Coach­ing re­flec­tions – John Shep­herd looks at the men­tal side of a coach­ing re­la­tion­ship


Athletics Weekly - - Contents -

THE gun’s fired, the tape (or elec­tronic mea­sur­ing de­vice) has been dusted off and the sun’s shin­ing. It’s the start of the ath­let­ics sea­son.

For ath­letes and coaches this is an ex­cit­ing time. All those months of prepara­tory train­ing are now ready to be tested.

Did all those plyos and hill sprints make a dif­fer­ence? Did I, as a coach, get my train­ing plan­ning right and en­able the ath­letes I coach to be ready to peak when it mat­ters and achieve ath­letic gold dust PB per­for­mances? And are the ath­letes them­selves con­fi­dent men­tally and phys­i­cally that they will do well and when it mat­ters.

Un­pre­dictable sport

The beauty and the beast of track and field how­ever is the un­pre­dictabil­ity of it all, which is of course wrapped up in us coaches and ath­letes be­ing hu­man. A great per­for­mance can re­sult in the pour­ing rain while an ex­pected great one may not hap­pen in the blaz­ing sun with a two-me­tre per sec­ond fol­low­ing wind.

I’m re­fer­ring here to how an ath­lete com­petes: are they reg­u­lar, close to PB per­form­ers? Do they have a steely de­ter­mi­na­tion that nearly al­ways en­ables them to podium (or get the best out of them­selves), or do they crum­ble, get dis­tracted, and strug­gle to con­sis­tently per­form well?

Or are they tran­si­tion­ing from one age group to an­other where it will take time to “ma­ture” into their event in or­der to match younger age group per­for­mances and have dif­fi­culty cop­ing with this?

As a coach, you’ll tend to know in which camp an ath­lete sits and it can be dif­fi­cult to help those who don’t per­form well to con­sis­tently to do so. It does seem that in many ways win­ners are born – they pos­sess a qual­ity that en­ables them to find an in­ner fo­cus and de­ter­mi­na­tion that de­spite the nerves (and there will al­ways be and should be nerves) are able to pull out from within them great per­for­mances con­sis­tently.

We coaches try to help ath­letes who don’t com­pete so well (or who are go­ing through a loss of form). We may sug­gest the learn­ing of a script that they re­peat over and over again in the months prior to com­pe­ti­tion. This script could fo­cus on key tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments, such as po­si­tion­ing into the board in the long jump; front side me­chan­ics and stay­ing re­laxed whilst at max ve­loc­ity in the 100m and so forth.

The aim be­ing that the re­peated prac­tise of this “list” will em­bed in the ath­lete’s mind, so that in the heat of com­pe­ti­tion that in­ner voice will say “po­si­tion on to the board” or “stay re­laxed” and so on. Then there’s a list that could be pro­duced to cre­ate greater con­fi­dence and re­duce com­pe­ti­tion anx­i­ety.

Sim­ply re­peat­ing “I am calm, con­fi­dent and well-pre­pared” can trig­ger off those emo­tions (and self-be­lief) that are be­ing de­scribed by the words. Smil­ing (or try­ing to) can even help change mood state. How­ever, as with phys­i­cal train­ing, these tech­ni­cal and com­pe­ti­tion prepa­ra­tion readi­ness lists/ words/ges­tures, need con­stant prac­tise.

The un­con­scious mind is ap­par­ently more of a nag­ging neg­a­tive rather than a happy, up­lift­ing pos­i­tive one – wit­ness fel­low coach Steve Fudge’s com­ments on p36-38.

Are win­ners born?

It’s per­haps un­for­tu­nate in many ways but as a coach I have found that those who do well in com­pe­ti­tion seem to be able to do so with­out aide­mem­oires nor spe­cific fo­cus and ap­pli­ca­tion and quite a few who don’t – don’t seem to be able to fo­cus on these types of strate­gies that could ul­ti­mately help them.

Per­haps it’s be­cause they have to fo­cus on their “is­sues” head on and not sweep them un­der the car­pet that this be­comes the case and what makes it so dif­fi­cult. It’s hu­man na­ture – a bit like when you know you should go to the doc­tors, but don’t.

Men­tal train­ing and ap­pli­ca­tion is of­ten sig­nif­i­cantly over­looked by coaches and ath­letes alike but if per­for­mance is to be op­ti­mised it shouldn’t.

