Monday, October 6, 2008

Coaching the Y Generation

Coaching the Y Generation
By Kevin Giles
We live in an age where we all chase ‘best-practice’, whether in sport, the corporate sector or the community at large. Much is written by the world’s leading lights and we all look for those words of wisdom, supported by research and expounded with the jargon of today. I fully understand that what I attempt to set out here is probably verging on heresy, uncalled for under the spotlight of modern day coaching methodology and certainly not backed up by any research. To be honest I don’t care. I am doing what my Dad did and his father before him – I am speaking my mind as an ‘old-fart’ who the current generation of athletes, coaches, scientists and administrators will not give any time to at all.

Nicole Jeffery wrote an intriguing article in the Australian in early 2007 entitled “Coaching the Why Generation” where she outlined the changes in our current generation of developing athletes. This generation, apparently, are bringing different needs and values to the table and as such we, as coaches, should understand and accommodate them in their needs. Offering different coaching methods and structures, appeasing their need for ‘quick training and competition results’ and getting them involved in the decision making because the “new breed will not accept that the coach is always right’ were statements in the article that illustrated the psycho-social changes we all face. This new generation are ‘outcome-focused’
and therefore need to know all the reasons for why they are doing things in their training; especially those parts of training that are uncomfortable.

Sports science has been the major consumer of physical and financial resources in all national sporting strategies around the world. This arm of the sports development world has given us wonderful guidance in ‘best practice’ in the biomechanical, physiological and psychological aspects of high performance attainment. Without doubt this section of the sporting community has made us all question our assumptions and certainly given us a heap of measurements to put into our daily coaching practice. We can, or are expected to, measure just about everything from RPE’s (Ratio of Perceived Exertion – how tired are the poor dears?) to how far and at what velocity did they run today using Global Positioning Satellite data.

I am just completing my 40th year in coaching. I have experienced the trials and tribulations of this profession from my days as a teacher through to the heady heights of Olympic finals and Championship winning football finals. I have embraced sports science, the computer age and all the waffle that goes with establishing those previously mentioned National Performance Strategies (the reams of ‘warm and fuzzy’ words, the copious diagrams and flow-charts etc). I think that I have reached the stage of having to finally own up to the fact that I have grave misgivings about where we are heading in all this.

When did we all give in to this ‘welfare state’ stuff where the athlete is concerned? When did we appease the weak-minded or the athlete that simply wants something for nothing or will only commit if the reward is high enough? When did we as coaches stop doing it because we loved it and gave up on the lengthy apprenticeship we all must serve before being paid for it? My problem is that I still have in me some of the traits that I learned from the adults that surrounded me as I grew from childhood to being an adult. All the adults around me in my formative years were my teachers, my teachers in behaviours and values. They had been forced to endure the unspeakable Hades of war where their fortitude and courage were tested on a daily basis. They were stoic and resilient and in the post-war period they suffered from a lack of just about everything that we take for granted today. We were, or are, the ‘baby-boomers’ and those of us who have not completely capitulated to the slothful, greed driven, easy living needs of today may still have something to contribute.

If this ‘Y’ generation are as described then we seem to have two ways to approach them. We can either appease their weaknesses or we can retain a grasp on some of these fundamental traits of human-kind that have seen us survive hardship.

It is only a decade ago that I was heavily involved with the Brisbane Broncos Rugby League Club and I reflect on this period of my professional life as an illustration of the changes that have accelerated us towards this potential mediocrity. At that time the playing staff held down full-time jobs outside their sport. Many of them spent the day in physical labour as plumbers and concreters or at the docks scrubbing down the hulls of ships. They would turn up for training, on time, covered in the dust and dirt of their daily grind. No RPE’s for them, no complaints from them either. They got on with their work and gave us the very best they had every session, every week and every year. They got some rest when they had earned it.

No ice-baths, hot & cold showers, massage, special classes of this and that to consume all the available training time – they kept at their trade minute by minute, day by day, week by week in a relentless pursuit of the winning formula. Don’t get me wrong, sports science has unearthed some fabulous examples of recovery methods and I have used them all with significant success. The key issue is that they had better be ‘pushing out the envelope’ to earn these recovery methods. I see too many athletes ‘recovering’ from some very unimpressive levels of fatigue. The Championship winning squads of 1992 and 1993 contained men who overtly displayed fortitude and stoicism.

I had been appointed with one phrase that still burns in my memory, “put some ‘steel’ into them.” My interpretation was that as well as the football speed, strength and endurance components coupled with some decent injury prevention plans that had to be delivered, and delivered better than any of our opposition; the minds of these guys had to be strengthened to be able to overcome both physical and emotional adversity. After all, if you want to be a champion these traits will be sorely tested throughout the campaign. The idea was to give them physical and emotional resources way above what they would experience in a game.

