The Role of a Coach in High Performance Sport


As an athlete, we generally look to our coach for guidance, to nurture us and show us the trusted path to travel to our desired competitive destination. We trust them emphatically with our careers and often with our lives, certainly with our goals, aspirations and sporting futures.

So as a coach we have this huge responsibility placed in our laps, one that we should not take lightly nor for granted, one false move can have devastating consequences not only for the athlete but also for the reputation of us the coach.

My coach for example would say ‘whilst in my Gym I am your mum, your dad, your brother, sister and your best friend, everything you want and need goes through me.’ To people on the outside it must have appeared draconian, controlling, manipulative and maybe even a little psychologically abusive, especially considering we were young impressionable kids at the time.

To us however, it was a brotherhood, a secret society, this high performance – highly motivated gang of athletes. A gang who shared common goals, who appreciated discipline, hard work and respect.

We knew where we stood and what was expected of us, we also understood the concept of accountability with every single action equalling a consequence. If we didn’t perform we didn’t succeed, it was that simple.

If my coach had said jump I would have in a heartbeat, without thought or question, he commanded respect and discipline, needless to say he got them both. He certainly wielded a stronger motivation to succeed than anyone else in my life, even more than my parents. I never questioned his authority nor ability as a coach, why should I, he had produced most of Britains national squad members at one time or another.

After retiring from International competition and becoming a coach myself, I realised very quickly however, just how lucky I had been. You see I thought all coaches were as dedicated, well educated, motivated and pioneering as mine was. I could not have been any more disillusioned if I had tried.

You see my first job as a high performance coach pulled me up dead in my tracks. As I walked in as the new fulltime head coach to what I expected to be a professional sporting organization, they certainly had the reputations of being an industry leader; they produced results year after year, so why wouldn’t they be top-notch?

What I got however was an organisation that was subdued mentality, one where it was acceptable to slip into a groove and remain there, in fact it was expected.

A systemic mentality that appeared to be, hit and miss as to the direction of the tuition being given and where technique was the only consideration to achieving success.

Not because the coaching staff were unqualified, in actual fact the opposite was true in this case. They were very highly qualified technical coaches, they understood the sport inside out and in theory what an athlete was required to do in order to achieve. However they appeared to have forgotten the human factor, the idiosyncrasies that come with working with humans and their totally individual behaviour.

The coaches appeared oblivious to this and had no idea of the power they held in their hands and held over these young athletes. If they did it certainly did not occur to them the daily decisions they made could and would have affected the careers and possibly the lives of these young hopefuls.

Sure, the coaches worked hard, they were technically knowledgeable and they knew what was current and what was yesterday’s news for the athletes. They were groundbreakers in their technical application and would talk strategies until the cows came home.

But none of them spoke of the internal management of the athlete, no one spoke of what affects it would impose on their developing neurology and I certainly never heard anyone utter the words effective communication when discussing an individual.

Of course, I initially thought I had just made an unfortunate selection of employer, but as time went by and my exposure grew, I saw a pattern emerging, a pattern that was concerning and rather self-destructive to the coaching industry.

Coaches at all levels were not progressing commencery to that of their athletes; they were coaching the same way they had always done. Their whole focus was on the athlete’s immediate results and not their own understanding, development and long term prospects. No longer were they supporting a healthy growth they were hindering the athlete’s natural developmental progress by being a weight around their ankles and coaching them to learn the way they taught.

For years we would attend compulsory technical ‘up-dates’ time after time, we were taught new technical skills, conditioning programs and even routine construction, but never once were we taught better coaching techniques or coaching psychology and philosophy.  There was no self-development and as times changed, we did not. Being left behind, and even worse holding the athletes back due to our short falls as a coach, was a serious option.

I read a statistic once that stated over 70% of all National coaches (US) irrespective of sporting discipline primarily held the same coaching philosophy on their last day on the job as their first day.

For me this was horrendous, how can we as professional organisation of coaches expect our athletes to grow, mature and evolve with the times if we as their guides and mentors choose not to and stick with the tried and trusted?

When you take on a talented athlete what is the first thing that goes through your head? Is it ‘Do I have the ability and longevity to take this athlete all the way or at least the knowledge and ability to pass him / her up stream?’ or is it ‘What can I do for them today?’

I would suggest as professional coaches we need to ensure we have the ability or at the very least the opportunity to gain the experience to take the athlete all the way. I mean you wouldn’t buy a car knowing it will only get you half way to your destination, would you?

How much do you know about the athletes you manage? Their behavioural patterns, their training and competition strategies, their motivators, referencing  or even their values. Are you utilising the athletes optimum neurological system configuration, or is it just down to pot luck.

Whatever your coaching philosophy is – is it good enough for what you want to achieve? When was the last time you considered your athletes mental state, their neurological development or even their long-term mental welfare.

Over the years, I have changed my coaching philosophy from one of purely results driven to a more wholistic approach, developing, growing and nurturing not only the athlete but the coaching staff and parents too. Only then when the athlete has the collective supporting infrastructure can they achieve their desired goals sustainably.

So stop and look over your shoulder at the way you have approached your professional coaching career and ask yourself have you neglected the one truly stable influence in your athlete’s life? You! And if so what can you do today to bring yourself up to speed with the changing world of sport.

What would you advise your athletes to do? Think about it! I did!

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.