A matter of style: Socrates and Maximus Decimus Meridius Pt 1

 In Coach

Maximus Decimus Meridius vs Socrates: Which coach are you?

I would like to begin by apologizing deeply to a bloke named Shakespeare (who played occasionally at second five for Stratford-upon-Avon and wrote a bit) by paraphrasing Hamlet’s soliloquy:

To tell or to question – that is the real question. Whether ‘tis nobler for the coach to tell the player what to do or to take arms against a sea of doubters and question to establish self-awareness and self-discovery.” 

You’re probably thinking by now that I’ve been on the hard stuff again, but in this article I want you to think. Think about your coaching style, and think about what you are trying to achieve with your players. I want you to reflect upon your own way of coaching.

Let’s use two coaching examples here, with a comparison of Maximus Decimus Meridius and Socrates to put it into context.

Maximus Decimus Meridius

If you’re thinking that the ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius’ referred to in the title rings a few bells, that’s because you’ve probably seen him in all his glory on the big screen. He’s the Roman general, heroically played by Russell Crowe, who does the right thing, kills the bad guy and dies a hero.

The reason that I’ve included him here to compare with Socrates is that he was a general and he, like most traditional military men (although I realise things have changed a lot in the military these days), told their men what to do, when to do it, how often to do it and how to do it. If soldiers asked questions of their superiors, it was when to jump and how high.

Soldiers didn’t question the ranks above – they just did what they were told – and they normally weren’t short of orders.

When it comes to coaching style, the Maximus Decimus Meridius coach doesn’t want to sit around and chat to his or her players for too long – this coach will give orders and expect them to be done. Does this sound a little like you?


Socrates (ca. 470-399 B.C.), on the other hand, was an early Greek philosopher/teacher and developed what has become known as the Socratic approach to teaching, based on the practice of disciplined, rigorously thoughtful dialogue and questioning.

You’ll see by the date he lived that this is not the Brazilian mid-fielder, although you can be pretty sure that the gifted soccer player was named after the great Questioner.

In Socrates’ original approach, the instructor professed ignorance of the topic under discussion in order to elicit engaged dialogue with students. Socrates was convinced that disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas logically, to understand them more deeply and to be able to determine the validity of those ideas.

Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out answers from his pupils – rather than telling them the answers like the ‘Maximus Decimus Meridius coach’ tends to do. As a coach, this is a critical part of ensuring your players develop thorough understanding what they’re doing and, importantly, why.

Socrates left no writing behind him and all that we know of him has been provided by his most famous pupils Plato and Aristotle. It’s not a bad legacy as a teacher to have a couple of pupils such as these! It was actually Plato who wrote up most of what we know of the wisdom of Socrates.

Talking of teachers, it is interesting to note at this point that the word educate – and hence education – comes from the Latin ex duco, meaning to ‘lead out’ or ‘draw out’.

If you look at the Latin base of educate, there is little about telling and a lot about drawing knowledge out of the student. The best way to do that is by the effective use of questions.

I mention Socrates, not just because he is a fascinating man, but because he appears to have been the first documented to use questioning in a rigorous and systematic way. I, for one, am sad that his legacy has not been followed more closely – especially in sports coaching.

The benefits to using a Socratic approach to coaching are huge. At the end of the day, of course, we want to win the games, but it’s even better for the long term if we educate our players along the way and build them into even better, more thoughtful and strategic players for the next season.

Here are the six types of questions that Socrates would have asked his pupils. These are essential questions for coaches to develop their players’ understanding:

  • Conceptual clarification questions
  • Probing of assumptions
  • Probing rationale, reasons and evidence
  • Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
  • Probing implications and consequences
  • Questioning the question

Do you use these questions already in your coaching? If not, why not? How would you begin to incorporate them into your next training session?

Conceptual clarification questions

Conceptual clarification questions encourage your players (or students) to think more about exactly what they are asking or thinking about. These questions get them to prove the concepts behind their arguments.

Ask basic ‘tell me more’ questions that encourage people to go deeper, for example:

  • Why are you saying that?
  • What exactly does this mean?
  • How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
  • What is the nature of…?
  • What do we already know about this?

Probing of assumptions

Probing of assumptions makes people think about the unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument.

Ask questions like:

  • What else could we assume from that?
  • You seem to be assuming… ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how… ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that?
  • What would happen if… ?
  • Do you agree or disagree with… ?

Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

When people give a rationale for their arguments, you should dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use poorly understood or mythical supports for their arguments.

Ask questions like:

  • Why is that happening?
  • How do you know this?
  • Show me…?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you think causes…?
  • What is the nature of this?
  • Why is… happening?
  • Why do you think this…?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most arguments are given from a particular position. Question viewpoints and perspectives to challenge a player’s position and bring to their attention that there may be other, equally valid, viewpoints.

Ask questions like:

  • What alternative ways are there of looking at this?
  • Another way of looking at this is…, what do you think?
  • Why it is… necessary?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • What is the difference between… and…?
  • Why is it better than…?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How could you look at this differently?

Probing implications and consequences

The argument that your players give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Probe their reasoning for implications and consequences. Do these answers make sense? Are they desirable?

Ask questions like:

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could… be used to… ?
  • What are the implications of… ?
  • How does… fit with what we learned before?
  • Why is… important?
  • What is the best… ? Why?

Questioning the question

As a coach, you can also get reflexive about the whole thing by turning the question in on itself. Use your player’s response to question themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court by asking questions about the question:

  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does that question illustrate?

If you’ve read my stuff before, you will know that I am an ardent advocate of non-directive coaching approaches. I am convinced that implicit learning (where players figure things out for themselves, guided by their coach) is hugely more powerful than explicit learning by didactic (telling, instructing) coaching. There’s a place for both in a good sport programme, but creating great training designs, small sided games, varied rules and conditions (known by the literati as “constraints”) and allowing players to figure things out for themselves will grow players quickly.

Have a think about Socrates’ approach and have a think how you could apply it to your own coaching.

In a future article, I’ll put this thinking into practice and look at Maximus and Socrates as sports coaches in more depth. We’ll discuss how this affects  players, and the impact of each coaching style on their success.

Until then, keep up the good work.


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