Are there any world class athletes that are self taught and did not rely on a coach to get them where they are?

In sports, the notion of coaching is deeply engrained and ubiquitous in the field. Promising athletes start working with a coach from a young age and continue relying on coaching all the way up to the most elite levels. However, other arenas of human endeavor don’t seem to have the same relationship with coaching. There might be coaching going on behind the scenes for some people but not the type of mandatory coaching relationships you see in sports. Top scientists, for example, don’t work with a science coach and while executive coaches do exist, they usually tend to come after CEOs have already achieved some degree of success and not early on in people’s careers.

So my question is, if you look at something like the olympics, are there notable athletes competing in it that purely just coached themselves and didn’t rely on an outside coach? And also, why is sports an area which is so heavily invested in coaching vs most other areas of our lives?

At the higher levels of athletics, small differences in performance are made abundently clear. Those with top coaching and training will regularly beat those without. Everyone at that level is genetically gifted.

If there is, my guess is that the most likely sport would be long-distance running.

Not even there. Overtraining is more easily spotted by someone other than the athlete and doing a favorite workout rather than the most effective one can hinder progress.
You don’t need to be an top athlete to structure workouts.

I don’t think many things in life center so completely on how you perform physically demanding acts as professional sports.

Performing hard, physical feats it’s very difficult to really tell how well you are doing, in relation to how you should / could be performing, down to the tiniest details. Having another person watch you and comment expertly on what you should and shouldn’t do to improve your game is immeasurably valuable.

I think the last time world class athletes in any sports had a winning chance going without coaching was maybe 60 years ago, if even then.

No, because even the most naturally gifted athletes will still improve with good coaching, so why wouldn’t you?

Even though this won’t be a true 1:1 comparison, the analog for coaching for all other fields is higher education. For the example of scientists in the OP, consider their PhD program to be their coaching.

Interestingly, there are self-taught coaches. For example, the father of Serena and Venus Williams.

I think if you reframe the idea of a coach to being a sports teacher, you’ll see the concept is not as unique to sports as you feel. People in fields like science and business get taught the skills they need to enter the profession by people who are experienced in passing on those skills. A coach is just a teacher who’s teaching the subject of sports.

What’s unusual in sports is that this teaching is an ongoing experience. In most professions, the student is expected to reach a point where they no longer need a teacher and can practice their profession under their own self-guidance.

So I’d be comfortable saying that is not the case anymore, not in any of the major sports at least, coaching and training standards have increased so much that there is no way someone who is self taught, no matter how naturally talented they are could compete.

I’d be interested to know when the last time that happened was though? Presumably 100 years ago that would not have been unheard of?

Maybe in bowling, curling, or one of the less strenuous sports? I honestly have zero idea what the coaching situation is for those or snooker, billiards, or darts.

At the 1896 Olympics (first modern Olympics) a pair of brothers, John and Sumner Paine dominated the pistol shooting events. I haven’t ever seen much about the background of the brothers, but they were uniquely skilled in a way that may not have come from coaching by experts. One of the brothers worked for a gunsmith for a time, and both had military service. It appears the brothers decided on their own to enter the competition with their own guns. I don’t know if any kind of coaching was available to them. Other athletes may have had no expert coaching but in many cases probably had general athletic coaching to develop strength and stamina even if no specialized coaching for the specific event.

Professional golfer Bubba Watson taught himself to play and has never had a lesson. Amongst other wins he has won the Masters twice.

The kind of one-on-one (or team-on-team) direct competition you see in sports, where small incremental improvements can mean the difference between winning and losing, is relatively rare in other fields. Like, you don’t see top scientists or top CEOs go head to head on TV with the winner getting a medal, or whatever. (An idea for a new reality show, though?)

Now, you do have academic competitions of that sort at younger educational levels, e.g. middle school and high school. When I was that age and doing math competitions, I feel like this was all a little more relaxed (I certainly did not work on it independently outside of what I was currently learning in class, except for the occasional “practice competition” that a teacher at our school might put on), but now that I’m starting to go through it with my kids? I can definitely tell you that kids/teams do very much get coached.

One difference, though, is that math coaching doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated single coach. Like anything else, a dedicated single coach is going to let a single “mathlete” progress more efficiently than a group class or team coaching. But a committed mathlete can easily find online resources these days for drilling and exposure to a wide variety of different types of problems, and resources for learning more about clever ways to do problems more quickly, etc. An athlete isn’t necessarily going to be able to figure out those resources just by looking at youtube videos online – there’s a physical aspect of doing and a coach watching/suggesting improvements that can’t necessarily be easily replicated by the athlete alone.

For the same reasons (head to head competitions, physical aspect), the one field I can think of that is similar is music. Your world-class musicians, or even your run-of-the-mill professional musician, pretty much always had a teacher. At some point, I believe world-class musicians may be able to strike off on their own, but while one is in the learning stages, there’s no really good substitute for a one-on-one teacher watching you play and correcting anything that’s going wrong or teaching you new techniques.

Wasn’t there a 60-something shepherd who entered one of the early ultramarathons without any prior “sports” experience, who won?

Mushing… world class musher are a special breed. They may have a mentor for a while, but most just fucking figure it out.

FTR… the Iditarod is currently happening…

Potato farmer.
He wasn’t much coached but he wasn’t without prior experience.

I saw this on TV.

In the 1896 Olympics, American Robert Garrett won the gold metal in the discus throw because he unknowingly self-trained with a 10kg discus and the Olympic discus was only 2kg

In addition, the gold and bronze athletes were hampered by their mimicking the classic throwing form, which Garrett didn’t use.

"Many of the competitors had never thrown a discus before, as the event had never been held at an international competition. Robert Garrett of the United States was the last foreigner in the competition, and eventually defeated the famed Greek competitors to win the second modern Olympic gold medal. Garrett had practiced with a 10 kilogram discus, resulting in disappointing marks and his deciding not to compete in Athens (and competing only in the shot put, which he would win the next day); upon arrival, he learned that the actual discus weighed two kilograms and decided to compete.[2]
Greece took the second (Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos) and third (Sotirios Versis) places.

This was the first appearance of the event, which is one of 12 athletics events to have been held at every Summer Olympics. Thirteen athletes entered, but only nine started. Athletes from outside Greece were unfamiliar with the event, while the Greek champions (most notably Panagiotis Paraskevopoulos) were somewhat hampered by attempting to “strike poses reminiscent of the ancient Greek statues of ‘diskoboloi.’”[2][3]"

Well, potato farmer and shepherd. It says he developed his technique chasing down sheep.

Well this is Australia and sheep are our long suit … and so when some cove has some, we know the difference between a farmer, a grazier, a shepherd and a sheep thief.

This is how it was shown on a fanciful TV movie (mini-series) about the 1st modern Olympics. Garrett was a trained track and field athlete. There is a story of how Garrett first attempted to throw a 20 lb. discus, and gave up on the event after the huge discus landed on his foot, for a total throwing distance of 0’ 0" and a painful foot. In reality he did not encounter the new regulation size discus until he arrived in Greece, and as far as I know that was the first time he seriously attempted to throw the discus at all. His first two throws in competition were clumsy, but he found the form in his 3rd and final throw winning the event by a few inches. Whatever coaching he may have received in this event was not a factor in his victory was not specific to this event.

Several other bits of fiction have made their way into the cultural history as result of this movie.

I temporarily was reading this in the totally wrong framework and thought it was going to be, “Wasn’t there a shepherd who entered his pig in a sheep-herding contest without any prior experience and won?”