Lessons Along the Way - Advice for Young Practitioners

Providing learning opportunities and mentoring to coaches and practitioners has been a recurring theme throughout my career. Indeed a large part of my present role involves mentoring young coaches and practitioners in the early stages of their career working with athletes. These interactions frequently prompt me to reflect on my own journey and what I have learned on the way. This post is a collection of those critical lessons - essentially what would have been useful to have been told starting out.

  1. @@Be informed. Knowledge is power@@. Expertise is essentially having an appreciation of how much you have yet to learn. Learning is a process without end - and strive for both depth and breadth of knowledge.
  2. Ask questions. Speak up if you don't understand something, you have a query or you require clarification. This isn't about hiding your ignorance; remaining silent gets you nowhere and is an indulgence you cannot afford if you aspire to be elite.
  3. @@Be receptive to being questioned@@. Don't view it as a challenge to your authority when somebody asks 'why' in relation to what you prescribe. Rather it is a first step to engaging the athlete (or coach) and getting them on board with what you are trying to do. And if you don't have a good answer then you either need to find one or change your practice.
  4. @@Be clear on the purpose of everything you do@@. Drill down to first principles. Have a strong rationale and justification for each element of your programme. 
  5. @@Ensure that your athletes are clear on the purpose@@ behind everything in the programme. Don't assume it is obvious. It may seem like it goes without saying; for your athlete it doesn't necessarily go without saying. Ask the athlete what they think the purpose or rationale of a particular exercise is. If it isn't clear then enlighten them. 
  6. Refine and revise your methods over time. Be prepared to pare away any non-essential items.
  7. You become good at coaching by coaching. Take every opportunity to put yourself in front of athletes, even if these opportunities are unpaid these accumulated experiences are nevertheless invaluable.
  8. @@Presence cannot be created but it can be cultivated@@. In maori culture in New Zealand the term 'mana' describes possessing natural authority or presence. This a trait that is intrinsic to certain individuals rather than something that is taught - to a certain extent you essentially possess it or you don't. However, in those individuals who demonstrate even a hint of this quality it can be cultivated.
  9. Act with conviction when in front of athletes. A coach or practitioner who appears unsure or ill at ease does not inspire confidence.
  10. It isn't just what you say. The energy you bring each day, your body language and behaviours are critical to the environment you create.
  11. @@Evolve your own style of coaching@@. Over time you might adopt practices or even behaviours from working with and observing other coaches and practitioners; however do not imitate. Your own style must be entirely that.
  12. Coach like Bruce Lee. Martial arts legend Bruce Lee was an advocate of a style without a style, breaking free of a rigid and stylised approach. Be adaptable and fluid in your approach when instructing or communicating with athletes, to meet the needs of the situation and the individual.
  13. Planning is important, but don't rigidly stick to the plan. Athletes are biological organisms - a spreadsheet approach clearly cannot account for the host of different factors at play. Be prepared to adapt the plan - or go to plan B - according to how the athlete presents on any given day. 
  14. Make sure your session plan affords you the freedom to try things. Play some jazz. The ideas that occur spontaneously during a session is where the magic happens.
  15. Take every opportunity to add to your tool box. The broadest array of skills and expertise you have at your disposal the better. Conversely, as the old adage goes, if you only have a hammer you will see everything as a nail.
  16. Expose yourself to as many sports as possible. Once more these experiences in other environments are invaluable to provide different contexts for your practice. The ability to apply what you do with different sports and types of athlete is a critical skill to cultivate. There will also often be lessons to take and practices that can be adapted and applied to whatever sport(s) you end up working in.
  17. Actively seek and pursue opportunities to step outside your comfort zone. This is an important discipline and applies throughout your career, but it is all the more important when starting out. During the early stages in your journey particularly the comfort zone is the last place you should find yourself in; very little growth or learning happens there.
  18. @@Park your ego at the door each day@@. Failure to manage your ego can be the biggest barrier to your ongoing development and can ultimately be harmful to the athletes you serve.
  19. @@You must earn the right every day@@. Working with athletes and being involved in elite sport is a privilege. Much like an unjustified ego a sense of entitlement is among the worst traits a young coach or practitioner can demonstrate. 
  20. Practice self awareness. @@Engage in regular and unflinching self-reflection@@. The better you know yourself and the more honest you are the quicker you will overcome barriers and develop as a practitioner (and as a person).
  21. @@Be good with humans and animals@@. Being highly skilled and knowledgeable is ultimately futile if you are not able to successfully interact with athletes and others. There is a case to be made that any member of support staff regardless of specialism has no business dealing direct with athletes if they lack the emotional intelligence to do so. 
  22. Be authentic. Athletes, much like kids and animals can tell if you are not fully invested or genuine in how you act and what you say. 
  23. It is not about you. If your involvement in elite sport is driven by a desire for reflected glory or your principal motivation is your own advancement then at best you are a passenger and at worst a parasite.
  24. Get a life. Take steps to ensure that you have a life and interests outside of work. The greater perspective this affords you is invaluable.

Those who wish to learn more are invited to visit the books section of the website.