Perspectives. Often we get so caught up in the technical side of coaching… writing workouts, teaching techniques, attending competitions… that we forget about the process of coaching. The biggest part of coaching is creating an environment that enables young people to learn, grow improve, and succeed. The biggest part of creating that environment is the way we handle the athletes in our training group on a daily basis. In this article I hope to share some thoughts I have on the process of the other side of coaching… meeting the athletes daily, communicating with them, administering the workouts, establishing relationships, conveying expectations, and much more.
The Pride Factor. You can’t feel proud until you have done something special. Sometimes as coaches we expect athletes to exhibit positive pride, but many don’t know how. You must figure out how to remediate pride, in the same way you would come up with a remedial drill for the high jump curve or the shot put release. I use something called the pride factor as a beginning. Athletes in my group are reminded during the tough workouts that in spite of the fact they are hurting… they are not allowed to show it overtly. Before the last repetition of the first running workout of the year, I remind them they are not allowed to lay down on the track or show weakness in any other way when they are done… they are required to show composure in spite of pain or discomfort, and walk away from the workout. It plants a seed of composure that grows throughout the year, and blossoms into positive peer pressure.
Know Your Stuff. You tell an athlete how to fix a technical problem, they try it, and it works. This is the best way to have an athlete develop trust in your coaching. After all, you are supposed to be the expert! But the converse is unfortunately true. When we misadvise, and the solution doesn’t work, faith in the coach erodes. Positivity and the authority of your position only go so far. At some point, you must be able to quickly provide answers to their technical problems, or trust disappears. Many an athlete has been branded a “head case’ by a coach… when the problem was actually a subtle technical problem the coach misidentified.
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Demand Concentration. If you ask for changes and changes don’t come, then are you coaching? There is nothing wrong with insisting on concentration in practice. Specifically, when technical changes are asked for, they should occur. When I see an athlete make a mistake and I ask for a correction, on the next try, different things might happen. Sometimes they change, but it’s still not right… no problem, at least we’re trying. Sometimes they make a different mistake… my bad, lets explain it a different way. But if no change occurs at all, well that’s totally unacceptable. It indicates the athlete is not truly concentrating on the task at hand and the communication the coach is sharing.
Eliminate Powderpuff Communication. Much communication between coach and athlete is useless and detrimental… its powderpuff communication. Its cosmetic… it looks like coaching, but it’s not. It’s usually not malicious. The coach gives some feedback after a trial, the athlete shoots back a few remarks, but the athlete really doesn’t change anything, nor does the coach really expect him to. It’s not coaching, it’s something else. Often athletes come from prior coaching situations where this was the case. Maybe the athlete learned to respectfully humor the coach, but in reality had his own plan and knew talent would enable him to win regardless. Maybe the coach wanted to coach, but was not confident and was afraid to truly make changes in the athlete’s technique, afraid it might screw things up. Here are planted the seeds of powderpuff communication, and the weeds that grow from these seeds must be pulled. Technical coaching communication must be meaningful.
Be Positive – But Brutally Honest. For the most part, coaches are and should be positive. After all, we are trying to create positive experiences for young people. We speak in encouraging terms. Coaches have a vision of what the athlete might become, and that is positive by nature. However, fantasy can be destructive. There comes a time for honesty, for realism, for the truth. We can’t afford to be positive to the extent that truth disappears, because nothing destroys trust more than a lie, no matter how good our intentions are. When an athlete comes to me with a goal of running 10.5 in the 100 meters, and training indicates a potential 11.4… I have to intervene. Conveying unrealistically positive expectations, while done with a good heart, is a lie nonetheless. Sports are an education in life, and if we aren’t teaching young people to deal with the realities… defeat, disappointment… then we aren’t teaching. The first step toward positive change is recognizing the negative, and the sooner we do, the faster the rebuilding process can begin.
Developing a Positive Current. The most important step a new coach takes toward insuring progress amongst the athletes in the group is to develop a positive undercurrent. As a coach, the trait you must prize most amongst athletes is dependability. If you get a group of athletes to work together, all executing their daily training and duties faithfully, it sets up a positive environment with positive momentum. Once this is established, athletes who might not ordinarily be easy to handle can join the group, and are much more likely to be dependable, positive contributors because of the positive momentum in the group. Contrary to popular philosophy, throwing a bad apple into a barrel of good ones does not always result in the good ones rotting… when a training group shows great work ethic, sometimes the bad apple turns good.
The Group as a Family. It helps to understand group dynamics if you think about the training group as a family. I don’t mean family in the idyllic, Ozzie and Harriet sense. Everyone has a weird uncle that you love, but you know he has a problem or two. Families are groups of people bonded by a common goal and respect for one another. Yet, family members are not blind to the faults of other members, but are willing to deal with those faults because the good they bring outweighs the bad. In functional families or training groups, each person’s positive contributions must outweigh the negatives they bring to the group.
