The profession of sports coaching has evolved in recent years, as its merits have been greater acknowledged. You just need to look at any successful athlete or sports team to see an army of coaching professionals helping them on their journey.
If the London 2012 Olympic Games taught us anything, it was how sports coaching had come of age. From British Cycling Performance Director Dave Brailsford’s role in Team GB cycling, to Glen Mills – the Jamaican coach who cites Usain Bolt as his athlete. It was never more evident that the high-performance coaching played an important role.
As such, coaches have started to be viewed as performers in their own rights. But with this comes the growing appreciation that sports coaches too need support in order to up their own game.
As professionals in the world of sport, we should be encouraging this notion. For high-performance coaches, this means employers should continue to invest in them and their skills, as well as ways to seek promote them. In this section, we look at these areas in greater detail. But first, it’s important to clarify what high-performance coaching is.
High-performance – what is it?
Contrary to its name, high-performance coaching is not about coaching high performers per se; it’s actually about helping sports men and women of all levels, reach their full potential.
Simply put, it’s about quality coaching. This is achieved by aiding athletes’ performance in every way possible, this includes collaborating with the best in their field, and ensuring they are working in a conducive environment for success.
As well as your own input as a sports coach, this might mean recruiting the best nutritionists, physiotherapists or specialist in the field, in order to achieve all-round optimum results. It is also important that the athlete has access to the best equipment and resources, environment and conditions to fulfil their ambitions as well.
As sports coaching courses teach us, it all starts with the relationship and understanding personal goals. Sure, ‘winning’ is the outcome everyone wants, but this is a long-term goal, and in sports coaching we focus on the journey, the strategy and the ability to perform to our best as a benchmark for what success looks like.
As such, it’s important to have a set of objectives in place when starting with a new athlete or team. Once a sports coach understands the ambitions of their team, they are able to put the right steps in place to achieve those visions.
What makes a good sports coach?
There are many requirements in the role of high-performance sports coach. Not only do they champion their students, but they offer best practice, share techniques and open them up to helpful working practices. Combined, these can all have a positive effect on their overall performance.
Here’s just a few of the aspects that a sports coach will work with their athlete or team on:
- Self-confidence: working with athletes to build their self-confidence through goal setting, reflection on success, and having goals to work towards. There’s also a number of positive mindset techniques that can be taught, which are invaluable.
- Motivation: One of the key roles of the sports coach is to build passion and understanding of the chosen sport. Key to this is motivation. From devising short-term, medium-term and long-term goals, the high-performance coach will focus on the many ways they can keep athletes interested and motivated. This is important from the outset, including training.
- Pre-performance workout: Teaching helpful techniques for pre- (and post- ) performance and training, in order to be in an optimum state of mind. This may include visualisation, guided breathing, meditation and other recognised techniques, that can help balance the body and mind, ahead of events and performance.
- Mental agility: In an industry with as many highs and lows, and where winners and losers are more evident than others, it’s important to teach mental toughness. There’s a number of techniques that a sports coach will impart to help build resilience and learning through the many challenges faced.
- Best practice: In high-performance coaching, best practice techniques are promoted. These include meeting high standards, having a strong code of conduct, and teaching athletes to treat others with respect. It can also mean providing athletes with the latest materials, studies and industry information to enhance their performance. This could range from taking them to new training camps, introducing them to the latest specialist in a field or more.
The coach as the performer
As briefly touched on, there’s a growing view that coaching staff are too performers. With that in mind, it’s important to give equal weighting to the role of the sports coach too.
The first consideration is the growing workload of the sports coach. Managing a wide range of tasks at any given time, they have a large responsibility – for themselves and others.
Much like any other role, appraisals and regular meetings with management may help relieve some of the associated stresses that come with this. Employers can do their bit by ensuring there’s an open dialogue with regular catch ups and meetings. They also have a responsibility for their training upkeep. After all, in an ever-evolving industry, it is important to remain top of your game.
Evaluation is another area affecting high-performance coaches. Under the critical eye of the media, this can be quite a pressure, but is not always a bad thing. If success is linked to achievement, then it is natural that public opinion is always going to be part of one’s overall evaluation. But note; this can also impact on self-worth and self-image. It is down to an employer to ensure the sports coach is well supported in order to deal with such external pressures. And even before this, the recruitment process should consider abilities in finding the right person for the job. With such high turnover in the sports industry, especially management, this is often an area overlooked.
That said, it isn’t always easy to evaluate a coach’s performance, since their job is complex and hard for others to always understand.
In high-performance coaching, tertiary study is a valuable tool. This formal learning introduces new studies in the field, and many coaches view this as invaluable. These can be offered through online courses or private workshops, seminars and even clinics, and have the potential to improve coaching performance even further. This non-formal approach to training works well for this highly specialised profession.
Then of course, there’s ‘on the job’ learning, arguably one of the best ways to improve your understanding. In fact, research suggests that this is viewed as the best experience by sports coaches themselves.
In sports coaching courses, this is often experienced in apprenticeship observation as well as formal technical learning. For those who were once amateur or professional athletes themselves, this comes with an obvious benefit.
A common question in this field is ‘how much experience is enough’. While there is no set answer, arguably we are all work in progress, and as the industry evolves and improves, so must we keep up to date and relevant.
Learning from each other
It is often (wrongly) assumed that the partnership between a coach and athlete is top-down. While it is true that the sports coach assumes a ‘managerial’ and directing role, it is also a partnership.
A successful partnership is one where both parties work together, communicate effectively and have a solid relationship that encourages openness, trust and respect. Therefore, the athlete-manager partnership should be viewed as a symbiotic relationship, whereby both parties are constantly learning and evolving from each other.
Because coaching is a social activity, it can even make it more enjoyable to learn in partnership in this way. The authenticity of this way of learning is said to be far lasting than other forms.
But still, much needs to change in the culture of sport, to consider that the high-performance coach is one that too deserves it’s time in the spotlight.
High-performance coaches play an invaluable role in the success of athletes. They are tasked with the challenge of getting the ultimate out of their students, which requires tenacity, dedication and long and often unsociable hours.
It remains important to position high-performance coaches as learners as part of the coaching process. In a profession that is constantly evolving, so must the candidates too. Because of this, the industry must recognise that high performance sport coaches are too learning and work in progress, and not just their athletes.
Formal and non-formal learning is something that all coaches should have access too, as training and being aware of the latest trends can only enhance their credentials and understanding.
And finally, in these challenging times we find ourselves in, where mental health is more relevant than ever, employers have an important role to play. Their duty of care should extend beyond the athlete to the sports coach. Support networks and resources need to be in place to help them manage the pressures they face. In doing so, we can help improve the industry and increase performance output for everyone.
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