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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

The coach in the mirror

The late great British athletics coach, Wilf Paish, once told me that in all his fifty years of coaching, no coach had ever come to him and said “I can’t take this athlete any further, can I ask you to take him/her to the next stage”. A telling comment. More than 100 of the athletes he coached became Olympians.

Many coaches from club to international level, junior to senior, seem reluctant to recognise either the limits of their own capabilities, or that another coach might add value to the athlete’s performance. So the first issue for coaches looking in the mirror is whether you really believe in and practise “athlete-centred coaching”. If you answer yes, then how many times have you sought advice from another coach or even handed your athlete on for a different take? If you answer ‘no’ to the question – why on earth not? The athletes are not there for you it’s the other way round.

Why is this a critical issue? Elite sport performance is a complex business. Many moving parts and coaches need knowledge of the athlete’s technical, tactical, physical and mental needs at any given moment. No matter how much knowledge you have of these, you may never be expert in all aspect of the sport. A mark of the great coach is knowing when to draw on the knowledge of others. For instance, some tennis coaches are service experts, others in serve and volley and so on. Let me be clear. This is not a case of “oh he’s the strength and conditioning expert – I’ll leave that fitness stuff to him”. That’s an abrogation responsibility. You need to know why and how the expert adds value.

Knowing when your knowledge or coaching skill set has reached its limits takes significant self-awareness. An ability to relinquish perceived control, however, is not the solution. The sense that you control the athlete is a problem. Believing you control the athlete is the very definition of coach-centred coaching – the opposite of what we aim to achieve. As a start, try answering the following five questions about your own aproach:

  • Is success in your coaching regime defined purely by the win/loss ratio or on a wider set of metrics?

  • Do you and the athlete collaborate on programme design or is it “we do it this way because I say so”?

  • Who makes the critical decisions in relation to programme implementation, competing and so on?

  • To what extent does your programme balance physical demands and the athlete’s well-being - indeed, have you any idea what the athlete is feeling about themselves as ‘whole person’?

All sounds a bit vague? Why is this important? By way of example, we can take doping behaviour. Research tells us that in their daily training regime, elite athletes face a range of situational pressures e.g. competition pressure, training workloads, recovery, media coverage and so on. Studies consistently show that the strongest positive predictors for intention to dope are situational temptation and attitudes i.e. doping beliefs. Can you locate in your coaching practise - purposeful teaching, training and testing of beliefs?

One way to think of this idea of normalising requests for assistance is to compare coaching with other disciplines. General practitioners call on specialists to diagnose conditions that elude the local doctor. Lawyers will call on barristers or a Queen’s Counsel to deal with cases in higher courts. In both cases, the concept of ‘bringing in experts’ is normal and implies no loss of mana.

Now it’s true that most coaches are unpaid or paid less than lawyers or medical specialists. That is not the point. Professional and volunteer coaches are often working with young people at critical periods in their physical and emotional growth and development. The impact of what we deliver may be forever. Calling on more expert or experienced coaches to give our athletes the best chance in life should be our default setting and an attitude reflected in the mirror.

(image sources: Barnes and Noble)

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