Behind every amazing Olympian we see in Sochi is a huge support system without which the athlete may not be in Sochi at all. This includes family, friends, trainers, and, oh yes, the coaches.
So often we wonder about the mental challenges the athletes face in competition there at the "really big show." But have you considered the challenges faced by the coaches? Don't worry, I hadn't much either until recently. I was reading an article by Sean McCann, a sport psychologist who worked with Team USA at the Games years ago. He discussed the many aspects of working with Olympians on-site. But one individual made a special request of his time--the coach for one of the US Teams. He was having a hard time, feeling anxious, more out-of-sorts than usual. Turns out a number of factors play into this state for him, and many other coaches who find themselves in the midst of a larger-than-life competition.
You would think foremost in the coach's mind is, "Will my athlete be successful?" Well, it is, but that isn't necessarily what causes the stress. The biggest issue for coaches at the Olympic Games is a sudden and pervasive lack of control, or a feeling to that effect: lack of control over training time and conditions, athlete schedules, meals, sleep. The media requests for their athlete's time interfere as well. And then there is the social aspect of the Games. The athletes may want to "fully experience" the camaraderie, attending gatherings, staying out late, easing up on their normal discipline.
These things in and of themselves are not necessarily detrimental to the athlete's ultimate performance at the Games. It is just the idea that these things are different than normal, not part of a well-rehearsed routine, that can be so anxiety-producing for the coach. All of these factors, being beyond the control of the coach, certainly make their main focus of their athlete's success seem more uncertain.
My figure skating coach had the distinct opportunity to attend the 2006 Olympic Games. He was coaching a young pairs team for Team Bulgaria. I recently asked him about the stress he may have felt. "TV cameras were everywhere!" he exclaimed. He agreed that it was suddenly difficult to control what he was used to controlling with his skaters. I would imagine, too, with cameras rolling all the time, it would be intimidating to offer corrections, suggestions, etc., with a thought in the back of your mind, Anything you say may be caught on camera and used, misconstrued, ultimately broadcast. It is difficult to be yourself. A coach in this situation may begin to second guess his or her decisions, causing some confusion with the athlete. A stressed coach can inadvertently have a negative impact on his or her athlete's performance.
As Sean McCann notes, coaches tend to view their successes in light of their athlete's success. But since ultimate success, the outcome, is not a sure thing, not completely under one's control, it is not necessarily the best criteria upon which coaches should base their success.
This is a good lesson for coaches at any level of competition. Just as we might ask athletes to focus on process goals (improvements in various target behavior areas) versus outcome goals (winning), so too should you, the coach. The process goals are more under your control.
Here is an activity that might help you feel more effective and successful:
List behaviors that you feel are important for coaches to display. What are your tasks/roles/jobs at this particular competition? This focus on behaviors associated with good coaching, and how well you do them, can actually reduce the stress or anxiety you, the coach, feel at a competition.
McCann asked Olympic coaches to list the coaching behaviors they felt were critical for their best performance as a coach in competition. They listed behaviors such as "delegating less vital jobs to assistants," "maintaining composure under stress," "maintaining a personal exercise program," "taking risks at big competitions when appropriate," and "effectively motivating each athlete."
The coaches were then asked to choose the 10 most important behaviors for coaching success in their sport. They rated themselves on each, using a 1-10 scale (1=I never behave this way; 10=I consistently behave this way). Finally, based on their results, they wrote two behaviors they are skilled in using but normally don't give themselves credit for, and two that are more of a challenge to them. This gave them a focus on successes they could be proud of already, and items they could focus their efforts on to change.
This exercise can be tremendously helpful to a coach who tends to look toward an outcome of winning as the sole measure of their value, their success as a coach. Competition at any level, not just at the Olympic level, can be stressful--but doesn't have to be. Few coaches are highlighted by the media during the games or given credit for their efforts like their athletes might be. But their roles are no less vital. By feeling better about themselves, better understanding the roles they play at the competition, coaches will be less stressed and ultimately remain a stable, driving force behind their athletes.
McCann, S. (2000). Doing Sport Psychology at the Really Big Show. In Mark B. Andersen (Ed.), Doing Sport Psychology (pp.209-222). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
A coach's job is multifaceted. One aspect is teacher, as in teaching your athletes how to perform relevant skills and become smart and efficient players. An important element in skill learning for the athlete is feedback. The feedback comes either internally, with the athlete providing his own internal evaluation and necessary corrections of his performance, or externally, where the coach offers feedback in the form of further instruction, tips and performance evaluation. Both types are important and useful. As a coach it is vital that you understand the practical considerations for providing feedback. How much feedback to give, when to give it, how detailed the feedback should be, and how often to give it, are all important considerations.
Your goal as a coach is to help your athletes develop in their skill performance to the point where they can function proficiently on their own. Learning involves problem solving, and the more the athlete can do on his own, the better off he will be in competition.
Less is More
The amount of feedback the athlete requires from you depends upon her current skill level. Beginner athletes may be overwhelmed by too much feedback, so restricting your feedback to only one or two aspects of performance would be more useful. Be specific. "Keep your shoulders relaxed." "Bend your knees." "Watch the ball." Once she seems to have the basics down, you can introduce slightly more complex instruction. "Shift your weight and soften your stance." "Increase the force of the movement and follow through."
