As an athlete, your relationship with a coach – and your ability to evaluate the relationship – can make a big difference in your performance. With input from some successful coaches, we look further into some of the building blocks of effective coaching. The mentally fit cyclist has a clear picture of what good coaching is, and has the self-awareness and interpersonal skills to help the coach-athlete relationship thrive.
By Marv Zauderer
In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we began to explore the relationship between athlete and coach. We examined a research study that defined the COMPASS model – Conflict Management, Openness, Motivation, Positivity, Advice, Support, and Social Networks – for strategies used by participants in the study to maintain an effective coach-athlete relationship. And, we looked at five typical obstacles that athletes face in working with a coach, along with how to overcome those obstacles. This month, we continue our investigation by delving more deeply into the coaching experience, and identifying components you can look for (and work on) in your relationship with a coach.
During a recent visit to Mexico, I was asked to join a group of young kids on the basketball court at the local community center. The volunteer instructor, a high school boy, separated us into two lines for a friendly but competitive drill. The child (or man) at the front of each line needed to dribble the length of the court, make a basket, dribble back to the front of the line, and pass the ball through his or her legs to the second person in line. That person would pass it similarly to the next person, and so on, until it reached the last person in line, who’d then take off dribbling downcourt, and the process would start all over again. (Little did I know that the game actually had no end and no winner.)
At one point, a young girl on our team was struggling mightily to make a basket. Over and over again she tried – as kid after kid from the other team ran up, made a basket, and ran back – but to no avail. Suddenly the kids on our team started a chant: Si se puede! Si se puede! Si se puede! (roughly translated: Yes you can!) And they erupted in cheers when she banked one in.
Although I might be underestimating the global influence of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans, I suspect the kids’ chant had a different origin. Si se puede was coined by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers labor union in 1972, and has been widely used by other labor unions and civil rights organizations, including – poignantly, given the recent events in Arizona – during the immigration reform protests of 2006.
Yes you can. Powerful words, in any culture, in any generation. They are words that many athletes of all ages need to hear. Sometimes, there is a voice within that speaks to them, and that is enough. At other times, it is the voice of a coach – the right coach – that makes the difference.
In her article,“For the Best of the Best, Determination Outweighs Nature and Nurture,” Alina Tugend of the New York Times questions a common assumption: that we don’t have much control over the talent we’re born with. In the article, psychology professor Angela Duckworth says:
“Most of us are far from our potential. The prevailing wisdom, for much of the last century, has been that talent is the most important determinant of achievement. Our focus in the next millennium is turning to all those things that unlock talent, including grit, self-discipline, and confidence.”
And where does “grit, self-discipline, and confidence” come from? Within? Without? Both? Tugend quotes David Shenk, author of “The Genius in All of Us,” who says, “I’d like to blow up the words nature and nurture as two distinct things. They are completely intertwined.” To Shenk, talent is “a process, rather than a thing we have or we don’t.” Good coaching (a type of nurture), an athlete’s unique personality (nature), and the interaction between them: a dynamic, mutually reinforcing system that can help the athlete build what’s needed within. But what are the building blocks of good coaching? What enables the magic between teacher and student, between mentor and mentee? (or, as Tracy Jordan on the TV show “30 Rock” says, “Mento” and “manatee.”)
For some coaches and cyclists, it’s very simple: coach delivers training plan (say, by email), cyclist executes training plan. If cyclist is happy with the results, cyclist feels the coaching is good, and coach feels the coaching is good. Other cyclists, though, are a bit more…complex. Rather than simply receiving instructions, the athlete wants something else, something more personal.
Four Building Blocks of Good Coaching
So: You have a coach. Or, you’re thinking of hiring one. What’s going to make the relationship work? Who’s going to be a good fit for you? Let’s assume that the coach has the basic building block of the necessary “technical” skill and information: how to design a training plan, what the key components of effective sprinting and cornering are, that kind of thing. How does the coach turn that into the kind of effective, interpersonal coaching reflected in the COMPASS model? Here are four components to look for:
• Empathy and attunement: A coach who gets it…and gets you.
To varying degrees, based on our nature and the influence of the interpersonal environment we’ve grown up in, we human beings have a fundamental need to feel understood, to feel seen, to feel that certain important people get us. As athletes, this comes up around our internal and external experiences with our sport. Says Coach Steve Weller of many athletes he coaches:
“They want to feel like you know what’s going on: where they are in their training plan, the race they have coming up on the weekend… feeling that you’re committed to their training and involved with it…They want someone in their corner, someone who understands what they’re going through, who can relate to what they have to sacrifice to get workouts done, or the trials and tribulations they might be having, or their successes and failures – somebody’s sharing in them, so it’s not just a solo mission.”
The coach needs to do more than have empathy: to think and feel (enough of) what the athlete thinks and feels. The coach also has to act on that empathy to create attunement: a “tuned-in” connection with the athlete that fits what the athlete needs and comes through loud and clear. The coach must not only get it, but also show that s/he gets it.
Says Coach Laurel Green:
“I get a feeling for each client. That’s something I didn’t have in the beginning [of my coaching career]. I’d just say, ‘Let’s look at what you did last week, and what you’re going to do next week’ – the brass tacks of the program, which I still look at – but now I can look at the actual client and ask [myself], ‘What’s their psychological picture? What’s their technical picture? How much information do they have about recovery [or whatever]? Can they do this?’”
Sometimes “having someone in your corner” is the most important part of the coach-athlete relationship.
• Self-awareness and self-disclosure: A coach who knows – and says – who s/he is…warts and all.
