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’.
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.