In this latest offering we explore some of the traits that differentiate the best coaches and practitioners in their fields. One disclaimer before we start is that this post is based on observational study. To some degree the themes we explore reflect wisdom shared by prominent individuals via different forums and media. However, I unapologetically give more weight to traits and behaviours that I have directly observed. I have been fortunate to interact with a representative sample of these exceptional individuals across multiple sports in various contexts; this has provided the opportunity to see how they approach their work with ‘live’ athletes in different scenarios, as opposed to how individuals claim they act and operate in practice. The themes we explore are therefore more a product of this direct observation, rather than simply distilling what has been presented elsewhere.
Practitioners across different domains will be familiar with their field of practice being referred to as an 'industry'. We frequently hear mention of the strength and conditioning industry, the sports physiotherapy industry, even the sports coaching industry. In this post we consider these trends for terming our professions in this way, and explore why an 'industry approach' might be problematic. From these discussions we can attempt to plot a path back to cultivating our craft, and restoring pride in our chosen profession by rejecting this ‘industry’ mindset.
The word 'culture' is often thrown around in the context of teams and organisations. Everybody is talking about culture. Despite being a nebulous term and intangible in nature, culture is cited over and over again by teams and organisations. Everybody seems to be in agreement that culture is critical to success in different realms, even if we are not necessarily clear on what it is. Culture is simultaneously cited as both the root cause and universal solution to all ills. In this post we will try to get a handle on the 'C' word. More importantly we will attempt to get to the bottom of what creates culture, and explore how we might go about effecting a change in team or organisational culture.
It is a common viewpoint that ego stunts personal growth, and most would agree that ego undermines our effectiveness as coaches and practitioners. What is less often considered is that unconstrained ego similarly obstructs progress and discovery in the areas of scientific study that exist to inform practice. At present the respective disciplines encompassed within coaching science, sports science and sports medicine are plagued with these difficulties. Einstein famously quoted to the effect that ego has an inverse relationship to knowledge – “more the knowledge, lesser the ego; lesser the knowledge, more the ego”. Yet researchers in the fields of sports science and sports medicine are showing themselves to be particularly prone to ego and the excesses associated with it. In this post we tackle the issue of ego in sports science and sport medicine, and attempt to plot a path back to sanity.
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.
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.
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.