The secrets of success with high-level athletes
James Marshall reviews how a coach should work with high-level athletes.
Coaching athletes at all levels calls for a variety of skills; depending on the support structure, the coach is likely to have to be motivator, technical expert, psychologist, bus driver, kit-carrier, administrator and manager, to name but a few of the obvious roles.
When coaching a group of athletes, the coach will have to deal with varying levels of experience and ability as well as differing personalities. And as the athletes in the group develop, the coach may have to change his or her coaching style to ensure continued success.
Several presentations at a conference of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) in Vancouver highlighted research into what successful coaches of high-level athletes are doing right and how this can be replicated in other environments.
It seems that successful coaching of high-level athletes involves a much more consensual process than the do-as-I-say approach which may be used for beginners. High-level athletes need to have much more input into goal setting and the structure of training. They also need to be more responsible for regulating themselves.
Perception and effective management of stress is also an important factor. High stress environments lead to athlete burnout. Good coaches recognise this, and they also appreciate the other demands placed on their athletes, whether they be full-time professionals or very good amateurs who have to balance competition with study or employment. Athletes who have good communication with the coach tend to perceive the environment as less stressful.
So would a laissez-faire approach to training be suitable for beginners? What about teaching the fundamental skills necessary for competence in a sport? Is there a place for the autocratic coach in the continuum from beginner to world champion? These questions may already have been answered in a different field.
In sport, the research may just be confirming what is already known elsewhere. In business, Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey have explained the need for adaptive management styles in their theory of 'Situational Leadership (Mersey et al. 2001). They developed this model in the late 1960s, basing it on the belief that people are more or less able and more or less willing to do certain tasks.
Depending on the situation, the leader would then be required to do one of the following:
Directing, according to this model, would be appropriate for people who have limited skills and need to be told specifically what to do. Constant feedback is required to allow such people to gauge their progress;
Coaching is needed when a person has certain skills, is keen to train and can progress on certain tasks without supervision. Once they have reached a certain level, they need new challenges to get their teeth into;
Support is for people who have some idea of what they want to do but may need help with the process. They are not as competent as they may think just yet, so they will need guidance;
Delegation is for people who have reached a level of competence in their skills and have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. They want to retain contact for occasional feedback, but see themselves as partners rather than subordinates.
Situational leadership allows for the development of individuals along a path from high dependence, through interdependence to independence. And it may be a useful model for coaches who have found that their style works at certain levels or with particular individuals but not universally. There are certain key points for coaches to consider, that can be linked to recent sporting research.
Because the model is task-specific, it is possible to have high-level performers requiring direction when a new task presents itself. In sporting terms, think of the introduction of the diamond midfield formation to the England football team. While these players are clearly elite in terms of their skills (with the possible exception of taking penalties!) and require a delegating style of coaching for normal passing and tackling drills, the introduction of a new tactic called for a more autocratic directing style.
Was the players' subsequent inability to come to terms with the formation because they were unwilling to do so, or because they were not offered the most appropriate style of coaching support?
Experienced players are most likely to learn new skills if they are given the chance to structure and schedule their own self-regulated practice (Wu and Magill 2004). So, while a directing style may be appropriate when introducing the skill, it is probably best to allow the players to arrange the practice for themselves (supporting style).
Successful Japanese coaches have been shown to construct a healthy relationship with their athletes that encourages commitment to deliberate practice (Katsuro et al. 2004). If your players are handed a schedule requiring little or no input from them, how can they commit to deliberate practice? On the other hand, giving them the opportunity to organise their own practice sessions will make the athletes feel trusted and enable them to learn at their own pace.
Using this same tactic with less experienced athletes could result in disaster, though; if you have ever coached basketball players, you may have experienced the 'slam dunk' mentality of beginners when left to their own devices! For such people, a directing and coaching style may be more suitable and the gradual introduction of 10 minutes per session of free practice will enable the players to develop a sense of responsibility for their own progress.
If you are coaching a group of athletes, does every individual in that group require the same style of coaching? Some athletes may be suffering from loss of form and need more support, while others will be irritated by constant feedback and prefer more autonomy in their practice sessions.
If you are coaching a national or regional squad, you will have some players who are new to the squad and others who are very experienced at that level. A new player may need a directing style to facilitate the introduction of tactics and skills for that team; but it may be hard for him to adapt to this approach if he was the top competitor at his previous club and used to having much more input into coaching decisions.
Should a team be coached differently from an individual? A great deal of research effort has gone into determining whether a team requires a more autocratic directing style or a more consensual delegating approach than individuals. The bottom line is that team cohesion has been shown to be higher when the coach involves the players in decision-making (Brawley et al. 1993). But whether team cohesion itself is important for team performance remains to be proven (Paskevich et al. 2001).
Whatever style you choose to adopt, in whatever situation and with whichever athlete, clear and effective communication is of paramount importance - from athlete to coach as well as from coach to athlete. Everyone needs some input from the coach, especially as they become better at their sport. Failure to provide this input will result in disgruntled athletes.
Coakley, who studied high-level teenage athletes and interviewed those who suffered from burnout, has shown this in past research (Coakley 1993). Poor communication from coaches led the teenagers to perceive a low level of personal control over of the situation in which they trained. This, in turn, left them feeling stressed and unable to cope. He also found that burned-out athletes tended to have too much of their sense of self invested in being athletes, with little or no balance in terms of rewarding personal lives. Despite the fact that this research is 12 years old, it is still quite common for coaches to be poor communicators, either because they lack the skills or the will to communicate effectively. Sporting environments marked by poor communication lead to perceptions - among the athletes - of a controlling and pressuring structure (Noblett & Gifford 2002) (Black & Smith2004). By contrast, when a coach communicates training plans well, the athletes perceive the environment as informative and supporting (Kabush 2004).
However, in order to communicate the training plan, the coach must first have a plan! Successful coaches have been shown to be very meticulous in their planning, leaving nothing to chance. They also plan their sessions so that they are highly sport specific. High-level athletes may have little tolerance for non-sporting related activities, and if they have a competition coming up they want their training to reflect the reality of competition (Young and Salmela 2002).
New skills and tactics should not be introduced during the lead-up to competition, when the team needs to focus on rehearsal and reinforcement of strategies and tactics that are known to be successful. Following a plan that is well thought-out and well communicated will help to build and maintain athletes' confidence in their training.
In summary, coaching high-level athletes involves much more than imparting skills, which an athlete should already have if he or she is a member of a high-level squad. Instead, the coach must create a healthy competitive environment that allows the athletes to succeed, breeding self confidence and further success.
Coaches should remember to:
The information on this page is adapted from Marshall (2003) with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.
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About the Author
James Marshall runs Excelsior, a sports training company and can be contacted through his website at www.excelsiorgroup.co.uk.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: