Major competition poses unique challenges not only for the athlete, but also the coach and wider support staff. From a logistical viewpoint there are a host of additional factors to manage, but on a more personal level, each member of the team must also manage themselves and how they interact with the athlete. In the crucible of a major competition environment the mettle of all individuals concerned is tested, and every member of staff connected to the athlete has a responsibility. In this post we will dig deeper on this topic, and explore ways we can support athletes in handling the pressures to compete at their best on the biggest stage.
Nuance is an under recognised keystone of practice in elite sport. We have spoken previously about critical thinking as a critical skill for coaches and practitioners in the Information Age, as a means to evaluate and integrate information from different sources. Nuanced understanding is critical for the steps that follow. Nuance is required to derive real meaning from the knowledge acquired and make use of it. Nuance is also critical to cope with the complexity inherent in human performance. In this post we will make the case for practicing nuance as an active skill in order to combat the epidemics of superficial knowledge and binary thinking.
Athletes and coaches across all sports incessantly speak about the importance of 'focussing on the process', and process goals. As coaches and practitioners we are likewise ever mindful of scheduling constraints and the need to make best use of the finite time permitted to prepare our athletes. In previous posts we have spoken about the importance of mobilising mental resources, and the critical role of athletes' perception in relation to training responses. Here we will venture into the realms of teaching and learning, in order to make meaningful use of the notion of 'process focus' in the context of sport. In our quest for more purposeful training we will explore the concept of 'meta-learning', and outline how these principles might be applied to the process and the practice of preparing athletes.
Locus refers to a place or position where something is located: locus of attention concerns the location of an athlete's focus when executing a movement. Typically, locus of attention is stratified into internally versus externally located focus. The current dominant message to coaches and practitioners is to cue in a way that avoids an internal focus of attention - essentially 'internal focus BAD; external focus GOOD'. Yet when we look beyond the dominant narrative and take a closer look at the research on the topic, the question of where and how to direct an athlete's locus of attention when learning and performing becomes rather more complex. There is growing evidence to indicate that what is optimal may vary according to the population concerned, the task, context and even individual preference or predisposition. In this post we will delve deeper and attempt to unravel the topic of locus of focus.
Mentoring or apprenticeship is a universal path for developing coaches and practitioners across all disciplines. Indeed in many realms mentorship is often the primary means for practical learning, as well as passing on experiential knowledge. Given this, in the context of performance sport and related vocations it is notable that there are surprisingly few resources dedicated to this highly complex and multifaceted process. Even the rationale for mentoring seems incomplete. For instance, it is generally assumed what the apprentice or 'mentee' is getting out of the process; however, the motivation and apparent benefit to the person providing the mentoring is not typically considered. In this post we attempt to address this; we will tackle the why as well as the how of mentoring, and explore these aspects from the perspectives of both the mentor and the mentee.
In the Information Age the propensity for critical thinking has become arguably the most critical skill for practitioners in all fields. In the present era, with unprecedented access to a vast sea of information at the touch of a key stroke, the ability to filter and to critically evaluate are paramount. This is the great irony of the Information Age; at a time when the need has never been greater, critical thinking is seemingly a dying art. Increasingly we are plagued with superficial knowledge and incomplete understanding. We are beset on all sides by spurious reasoning and a preponderance of facile solutions. In this post we argue there is a need to resurrect critical thinking; we must understand the true meaning of skepticism and embrace it. Here we present the case that rediscovering these faculties will allow us to negotiate our way to free thought and provide the tools for independent learning to attain deeper understanding.
I regularly engage in mentoring coaches and practitioners, and the universal starting point in this process is a 'SWOT analysis', allowing the individual to identify areas where they require development. A frequent response and common theme relates to the process of planning or programming training. Before we get into the puzzles to solve when programming physical preparation, let us begin with a revelation: athletes are humans not machines. Input does not necessarily equal output. When working with athletes we must understand that we are dealing with inherently complex and highly dynamic biological systems. Designing a training plan for an athlete or a group of athletes is therefore far from straightforward.
In this post we will unmask the flaws in the conventional wisdom that relates to planning and programming, including periodisation models. We will uncover the realities we face when programming training, explore the puzzles involved, and define the challenges we must resolve. Finally, we will outline a road map approach to guide planning physical preparation in a way that acknowledges the uncertainty, along with some strategies to help navigate the unknown and shifting terrain, to allow us to steer and adapt our course as we go.
In a previous post on the topic of what it is to be 'elite', we identified that willingness to challenge and readiness to being challenged represent critical traits. True reflective practice is predicated upon a readiness to ask yourself the hard questions. Not only that, we must resist deluding ourselves and answer the hard questions in an honest fashion. To develop requires stepping out of the comfort zone. Becoming better requires being unflinching in self-assessment and reflection. In reality, despite the best intentions the majority pay lip service to this; it is easier (and far more comforting) to lapse into telling ourselves falsehoods or half truths. You are your most important ally in this process, but you are also the biggest potential obstacle. Ultimately, for the process to elicit meaningful change, self-evaluation and reflection must have teeth. As a coach, practitioner, or indeed athlete, if you truly aspire to being elite you must be unflinching in asking and answering the critical questions, no matter how unpalatable the truths you uncover may be.
The paradoxical burden of advantages is something that those who work with young athletes (and young people in general) often grapple with. We might consider this a 'first world problem of privilege' for developing athletes; some might even argue it is symptomatic of the wider ills of modern society. Whether or not you subscribe to such views, few would disagree that a sense of entitlement is the enemy when developing young people, regardless of whether the aim is that they grow up to become good people or top athletes. In either scenario, many of the qualities we are seeking to instill are much the same.
As we will explore in this post, the luxury of advantages, unless carefully managed, can pose a serious problem when our aim is fostering the traits necessary to strive for mastery and achieve long-term success in sport. We will investigate what makes a conducive environment for developing young athletes who demonstrate 'talent', and what pitfalls to avoid. Finally, we will tackle the question of how we might negotiate the challenges we presently face on our quest, and recommend practical steps to ensure young athletes are equipped with the fuel for the journey and the tools to overcome obstacles on the path to becoming elite.
In the spheres of performance science much attention is paid to 'athlete health'. It has become widely recognised that lifestyle factors are critical, not only mediating performance and training adaption, but also impacting upon injury and illness. Despite such growing awareness, until very recently the notion of coach or practitioner health has not been widely considered in the same way. For the first time, important discussions on the topics of coach and practitioner health are being held more widely. For instance, coach health in the field of strength and conditioning was recently featured on the very popular Pacey Performance Podcast. These discussions have raised important issues in relation to the unique challenges presently faced by practitioners operating in the information age. In addition to exploring these issues in more depth in this post, more importantly we will examine strategies and tools to help negotiate these challenges, and ultimately find a way of working that is sustainable in the long term.