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Athlete Ownership - How?

Lance Smith explains how we should develop thinking athletes.

Athlete input stands on two primary principles. One is athlete ownership, and two is thinking athletes. How do we give athletes the right to athletics?  By making them think. And how do we make them think? By giving them ownership.   

And if it is their sport and they own it, they must assume the responsibilities of ownership.  The coach guides, motivates, helps, teaches, and inspires but does not control. An athlete who goes in a different direction from the coach cannot be coached. It is that simple.  If that were the case, it would be better for all if the athlete found another coach. But when the coach and athlete have common goals, shared philosophy, and agreement on how objectives are to be achieved, a significant coaching relationship is established. That can only happen with athlete input and means the athletes contribute to the coaching process.

To be successful with "athlete ownership", the coach must ensure athletes are aware they have a role to play in the planning and learning process and are prepared to accept the athlete's wishes. This is not without argument or discussion as the coach's expertise and experience are still critical. In the end, however, you have the final say – if the athlete's desires or goals are contrary to your beliefs or conscience, you can always terminate the coaching relationship.

It all starts with communication. Your athletes must know what you want to achieve, and what is expected of them, what your philosophy is. And you must know their goals, their priorities, their feelings. And it pays to have as much of this as possible in writing. Let us look at ways the coach can initiate athlete input.

Goal setting

Goal setting is more than a psychological tool for athletes. It is also the foundation of the coach-athlete partnership; part of the communication process while at the same time enabling athletes to set the criteria for their sport.

I like to start with a look backward, at the season gone as seen by the athlete.  What were the highlights, the disappointments, were goals achieved, if so, why, if not, why not? While such information is not essential to the coaching process, it does encourages the athlete to think about their sport and themselves. Then we look ahead. Athletes are asked to write down their training, performance, and competition goals pre-season. They should be given some time to think about it, and you should be involved as this will help reinforce the athlete-coach team concept. But it must be understood that it is the athlete's goals that are being sought, not the coach's.

I give a form to each athlete at the start of each season. Athletes who compete in summer or winter only also have to complete it, as I want them to think about what they do and want to achieve in the off-season.

The athlete needs to think about the season ahead, know what is coming up, and consider what the main focus will be. Start with competition goals – what are the crucial competitions and the expectations for them. Then look at the training goals, which makes the athlete consider strengths and weaknesses, what needs to be worked on, and what performance targets should be aimed at? The competition goals and performance/training goals are by necessity closely linked or should be.

Someone who has the top 3 national champs in the steeplechase as a competition goal should, for instance, give thought to whether hurdle technique needs to be emphasised as a training goal, or should more time be spent on improving stamina.  Or, a girl who puts top 3 national secondary schools 1500m as a competition goal and breaking 5 minutes as a performance goal must reconsider her performance or competition goal as 5 minutes will not get her into the top 3. The goal setting exercise forces coach and athlete to do some thinking

And you need to look longer term, as what you do now has a bearing on what happens next year, and the year after, and the year after that. So if the World Youth or Junior Champs in two years is an objective, what is done now and next year will be important, as are the goals set for this season and next. 

As we all know, goals should be based on what coaches and athletes can control.  Winning a particular race is not entirely within one's control – the other competitors have a bearing on the outcome – but being good enough to win is well within an athlete's control.  So make sure the athlete thinks about that when goal setting.

And encourage your athletes to dream too … it might get them thinking a bit more. If they dream about being an Olympian they will have to think about how they get there … and when … which also comes back to their long-term goals.


An athlete cannot race well week in and week out. As well as being physically tiring, racing is mentally draining. An athlete mentally tired is unable to concentrate on the job, that is, racing effectively.

Prioritising allows coaching and training to be planned around the important races, but just as importantly, it gives athlete input and is a basis for coach and athlete to be a team.

An effective system is based on a 1-2-3 grading. Before the season starts the athletes go through the season programme and mark races as A1, 2, or 3.  A1 is an important race, one they want to do their best in. A2 is a race they will run hard but not freshen up or mentally motivate themselves for, or it may be an under or over-distance race. Then there are the category A3 races, events of little importance that the athlete wants to do or support but where the result does not matter, even to the extent of taking the race easy.

It is preferable to have no more than 4 or 5 category 1 races in a harrier season and around 5 or 6 over the athlete's main distance in a track season. However, category one might only be one race – club champs, national champs, Olympics, whatever. And such priorities can be set years ahead.

Mental fatigue or staleness has as big, perhaps bigger, influence on performance as physical fatigue or over-training. By prioritising athletes hopefully will do brilliantly in the important events and what is more, the important ones will be their choice.

Train the Brain

Getting athletes to think is not just in the planning stages … it is also during training.

I consider that there are four stages in learning to run.  First is being able to run, and most have mastered that. Then there is the ability to run well, which not everyone can do. Then there is the ability to run fast, and in most cases, that must be learned and certainly in all cases, be practiced. Finally is the ability to race. The last two are where the coach becomes essential.

