1.Athletes, especially young ones, have so much happening in their lives that our influence is minimal. Coaches need to realise this.
2. Periodisation planning is flawed in group settings in all but the most controlled environments (see #1). Every athlete doing your sessions has eaten, slept, socialised, studied and travelled differently from their peers. All of these influence the effectiveness of your programme.
3. Children are simply unable to throw. Parents would rather send them to an athletics or tennis club than play with their kids in the park. Time spent throwing stones into a river or the sea is time well spent. Encourage your athletes to play with their parents.
4. Fitness testing is overrated. I know that 16-18 year old girls are going to be weak. Measuring them and telling them what we already know is unlikely to motivate them.
5. Exploration and problem solving tasks lead to high engagement. For example, Pike head stands are hard, but help develop control, balance, strength and mobility.
Doing them looks cool, kids want to be able to do this. They practice in secret without being asked. Or, you could tell them to do 2 x20 ab curls and 30 seconds of plank…
6. Fartlek training (Speed Play) should be athlete led. They learn the rhythm of running as well as adapting to the undulating terrain and different environments. Why are college lecturers prescribing this on a treadmill? It ain’t fast and it ain’t fun.
7.Collaboration works better than competition for most kids. Parents have different views and some are obsessed with rating their children against others. UGH! Gymnastics displays to showcase their newly developed skills has proved popular with our members.
8. Growing and developing assistant coaches from within the club is better than asking for outside help. It takes more time, but we have benefited greatly this year from internal help. These volunteers understand our work ethic and culture.
9. I would take our group of athletes in our “Strength and co-ordination” sessions over any “professional” group I work with. These 9-13 year olds ask great questions of me, themselves and of each other. They come to each session prepared and ready to work.
10. A mix of: • Free practise • Partner work • Specific skills • Structured group work is how our gymnastics class has evolved. If we have some of each element, the class runs smoothly. Too much of any one aspect and we lose cohesion.
11. Listening to a good tune for 2-3 minutes after driving to a coaching session helps me transfer to coaching mode. I then start the session fresh #1 at present is “Lack of Afro’s Cold Blooded”
12. Technology is over rated. All my best coaching interactions have happened from face to face contact.
Listening, observing and learning from our athletes has been the best part of this year. I reflect after each session in my coaching journal using the Mark 1 pen and journal.
Thanks to everyone who helped
These were my reflections. My coaching improved in 2018 thanks to many people helping including:
Barry Phelan, Karen, Craig and Alex at Orchard Gymnastics.
Vern Gambetta and everyone at GAIN
Keith Morgan and Marius Hardiman for all things Weight Lifting
Simon Worsnop for helping set up our Athletic Development Coach course
My wife Sarah and all the athletes for keeping my feet firmly on the floor.
“If I want to get better, I need to know what better is.”
Wade Gilbert at GAIN
Wade Gilbert gave an excellent overview of the coaching process at his GAIN seminar. This also served as an overview of his excellent book of the same name.
His talk was split into 4 parts:
Examine: End of Season
Enhance: Off Season
He gave practical examples of what has worked from great coaches, and quoted liberally from many books. A good coach is “a teacher with a high energy level.” Said Tony Dungy in “Uncommon”.
Vision, values & standards
This is the time to set out where you intend to go in the upcoming season. Having a vision of where you want to be is essential to have a successful season.
A good coach will have a vision and be able to outline core values and corresponding behaviour standards for themselves and the team.
Standards ≠ Rules
Wade said it was better to look at the best principles that underpin successful teams and organisations rather than best practices.
Principles endure and can transfer to your team, practices are more likely to be environment, people and context specific.
No need for Iron Fist
“Accountability doesn’t require an Iron Fist, just a mutual understanding of what’s being asked and what’s at stake.”
Having behaviour standards for how you start training and competition help you become successful This can often include rituals at practices and competitions and serve as value reminders.
A great coach will be a visionary: “you have to be able to see round corners, see what athletes could become and see things that aren’t there yet.” It is important to outline this vision and bring people with you.
Enact: In- Season
“Never mistake activity for achievement”
meeting athlete needs
Said John Wooden. It is common to be busy in season but becoming a better coach and team is hard.
Wade emphasised the importance of athlete learning and motivation in getting the team to perform better. Prior knowledge can help or hinder the learning process, whilst motivation directly influences learning.
Coaches who use guided discovery and give immediate feedback can help their athletes learn more effectively.
Athletes will be motivated to learn more when they are within a “sweet spot” between challenge and accomplishment. Too easy and they get bored, too hard and they get frustrated. “Stretch learning” is where the athlete can almost touch the end “with support”.
