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.
It is tempting to think that once the athlete arrives at a major competition much of the work of the coach is essentially done. Certainly this is not a time for excessive external input, introducing a lot of new information, or indeed doing 'work', beyond final touches to prime the athlete and optimise readiness. Nevertheless, the coach still has a critical part to play, and this goes beyond tactical and technical input. Positively influencing the athlete's mental and emotional state, and assisting the athlete in managing the challenges and pressures associated with a major competition environment can be hugely important to the outcome.
It also important to note that these discussions concern not only the sports coach or technical coach but all practitioners involved (physical preparation, physiotherapist etc). Indeed @@all members of staff attending have a duty of care and some level of coaching responsibility towards the athlete@@. Moreover, these considerations do not just concern what happens once the athlete arrives at the stadium. Managing the periods leading up to the event, and in the gaps between practices, matches or sessions during the event can be equally critical.
STAFF DUTY OF CARE...
During the crucial phases in the competition calendar the human interaction element of coaching comes to the fore. And once again, when the athlete arrives at major competition every practitioner and staff member in contact with the athlete needs to be aware of this crucial aspect and their responsibilities to the athlete.
From a coach or practitioner viewpoint these times demand a high level of emotional intelligence. In particular, self awareness and a high degree of empathy are required of all staff in regular contact with the athlete. The ability to read the athlete and the situation is critical in communicating and behaving in a manner that is helpful. All staff must remain mindful that their behaviour is a potential trigger for adding to the stress of the situation.
It is incumbent upon the coach and practitioner to exercise a high level of awareness and remain vigilant in how they conduct themselves. Indulging the urge to fret is not a luxury anybody can afford. Anxiety is contagious. Anxious behaviour on the part of staff members will inevitably communicate itself to the athlete to some degree.
THE PERVERSE LOGIC OF PRE-CAMPS...
One of the great ironies of major competitions, championship games, or play-off series is that athletes are customarily brought into an unfamiliar environment during their final preparations.
I recall Dan Pfaff speaking on the topic during my visit to Altis in late 2015. Dan urged the coaches and practitioners in attendance to avoid national federation 'pre-camps' or holding camps prior to major championships where possible. This is a coach who knows something of coaching at major competitions: Rio 2016 was his 10th Olympic games as a coach, and until London 2017 Dan had attended every athletics world championships since their inception in 1983.
The notion of removing the athlete and coach from their normal working environment to bring them into a pre-camp environment with an entirely different social dynamic and constraints that are not normally present does not make a great deal of sense, particularly in view of the stress and pressures of the competition to come. This practice is all the more nonsensical for individual sports.
Given that the athlete and coach operate (quite successfully) in a completely different way for the other 11+ months of the year, it is baffling that at the most critical time they should be transplanted into an alien environment and have their normal processes disrupted.
The strain of the team hotel environment or athletes' village at a major competition must also be recognised. Athletes and coaches dwell within this 'bubble' for the duration of the event or play-off series. Once again, stipulating that athletes and coaches must stay 'in camp' ahead of the event only adds to the strain, particularly for those who find this environment restricting and somewhat claustrophobic.
This phenomenon can also be observed in other sports. For a championship game or play-offs there are often misguided efforts to make the occasion 'more special' by changing the players' normal routine and preparation environment, and adding superfluous bells and whistles, such as a 'special' match day outfit for the occasion.
STRIVING FOR NORMALCY...
Given the disruptions and distractions that inevitably accompany major events in the competition calendar, it becomes all the more critical for the coach (and other members of the athlete's team) to provide a sense of consistency and familiarity.
Whatever the constraints and intrusions, as coaches and practitioners we must strive to maintain the normal preparation process and competition routine as far as possible. Likewise, it is critical to remain consistent in our interactions with the athlete. This can provide a much needed sense of stability and a source of comfort for the athlete.
A key role of the coach when preparing for a major competition is helping to guide how the athlete perceives the situation, where they direct their attention, and how they handle the experience.
An integral part of guiding the athlete during this time therefore concerns their faculties for exercising emotional control and managing their mental resources. It is critical that these topics have been discussed long before the athlete arrives at the event, so that the conversation on key themes can continue throughout the competition preparations.
At this time it is important to acknowledge and talk about sources of distraction, anxiety triggers, and perceived external pressures and sense of obligations felt by the athlete. Once again, these discussions should commence well in advance of the start of the competition.
These conversations can prompt a wider discussion as to the athlete's deeper motivations and drives. When dealing with a perceived threat to their self image or status, it is important to dig deeper to what the original driver was for choosing to participate in the sport. If the athlete is looking to others for validation, or if the outcome is too inextricably tied to their sense of self worth, then this clearly becomes a very precarious existence. Rather they must ask themselves where they find intrinsic satisfaction in the process of practice and competition and focus on these aspects.
Clearly it is also important to provide the perspective that ultimately this is not life and death. Whatever the outcome the sun will rise the following day.