Racing well demands concentration, focus, pace judgement, decision-making, planning, confidence, attention, and mental application. All involve using the brain.   This is probably the most difficult aspect of coaching – getting athletes to think, run, or jump with their brains.

Now, we know every training activity should have a purpose, which means the coach must understand the desired outcome of a session or series of sessions and plan accordingly.  But usually, the "brain" part of the equation is overlooked in the planning.

Therefore the coach should set what I call a learning objective for a training session as well as the physical or physiological objective, and include both in the overall planning.

The physical objective is the fitness/strength/speed requirement, and this usually determines the structure and content of the session. The learning objective is a skill or psychological factor you want to be learned or practiced. Defining both objectives when planning the session helps achieve balance and progression in training. 

Some examples of learning objectives for a distance runner.  Pace judgement, finishing kick, jumping (cross country jumps, steeplechase), changing pace, relaxation, fast starts, avoiding being boxed in, agility, overtaking, uphill running, downhill running, running technique - one or more of these can be included in any training session.  Note, all involve thinking and decision making, and using the brain.

To give an example.  An athlete is doing 1k reps with physical objective VO2max development.  There is a learning objective here too … pace judgement.  VO2max pace is specific … too fast and the training effect is lost, too slow, and likewise. So why not emphasise the rep times and compliment the athlete for getting close or right on the stipulated time.  Have the athlete think about pace, particularly keeping an even pace rather than thinking about doing reps.   Make it the focus of the session … the physical requirement of oxygen uptake will take care of itself anyway. Then you may also want him to concentrate on running tall throughout each rep, particularly over the latter stages when tired.   As we all know, technique falls to pieces when fatigue sets in – maintaining good technique when tired demands mental concentration and is something that needs to be practiced. The athlete is now thinking and is training the brain.

Another example.  The ability to change pace or develop a finishing kick is more than increasing speed  – most distance runners, for instance, increase the pace by increasing cadence but continue with a distance running technique or they try to increase stride length with a risk of over striding. What they do not do is change from a distance technique to a sprint action.  This is a skill that can be acquired and practiced by adding a learning objective to a rep session. A session of say, 600's at 1500m goal pace could have the athlete suddenly increase knee lift, leg drive, and arm drive and sprint for the final 50 metres.   Or maybe increase the pace for 50 metres in the middle of each rep to imitate a mid-race surge. This becomes all the more relevant if the athlete has identified improving finishing kick as a training goal.   When the thinking in training is linked to the thinking of goal setting and prioritising, the athlete starts to take ownership.

Setting and discussing learning objectives with the athletes will possibly mean no changes whatsoever to your training sessions – apart from giving a different mindset to the session. But you will have the athlete thinking throughout the session, practising to run with the brain as well as the feet. And there is added scope for feedback (or feedfront) for as discussed, Developing Thinking Athletes", feedback is a crucial factor in promoting athlete awareness.

Strengths, Weaknesses, and Self Awareness

Feedback (and feed-front), self-awareness, and self-confidence are all interrelated. The confident athlete will more readily provide feedback, and the self-aware athlete will provide more valuable feedback.  The simple self-awareness profile form I give athletes forces them to think about themselves.  The information you get may or may not be important or useful – the aware coach already knows it; what is important is the information the athlete gets about them.

Letting Go

Now, there is one aspect of athlete ownership that you should be prepared for … letting go. A lot has been written and discussed on recruiting and retaining athletes, and the problem of early and late teen dropouts.   But what about the other side of the coin? What when an athlete says, "enough, I want to do something else?"

All too frequently, athletes stress out because they did not know how to say "enough". Usually, it was because they do not want to hurt the coach's feelings. Coaches also feel the stress, often because they think an athlete's lack of interest is personal – somehow they think they are failing as a coach.

If an athlete is not enjoying the sport, they should not be in it. And if we agree that the athlete comes first, we must also agree that the coach has a responsibility to an athlete when interest wanes.  Athletes losing interest is a situation most of us have to deal with sometimes or other.

Lack of interest may be short-term, and it may be permanent. It may apply only to specific events the runner who hates hilly races dislikes a particular stadium, is stressed by exams, loss of confidence, mental staleness, or performance anxiety.  As coaches, we must be aware of these. But it may mean the athlete has had enough and wants to try something else.

Supporting an athlete who leaves the sport is the ultimate recognition of athlete ownership.

Let us face it; not everyone holds a lifetime interest in a sport or subject.  Some do, but not all – look at all the train sets, stamp albums, roller skates, golf clubs, and Harry Potter books hiding away in cupboards because interest was supplanted by something else. And do not worry about the so-called "burnout".   If there is love for the sport, they will not burn out.  A loss in interest could be a natural progression.  No one ever called losing interest in collecting stamps "burnout".

More often lack of motivation is short-term, and the most frequent causes are staleness and pressure, or more frequently a combination of the two.   The pressures of training and racing can and often do build up until the athlete becomes stale.  This is the mental equivalent of overtraining.   Physical fatigue is fixed by easing back or resting, and the same goes for mental fatigue.  The brain says "enough".

