind of person who…”

“I would have… but…”

3. Recognize that most of these are just stories and scripts, not an inevitable and universal set of facts.

You don’t have to change these yet, just understand that they are narratives rather than “reality”.

How could / might your stories change if…

  • You decided you were just a little more in charge of your decisions?
  • You looked for factors that might be influencing your choices, and removed or adjusted one of those factors?
  • You got help with changing your stories and scripts?
  • You helped someone else change their stories and scripts?
  • You pretended to live a different story, just for a day? (For instance, what if you pretended you were Chuck Norris today at the gym? Perhaps the weights might lift YOU.)

4. Seek out discomfort on purpose.

By definition, our automatic patterns are often hidden from us.

You might have to disrupt those patterns in order to see them.

Fuck around a little bit. Try doing the opposite of what you normally do, and look for the places that freak you out or feel uncomfortable.

That will tell you where your grooves are deep.

5. Practice small acts of self-control and self-determination.

No need for heroics.

Just practice making conscious choices, even small ones. Perhaps especially small ones, because these feel most possible to change, yet are most likely to be automatic.

Pause before you do something.

Take 1 minute to breathe deeply and ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing / not doing this?
  • What are the steps in my reasoning here? What am I assuming to be true?
  • Is there an alternative to this potential choice?
  • If so, what?
  • Why might that alternative be better or worse?

The “right” decision is less important than slowing down and being aware of the decision making process itself.

6. Find physical states, people, and environments that help you get where you want to go.

Learn what makes you feel best — most motivated, most energetic, most vibrant, most recovered and ready for action.

Find people who boost you, support you, inspire you, and show you the path. Find a tribe who is doing what you want to do, and being who you want to be.

Seek out places and situations that facilitate movement, healthy living, performance, and wellbeing.

When you’re going with the current, things are much easier. Find the right river for you, and float your way down it. You may have to paddle to avoid some rapids or rocks, but at least get going in the right direction.

7. Set sane standards, and get support holding yourself to them.

If you want to get better, you need to have something to shoot for.

But don’t do it alone. Get coaching, help, guidance, and support from someone (or a tribe) that blends the best aspects of Coach Hardass and Coach Compassioneer.

Set reasonable yet progressive expectations –a sensible and realistic “good enough” that slowly, incrementally improves.

Push yourself gently, honestly, and firmly. 

Pause to take a breath, but don’t stop long enough to grow roots and mold.

8. Take responsibility but understand what’s actually within your control.

Be a wise, caring grownup who understands that life is complicated and reasons run deep… and at the same time, challenge yourself to live in a life-forward direction.

Control the things you can control. Tip! These may not be what you think.

9. Have some compassion and empathy, you heartless asshole.*

That includes having some for yourself.

Whether you’re the asskicker or the asskickee, bullying, raging and/or enforcing strict “rules” depletes resources — yours and others.

Kindness isn’t weakness — it’s a deliberate choice to act ethically and generously.

Focusing on your strengths rather than flagellating your “flaws” is a solid strategy. And on the subject of strength, I think Coach Hardass and Coach Compassioneer can agree. Strong is good.

Now hit the showers, ladies.



*Ironic. Geddit?