PERCEIVING THREAT VERSUS OPPORTUNITY...
Whether competition is perceived as threatening or challenging is largely a question of interpretation. Where some athletes see threat that evokes anxiety, others may view the same competition as an opportunity and cause for excitement. This gives us scope to shift an athlete's perception, and guide them to interpret pressure conditions in a more positive manner.
For instance, it has been demonstrated in the research literature that the athlete can be guided to reappraise how they perceive the sensations of heightened physiological arousal associated with a race or a big match. Shifting the athlete's perspective can entirely change how they experience and respond to what are in effect identical symptoms. In this way the athlete can experience the same feelings as excitement rather than anxiety.
@@Perspective has the potential to reorient the athlete's interpretation of a pressure situation@@. With appropriate guidance we can dramatically change how they anticipate, experience and respond to the pressure of the major competition environment. @@Perception has the power to change the athlete's psycho-physiological state@@.
The investigation by Sammy and colleagues was the most recent study to demonstrate that athletes may be steered to reappraise the state of heightened physiological arousal, so that their cognitive response to the pressure condition and emotional state was far more conducive to performing. Reappraising perception of arousal was even reflected in an altered blood pressure response when performing the pressure task.
Shifting the athlete's mental representation of pressure conditions and allowing them to reappraise how they perceive associated symptoms of arousal can also influence the effects observed on performance. Whilst this has not been observed in all investigations, Moore and colleagues found that participants who reappraised threat and arousal in a positive way outperformed control subjects in the pressure task studied.
CULTIVATING MENTAL SKILLS AND COPING STRATEGIES...
@@To a large degree the task of the coach is to facilitate the athlete in managing themselves@@. In a previous post we have spoken about the importance of the athlete's awareness and ability to mobilise mental resources during training. The challenge that follows is to develop the capability to do the same in the pressure environment of a major competition.
As we have seen, with appropriate guidance the athlete can alter their perception and associated cognitive processes, affecting not only their experience of events but also the emotional and physiological responses that result. Importantly this pyscho-physiological state is more conducive to directing attention and mental effort to the task. Moreover it avoids the negative effects of distraction and reinvestment of conscious control that can occur with performance anxiety.
Here too our aim is to create awareness and equip the athlete with the tools to manage themselves in different and unfamiliar environments. Our objective is to cultivate positive traits and behaviours, and hone mental skills and coping strategies. Self awareness is a critical quality that underpins much of this; the athlete must first be able to recognise before they can manage their mental state and emotional responses. Emotional control on the part of the athlete is a critical aspect not only when they come to compete but also during the period leading up to the competition and in between sessions.
COMPETITION ARENA AS CLASSROOM...
@@The competition arena is always rich in opportunities to learn@@. It follows that major competition will be the richest time of all.
It is important that the athlete's experience at their first major competition helps them to arrive at the realisation that they have a rightful place on that stage and belong in that company.
Equally it is crucial that both coach and athlete have the perspective to look beyond the competition itself. The athlete's experiences and observations will provide invaluable insights into how and where they need to become better to succeed at that level of competition; this is an important topic for the debrief and reflection following the event.
Amidst the emotion of the event, we must acknowledge that the world doesn't end once the competition is over, whatever the result. If we assume that once the competition has ended not only will life go on, but so will the athlete, our focus can switch to working to ensure the most positive and fruitful legacy effects possible.
CHARACTER-BUILDING AND 'RESILIENCE'...
In recent times resilience has become a buzz word, and some very dubious practices have been justified in the name of developing character, as if resilient athletes can be created by punishing and often pointless workouts. In actuality, there is no need to contrive conditions and activities to build 'grit'. If managed correctly the experience of preparing for and performing in the crucible of major competitions affords abundant opportunities for developing resilience in a way that athletes are better equipped to deal with these challenges in the future.
Coaches and athlete should always be attentive to opportunities for learning and growth. The journey of an athlete will serve up an array of obstacles; they must solve problems and negotiate a variety of barriers. The athlete will often be required to overcome adversity in their career, and in doing so they are prompted to develop strategies for coping with these challenges.
The task of the coach therefore is to help the athlete take best advantage of these naturally occurring opportunities for growth. The debrief and reflection process that follows a major competition is a particularly abundant time for learning; an important role of the coach during this process is to steer the athlete's attention to the most salient lessons.
Ultimately whether the athlete is able to take advantage of the learning opportunities afforded to them depends upon the level of honesty they are able to exercise. Whilst the coach can offer guidance, this is ultimately a self-directed process that the athlete must embrace and engage with on an ongoing basis.
We have spoken before about the need for the athlete to adopt a self-regulation approach and meta-learning strategies during training. The approach to major competition and the event itself should therefore simply represent an extension of this everyday process.
There are a variety of tools the athlete can equip themselves with to assist in this process, such as maintaining a training log and a diary to record input, self-talk and reflections. Engaging in regular (daily) debriefs and periodic reviews outside of the big events are likewise integral to this process.
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