This is something I have tried to incorporate within all our club sessions, balancing the need for a sense of accomplishment and “getting tired” with a sense of challenge and slight frustration at not being there yet.
stretch learning at Excelsior ADC
For example, we might be working on handspring preparations which require shoulder mobility and the ability to “pop”. The drills are easy and can be done by everyone whereas the whole skill is technically difficult and be done by a few.
I then follow this with a simpler skill such as through vault, so the gymnasts can then unleash themselves and get rid of any residual frustration.
The challenge of the activity may have a “High perceived risk, but low actual risk.”
How you give feedback also affects learning. Wade used a push versus pull analogy.
Push (solving problems for someone else) ↔ Pull (helping someone solve their own problem).
Both methods have merit, but that could be situational dependent and as athletes develop, pulling is more beneficial.
Quality practice design
As this is where most of the interaction between coach and athlete usually occurs, it merits more detailed attention.
Wade talked about “Practice efficiency” which he defined as “Do less better”. He outlined the following features of quality practices:
Have you evaluated your practice design recently?
Wade then moved onto competition coaching. He quoted research that looked at successful competition coaches who spent time “listening to the match” and had “complex problem solving competences.”
They could react to the live situation effectively and adapt.
Encouragement is often undervalued. Genuine praise for quality performance leads to athletes performing better and having greater enjoyment. Athletes in these environments raised their effort levels and rated their coaches as more effective.
3 roles for coaches
The coach then needs to wear three different hats and have 3 different skill sets to be effective.
Whilst most coaches will be good at one of these, it is rarer to find people comfortable with all three.
Examine: End of Season
“It’s like having a bazooka to kill a mosquito”
Having evaluation tools available to use doesn’t mean we have to use them.
(I would question how many coaches do a formal end of season evaluation: many justifiably run for the hills or slump into a heap exhausted. Some may have a chat in the bar at the end, and then gear up for more of the same next year).
James with Wade and his book
Wade gave some good advice on how to evaluate your own coaching using a “strengths based approach.” (His book has got some great checklists in there). Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:
What are my coaching strengths?
What was your best day of coaching this past year?
Why was this the best day?
This can form the first of three parts of your end of season evaluation.
Coaches: magnify their strengths.
Programme: analyse the practice design and preparation
Athletes: reinforce values.
I like this because it is achievable for coaches who actually coach, rather than academics pontificating from their Ivory Towers!
“Charge your battery before you charge someone else’s”
Coaching is hard work. Dan John described feeling at the end of the week as if he had “been pecked to death by a thousand crows”. I describe it as “starting the session like a grape and finishing like a raisin”: there’s not much left in the tank!
At the end of an emotionally, intellectually and somewhat physically demanding season, coaches need to spend time enhancing themselves.
The offseason should be partly spent on wellness (refreshing) and then setting up new routines that are sustainable in the long term to allow you to reload.
Part of this time is to spend time with people who will help you achieve your goals.Wade quoted from Pep Guardiola’s book about changing the culture of your team.
“Focus on the believers” and do more with them. They will help spread the infection of your culture like a virus.
This was a great thought to finish on. Wade’s talk had lots of practical advice in it that can be implemented immediately, as well as some longer term philosophical ideas that can be reflected upon.
I have previously written about “effective preseason planning” for the nuts and bolts of training. This seminar was more about the coaching effectiveness and I have written a plan to implement over the next few months.
Lego and sports clubs have become sterile environments
Lego from 1970s
Lego sets used to stimulate children’s (and their parent’s) imaginations. In the 1970s the goal of Lego was to use imagination and explore as you can see in the letter on the right.
Now, Lego blocks are almost always sold as part of some marketing tie- in with very prescriptive step-by-step instructions.
Does that sound like any sports coaching you know? If your child is forced to stand in a queue and listen to an adult tell them exactly how to move around cones then how will they adapt to the changing environment of sport?
Coaches need to be able to set up environments that allow the children to connect the dots rather than just collect dots (coaches read more here).
My goal when coaching our young athletes is to set up tasks or environments that allow children to develop and learn themselves. This “guided discovery” means I ask them questions, or set them challenges, rather then prescribe specific actions (there are some exceptions).
An example is shown on the right where I asked the kids to try and move over their partners in different ways. I am constantly surprised and delighted with how kids respond to this at all different ages.
Are your kids allowed to be creative, or are they just being told what to do?
“Pretty much everything we do in life is a co-operative endeavour”
said Clay Erro at the beginning of his inspirational talk at GAIN. Clay is a recently retired Californian High School teacher and football coach.
He was kind enough to share some of the lessons he has learnt over his career.
The main thrust of the lecture was in creating a culture and philosophy that gets young people excited. This is done by developing and nurturing relationships.
“We’re in the people business.”
What is your coaching philsophy?
Whatever your philosophy is:
Believe in it.
We are naive if we assume that an autocratic approach will create a lasting legacy. That is coaching through compliance. Clay is all about coaching with compassion (1).
