How To Encourage Autonomy In Your Athletes?
It can be said that the role of a sports coach is quite similar to that of a parent. It involves nurturing, developing the right behaviours, creating structure and building independence.
So, when coaches support their athlete’s needs, they can expect to see their fledgling talent grow from strength to strength.
Much like with a child, it can be hard to let go at times, or remain objective when you have a vested interest. This is why building trust is so important, and it all starts with autonomy.
Autonomy – what’s the big deal?
Autonomy in coaching is built on trust. It empowers the athlete to take responsibility for their actions and develops self-confidence and self-worth at the same time.
Studies looking into autonomy support in coaching found that a coach’s style has a “significant impact on athletes’ quality leisure experiences in sport contexts and their wellbeing…”
So, let’s look at some of the ways that an executive coach can promote autonomy while offering support at the same time:
A different way of thinking
At the heart of being autonomous, is being able to think independently. Being able to remain objective in sport will serve any athlete well. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but the ability to develop critical thinking has numerous benefits.
Firstly, by being objective about your own performance, you are more likely to explore other ways to succeed in the future. Secondly, critical thinking isn’t just focused on the self, it applies to every approach in sport. After all, thinking ‘outside of the box’ is important in problem solving.
In a profession that demands bigger, harder, stronger – it is those who dare to pioneer and take a risk that are rewarded.
Do you empower your athletes? Think about it for a moment. How often do you invite your athletes to input into their schedules? Do you encourage them to be actively involved in all elements of their performance, from a balanced diet to warm-up techniques?
Empowering athletes to take responsibility for their actions is important in developing strong, independent minds. And athletes who feel empowered go on to conquer incomprehensible feats. Like Serena Williams – one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She’s respected, not just for her innate ability, but for her positive attitude, resistance and independent thinking.
Think about the areas where you can create autonomy support in coaching practice.
Expand their skillset
Sports coaching is about developing your athlete to unlock their potential. Part of this is how we learn new skills. There should never be a time when we’ve learnt everything – we always remain work in progress.
With this in mind, encourage athletes to develop new skills through different training regimes, shadowing other athletes, or mixing up their skillset.
Consider the environment
Olympic gold-medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci once said: “I don’t run away from a challenge because I am afraid. Instead, I run toward it because the only way to escape fear is to trample it beneath your feet.”
This kind of brave thinking is consistent with successful athletes. Autonomy support in coaching encourages athletes to take calculated risks.
Consider the environment you work in – is it conducive and supportive to risk-taking? If not, how can you rectify this?
If sport does anything, it challenges. As such, sports coaches should look to challenge their talent. Ask questions that will get your athletes thinking about different ways to approach their sport. Encourage ‘blue sky’ thinking in them too – there’s only so much that can be taught, it’s equally important to get them to channel their intuition.
Arguably one of the greatest sports personalities of our time, Muhammad Ali was known for his quick wit talk and self-belief – “I am the greatest” he would proclaim to anyone who would listen. And he was.
There’s a lot we can take from this, in our role of a sports coach.
Through recognition and praise, we can build confidence in our athletes. By highlighting individual talent and by setting realistic goals, we are slowly building their courage and self-belief.
We must nurture athletes to believe in themselves and to block out negativity.
One way of developing autonomy in coaching is to have some fun with creative sessions. This forces individuals to think independently about different practices, or interests that they may have.
Encourage and promote ideas as part of how they approach ongoing development. You may find that this also has a positive knock-on effect on their problem solving ability too.
One of the best ways to develop autonomy in your athletes is to grow their independence. Going back to the parent comparison at the start, this is very much about allowing your talent to take charge of their destiny, while providing them with just enough support to help them take-off.
Show your talent that they can do things without your help. It’s liberating for them also, and shows that you have great confidence and belief in their abilities.
Success in failure
No-one likes to fail, least of all competitive athletes. Yet, it’s a hard lesson we must learn time and again in life; especially in sport, where there is opportunity for it.
But in failure we learn and we improve, and we’re prepared for the situation the next time. There is great value in learning from our mistakes, and as a sports coach, you can bring this to life through your personal and professional anecdotes. When you hear first-hand from someone you respect that they too have failed at times, but always bounced back and learnt from it, is a powerful message.
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