Posts Tagged ‘high performance coaching’

Resilience for Athletes

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Over the years, I’ve seen coaches create a reaction in their athlete by saying inflammatory things. They often do this to try to evoke an emotion. For some athletes, it works. For most athletes, it has a negative outcome. It may initially give coaches the reaction they are after, however, any enhancement in performance is short-lived.

It has a lot to do with the mental and emotional resilience of an athlete.

I was recently working with an athlete and their coach. The coach is very knowledgeable about their sport, they’ve got some great results out of their sport, and they’ve been around a long time; so they know how to coach.

While I was working with the athlete, I asked the coach to do what they’d normally do, to coach the athlete so I could observe the interaction, and work out what I could do to make it more effective and efficient. When the coach was watching the athlete doing some specific skills, the coach was imparting some great technical knowledge to the athlete. You could see this athlete actually adored this coach and hung off every word they were saying. Every time they gave an opinion, thought, or directive, this athlete was keen to apply what they’d just learned.

As the coach turned around to walk back to observe this athlete doing what he just told him to do, the coach made a flippant remark.

I watched the athlete completely deflate…

The next performance wasn’t what was expected…

The athlete was down, no longer processing information and was focusing on this flippant remark.

I could see the emotional weight they were carrying with them.

I asked the coach if they knew what they had just done. They had no idea. They’d given information, made sure the athlete was aware of what to achieve and how to achieve it, and then in their mind, the job was done.

So I asked the coach what their role was. They said “My role is to coach and teach.”

I asked them to be more specific and the coach was silent.

This coach has a long history of success in the sport; a great technical knowledge of the sport; knows how to coach, and how to get a result for athletes.

What he didn’t understand was the key role he played.

Their role is to give information and make sure an athlete takes it on in a way they can use, see relevance to, and have a tangible application of.

This coach didn’t see it in that way.

The throwaway comment and the reaction from the athlete undoes all the great information just given.

Where does that leave a coach? Does it mean we have to be conscious of every single word we have to say?

In a way, yes.

Does it mean we can’t joke and have that human interaction with athletes?

Of course not. It’s part of the responsibility of the coach, and part of the athlete, to make sure they understand what they’re getting and what they’re giving.

From a coach’s perspective, being aware that once the information is given, the comments also given will be associated to an emotion. If you give information that makes the athlete feel really good about that, they’re more likely to apply it. If you give information and they feel great, then you give a parting comment that changes the associated emotion, you no longer have a clear and concise application of that information.

That all sounds technical, what it means is if you want an athlete to do their best, leave them with a positive emotion. Make sure you’ve left them feeling comfortable when trying to apply something new – let them use that information in the most efficient format.

From an athlete’s perspective, it comes down to having emotional and mental resilience. There are couple ways to do this.

For older athletes, it’s more about recognition of the relevance of the information. Take a logical approach of “This is what I need for this skill, let me sort that from my coach”. The relationship from the coach to the athlete has to be equal in communication. The information needs to sit well and they have to have an open relationship of good communication.

With younger athletes – teens and lower – building emotional resilience is asking them to see things through a ‘protective layer’. We all have filtering systems that have developed over our life spans and are formed by things we’ve experienced in life. Young athletes are influenced by themselves, parents, social groups, peers, etc. These are inbuilt, cultivated filtering systems.

By tweaking these filters to become more relevant for the younger set is to teach them to create an image in their brain. That is, when anyone is trying to give them information, having a set of filters to put that information through, in order to keep the relevance of that information – is key.

I explain the process of how to build resilience in athletes in detail on my Brain in the Game podcast.

The resilience process gives the athlete wider control over the information they receive, to apply the bits they need, or put it away for later. It also allows athletes to unemotionally bounce the negativity away.

As a coach, how do you give your information? Are you undoing all that great work with your throwaway comment, or not making information relevant?

If you’re an athlete saying “That’s me! My coach has made me feel really negative even after giving me great information…”, then be proactive about managing that information, more aware of what you need to use, to keep, to store and to bounce off.

Also being conscious about how you ask the questions will help this process. Asking in a certain way is more likely to get the response in the same way. If you ask very emotionally-charged questions, you’re more likely to get emotionally-charged responses. How you ask questions will often dictate how you receive the answer.

This process of emotional resilience is about being specific with what we get, how we get it, and how we used it; and letting all the other stuff that comes with it, go.

The Role of a Coach in High Performance Sport

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010


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!