A couple of years back, UK Sport got in touch about help with coach and leadership development.

Recommendation had come from coaches already working there, who did not know each other. One was an expert in sports leadership, the other self-presentation. I’d worked with both.

I was hugely excited but nervous. The list of names already on the faculty – as it were – was very impressive. And being small, rotund and bookish…well, put it like this, there is nothing remotely Olympian about me physically…

But when briefed I understood that I’d been hired for creative rather than scientific input: I was to design and deliver ‘minimal toolkits’ for getting a message through. My sessions had names like ‘The Power of You’ ‘Do It Like Disney’ and ‘So Who Did You Say You Were?’

Even so, it remained daunting. My first evening there, a coach renowned for her toughness and gold medals, asked with disbelief ‘Are you coaching us tomorrow?’

When I nodded she replied ‘Good luck with that then’.

Design Decisions

I designed the coaching to be delivered in very short bursts, with lots of interactivity. And lots of moving around physically – as coaches are usually hyper-fit sportspeople and kinaesthetic learners, who know it when they feel it first, then when they see it.

There was little theory and loads of practical examples from Olympic heroes like Michael Johnson and Dame Tanni.

Getting the Elephant Through

Being a great coach involves being a most discerning editor: stripping out any content apart from what’s critical to hear to improve performance. (Maybe a message we can apply to our online content creation, too).

This stripping-out always reminds me of a probably-aprocryphal story about Michaelangelo. Sculpting an elephant, he got asked ‘How on earth do you do this?’

To which he is said to have replied: ‘Easy. I take away anything that isn’t elephant’.

Once the coaches have their elephant or key message, it’s then a matter of getting it through to the athlete.

Helpful questions can include:

  • What story suits the individual and fits with their autobiography?
  • How can the cause and effect be conveyed into vivid scenario, which considers feelings and fantasies?
  • What other themes in the athlete’s current environment reinforce the message?
  • Is the message immersive… delivered through sight, sound, sensing, scientific calibration and emotion?
  • Is anxiety blocking the message being heard – in which case does the coach need to be less parental and more adult-to-adult in relation to athlete?
  • Can the message be summed up in an action micro-mantra, which can be repeated endlessly … for instance ‘moving smoothly, moving freely’?


Top athletes can be acutely sensitive to environmental factors, as we’ve witnessed in bolstering of the UK team performance by home crowd reaction.

Coaches I worked with were notably lacking in ego (at least in outward behaviour) modest, other-focussed and highly reactive to learning. ‘Self-effacing and shy’ could be applied to a majority.

In other areas of their lives, there has often been considerable self-sacrifice.

Consider myself most lucky here to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience and that the coaches, and developers like UK Sport, are often unsung heroes.

So for all of them – and especially those in Gymnastics, Taekwondo, Dressage, Triathlon, Cycling and Hockey – please feel free to join me in some cyber applause, and make any comments below.

By szcz

4 thoughts on “Lessons From Coaching Olympic Coaches”
  1. MrsMoti. I found this very interesting. First of all, I share your call to applaud the efforts of so many people who have worked to make London 2012 a success.

    I was reminded yesterday that London 2012 was actually about competition and the pursuit of gold. At times feeling that the success of all athletes regardless if they achieved gold, was fantastic. If they achieved all they could in their pursuit, or in not achieving their potential on the day, what lessons have they extracted from the experience. And of course the athlete is the visible top of the pyramid, where so many other people make sacrifices and contribute. Tactically beyond London 2012, beyond gold, what is the potency of the national experience that provides fuel to change society? Nick Hastings made some comments about this that I also found interesting goo.gl/3jrxJ

    I have been curious about what makes the difference in effective coaching. There has been a lot of discussion about the success of cycling and what is the recipe for their success. Dave Brailsford raised up here near Caernarfon has had such an impact on the success in cycling, in the controlled environment of the velodrome and more recently in the chaotic world of road cycling. Shane Sutton made some comments about the difference in approach between focussing on the whole capability of the athlete in cycling when he contrasted with footballers who could only kick with one leg/foot. It was an amusing comment that held the potential, that in his wry humour there may be a great truth or revelation. (I’ve thought that humour/comedy has potency to carry messages when we are at our most relaxed and receptive, revelling in the fallacy of the human condition. @whatsthepont wrote recently about imagery in Summer School as carriers of messages goo.gl/g1Jmz).

    So whilst we search for a simple or transferrable solutions, there remains variation in approaches. And beyond sport coaching, the world of developmental and executive coaching there are so many perspectives offered to coaches as they develop.

    I liked the Michaelangelo reference. In so much of our communication, we wrap up our messages in layers of fancy paper that we believe holds the best chance of it being received openly and having an impact. In distilling some thought about coaching, getting to the essence of patterns and intent of our communication were the foundations for our work on watercoolercoaching goo.gl/RlRpr

    I remember that you worked with Steve Peters. I’ve found his ideas very interesting. Wondered what your thoughts are about those? Would make an interesting further posting if you had time.

    (And if I was a discerning editor, I’d probably have written this in two sentences !)

    Many thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks very much Dafydd for taking time to comment so fully.

      You’ve described a broad context here with some most useful links.

      Sadly I’ve not worked with Dr Peters – but know his work to be of great influence and much enjoyed his book The Chimp Paradox.

      All best for your own practice and appreciate you popping by.

  2. great article! very interesting – Now, do you do requests?
    I’d love to hear more about kinaesthetic learning, having been described as someone who learns this way myself, yet not having much idea as to what it means (beyond what you’ve said there)
    Also, the idea of the micro mantra! I love this, more on this too please!
    thank you for some great insight – fascinating

    1. Yes – I do take requests – but can’t run to a delivery date… .
      But in September lots of minds turn to self-improvement – new term and all that…
      Thanks a lot for these suggestions and will address them soon – and as ever appreciate your encouragement…

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