Do coaches hold the key?

I’ll some­times sug­gest a sports psy­chol­o­gist could help, but again I’ve found this rec­om­men­da­tion par­tic­u­larly with young-ish ath­letes, can back­fire. The thought of go­ing to a sports psy­chol­o­gist seems to have a bit of a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion. How­ever, we should be will­ing to em­brace this type of help.

The US has al­ways seemed to have more of a will­ing­ness to “coun­sel”, and to see that in a pos­i­tive way. In the UK we tend to view it as a bit like go­ing to the doc­tors (again); we see seeking such help more be­cause there’s some­thing wrong and not as a pos­i­tive.

This is what makes the men­tal side of coach­ing so dif­fi­cult to deal with.

Most of us stop­watch and tape mea­sure hold­ers can talk tech­nique, but learn­ing how to talk (men­tal) comp prep, for ex­am­ple, to our ath­letes is no easy task. Yet, coaches seem to hold the key, even if they can’t open the door, af­ter all we do know our ath­letes. We’ve shared their tri­umphs and frus­tra­tions and are there­fore well-po­si­tioned to help. This was a point I made in AW’s June 14 is­sue when look­ing at rest and re­cov­ery for ath­letes. That is, coaches know­ing their ath­letes and how train­ing loads should be ad­justed.

A sub­tle process is maybe what’s needed – grad­u­ally say­ing things that can help boost con­fi­dence and readi­ness over time, whilst match­ing com­ments to per­son­al­ity. Know­ing when not to talk is also im­por­tant for coaches too.

Ex­pe­ri­ence tells me that go­ing to com­pe­ti­tions and “be­ing there” will help many ath­letes – whether this be a British League or a Euro­pean Ju­niors, for ex­am­ple. You usu­ally don’t need to say much, it’s about just be­ing near, and adding a fa­mil­iar­ity to what might be un­fa­mil­iar and lit­er­ally for­eign sur­round­ings.

How­ever, and this is cru­cial, you do still need to in­still into your ath­letes the self-con­fi­dence and self-re­liance that will en­able them to be able to ul­ti­mately cope and go-it-alone. Af­ter all you can’t coach when the gun goes or on a more ev­ery­day level, be at ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion.

The coach has a per­son­al­ity too.

Then there’s your per­son­al­ity as a coach. A coach has to try to be mind­ful of their own make-up. It will have an ef­fect on your ath­letes whether you re­alise it or not. Just as there are types of man­age­ment styles in the workplace – au­to­cratic, charis­matic, and so on - there are coach types too. I’ve found that be­ing your­self is best as it is in most walks of life.

How­ever, you do need to mod­ify your de­meanour some­times ... you can’t be ner­vous as a coach (or at least show it!). If you’re stressed it will in­vari­ably rub off on the ath­lete. If the ath­lete trusts you and knows that you’re hu­man too then this can also help con­sid­er­ably.

“We’re in this to­gether” is a feel­ing that can bring about great per­for­mance. Trust in the coach is ob­vi­ously cru­cial and that trust de­vel­ops through the good and bad and over time. Trust in your­self as a coach is like­wise vi­tal, trust that you can coach, trust that you “know enough”, trust that you know your­self enough to be able to be a leader/in­flu­encer/men­tor/ ed­u­ca­tor that’s a re­flec­tion of your gen­uine per­son­al­ity (most of the time). And ath­letes, when it comes to your coach, don’t be afraid to ask for ad­vice be­yond the tech­ni­cal, don’t be afraid of con­fronting the “dark side”.

Con­sider, re­flect, talk and take ad­vice. Hold­ing it all in is not go­ing to assist with find­ing so­lu­tions. You’ll ask, for ex­am­ple, what’s the best an­gle of re­lease for the javelin, and strive to get that right in train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion, so ap­ply the same ef­fort to the men­tal side too to­gether and you will pro­vide ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to per­form at your best.

Re­al­is­ing that we (coach and ath­lete) are hu­man is a big step for­ward, ac­knowl­edg­ing frail­ties and strengths, and be­ing pre­pared to openly dis­cuss these and work on them to­gether, will ul­ti­mately bring re­sults.

Trust your coach, trust the process: Rob­bie

Grabarz with Fuzz Caan

John Shep­herd with El­liott Safo: great per­for­mances

come from tack­ling strengths and weak­nesses

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