Coaches will be better able to help you uncover and reach your potential if they have worked hard to uncover and reach their own. Says Coach Laurel:
“Especially as I get more experience as a coach, I have a high expectation of my riders to share with me where it is that they need some work. This is my 17th season racing, and I’ve probably had 8 or 9 coaches. I’ve had experiences [as an athlete] where I’ve thought, ‘That coach is blah-blah-blah [not right for me].’ In reality, when I look back on it, the reason why that coach wasn’t good for me was that I wasn’t in a place where I could hear what they had to say…a lot of it was me. I gently help athletes wrap their brain around the idea that cycling is a very spiritual sport – it will ask you to go places in your mind that you have avoided for many years.”
Coach Steve stresses the importance, for him, of
“…being open and honest with athletes about [my] own capabilities, limitations, and strengths as a coach, saying things like, ‘I’m confident that this is the right preparation for you,’ or ‘I don’t know the answer but we’re going to figure it out.’ No coach knows all the answers.”
These qualities in a coach can help build the kind of mutual trust that characterizes the most successful coach-athlete relationships. And of course, they can inspire you to build and demonstrate those same qualities. Says Coach Steve:
“[It’s important for athletes to be] comfortable talking about all sorts of things, not just how your workout went….athletes underestimate the impact of a number of different stresses in their life – family, relationship, school, work, even little things like ‘I didn’t sleep very well last night.’ When it comes down to it, the basis of any successful coach-athlete relationship is open, transparent communication, and sometimes it’s challenging to get athletes to understand that. Two months after the fact, finding out that an athlete was going through a divorce…I would have made different decisions for their training if I had known that….It’s easier for a coach to feel more involved – and actually be more involved – the more information that [the athletes] share.”
• Self-confidence: A coach who can give you a push (back).
A coach needs to be solid enough to give you a Si se puede when you need it, and sometimes, a harder push than that.
Coach Dan Smith finds that what athletes tend to need the most is
“Reassurance. That they’re seeing progress, that the track they’re on is the right direction. They’ll get signals from their peers – ‘Joe over here is doing something completely different.’ Instilling confidence that they deserve to be where they are, that they belong. And, when things go off the skids for whatever reason – family, work, sickness, a bad result – being there to put it in perspective, and make sure they realize it’s not the end of the world. Of course they can be upset about it, but that they also need to move on – not letting them spiral into a dark place.”
A coach may see, though, that some athletes may at times rely too much on the coach for reassurance. We humans have both a drive to develop and a desire to depend, as noted by James Hollis in his terrific book, “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”:
“Out of the separation of child from womb – consciousness, based always on splitting and opposites, is born. The birth of life is also the birth of neurosis, so to speak, because from that moment on we are in service to twin agendas – the biological and spiritual drive to develop, to move forward, and the archaic yearning to fall back into the cosmic sleep of instinctual subsistence. These two motives are at work within each of us always, whether we consciously attend them or not. (If you are the parent of a teenager, you see this titanic drama every morning. If you are mindful, you see it in yourself as well.)”
In other words, some athletes ask for more – at times – than is best for them. Says Coach Dan:
“Some athletes need you to take a harder line with them….it’s a subtle or not-so-subtle need for reinforcement.”
One of the situations in which Coach Laurel has to draw on her self-confidence is when an athlete blames her – perhaps accurately, perhaps not – for their disappointments:
“[It’s challenging:]Athletes putting things on me as if I’m [completely] responsible for their progress. When I first started experiencing that with riders, that was super difficult for me, because that’s where I struggled, as an athlete, in relationships with coaches. The most difficult thing has been to face [the fact] that riders’ issues or difficulties with my program are not necessarily mine. They may be, after we talk about it, but not necessarily. When I first started coaching, I’d think [in these situations], ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ I’d get nervous and wouldn’t be able to help them correct [the problem]. Now, I’ll say, ‘Tell me more. Tell me what you did for recovery that day. Tell me how much sleep you got. Tell me how things are going with your friends and family. Tell me how your job is going.’ Sometimes, lo and behold, we work it out that it is their difficulty [that is causing their dissatisfaction]. After I hear how their imbalance has occurred, then I can say, ‘Here’s how I’m going to modify the plan based on what you just told me.’ I have lost clients because they haven’t been willing to collaborate with me in that way.”
Particularly for an athlete who needs more self-confidence, sometimes one of the best moves is to partner with a coach who has enough to go around.
• Generosity: A coach who gives with an open hand.
Tugend’s New York Times article mentions tennis star Andre Agassi’s recent memoir, which depicts his father as choosing to “withhold love and affection and trade it for achievement” which produced “a highly accomplished yet very unhappy adult.” Agassi paints his father as extraordinarily self-involved: as giving to his son primarily to get something for himself, driven by some kind of deficit in himself, not to help his son grow and be happy.
It’s rare that an athlete would partner with a coach who is that selfish. And to be fair, any coach wants – and deserves – to get things from the coach-athlete relationship: a good living, a feeling of being successful and happy in a career, the joy of making a difference in athletes’ lives. It’s when the giving is tainted, when it has an edge, when the hand that gives is only partially open, that the athlete should question what’s happening and what to do about it.
On the NPR program “Fresh Air” I listened to Agassi talk with Terry Gross about his longtime relationship with his trainer, Gil. He described a man without any selfish agenda, a man who truly understood him, a man from whom he wanted to learn, a man he trusted. For an athlete who came from a place of being lost, of not knowing who he was, of doing his sport primarily for others, it sounded like redemption.
That’s the most powerful gift that the right coach can offer you: helping you create whatever you need within. Hearing Agassi talk with such depth and wisdom, I could only think to myself – in the words of Tracy Jordan – the manatee has become the Mento. May it be so for you, too!