How to Uncoach An Athlete… All the Way to the Bottom

Uncoaching an athlete

There is nothing wrong with interacting with an athlete before a performance. Misalignment occurs, however, when the purpose of this interaction is to continue to coach instead of handing over permission to the athlete to do what they do best – perform…

 

After spending many years traversing different sports and sporting venues, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe various athletes, coaches and sporting cultures. These sports may be as varied as football and ballet, however, many commonalities are shared. The same performance issue may arise for the quarterback, as it does for the ballerina.

From my vantage point, I am well positioned to see and recognise patterns. Utilising this insight has enabled me to improve the performance of athletes and help give them the tools to manage their future challenges. An ability to cut through the normal sporting politics and their own performance traditions, has been invaluable in getting a precise, replicable and sustainable result.

Last year I began working extensively with competitive figure skaters. This is a sport I had not been involved in mental coaching on a professional level before so was excited by the possibilities. Normally, in-person time with the athletes, coaches and clubs is spent to gain some inside knowledge of their unique workings. Although, being based in Australia and my clients in the US, was unable to just pop over and spend face-to-face time with them, so needed to get a ground level understanding of the sport another way.

So I spent time at a local ice skating rink to observe the sport; the sporting culture; listen to some of the terminology and get a feel for those who spend their lives in an ice chest – for fun!

Whilst this was an invaluable experience in gaining an understanding of some of the nuances of figure skating, after several sessions, as I expected, I witnessed similar issues faced by this arctic, artistic breed of athlete and their coaches that I observe in many other sports.

However, I did see something I didn’t expect to see, something a little different, something I thought initially was quite unique to the skating set.

As I watched a local competition I saw a young girl, perhaps in her early teens, waiting to compete. She was attempting to calm her nerves, get her thoughts together and adjusting her costume while simultaneously practicing her big toothy grin, dance, facial and hand expressions.

She was only moments away from her performance. The nerves were clearly there but she appeared to have them contained as she spoke to herself. She was going over her routine and no doubt convincing herself it was all going to be ok.

Then out the corner of my eye I saw her coach marching towards her. He appeared nervous and agitated. The instant she saw him, her demeanor changed. She stopped her internal dialogue and retracted that big smile.

This happened within seconds… like an armadillo bunkering for shelter as her coach began to ‘coach’ her. This was impressive as he was coaching her long before he even reached her, clearly on a mission, giving defined hand gestures and mouthing commands.

Now, “What is wrong with this picture?” I hear you say. “That’s his role, right?”

Well, yes, it is his role to coach and her role is to perform – and there is a time and place for both.

I observed this young athlete go from a semi-calm and focused competitor to a nervous wreck as her coach animatedly loaded technical information into her brain, physically moving her into multiple positions, barking instructions in an attempt to get her to remember it all – NOW – in one emotionally charged session.

Shoulders dropped, the skater’s head started nodding, much like one of those nodding toy dogs sat on a car’s back parcel shelf, head bobbing incessantly at the vehicles following it. She was both acknowledging his demands and processing his requests to do or not do these things simultaneously.

She too was clearly agitated now and almost teary-eyed as they announced her name to take the ice to skate her program.  Just for good measure the coach threw one last tip at her by shouting, “Now smile!” as she stepped out.

I hung around because I had seen this young athlete warm up and she skated like a dream. She had an air of confidence and charisma that pulled me in. I thought she would deliver the performance of the day and I was professionally intrigued.

The performance she delivered, however, was full of mistakes, stumbles, falls, nerves, glances to the sideline and she ended her performance in tears and was quite obviously dejected.

Her coach, whose head was buried in his hands for most of the routine, put his consoling arm around her as she exited the rink.

Most people reading this would perhaps view this coach as the villain here and his stern approach as the catalyst to this young performer’s demise.

What I saw as a problem, wasn’t the fact that the coach interacted just before she performed, rather, how he CHOSE to interact with this young skater.