Timing of Feedback
Research has shown that, contrary to a coach's best intentions, resisting the urge to provide feedback right away and relying on the athlete's own internal feedback is a better way to go. Studies have shown that athletes get more out of the feedback when they have asked specifically for it, rather than when it is just offered by the coach.
Beginner athletes actually improve their skills quite well with relatively little performance feedback from their coach. A "wait and give" approach by the coach enables the athlete to internalize the movements, the feel, the strategies, and make adjustments on their own--the ultimate goal for the athletes. Wait for the athlete to request feedback (which will likely be more frequent during the first few lessons, or on more complex skills), and then give feedback. Imagine having an opportunity for a "teachable moment" with an athlete who is much more receptive to what you offer, and more likely to put your suggestions to use because they have asked!
Waiting also enables you to see if the athlete is able to pick up on her errors on her own. More often than not, you will notice subtle corrections on subsequent efforts. If not, then prepare to provide helpful feedback, which will not just state the obvious, "You totally missed the ball," but reasons why her efforts were unsuccessful. "You took your eyes off of it" or "Your weight was not centered."
It's in the Details
How detailed should your feedback be? Research has suggested that feedback does not always have to be overly detailed to be effective. It is true of beginners, because in the early stages of learning, general information about their errors is all that is needed. Once an athlete is more skilled, he will benefit from a bit more detail aiming to fine-tune skills and movements.
Recalling that "less is more," you may want to incorporate what is called bandwidth feedback. In this type of feedback, you would establish parameters, a "performance bandwidth" which is the amount of error you will allow before you provide feedback. Anything related to safety, for example, would be immediately addressed, falling outside the bandwidth. But basic movements that approximate what you are trying to teach would fall inside, and be allowed to continue without feedback. When observing your athlete, as long as she performs within the bandwidth, you will not give feedback unless asked for it. But if her performance falls outside the bandwidth, you offer tips and solutions. For example if you are trying to teach a particular throw that requires an overhand movement, as long as the athlete attempts the throw in that way, albeit not perfectly, do not say anything. However, if the athlete begins to try the throw with an underhand movement, this would fall outside the bandwidth you set and should be immediately addressed.
Beginner athletes may be given a wider bandwidth, which will allow them to make any movements relative to the basic skills. Remember you are trying to help them use their internal feedback--what they feel, adjust and correct by themselves--before jumping in. If they stray, offer a general statement to get them back on course.
As the skill level improves, the bandwidth can be narrowed so that even small shifts from proper skill or form would be corrected. Your feedback would then be more detailed or precise. A figure skater just learning to skate on one foot may be allowed to hold her free leg behind in any way, while getting used to the balance of the movement and making internal adjustments. But once she has the skill established, the free leg now should be held a certain way, at a certain height, etc., which you would address.
The Right Frequency
Remembering that your athletes make their greatest improvements when they can do their own problem solving, you probably know the answer to how often to give feedback is "less often." Here is why:
You have so much to offer your athletes in terms of support, experience and skill development. Knowing how and when to provide feedback, how detailed your feedback should be, and remembering "less is more," will enable you to produce well-adjusted, smart athletes who master skills and perform at their best levels. Your coaching success depends on establishing quality, supportive relationships with your athletes. The respect you show for their learning through the "less is more" and "wait and give" approaches will be returned to you many fold.
It is important to have vision and an idea of where you are going (direction) as a coach. You are the leader of the team. If you are unsure of which way to go, the team surely cannot follow.
Ken Blanchard (2007) illustrates this point when he writes about having what he calls a Leadership Point of View (LPOV). LPOV is similar to a coaching philosophy. It is basically why you coach, your purpose in coaching and how you demonstrate that purpose when you are interacting with others.
Think about why you became a coach in the first place. What do you want to accomplish as a coach? Do you want to educate your players? Motivate them?
What do you expect of your players? If you expect commitment, discipline, enthusiasm and hard work, do you also hold these values for yourself? Do you exemplify what you want to see in your athletes? Think about the values you possess and what is important to you. Do you value success? Competition? Fairness?
Just as you have expectations of your athletes, so too do your athletes have expectations of you. What will you provide for them? Will you demonstrate support, dedication to improving their skills and championing their efforts? Can they count on you to be prepared for practices and to be disciplined and on time yourself? A team is only as strong as its weakest link. That link cannot be the coach!
A great way to consider where you are now as a coach and what you think is important is to think about people in your life who have influenced you with their leadership skills, positive or negative. What was it about these people that motivated (or discouraged) you? What lessons did you learn that you can apply to your own coaching behavior?
What are your beliefs about coaching? What do you consider the best ways to motivate or lead athletes to success? What do you consider "success" to mean?
Serious consideration of these questions, even writing down your responses and reflecting on them at length, will help your vision to become clearer. The direction in which you will ultimately lead your team will be apparent. And you will gain more confidence knowing that you are not just coaching, but coaching and leading purposefully. This can only benefit you and the athletes who look up to you and depend on you.
Blanchard, K. (2007). Leading at a higher level. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Publishing.
Articles for Coaches
Information to use with your athletes to improve their individual performance, and your team's success.