Leveraging 'Agency' in Athlete Preparation

Agency can be defined as the sense that we are in control of our own actions and the outcomes that follow. Agency is central to how we perceive our interactions with the outside world: sense of agency permits us to feel that through our actions we are able to influence external events. In this way, agency is integral to the notion that we have some degree of control over our situation, our standing in the world, and our future direction. In this latest offering we peel back the layers of agency in the context of athlete preparation, exploring what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) in relation to our work with athletes.

AGENCY, CONTROL, CONFIDENCE…

Agency is an important concept to bring to the attention of the athlete. With agency comes the notion of volition. Thinking in these terms lets us shine a torch on the crucial point that the athlete themselves have an active and integral part to play. How each individual chooses to engage with practice and training day to day has a major bearing on the outcome. @@The athlete is not simply a passive actor in the process; they are not simply a passive recipient of instruction or coaching@@.

Instilling a sense of agency also promotes a feeling of control over the present situation, and being able to influence both process and outcomes over the longer term. Heightened awareness of agency hereby facilitates developing a sense of self efficacy, or confidence in our ability to handle whatever scenarios we encounter within a particular domain or context.

This link between agency, sense of control, and perceived capability is significant. Perceived lack of self-efficacy, or doubts over our ability to handle unforeseeable events, is the source of much of our anxiety. From both coaching and leadership perspectives it follows we should be seeking to promote a sense of self-efficacy to combat the anxiety that is increasingly prevalent among athletes and young people in general. Emphasising agency offers an important route to this outcome.

The notion that we have agency over the present situation and our future direction applies to all things. For the athlete, this starts with the sport(s) they selected to participate in, the coach they choose to work with, the team they opt to be part of, and the degree to which they choose to invest in the process, both in general, and on a day to day and moment to moment basis.

AGENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY…

@@An important aspect of agency is recognising the link between our chosen actions and what outcomes occur as a result@@. In that sense, agency leads us to acknowledge our responsibility for our actions and their consequences. From this perspective, emphasising agency becomes critical if we want to learn and grow as humans.

There is an interesting cognitive bias in terms of how we attribute outcomes to our own actions. Specifically, we tend to more readily attribute positive outcomes to our choices and actions. In contrast, we are typically slower to acknowledge that negative outcomes are similarly a result of our choices and freely chosen actions.

It is worth noting that such attribution biases are as prevalent among coaches (and practitioners) as they are with athletes. When things go well, we are happy to claim responsibility and take the credit. Conversely, when things go awry, we are strangely tempted to absolve ourselves of responsibility and suggest that somebody else, or events outside of our control, were to blame. At times we can indulge in some impressive mental acrobatics and inventive post rationalisation to deny our own involvement in adverse outcomes and dodge our share of the responsibility when things go wrong.

Let us not confuse rationalizing with rational - the two are almost always exact opposites
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Not least to counter this tendency, @@agency is a critical concept to introduce early with athletes (and other members of the support staff), and reinforce regularly thereafter@@. It is important for athletes to acknowledge the fact that their choices serve to determine their reality. Whatever actions the athlete takes (or chooses not to take), and in turn the outcomes that follow, are ultimately a reflection of these choices.

It is particularly critical to highlight agency and accountability in scenarios with negative outcomes. Moreover, as coaches and leaders we need to model this accountability with our own actions. It is important for the athlete to see that we are the first to put our hand up and accept responsibility for our choices and actions when things go wrong.

Equally, @@it is incumbent on us to call out behaviour that is contrary to taking responsibility@@. We cannot let things slide and give athletes or colleagues a pass when they attempt to deny responsibility or distance themselves from adverse outcomes. To change our future behaviour and make better decisions moving forwards first requires taking responsibility for past choices and our role in events, particularly in cases where the outcome was not positive.

REALISATION OF CHOICE…

It is true that athletes are often subject to a host of influences, expectations, and perceived obligations when they make choices. Nevertheless the power to choose still resides with them.

In some circumstances the athlete may have opted consciously or unconsciously to abdicate responsibility to a parent, advisor, or an agent. Even so it is necessary is bring to the individual’s attention that it remains their choice to proceed in this way. Given that they were party to events, and so everything leading up to the present situation was de facto by their consent, there needs to a reckoning with the fact that they are in the present position effectively by their own choosing.

The suggestion that our present circumstances are the result of our choices can be confronting, particularly when negative events have befallen us. When we find ourselves in a situation that does not serve us it is very difficult to acknowledge our role in the chain of events that led up to it. Whilst it may seem uncharitable to point this out, equally it is necessary to face this reality. Confronting the truth of our own involvement is what sets us free. This is the crucial first step that allows us to arrive at the realisation that by extension it remains within our power to change our present circumstances and take a different path moving forwards.

Mongo only pawn in Game of Life...
— 'Mongo' (actor Alex Karras) in 1974 classic 'Blazing Saddles'

It is also important to confront and combat the notion that when things go awry we need outside intervention to resolve the situation. Once again, abdicating responsibility and deferring to others to get us out of sticky situations ultimately does nothing to help us become better equipped to navigate such circumstances moving forwards.

Once again, @@agency provides the means to get the athlete out of a victim mindset@@, whereby everything that befalls them in their life is due to external circumstance and forces outside of their control.