I saw a wasted opportunity to motivate and calm this athlete and a missed chance to enable this performer to perform. Based on her reaction to both his approach and emotions I observed a pattern that I suspected played out competition after competition. This is a pattern that was probably formed a long time ago during training and had become just part of their relationship.

Despite the outcome I could see this coach had the best of intentions; he clearly cared for his athlete and obviously valued the results. I believe that he felt she needed all of this data at that vital moment to make her performance hit the mark; by adding pieces of key information after more information he was properly prepping his athlete to handle any eventuality.

As I watched, I thought to myself, “There is a time and a place.”

A Time and a Place

So when is this time and place?

I guess a better question would be, “When do you make the distinction to stop coaching the athlete technically and when do you just say the right things to enable the performance to emerge?”

Knowing when to shift into that place where they will blindly follow their internal neural pattern allows a competitor to follow that pathway of familiarity that has been crafted for an optimal performance.

When does a coach encourage an athlete to be the performer and not the student?

At some stage before an athlete competes they stop going through the learning, adjusting and mentally unpacking and repacking phase (student) and move into the applying phase (performer).

That internal blueprint, that neurological point of reference, is when the athlete centres and focuses on the job to be done. At that point, taking a big breath and ceasing to give any further mental energy to the details of the technique, the adjusting and the learning – it becomes all about following the pattern.

This becomes the sweet spot of a strong performance.

Not allowing this to play out essentially leads to overload and mis-focus. By continually adding instructions, options, advice and asking an athlete to reprocess – they cannot switch from that learning to the performance phase.

L Plater Coaching

Think of it like coming to an intersection as a beginning driver where there are multiple traffic signals, options and driving instructor advice. A young driver has gone through the normal mental, emotional and cognitive process we all go through in learning technical elements. They have been over the information step-by-step and they slowly move into their own learning phase. As they evaluate when to go and when to reassess, as the anxiety is increased, the NPR’s (blueprints) are constantly shifting and changing and the action step never engages.

At this point the driver is on rocky ground, has no stable foundation, no clear productive familiarity and no previous pattern of success to fall back on. With enough of these situations under your belt, the light comes on.

Pre-performance meltdown

As a coach, recognising when to coach and when to allow athletes to switch into performance mode is not only important for an athlete and their performance, it is vital for our effectiveness as coaches.

There is a necessary fluidity to the lucid phase of searching, sorting, storing and recalling information and the process of switching from the learning athlete to the pure performance athlete.

As a coach, gauging this switch is something we all need to internalise and re-evaluate each time.

This is a constant trap for coaches who feel they have all of the control AND all of the expectation on their shoulders. We know the likelihood of an athlete learning something new at that crucial point in time just before a performance is minimal. And the likelihood of the athlete becoming emotionally unstable, disconnected and anxious is extremely high. So although we all have the best of intentions sometimes it’s the coach that is the cause of a pre-performance meltdown in athletes.

This time, right before the performance, is reserved for reinforcement, acknowledgement and support. These emotion-based responses will do more to increase an athlete’s performance than any technical piece of advice you can hope to impregnate.

There is nothing wrong with interacting with an athlete before a performance. Misalignment occurs, however, when the purpose of this interaction is to continue to coach instead of handing over permission to the athlete to do what they do best – perform.

What we as coaches must appreciate is we cannot underestimate the need for athlete’s to transition from the student who is learning, analysing, and mentally unpacking and repacking into the performer who is simply applying and doing.

Recognise the difference between these stages and learn to trust our athletes and our own coaching ability; it is only when we do this can we expect athletes to embrace their role with confidence and control.

And so as I walked away I thought to myself, “Is this really an ice skating phenomenon, as I had initially thought?”

I can still remember seeing many other coaches frantically handing over every ounce of their knowledge to their athlete just before they competed, just before they really needed a clear and concise thought process.

We’ve all stepped into the craziness at one time!

So ask yourself do you see this kind of coaching on the sidelines, on the poolside, on the trackside of your sport?

I know I do. Thank goodness there is ample research and knowledge about how to deliver the best performance coaching possible.

As coaches too, at times we become the students to grow as coaches.

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