Friday, May 11, 2007

The Coach as a Leader - Part 1

The Coach as a Leader - Part 1: How to take your crew to the top of the mountain
By Mike Spracklen.
From American Rowing May/June 1996
We meet three kinds of people in life: those who make things happen; those who watch things happen, and those who don’t know anything is happening. Likewise throughout our lives we encounter three types of manufacturers: those who make good; those who make trouble, and those who make excuses.

Behaviour patterns can usually be categorised in a triangle of three extremes, as illustrated above, and throughout this article. Recognising this can help leaders identify people’s motivations and understand their points of view. People don’t always mean what they say or say what they mean. Assessing people’s true motivations will help you draw accurate conclusions, make good decisions and be an effective leader.

The Key to Success
‘Psychology is a very important part of preparing athletes for competition’

As sports become more and more competitive, better technique, more training and improved equipment contributes to higher levels of performance. Losing may result from not having the right boat, the right technique, or the right training program. We can control those things and reduce the possibility of error. We have less control of the athlete’s psyche, which plays a decisive role in determining success or failure. Psychology is a very important part of preparing athletes for competition.

The improved performance of the men’s eight the past two years (USA 94/95) was not due to better technique or equipment, an improved training program or superior athletes. It was because of the athlete’s confidence in themselves, developed through their training program. Having faith in a program is vital for success, but ultimately athletes must enter their race with confidence that will withstand the highest pressures. It takes years to develop this type of confidence, and there is fine line between over confidence and insufficient confidence.

Confidence is the foundation of keeping athletes focused. It’s the ability to perform well when it matters most. It’s the ability to overcome self-imposed physical or technical limitations. How does the coach teach high performance athletes to become more confident?

Instilling Confidence
‘Confidence grows from the belief coaches and athletes have in each other’

Confidence grows over a long association between coach and athlete. The best coaches have years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to pass on to their athletes. They have made mistakes and witnessed the mistakes of others. From their experiences they have learned the best way to the mountaintop. Athletes are not explorers. They do not want to waste time looking for alternate routes. They know what their goals are and want the best help to achieve them. They need the security of a knowledgeable coach, someone they can follow with confidence.

Confidence grows from the belief athletes and coaches have in each other. It’s not an instantly acquired relationship, nor is it one sided. It’s the product of mutual respect and a bond between coach and athletes, developed from the beginning of a training program, to the last stroke in a race. Coaches need motivation just as much as the athletes, and although the coach takes the lead, success comes from interaction between the coach and his athletes. Just as the coach will monitor his athletes and assess them daily, so they will assess him.

Athletes will respect a coach who has been successful, but a reputation will survive only the short time it takes them to form their own opinions. They will constantly observe him and score his behaviour. When he shows compassion and understanding he will gain points. The athletes will test his knowledge of the sport and his ability to lead them. The will watch closely how he selects crews. He must always be fair and treat everyone alike. They will judge his integrity. Point by point, each good deed will enhance trust. If the coach disregards the athlete’s questions or shows no interest in their problems, they will feel insecure. When the coach is unkind, unfair, untruthful, uncompassionate or unsympathetic to their needs, he loses points. One bad deed can destroy confidence created by many good deeds.

Motivating Athletes
‘The best form of motivation is encouragement’

To be confident, athletes must be motivated. Bribery, incitement and encouragement are the most common motivational methods. Financial inducement for winning or withdrawal of support for failing, are forms of bribery. Some coaches incite their athletes to hate the opposition. The worst leaders incite athletes against their own team members.

The best form of motivation is encouragement-exploiting the athletes desire to be successful. Athletes want to be good as they can be and are inspired by doing well. Motivated athletes strive for perfection. Good leaders do not expect perfection, but they do require excellence. Excellence is the ability to focus on the things that matter most. It’s the foundation of good coaching. Coaches who have good focus and remain on track are more effective leaders and less vulnerable in times of stress. Remaining in control under pressure is seeing things clearly and making the right decisions. Decisions made with confidence inspire confidence and provide the basis for persevering in the face of adversity.

