How to Be Your Own Coach

Whenever someone subscribes to The Art of Ass-Kicking (which you can do here!) I send them an email asking what I can blog about that would serve them. This post is inspired by email subscriber Simon Payne, who writes from the Czech Republic asking about self-coaching:

I’d love to know more about self coaching. I was training martial-arts under several teachers and masters yet it always came to me that I must be the ultimate coach to myself. I didn’t ever fully relied on anyone. And have some bad moments when I listened too much for advises of others. The point of having a couch is to have someone who is hard on you and reminds you and forces you to do the important stuff. And now, more than ever before, I need to train myself on my own. Not just in sports, but it’s much easier to create some routine in sports and then relate to it in other activities.

So my question would be: How can one be the best coach to himself?

… or at least make the inner coach better, without betrayal, not too soft and focused.

By the way, I’ve signed up myself for the 100push-ups challenge. You can see my progress here:

And here’s my response:

Hey Simon,

Thanks for the email. I’d be happy to try to answer your question – it’s a good one.

I think what you’re asking is really how you can stay motivated and make sure you do the things you know you need to do to succeed. I think there are four things involved in this:

  • Pursue activities that excite you and make you happy
  • Feed your mind with motivational stuff
  • Set up systems to support your efforts
  • Eliminate things that hold you back

Pursue activities that excite you and make you happy

I assume you like doing martial arts or else you wouldn’t have spent so many years doing it. The best way to stay on task is to do tasks that you enjoy and are passionate about. I didn’t like everything that happened in gymnastics practice, but for the most part, I was very enthusiastic about training and competing. Ditto for when I started a nonprofit, or wrote my honors thesis, or even in my current work at isocket. I don’t love every minute of it, but in general I’m excited to achieve things in that area.

Feed your mind with motivational stuff

This is key. There will be times when you don’t want to keep going. You’re tired, frustrated, upset, depressed. It’s important to constantly support your mind that regenerate your will to succeed. Examples of this:

Listening to energetic music. I love blasting movie soundtracks or my favorite pop songs when I want to get motivated
Audiobooks / podcasts. If you have to walk or drive some distance, it can be really valuable to listen to podcasts that keep you focused on the right things. See PhilosophersNotes or something from Audible
Quotes. I have a collection of motivational quotes that I collect and I know many successful people who do as well – when they are feeling down they just look
– Role models. Everyone has people they admire and want to be like. A quick list of people I admire include Barack Obama, Lance Armstrong, Lady Gaga and Tony Robbins. Take the time to learn about their lives and you’ll be motivated to emulate them.

Set up systems to support your effort

Willpower is not enough. Using your willpower is important, but by itself, it is not enough to sustain change. You’ve got to have a system. Here’s what I mean:

– Incentives. Give yourself rewards for doing the right thing. Make sure you feel good when you push through a hard time – some video game time or a good night out with friends.
– Fallbacks. If you screw up, what are you going to do? Avoid catching the “to hell with it” syndrome and then totally getting off track
– Partners. It’s best if you can involve other people in the work you don’t really want to do. Have someone help you, or just hold you accountable. (As you saw, Jordan and I did pushups together. Helps keep you going)
– Reminders. Sometimes you just forget about doing stuff. It’s good to chain tasks together. If you’re trying to learn to floss, do it right after brushing your teeth. Or set 45 min alerts for you to to take 10 mins and breathe/empty your mind.
– Take care of yourself. It’s very hard to make yourself do the right thing when you’re feeling HALT. Hungry, Angry, Lonely Tired. Make sure you’re exercising, sleeping well and seeing friends regularly so you stay in good condition.

Eliminate things that hold you back

This is basically saying that if you have negative people, negative habits, negative beliefs or negative environments that keep you from doing what you want to do – that you need to eliminate them from your life. What’s holding you back from ucceding? Junk food in the house? Bookmarks to all your favorite distractions? Friends that always just want to smoke pot? If you want to stay on track and achieve your goals, you need to get rid of the bad stuff.

Simon, I hope you find this valuable. I realize that this might make a good blog post so if you’re ok with it, I’d like to reprint it in my blog. Let me know what you think! And don’t quit on those pushups! I see you’re struggling but stay with it and you’ll pull through. I believe in you.


Simon’s reply…

I’m already working on some of the things you mentioned and this really helped me to realize what I should be aware of and what I should do more.

And also thanks for believing in me. I mean it. I just got home opened your email, which made me excited and started with the pushups asap. I took a bit different strategy this time.

I set a goal to complete the precise number in each set I have for today. I was thinking about your strategies to make victory and how I make myself do it. I needed to tweak things so that I can make most of myself even trough I was kinda worried I might not be up to it. I was probably not fully committed before as I look at my previous results. First week was easy and I thought I can use the same technique for upcoming weeks. Until I realized it wasn’t working…

I also remembered something I learned from rock climbing. I usually make the best performance at the end o 2 hour session when I’m most tired. I’m not sure why. But if my muscles are full of blood and tired and I gave them a 5 minutes break and then continue I can do a lot of retries (when I fall from the wall in the middle). I do even better than I might do on the beginning of the session & fully stretched. So I thought, hey this might work here too! Therefore I gradually extended the time between the sets depending how was I feeling. And it was working great. I also set a different frequency. I didn’t rush it too much. I can do a quick 20 pushups but not sequentially and I get tired quickly because of the speed. So I selected slower rate.

Another tweak was to listen to loud and motivating music! Yey! Eye of the Tiger really helped me today! Last tweak was to smile. And not only on face but also something like inner smile. Like you feel you can do it and believe in it. Smile on a face is also helpful. This is something I do while rock climbing, I just forget about it here.

That was my strategy to BEAT MYSELF! Which is the hardest thing to do… hehe I just realized that kicking my own ass is the the coolest thing! It makes me want to write about self-ass-kicking, or perhaps you could.
Anyway… I’m going to sleep very well tonight!

I love to see people taking action and making things happen in their lives. So thanks Simon for writing back and letting me know you’ve followed through. Based on the spreadsheet ( it looks like Simon’s very close to completing his 100. I wish him all the best and I hope The Art of Ass-Kicking readers do too!

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  1. Hey Jason,

    Good post about self-coaching. I used to be a high-level swimmer, and since I’ve stopped swimming 5 years ago I’ve been been my own coach for most things fitness-related.

    I think there are actually great benefits to being your own coach. After a while, you develop the self-awareness to know exactly what you feel like doing that day, and the intensity you should use. An external coach could never have the same kind of insight.It helps design the “ideal” workout everyday.

    Also, with Youtube and the immense of amount of good literature that’s available online, there is greater access to all the knowledge necessary to be our own coach. For instance, last night I picked up a great “Solo jiu-jitsu drills routine” to do in between the days I can go to the dojo. All it takes is like 5-10 mins of research and everything is there!

  2. Feeling stuck, almost bankrupt and only just launched my start-up biz…. stopped here to regain my determination, motivation, inspiration

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