The Law of the Paint Can: Delegate and Say No

TAGS: professional workload, managining stress, saying no, delegation, law of the paint can, coaching athletes, Bryan Mann, strength and conditioning

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I have been in strength and conditioning since about 1999. In that time, I have been fortunate to never have been fired for my mistakes, which is an anomaly in this day and age of strength and conditioning. Most mistakes that I have made have been a one-time thing. You quickly learn what not to do. With all of the one-time mistakes I’ve found, you’d think that there are no stones left unturned. However, I’ve been doing this a long time now, and when you do something for a long time, you tend to gain perspective. This is something that can’t simply be gained from reading some articles on the internet; it comes from time, experience, contemplation, and self-evaluation.

There is one mistake that I have made that keeps happening over and over. It is an overarching thing that causes many other mistakes to happen, and I think it is a common one in strength and conditioning: spreading yourself too thin.

In strength and conditioning, we try to do everything for our athletes. After we have been anywhere at any given time, we try and do more — not just for our athletes, but also for our department and university. After we have been doing that for a while, we tend to try to help out other places. We’ve been able to take care of x, y, and z, so what’s the problem with a few more things? It’s only for x amount of time; it shouldn’t be a problem. I can do this. Then b comes up for amount of time after that. Then c comes up, then d comes up, etc., etc. Pretty soon you are doing everything for everyone and have an extraordinarily complex schedule, and if you look at the wrong day when you put something in, you mess things up not only for yourself but some days for 10 other people.


LISTEN: LEO Training Podcast — Bryan Mann on Stress and Social Support for Collegiate Athletics


Facebook friends and those who follow me on Twitter know that the hobby that is taking up my free time is woodworking. I find that I learn a lot that can translate back to “real life” from woodworking. One is the law of the paint can. If I put some paint on an area, it changes the way it looks. It revitalizes the old, worn out area and transforms the new construction. It is fantastic. A can of paint covers up so much area or square feet, depending on the thickness and material you are painting. Now, if I try to get too cheap, work in too much of a hurry, or just simply don’t want to make another trip to the paint store and try and don't use enough paint to cover the area, you see right through it. The old shoddiness comes through, or the nuts and other imperfections show through.

Painting a wooden shelf using paintbrush

Each coach and each person are much like the paint can. We can only cover so much; we can only do so much. Our abilities are finite. When we try to spread ourselves too thin and do too much to help out too many different things, always for benevolent reasons, we simply do a shoddy job on something. We are unable to cover everything that we need to. Something starts breaking down. Maybe it is the details getting covered, maybe it is the emails going unreturned, or maybe it’s the backlog of phone calls. Eventually, things start to add up. What were little errors that were coverable soon become major mistakes. Eventually, the other shoe starts to drop, so to speak.

What is the solution? Is it to not ever take anything else on? Not necessarily. Saying no is an important skill to learn. You must learn to say no to some things so that your time is best spent on what you want/need to spend it on to improve yourself and further your career. Delegation is another thing of importance. You do not have to nor do you have the time to do everything. Being able to delegate responsibilities is crucial. Essentially, delegation is simply bringing in additional paint cans to the mix so the paint can stay thick.

It is tough to delegate. It is tough to say no. However, what tends to happen is that your reports who you delegate to will make their own mistakes, will grow, and come to have a fantastic color of their own. While a single color may look good for a piece of wooden furniture—that plain color may be good for the back porch—but it is seldom seen as incredible. Getting a true work of art requires many different colors of paint, put on in the proper thicknesses. Learn to delegate and sometimes say no, and not only will you be more productive, you will also be better at your own job.

For my academic appointment, my boss is Dr. Kyle Gibson, who has a real passion for education. His mantra is “teach less, better.” It is very much Yogi Berra in nature (meaning it sounds funny, but has a much deeper meaning). What he means is to not try to cover every possible aspect of every possible piece of information, but rather try to cover completely a few things to where they stick. Do you need to have 10-step variations of the clean progression or could your team do extremely well with three? Take the time to do whatever you teach and teach it well.

This mantra is something I am attempting to implement into multiple aspects in my educational life. I have done it in teaching classes, presentations, seminars, etc. While it may take 60 slides to cover everything I want to, I often find that people much better grasp only 20 or 25 slides and go more into depth into each of those slides. The attendees like it because they aren’t rushed through concepts and have time to absorb and process things.

I can honestly tell you that delegation and saying no are the hardest things to do in my career. They are also the overarching problem of any time that things aren’t going well in my career. When things start falling apart, it is when I have tried doing far too many things at once. Improving at these, though, is key for advancement in your career. Delegation and saying no are hard, but if you can do them you will become strong(er) of mind.

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