Good focus is developed through practising skills over and over again. A wise coach prepares himself and the team for the unexpected-and just about anything! He never procrastinates. He has a sense of urgency about getting things done. There are many competent people who have intentions of doing things ‘as soon as possible’ but seldom get around to it. Their accomplishments seldom match those of less talented people who get things done at the right time.

Accepting Responsibility
‘Athletes respect coaches who have the integrity to admit their mistakes’

Accountability is another quality of successful coaches. It’s directing energy toward clear goals and assessing progress towards achieving them. It’s accepting a share of the responsibility when goals are not achieved. Good coaches do not look for excuses or scapegoats when they fail. They look to themselves, learn from their mistakes and take steps to make things better for the future.

Athletes respect coaches who have the integrity to admit their mistakes. Of course, the athletes will lose faith if the coach makes to many mistakes or repeats them, but if he denies them, he destroys the athletes trust. Coaches are not infallible. Making an occasional mistake reinforces the fact that they are only human. When the coach accepts his share of the blame when things go wrong, he strengthens the athlete/coach bond.

Teaching Technique
‘A knowledgeable coach can help the athletes gain confidence in themselves while gaining points for himself’

The ability to teach good rowing technique is also an asset. Nothing is more thrilling than rowing in a fast boat, but rowing skills are not easily mastered, and reproduction of that magical feeling is elusive. A knowledgeable coach can help the athletes gain confidence in themselves while gaining points for himself. Rowers generally pass through three psychological stages:

They know nothing
They think they know everything
They know they don’t know it all

It is pleasant coaching people in stage 1. They are eager to learn, and it’s easier to teach good technical movements. A wise coach knows what 'grooves in' in the first few weeks, may take years to change afterwards and he recognises the importance of teaching good technique. After a few years in the sport and a few races won, athletes reach stage 2, when they think they know it all. Coaches also pass through this stage. When they are in this state of non-acceptance, it’s difficult for them to learn. A clenched fist cannot accept a gift, and a clenched psyche cannot receive a lesson.

Leaders have to be forever testing new opinions and strengthen their resolve. The coach who says, ‘I've heard it all before’ or the athlete who says, ‘I've gained nothing from this experience’ is setting his own limitations. There is always something to learn, no matter how many times you have had the same experience. Coaches who know only one path are vulnerable when they find themselves in strange territory. The worst situation is the athlete who challenges the coach. He is a real threat to the team’s confidence. When criticism becomes negative, it should not be allowed to manifest.

In stage 3, athletes are mature. They are receptive to instruction, but experience has warned them not every path leads to the mountain top. In a world of petulance and differing opinions, athletes seeking guidance find much to confuse them. Races are won in a variety of ways, and athletes are entitled to ask questions without fear of retribution.

Communicating Effectively
‘Younger coaches are inclined to give to much information at once’

Ninety percent of athletic success can be credited to the athlete, and only 10% to the coach. In order for the coach to maximise his influence, he must possess three qualities:

Communication skills

Experience and knowledge are acquired with time, while communication is as an art. Communication includes motivational as well as technical input. People respond to instruction differently, and the coach must forever search for the right words. His methods vary from friendly persuasion to verbal force. Harsh words will work with some athletes, but use them on the wrong person, and they will turn on you. Use them too often and they will lose their affect. Coaches have different ways of communicating:

Some say only what is necessary
Some never stop talking
Some have little to say

Younger coaches are inclined to give to much information at once. Eager to impress, they switch from one technical emphasis to another. The athletes get to familiar with the sound of the coach’s voice, and after a while, what is said goes over the tops of their heads. Athletes can respond better if fewer technical points are given.

At the other end of the scale is the crew that rows for hours with barely a word from the coaching launch. When the voice finally breaks the silence, it can have a positive affect on the crew, but the coach relies on his rower’s physical condition to win rather than their technique. If the athletes receive sparse technical instruction, they may believe technique is of little value or think they are rowing technically well enough.

The experienced coach is always trying to improve his communication skills by searching for the right words. He expects to see a change in the athlete, but if there is no difference, he will blame himself and look for a different approach.