Demand Contributions to the Group. In an effective training group, everyone contributes. The coach should demand such contributions. These contributions can come in many ways. Athletes obviously contribute by scoring points, but there are other ways. Contributions might take the form of serving as a training partner, boosting team morale, improving group GPA, leadership roles, or many others. The menial tasks each group undertakes must be shared by all. Moving hurdles, straightening up the weight room, moving pits, raking sand… these chores must be shared by all. When they aren’t shared you no longer have a team. You then have two groups… an entitled group and a subservient group, an obviously unhealthy situation.
Don’t Chase Rabbits. There are lots of gimmicks available out there. Gimmick workouts, gimmick equipment, all geared toward making a dollar for someone. They all look great on the surface, but often their use isn’t supported by sports science… or common sense. Evaluate these thoroughly before giving in to the temptation. The fact is that timeless truth doesn’t sell. So when you invest, invest wisely in a system, and if it sounds too easy or too good to be true, it probably is.
Look For Simple Answers First. When a training program or athlete is failing, a common coaching error is, when searching for reasons for failure, to look in the deepest, darkest crevices of the training program to find the mistake that was made. Sometimes when the error is a technical mistake, we look for the deepest, most scientific reasons to identify the cause of failure. After all, I’m a great coach… I couldn’t have screwed up something that simple! Nearly always when things go bad, the problem is simple oversight or neglect of the most basic principles of training design or biomechanics, rule out these simple factors first.
Have a System. It’s important that the coach has a system for development of athletes in each event area. This is not to say training is never individualized to an athlete’s needs, nor that training adjustments aren’t made. The process of adjusting and individualizing are part of the system. Athletic development should not be like a cafeteria… a lot of premade cookie-cutter workouts that we draw from when problems arise or when the whim hits us. Athletic development should resemble the scientific model, with constants and variables, with the developmental process consisting of systematic changes to certain variables over the course of time.
Nobody Is Bigger Than the Group. As a person with a lot of experience in the coaching profession, I am often asked a tough question. At what point do you cut ties with a talented troublemaker? When do you give up on a potentially great athlete who just won’t fulfill a positive role on the team? The answer is remarkably simple… you cut ties when their behavior begins to affect other members of the group in a negative way. Unfortunately, everyone can’t be “saved”… save the group, save the team. This leaves lots of room for athletes to express themselves as individuals without going too far. Only in this way does one maintain integrity as a coach and insure the long term soundness of the program. Only in this way do we fulfill our ultimate mission… the use of sport as a tool to assist young people in becoming positive contributors to society.
Don’t Nag – Draw a Line. Don’t let the tone of this article make you feel that coaching should be a constant process of rule enforcement… nothing can be further from the truth. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just make sure athletes know what is unacceptable and don’t waver from your position. Things grow old quick for an athlete in a training program when the coach is always nagging them about small things that don’t really matter. As a coach, you should draw a mental line in the sand where your standards lie. Then, don’t sweat it until someone crosses over it. At that point, you then deal with it immediately without delay. Proper coaching allows athletes to grow as people, and sometimes allowing athletes to make small mistakes in their lives is beneficial to their development as a citizen and human being.
It Takes Talent. It takes talent to compete at the highest levels. Coaches develop talent, but they don’t create it. Character and work ethic are important, but sometimes the coaching job is not about taking a marginally talented person and helping them succeed and contribute athletically. Sometimes the coaching job is taking a very talented person who has issues with structure, character, or work ethic, and teaching them how to be effective group members. If you have established a positive current in your group, inviting such a person into the group is a low risk proposition due the positive peer pressure they will experience.
Breed Independence and Ownership. Coaching can and should take many forms. Coaching can be a dictatorship, a cooperative venture, or anything in between, and the nature of that relationship should change over time. Coaching might (and should) resemble a dictatorship when athletes are new to you and the sport…they don’t have the background to make decisions in their own best interest at that point. However, as they spend time in your training system, things should change. Athletes start to understand the system and what is being accomplished on each day. Athletes who have been with you a while have already shown a faithfulness to the system, have developed a knowledge of the training culture, and have proven to you that they are tough and dependable. At this point coaching should change to a more cooperative venture, and the coach becomes more of a facilitator. The coach’s duty is to train the athletes to become more independent over time. Many coaches do a great disservice to athletes by making them totally dependent on the coach. This is great for the coach’s ego, but a poor way to run a program.
Boo Schexnayder is a training consultant and former Olympic track coach.