Worth a shout?
Dr Matt long encourages middle distance coaches to consider their spatial location and potential to verbalise during competition.
Adjacent to p.215 within Sebastian Coe's autobiography Running My Life is an iconic image of father and coach Peter kneeling at the side of a Zurich track. Coe senior has hands cupped to mouth with his son recalling that he was "cheered on by my father yelling out split times". The image of the bespectacled Peter Coe in a trademark red jacket encapsulates the significance of both spatial locations of the coach and the potential to make a verbal intervention during competition. The date is August 19th 1981, and Seb is on his way to a new world mile record (3m 48.53s) at the Weltklasse.
Plenty has been written about good practice about the way coaches offer 'terminal feedback' to athletes after a training session or competition. Less has been researched about 'concurrent feedback' (Galligan et al. 2000), which coaches can choose to give during the competition itself. Davis et al. (2000) term this 'exteroceptive feedback' because it is ordinarily underpinned by coaching observation. Jowett et al. (2007) have stressed the importance of building a productive coach-athlete relationship, and this article explores this dynamic in a middle distance competition context.
Focused interviews with a sample of 11 well-established middle distances coaches and mentors were conducted to explore:
Some in the sample took a non-interventionist stance. BMC President Norman Poole, for instance, argued that athletes "have to learn to handle situations themselves". Birchfield Harriers coach Phil Sargeant endorsed this position, who claimed athletes in the proverbial 'zone' "may not want to hear voices of their coaches", blocking them out as they would any other spectator. A strong advocate of planning before and debriefing after races, Poole likened his athletes to pugilists by using the boxing analogy of proverbially being "on your own in the ring" during the heat of competition. He was convinced that athletes who learn their "racing craft" through self-sufficiency can handle even world-class competition at a young chronological age. The best practice example of Steve Cram was offered, who took the 1983 world 1,500m title aged just 22 years. BMC Academy Director David Lowes echoed these sentiments by stating, "The need for 'encouragement' from the coach, although useful, should not be expected. Athletes need to train to 'encourage' themselves inwardly without expecting external cues" (See Lowes, 2013).
In advocating the cautious use of intervention, Horwill scholarship winner Jamie French felt that "coach-led feedback can raise awareness of external factors that the athlete was unaware of". With specific reference to 800m running, England Athletics (Midlands Area Endurance Coach Mentor) Geoff James said, "I position myself at the 600m point as it's the critical point in the race". He continued, "I question the value of coaches locating themselves in the home straight. It's just too late to make a verbal intervention on the 2nd lap after athletes have begun to kick for home". Significantly James chooses to make 'paratelic' (process) based interventions rather than 'telic' (goal) based ones (Smith and Apter, 1975). With specific reference to his work with a BUCS medallist, he continued, "I tend to give one command only. I may shout 'hands' to denote that she keeps placing her thumbs on her fingers as she begins to tire or 'head position' to try and avoid her shoulders tensing". Birchfield coach and team manager Dave Lawrence endorsed this process-based intervention philosophy, which stressed the importance of the athlete's coach's knowledgeability. "You must observe what your athlete tends to do wrong in training and then make a decision about what one thing you are going to try and prevent them from doing at a critical point in the race". Lawrence pointed out that the coach cannot attend all of the athlete's races in a season, let alone their career and that an 'over-dependency' of the athlete on the coach was unhealthy.
The above links to a broader debate about 'overcoaching' (Goldsmith, 2012), which was alluded to by Jenny Harris (National Coach Mentor Youth Endurance). She forewarned, "You can overcomplicate the mind of the young athlete by giving them information overload. I believe the athlete's body does not learn to respond when coaches overly intervene in the heat of battle in a race". Perceptively, she noted that "If you are going to intervene during a race, there should be no set place. One needs to be athlete-focused". Like James, she utilises command-based words such as 'push' or 'pick your pace up' to avoid information overload. National Coach Mentor Neville Taylor reiterated this point about overload, who commented that "The trick is not to say too much. You should have dealt with the technical side of things in training". The man who coached Wendy Sly to a Los Angeles Olympic 3,000m silver in 1984 added that "Never be critical with an athlete during a race. If l am within earshot down the back straight and my athlete is stuck on the curb, I may shout 'Get out now'". The point made by Harris about an athlete-centered approach was also emphasised by Shaftesbury Barnet coach Nadeem Shaikh, who spoke of "needing to know the individual as well as the athlete", reminding us that athletes are diverse and learn in different ways.