Imagine a lift with a limit of 10 passengers.  If an 11th person gets in the lift will not work.  The brain is like the lift, stress is the passengers.  The brain can handle a certain number of stresses, add another, and there is a shut down that can vary from a loss of interest to mood changes to withdrawal and denial.  Exams can add another passenger to the lift.  Expectations, loss of confidence, car breaking down, needing the money, and hundreds of other pressures can add more passengers.

And often that one stress too many is the stress of competition.  Adding the stress of a race or commitment to training can put one too many passengers in the lift.  So the brain gets overloaded.   In this situation, the solution is simple. Do not race.  Ease off and let enthusiasm return. When a lack of confidence or performance anxiety is a race-day concern, the athlete should be encouraged to have fun rather than go for performance or placing.  Or suggest the athlete races without expectations. Make more races a category three priority, or even a category 4 – being a spectator.  If motivation does not return, the athlete needs to move on to other interests as mentioned.

However, overcoming the temporary loss of motivation is only possible with athlete input … you MUST know what the athlete is thinking … the athlete MUST communicate what he or she is feeling.  No communication, no chance of teamwork. And do not forget the "we" and the communication goes both ways. Before you start coaching an athlete, that athlete should know what you expect of them and what he or she can expect from you.

At the 2005 Australian Coaching Congress noted coach Gary Bourne presented a paper on "Structuring the Successful Development of Emerging Elite Athletes".  He suggested the structure starts with establishing the foundations for a long-term relationship by setting some ground rules and recommends the coach develop a written agreement that lists the responsibilities of both coach and athlete.

Every coach's contract or ground rules should differ as it is a personal statement reflecting the individual coach's principles and coaching philosophy.  I have my rules, and they are given to a new athlete before they start with the training group.  I treat it as a written but unsigned contract between coach and athlete – unsigned because it is built on trust, perhaps the most important part of a coach-athlete relationship and the best basis for building athlete input.

The steps to athlete Ownership

It is well accepted that asking for feedback – having athletes think through and comment on an action or strategy – is more effective than athletes being told what to do, i.e. athlete input.

But athlete input only works when you have "thinking athletes".   If athletes do not know their event, their sport, opportunities available (including pathways), and most of all do not know themselves, theyand cannot contribute to the coaching process.  Knowing yourself means knowing your motivations, understanding what drives you, what presses your buttons, what strengths and weaknesses are, both physical and mental, and knowing your preferred learning styles.

Athletes know themselves better than a coach does – how they are feeling, what they understand or do not understand, what works best for them, what races or competitions they wish to take part in,  what their goals are and commitments outside of athletics.

This thinking was encouraged by motivational belief shifting from pre-determined to self-determined and psychologists moving from stating our subconscious instincts shaped behaviour to conscious decision making, i.e. that we have free will – that motivation is a matter of choice.  And choice demands thinking.

So if an athlete were taught never to question authority, i.e. a coach, and that motivation was thought to be determined by external factors, you probably would never have a thinking athlete.  Unless athletes are encouraged to tell the coach their feelings, to think, and make decisions, there would be no athlete input.

Athlete input, of course, doe not just happen.  You will not have a raw beginner one day and an athlete making a significant contribution to his or coaching the next day – it is an ongoing, continually changing process that can be summarised in five steps: 

Coach tells athlete

This is the traditional model. Do it this way. Change that! It is all "coach input".

Coach asks athlete

This came from Hadfield's query theory from around 1994, whereby asking an athlete a question made learning more effective.  The athlete worked out the requirement by answering the question. This is the basis of feedback, where a question forces an athlete to come up with an answer or reaction. Now we start to have a "thinking athlete."

Athlete asks athlete

If a coach asking a question of an athlete is effective, and it is, then an athlete questioning himself is even more effective. It signifies an athlete is thinking, is aware, and not just reacting to someone else. The learning process is more effective too. 

Athlete asks coach

Now we have gone from feedback to feed front. This is when the athlete initiates action rather than reacting to it. It is unprompted comments and questions that show the athlete is aware, is confident, and is practising athlete input. Feedback is reactive.  Feedfront is proactive. 

Athlete tells coach 

Now the athlete is making decisions.  The coach may or may not agree, but it gives a basis for the coach-athlete team to discuss and work as a team.   The athlete's input is essential.  The analysis may be flawed or wrong, but the athlete is thinking, and it forces the coach to think, to consider other options.  But it can only work if the athletes know themselves, the event, and the sport including pathways ahead.

What is the significance of all this the athlete?  Simple, if he or she does not understand athlete input, does not buy into it, or cannot be bothered making decisions, it will never happen, no matter how much the coach wants it.

However, it is not the coach who stands on a step – it is the coach AND athlete.  A coach could be on different steps with different athletes.    So coaches and athletes need to work out which step they are standing on now, how long they stay there, and how to get to the next step.   Because that determines the way you work together as a team.  That means athlete input.

In short, do not leave it all to the coach; athletes need to understand they must contribute to the team.

So, when you apply the principles of self-determination and athlete ownership, you have motivation sorted.  

Page Reference

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About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in track events and jumps.