Whatever intensity the opposition brought to the table we had to know that we had reserves that they could never match. The game had to become the easiest part of the week by setting emotional and physical standards so high that we were never at our limits, ever. Don’t for one minute think that I had all the answers to this challenge. I had no text book to turn to or physiological scoring tables to check against. This was ‘seat–of-the-pants stuff’ where I applied the known theories of training and periodisation to the distant echoes of greatness those previous generations had displayed. A hero is not a celebrity, or someone who wins a contest in the sporting arena. A hero is someone who does something extraordinary, against all the odds and with maximum sacrifice. I took the standards that I had been exposed to as a child as a guide to ‘what was possible’ for the Broncos. The bar was set high, the road was a relentless exposure to the real interpretation of attitude commitment and discipline and the players were to be challenged in all aspects of their lives.

In some cases my job was a lot easier than that of my counterparts today. Many of the young men in our charge were hungry for personal and team success, driven by a deep desire to win and carried little or no ‘baggage’ that might keep them from their dreams. The ‘baggage’ I refer to are things like, “What’s in it for me?”, “Is there an easier way?” Of course I tried my best to give them the best balance of training that was well periodised and well thought out but the key issue was to find out how they could develop their ‘mental toughness’, the ability to overcome adversity and for them to accept that whatever dreams they had about winning would have to be earned – and the price would be high, very high.

We can all train athletes hard, that’s not difficult to do. If it was just a matter of giving them horrendous numbers of reps and sets at a high intensity then anyone could do it. The key is to train smart and hard and to know when to take a mighty step forward and when to back off. Here I was in the hands of the players. Don’t get me wrong – I hardly ever asked them for an opinion – I watched closely for all the tell-tale signs of ‘too-much’ or ‘too-little’. Put simply, I got to know them as individuals, to understand when they were giving up due to being weak-willed or when they had really had enough physiologically and psychologically. I put the edge of the physiological envelope lower than the edge of the psychological envelope.

These guys had to take it psychologically, just like my Dad and his fellow battlers of the 1940’s and 50’s. They ‘couldn’t die doing this’ was a typical response to the oft heard cries of complaint and submission. Put another way, I was unfair to them – for a reason. Every missed target, every missed rule, every smart comment, every ‘collapse with feigned exhaustion’, every ‘tactical limp’, was met with a firestorm of reaction. Repetitions and sets of exercises were started again, sessions were started again from scratch, those that gave up were sent home in disgrace to ‘never darken my door again’ or ‘get him out of my sight’. Unfair, unjust, yes, but this scheme always found their weak traits. They could either quit on themselves or the team or find the fortitude and stoicism to get through it. They had no protection from this onslaught; they could not turn to a Players Association to get them off the hook, or go bleating to coach Bennett.

In today’s ‘welfare’ environment none of this would work. Complaints are met with benevolence and charity. People are appeased on their way to mediocrity and they drag a load of other ‘do-gooders’ with them. We continually shift our social standards and accept less and less as being acceptable. Laws are written, agencies resourced and society capitulates to the bleating of the weak.

Championship winning or winning in life, whether doing this as a family, an athlete or in the corporate sector will demand that you survive at the very edge of your psychological, physiological and structural envelope. I believe that these traits are trainable. Maybe it is time to re-visit some of the methods in the light of the current “I want” generation. Why can’t we test out their mettle rather than appease them? Why can’t we expect good behaviour, punctuality, respect? Why do we continue to list all the reasons why an individual can’t achieve something instead of challenging them to do what they think they can’t do. Sports science has given us the tools to help us decide when an athlete should reduce or adjust training so that the training system can be precise. Great, I have tried all this stuff and it works. What I would like to also see as a tool is something that indicates when the athlete should take a ‘leap of faith’ into the unknown, whether this is to do with the psychological or physiological aspects of training. Stop finding all the reasons to “back–off’ training ands give them the tools to go to the dark places that their talent will take them. In other words what are they willing to give-up or sacrifice to improve their current status? What psychological or physiological ‘shock-level” are they willing to experience as the payment for their success.

We often use the words attitude, commitment and discipline as the underpinning requirements of any successful person. The trouble is they are only words and we often award the individual with the trappings of these words without them really earning them. We devalue these words but more importantly we fail to see that they should be used as a result of consistent, repeatable ACTION. I see coaches handing out these words to athletes who try to lead two lives – one life, the shallow simulation of attitude, commitment and discipline when in the training environment and the other one completely the opposite when outside the training environment.

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