Coaching reflections – John Shepherd looks at the mental side of a coaching relationship
JOHN SHEPHERD LOOKS AT THE MENTAL SIDE OF COACHING AND ATHLETE PERFORMANCE
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.
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