• Vertex

For the coaches

There's a difference between teaching an athlete and what an athlete learns. As a coach, you've got expertise, knowledge, and experience that you want to pass down to your athletes. However, just because you're telling the athletes all the information doesn't mean they are understanding it right away - and that's where we need to direct our attention.

Our athletes are in a growth period. They are starting to develop their skills, mechanics, game knowledge, and learning how to be part of the team. On the other hand, you as the coach have already mastered all these attributes, or at least way further along in your own development than they are. We need to recognize that what may be common sense for us as coaches may not be for the athletes because they are at a whole different stage in their learning process. As a result, a level of patience needs to be practiced as the athlete grows and learns. But they'll get there, I promise!

Thinking an athlete should have the same understanding as a coach is putting an unfair expectation on them and their development process. That's the type of position that will cause frustration, low self-esteem, and burnout in our athletes.

Let's jump into an example:

You're working with an athlete that has anger issues. As the coach you can clearly see the issue here and you know the impact it's having on the team. The athlete is taken aside for a conversation about the issue and you go over steps to fix it. Next practice or competition the same athlete has an anger outburst. Did they fail at fixing the problem? Did we fail at giving good information? Why did this happen when we've already addressed the issue?

This is where the difference between coaches and athletes come in. A coach has already gone through this process and it's become second nature, whereas an athlete now has an entirely new skill to focus on and develop. The next step is to help them in the process and efficiently develop the skill you're aiming for. There's three main components I've found particularly effective when working with developing new skills that I want to break down:

1) Proactive on the issue: Introducing the issue to the athlete is great, but that's just the first step. We wouldn't expect an athlete to perfect a game mechanic after one quick session - that's unreasonable because it takes practice. The same should apply to working on these types of issues as well. This is where patience comes in because we can't expect mastery of a skill immediately after introducing it. There needs to be understanding that the issue won't be fixed right away and being prepared to dedicate much of our time to working on it, even if it seems like a simple concept to us. They are going to have more outbursts, they are going to fail at what you just taught them, and they probably won't even catch it at first. The athlete is going to need constant reminding, they will need guidance on how to overcome it, and support from the coach. If they fail at the start, we shouldn't see them as "bad" but rather still early in their learning process. Continue to be proactive on the issue and patient as they work at it, and don't expect them to be where you want them to be overnight.

2) Psychological safety: A bit of a buzz word here, but it's a valuable concept. Athletes need to know that they can discuss the issue with their coaches and support staff without fear. When they have fear, they will try to hide the issue. If they know they are safe to talk to the coach without getting yelled at or cut from the team, they'll be able to work towards resolving the problem with your guidance. If your athlete fears your response to them working on the exact thing you asked them to work on, then they'll hide the issue until it bursts out in a crucial moment. Create a culture on your team where athletes are encouraged to talk about the bad so that you can be the most effective by working on the things that truly matter.

3) Feedback and honesty: This is probably the trickiest bit of it all. We do our athletes a disservice when we lie or hide the truth from them, but we also do a disservice if we are constantly hitting them with hard truths about their performance. It's a delicate balance that requires a lot of work. This boils down to the coach developing their own language skills. What works best for me is when I know there is an issue I need to deal with, I begin planning out key phrases and thoughts I want to relay to the athlete. I'm not going to rely on coming up with the right things to say on the spot because that may lead to me saying the wrong or harmful thing, and ultimately not helping the athlete in their process. This preparation allows me time to gather my thoughts, construct positive but helpful comments, and know where I want to lead the conversation. If I know where I'm taking the conversation, I'm less likely to get frustrated with the athlete since I've already prepared myself for the process. We can't hide the truth from our athletes, but we can construct effective and helpful ways of delivering it.

Your athletes are constantly learning and pushing themselves. They'll get to where they need to be with your help but we can't expect immediate perfection. Put your focus on supporting their process and watch them develop into incredible athletes.