Beginners need explicit instruction, but experienced rowers respond better to being coached as a crew. Avoid criticising the same rower continually. He will lose confidence, and other team members will see him as a weak link. Consider how hard it is to change yourself and you’ll understand what chance you have of changing others. Once habits are grooved in, they’re hard to break and sometimes better left alone. You may not like a habit, but time spent trying to change one person may be at the expense of something that would produce a better result for the crew. This is not to say you shouldn’t coach athletes individually but that you should decide the important factors and put them ahead of less important ones.

Gaining by Explaining
‘People who understand what they’re doing are less likely to get it wrong’

Your instructions are more likely to succeed if you take the trouble to explain ‘why’. Giving a good reason prevents athletes from thinking you’re ‘bossy’ and from feeling they’re being ordered around. Explanation also reduces the chance of error. People who understand what they’re doing are less likely to get it wrong. Likewise it ensures that you understand exactly what you want the athletes to do. Explaining the reason for your request also enables the athletes to make suggestions that can be helpful. People are not robots. The more you treat them like human beings, the better they will respond to you.

Explain precisely what you want, show good and bad movements to everyone equally, encourage athletes to watch video alone and work things out for themselves- it’s the most effective way of learning. Learn about your athletes as individuals and vary your approach until you find what works for them.

Managing the Stress of Physical Training
‘Physical duress will cause changes in temperament and personality’

While the coach can easily gain points with good technical instruction, he can readily lose points through the pressure of physical training. Physical duress will cause changes in temperament and personality. Some athletes will gain strength from the challenge, some will retreat, and others will become aggressive. The coach must remain calm in these challenging situations and handle every incident rationally despite what he is feeling. The coach is there to support the athletes, propping them up when they need it most. Outbursts caused by physical stress normally last only a short period. Retaliation won’t help the crew win.

When an athlete criticises, analyse the reason for the complaint rather that accepting it at face value. Complaints usually come from those who are not doing well. They tend to complain about things that affect themselves personally rather than things that affect others. Complaints arise when athletes are:

Tired from training
Not performing up to standard
Jealous of, or feel threatened by another athlete

When an athlete looks for somewhere to lay blame for not performing up to the standard, the coach is first in the line of fire. The athlete may complain that he is ‘overtrained’, or he may accuse the coach of not helping him as much as he is of helping those who are performing better than he is. The coach must appreciate what is happening and show understanding. It will not help if you tell an athlete he has a poor attitude. He will merely reply, ‘You are a rotten coach’ and that s as far as it gets. You will both end up harbouring hostility and animosity.

The most difficult case is an athlete who has good physique, trains hard and is technically good but performs below the standard of others. The coach must not avoid the issue by classifying him as one who will not make it, but look for solutions that will help him.

Emotions have to be controlled but not stifled. Athletes should be free to let off steam once in a while. It will help athletes if they are advised of the character changes that occur during intense training. This will help them understand each other and control their emotions. It has quite a sobering effect on a ‘hot-head’ when a team-mate says ‘Coach says that when we train some of us would lose our tempers’ or ‘Coach said that the slowest athletes would be the first to complain’. It also helps to remind them sometimes of the old adage, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough gets going’

Maintaining Motivation
‘Goal setting is fundamental to motivation’

The coach must help athletes through times of intense training by good program structure and by setting goals. Athletes want to know how they’re doing, and setting regular tests helps keep motivational levels high. Goal setting is fundamental to motivation. Most of us aspire to achieve certain
things in life but do not make goals realistic and achievable; they become little more than dreams.

Regular goal setting helps maintain day-to-day momentum and motivation toward long term goals. Effective goal setting encourages persistence. Regular tests are an important part of the preparation process. Not only are athletes motivated by their progress, but they also learn how to prepare themselves physically and mentally for competition.

Take the trouble to explain the overall program, the purpose of each type of workout and the physical effects of training. Every session has a purpose, a clearly defined focus. There is always something to gain, even though sometimes the training is not as good as we would like it. Not every outing will be brilliant, but when a crew is having a bad row, encourage them to focus on physical training. When they are unable to work because of sickness or injury, encourage them to focus on technique.