Former UKA National Trainer Jeremy Harries, who once guided the careers of John Nuttall and Helen Clitheroe, confirmed that he always chose to locate himself between the 300m and 200m point, whether it be an 800m or 1,500 involving his athlete(s). "I could view the race unfolding better from the vantage point of the back straight away from a crowded home straight". This was a deliberate strategy, "to give both my athlete and myself breathing space after the race. They have time to gather their thoughts and to reflect while walking over to the back straight, and so do you". Significantly Harries indicated that he utilised both 'process' and 'goal' based interventions. An example of the latter may be the call to the said athlete that "X is 15 metres behind and closing in on you winning this race".
'Goal' based interventions were referred to by City of Stoke AC coach Alan Morris. He has guided GB 800m athlete Emma Jackson to a 4th placing in the Delhi Commonwealth Games and a Daegu world championship semi-final. In echoing the sentiments of David Lowes, Morris commented that "It depends on the level of athlete you are dealing with. Experienced athletes tend not to need interventions". Morris will adopt an entirely different approach for teenage athletes compared to trackside interventions made with Jackson. "I tend to shout, 'come on, keep it up' in the middle of the race or 'finish it off' as they began their final sprint to the finish".
Poole and Sargeant's points about abstaining from the intervention are paramount when considering that many championship events from English schools upwards make an effective verbal intervention in noisy environments almost impossible. In a similar vein, comments made by Lowes remind us that the type of coaching intervention made may depend on the level of emotional maturation of the athlete. (See Long and French, 2013). James' point about coaches who locate themselves in the home straight raises the issue of whether, by doing so, they are performing the role of coach or have 'gone native' as a spectator. Jenny Harris' point about information overload reminds us that middle distance athletes cannot process fundamental questions at their pace and with that level of physical exertion. Jeremy Harris' comments indicate that athlete-centered coaching interventions can involve both process and goal, thus affecting a reversal between 'paratelic' and 'telic' psychological states. His point about both athlete and coach needing their proverbial and literal 'space' in the immediate aftermath of competition is pertinent if said athlete has underperformed. It gives the coach time for composure and rational thought. This is congruent with Deci et al.'s (1999) finding that positive performance feedback enhances the future intrinsic motivation of the athlete. This famously didn't occur when a tearful Paula Radcliffe and husband and coach Gary Lough were involved in an altercation moments after she had stepped off the Edmonton track after missing out on a medal at the 2001 world championships.
Comments by Morris remind us we need to consider the developmental age of athletes in terms of their emotional, social and psychological maturation, as much as biological age and physiological development. His point about non-intervention for the mature athlete, along with Harris' concerns about the dangers of over-intervention, are important reminders that the coach should be attempting to make the athlete responsible. This is supported by the notion of 'Autonomy Support' provided by Cognitive evaluation theorists in emphasising that athletes are "individuals deserving self-determination and not mere pawns that should be controlled to obtain a certain outcome" (Mageau et al. 2003). Shaikh offers us massive insight that only some athletes will learn from verbal intervention. These aural learners will respond to hearing voices but consider Fleming's (2005) VARK model, and we know that other athletes learn best for instance through images or only doing things.
Neville Taylor gives us a perspective on both the need for unconditional positive regard and the ability to make tactical interventions. Dave Lawrence's comments encourage coaches to think about developing an unconscious competence in transferring good practice from training to a racing context.
The information on this page is adapted from Long (2013) with the author's kind permission and the editor of BMC News.
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long is a British Athletics Coach Education Tutor and volunteer coach with Birmingham University AC.