This manifests itself into a different kind of philosophy:
Question common practices and traditional beliefs.
Emphasise the mental approach, as opposed to the physical.
Emphasise relationships more than rules.
Put philosophy into action daily.
Focus on the process, rather than the outcome.
“The difference between good and GREAT is consistency.”
Mind is the key, not the body
We have all been there with our spreadsheets of super duper sets and latest periodised training plans. But, without the mind, the body will stay behind. The mind has more potential, is the most powerful and leads the body.
“What’s the quickest way to get better? Get smarter!”
Clay has a few coaching behaviours that are unique to him. He gets everyone’s attention by getting them to clap in time: “give me one, give me two, give me three, give me none.” He starts sentences and expects the group to finish them: “Rules are made to be …..”
These are designed to get the players actively involved in learning and speed up their response times.
“It is more important to understand your subjects, than to be an expert in your subject.”
Rules or Relationships?
Belief in the team comes from the strength of relationships, more so than the rigidity of rules.
“Relationships are like a savings account, you deposit daily and then you can draw upon them in critical times.”
A lot of teams have rules, but Clay talked about the “paradox of rules”:
They are made to be broken.
Limit the coaches power and flexibility.
Usually punish the team more than the individual.
Turns the coach into a policeman.
There is always an exception to the rule.
They elicit excuses.
Create a false sense of security.
Relationships on the other hand are the glue that hold the team together (2).
We, not me
The three most important words in any successful relationship are “We, not me.” (Paraphrasing Muhammed Ali’s famous “Me, We” poem?)
The basis of team building is inclusion, the basis of competition is exclusion. If you think of the best teams that you have been involved in, the people work together and feel part of the process. Think of the worst teams you have been involved in and it is like a sack full of cats trying to get on top.
One way of building inclusion is to get the players to teach other (Show, Do, Teach as Ed Thomas said last year). This helps build relationships and improve performance because:
It builds respect and self-esteem in all members.
The quickest way to learn something is to teach it.
Rate of improvement increases rapidly.
Everyone is a valued member.
Builds bonds amongst all players and between all players and the coaches (3).
Focuses the teaching on shared terminology and coaching points.
Clay is a shining example of a coach/ teacher with integrity who is making a real difference in young people’s lives.
He shakes everyones hand at the end of each session, he gets everyone to praise another team mate. Simple things that make his pupils feel welcome and worthwhile.
Clay was present throughout the week, and it was great to be able to chat and bounce ideas off him.
A wealth of experience in the trenches, humble, but gritty too.
A welcome antidote to today’s “get rich quick” pseudo gurus.
(Disclaimer: I had severe jet lag and kept nodding off, so any errors are mine alone.)
Clay did things from his perspective and experience, but there is also some interesting research around this subject.
Smith, M., Boyatzis, R.E. & Van Oosten, E. (2012). Coach with Compassion. Leadership Excellence, 29:3, 10.
Boyatzis, R.E. (2012). Neuroscience research shows how resonant relationships are key to inspirational leadership. Ivey Business Journal,
I had a great session screening a couple of young multi event athletes last week. The coaches were present which made exchange of information very clear and easy for all concerned.
When explaining to the athletes the importance of being able to have control of key areas of the body to enable the big movement joints to work efficiently, Gary Jennings (coach) said “Otherwise its like trying to ride a bike with a buckled wheel.” No matter how hard you peddle, if one of the wheels isn’t working well, or the tyre is deflated, you will not be able to move as fast.
The secret is balancing both so that you have a great engine and drivers (the prime movers, phasic muscles) and also an efficient steering and controlling mechanism (static and postural muscles).
Engagement is the driving force of success: athletes, coaches, management, staff, families, supporters…everyone engaged completely and comprehensively in your program.
Never compromise on your values, virtues or beliefs for the sake avoiding conflict or to gain political advantage…it will come back to bit you sometime in the future.
Coach with passion
Coach with passion, energy and enthusiasm – your athletes deserve it.
Never, ever give up: persevere no matter what the obstacles are in your way – no matter how difficult it seems – never give up.
Be an agent of change and ignore people who use the worst eight words in sport “that’s not the way we do it here“ – people who win are unique, are different, make changes, take risks and then the rest of the world has to finds ways of catching up with them.
Be yourself – believe in yourself: you have to do this. No one wins by copying or by trying to be someone else or by trying to be something they are not. Be yourself.
Avoid anyone who talks in absolutes: there are no “nevers”, no “always”, no “musts” – there is only learning, growth, creativity, innovation, change and passion. There is no one way of doing anything.
Regularly take an honest look at yourself and your program and identify ways of enhancing the performance of both.
In the end, coaching is a personal decision to be the best you can be – now and in the future and to pass on what you learn on to others so they might in turn realise their potential as athletes and as human beings.