When the program intensity increases, break each session into small segments and set different goals for each segment. This will help the athlete’s concentrate when they get tired or when motivation gets low. Set daily targets, weekly tests and monthly performance reviews. This ensures that your athletes can take a step back and see the progress they’re making towards their goals. These improvements, no matter how small they may seem, are contributing significantly towards the overall performance. The goals can be technical or physical, as small as 20 strokes, or as large as an important regatta. Every session will contribute towards achieving the athlete’s biggest goal.

If you don’t reach your goals, you haven’t failed. Success comes from learning from your experience and striving to do better next time.

Understanding Athletes
‘The most successful coaches can adapt their motivational methods to meet their needs’

Top athletes with a very clear view of their capabilities have confidence. Extremes of the triangle are:

Insatiably opinionated

Some athletes are modestly unaware of their own capabilities. They may not have the best coach, or be part of a good program. They have limited opportunity to develop. Confidence will grow in other athletes from rehearsal of every possible eventuality, having faith in what they’re doing and practising it over and over again. The opinionated athlete is the toughest to handle. Nothing quite hurts like the truth, and this type is the first to lay blame elsewhere when things don’t go his way.

Athletes are also different in the way they approach their training:

Some you have to push
Some push themselves
Some you have to restrain

The first is the athlete who does as little as necessary. The second type works conscientiously and will complete the program as written. The third type does more than the program. He will row 21 strokes instead of 20, or nine sets when the program requires eight.

Less motivated athletes will avoid the kind of work they do not like. An illness or an injury is a common excuse for missing a workout. A slow runner will have a bad knee when running is on the program, or a rower will have back problems when he wants a few days rest. Some athletes won’t disclose an injury for fear of losing a place in the squad while others will press on regardless of injury or illness, to keep up their training level. Athletes sometimes exaggerate the seriousness of an injury to excuse bad performance. The injury list usually increases just before an ergometer test. Hard training will reveal the weaker characters.

As the coach becomes familiar with his athletes by fitting them into the behavioural triangle, it will help him understand how to influence them and keep them on the straight and narrow path. The most successful coaches can adapt their motivational methods to meet their needs. The best ways to influence athletes is to give them confidence in all they do and look at their weaknesses with compassion, not accusation. Encouragement only works if the athletes have confidence and respect for the leaders direction. Coaches, who lack confidence, control by intimidation and domination.

What Kind of Coach Are You?
‘Confident coaches are experienced, knowledgeable and charismatic’

Athletes quickly recognise insecure coaches and lose confidence in their leadership. Insecure coaches don’t like the challenge of athletes who defy them, and they are quick to lose their tempers. They’re influenced by personalities, and they have their favourites in the team. They are emotionally unstable and will tell lies when in trouble, which leads to more lies and more trouble. Three types of coaches are:


Confident coaches are experienced, knowledgeable and charismatic. Egotistical coaches usually suffer from lack of confidence and become obsessed with the fear of losing
power to the point of bordering on insanity. The fear of losing control influences the way they lead. Some coaches think to be successful you have to enforce strict rules with threats. A wise coach doesn’t use threats unless he is prepared to carry them out. Backing down could lead to anarchy and more rules, ending with the possibility of having to exclude a top athlete from the team.

Athletes should be allowed to decide for themselves which path they will take up the mountain. They may wish to compete in a boat against the coaches advise, but the coach who tries to dissuade an athlete from his aspirations will break the trust between them. Even if the athlete performs as the coach predicts. He does not want to hear ‘I told you so’ from his coach. He will remain insecure with the coach who has only looked out for himself. Sport is about participants, and the coach’s job is to help them, not stand in their way. Even if a coach disagrees with the athlete’s ambition, he must remain firmly by his side and help in every which way he can in whatever direction the athlete pursues. In fact, he helps himself best by helping the athlete, not by trying to dissuade him from his ambition.

Leadership is an art based on philosophy, with clearly defined principles that provide positive direction. It is an on going process of keeping vision and values aligned with a direction accordant with the things that are most important. The coach’s destination is the top of the mountainous medal podium. If the path we choose doesn’t lead us to the peak, every step gets us to the wrong place faster. The integrity, personality and knowledge displayed by the coach will foster the athlete’s trust until they follow the mountain path blindly, confident their coach has chosen the right route.

You don’t have to be superhuman to be a good leader, but you do have to understand other people, how they feel and what influences them.

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