Indeed even when unknowable external events do befall us, we should recognise that we still have agency over our emotional response in these circumstances. We have control over how we perceive such events, how we interpret the situation, and how we choose to respond.

You have a choice...
— Dan Pfaff

It is sometimes the case that the choices we face are unpalatable. Athletes may be confronted with difficult choices when determining their future direction, particularly in relation to relationships with coaches and other members of their support team. The decision to change coach, therapy provider, or team are undoubtedly among the most harrowing choices athletes have to make. Equally, choosing to take no action is still a choice, and that too has consequences.

TACTICS TO FOSTER SENSE OF AGENCY IN PRACTICE AND TRAINING DELIVERY…

There are some tactics we can utilise in how we deliver session to encourage a sense of agency. For instance, there is scope for us to incorporate some element of choice within how we deliver sessions. For instance, we can provide a limited selection of pre-determined options, and permit the athlete to choose between them. Simply allowing the choice between two or more preset alternatives reportedly increases perceived sense of agency and feelings of control over outcomes.

It appears that this small allowance of limited choice is sufficient for the athlete to feel more actively involved in the process. Such feelings of control may increase when provided with a greater number of alternatives to choose from.

An extension of this approach is the practice of allowing athletes to select which of the workouts provided for the week they will perform on the respective training day. This approach has been given the grand term auto-regulation. Note that the athlete still performs the same workouts as prescribed each week, they are simply allowed to select the order, and choose from the available sessions on the scheduled training days.

PROVIDING CHOICE VERSUS CEDING AUTHORITY…

An important distinction is that allowing the athlete to select from preset options provided goes some way short of what is advocated by academic constructs, such as self determination theory. Young athletes in particular should absolutely be afforded the opportunity for free play and unstructured informal practice. However, the purpose of supervised sessions is to enlist the expertise of the coach, so that the athlete receives appropriate direction, instruction, training provision, and opportunity to learn under guidance.

At one point in my career I served as coaching director for a programme providing physical and athletic preparation to youth sports athletes. The individual who was nominally in charge became enamoured with self determination theory, and encouraged the coaches who worked with the programme to adopt this approach when delivering supervised sessions. As is often the case with the social sciences, there was a gap here between the theory and the realities of the practical setting.

In the context of supervised practices, the training environment, and the structure and content of the session are necessarily the domain of the coach. @@Autonomy is the end goal when it comes to athletes’ structured practice or formal preparation, not the starting point@@. The athlete, and parents in the case of young athletes, certainly still have agency under these conditions. They choose which coach or team to enlist with from the available options locally. They choose to attend each practice or training session. And the athlete continuously chooses how they engage with the training provided. But having agency does not mean that they determine practice.

Some wisdom shared by a very experienced (and highly successful) coach I worked with was that programmes should be athlete-centred, but made the important distinction from being athlete-led. My experience delivering a programme for youth athletes with back pain illustrates this point. At the end of the eight weeks we asked the kids their favourite and least favourite activities, and what they needed to carry on working on to continue to relieve symptoms and improve function. Almost without exception, their least favourite activities were also the ones that they grudgingly acknowledged they needed to continue working on.

It seems a stretch to expect that young athletes will self select activities that they struggle with. Studies that examine habitual practice activities report that the majority choose to practice what they are good at, and it is only the best performers that deviate from this. So it turns out there are good reasons why we as coaches should determine the selection of practice activities and exercises employed in training, particularly with less experienced athletes.

Over a period of time we can and should permit the athlete increasing freedom to choose within the supervised training environment, and make more important decisions when it comes to their preparation. With time we might see a progression from the coach having 100% control over training prescribed, to affording increasing input, then working collaboratively with the athlete to devise the plan, and finally arriving at a situation where the athlete steers the ship and the coach has more of a consulting role.

The critical point here is that the athlete needs to earn this right. It is only having attained the necessary level of understanding under the guidance of suitably qualified and experienced coaches that the athlete arrives at a position where they are able to make informed decisions.

The reader should note that the progression described tends to be a multi-year process with senior athletes. The idea that this level of autonomy should be given to a teenager is stretching credulity, to say the least. In the first instance (and likely for some time to come) there needs to be a grown up in charge, and that grown up should be a suitably qualified and experienced coach.

IN SUMMARY…

@@The concept of agency emphasises the active role of the athlete in both the process and the outcome@@. Heightened awareness of agency promotes self efficacy, and ultimately develops a sense of autonomy. Equally important, with agency comes accountability.

Agency and accountability should be standard themes in the daily training environment that we create for our athletes and staff. We should regularly highlight to the athlete (or team member) that they are here by their own volition. It merits emphasising that whatever actions they take are quite voluntary. Essentially, whatever they do is ultimately by their own choosing.

Something that should be made explicit early in the process, and reinforced regularly, is that choices and actions have consequences. We should as readily take our share of the responsibility when things go wrong, just as we are quick to accept credit for the wins. It does not serve ourselves or others when we permit attempts to blame others or abdicate this responsibility.

Finally, we can foster a sense of agency within practice and training by providing opportunities to autoregulate which of the workouts prescribed to perform on a given day, or permitting some degree of choice between pre-determined options. This is not the same as allowing the athlete to determine practice. Over time they might attain the necessary understanding and earn the right to more input over the plan and session content, but it will be a journey to arriving at such a degree of autonomy.

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