Our work environment needs to be happy, a place where we can thrive and enjoy our job. We are all sensible enough to realise not every day at work can be fun or that every task we perform will be stimulating. However, everyone likes to have an overall feeling of being appreciated, supported and to believe that their work makes a difference. It is logical then to suggest that the environment in which athletes’ work, needs to be one of appreciation and support.
Appreciation and support does not mean that difficult issues cannot be confronted or that boundaries are not set. It is very much about the culture and how these boundaries are set, and the way in which issues are addressed. Neither does it mean that there is no leader and that everybody has a total choice in what they do and how they behave. What it means is that the overall feel of the environment is one of support rather than one of judgement.
When complex sports borrow systematic evaluation from closed loop sports, the environment becomes judgemental and counter productive.
Closed loop sports like swimming, cycling, track and field etc are in many ways easier to coach in that the targets are absolute. You’re either judging distance (long jump), times, height (high jump), weight (weightlifting) or accuracy (archery). It is easy to know exactly what target is needed to put an athlete into contention for a medal or to win a specific contest. The target is equally apparent to the athlete and therefore the motivation of what is required is absolute. The ability to set incremental goals that are both challenging yet realistic with a systematic training regime helps build confidence in the athlete as the goals are achieved.
This is the beauty of measurable goals and leaves the coach and the athlete with just two areas that are extremely difficult to measure; the mental strength of the athlete and how to measure improvements in the mind. The second is the less concrete pursuit of excellence, namely the subtle evolution of technique. Although video is a huge help, technical improvements are often about how actions feel, sometimes so subtle that the camera cannot pick them up. The skill of the coach is to create an environment where there is urgency yet at the same time a patience in trusting the process of both the development of the mind and the subtleties of technique. It is very easy to become judgemental and negative about the athlete’s prospects when the maturing process seems to be taking longer than anticipated.
Most of my work has been in tennis which is an extremely complex sport. It is very difficult to judge improvement because good and bad results are very subjective. The knowledge and confidence of the coach to inspire the belief that the game is improving despite results or equally it is vital to give the proverbial “rocket” if the attitude is off, even if results are adequate or even good.
Judgement by age
Problems begin when a complex sport tries to set targets that are measurable but not necessarily related to the actual mastering of the sport. The scourge of many coaches is “judgement by age”, systematic targets to pass certain physical tests or gain specific age-related milestones to prove that the athletes are on track and making the right amount of progress. A poor culture spreads an underlying message that failing to hit defined targets by a certain age means young kids are judged as not good enough. This can turn those who fail, away from the sport and destroy their love for the sport. It is often just as harmful to the ones that reach the milestones, deluding them into thinking that they are something special, before they even know what is truly required.
Age targets are indicators. Rewarding a reached target as part of a positive process is good if seen as part of a process. If the athletes are motivated and have good attitudes even if several targets are missed, the message must be to keep going. Ultimately sport is about the development of strong characters who can persevere, which is the real success. Besides, adult winning trophies count more as a measure of success than those attained as juniors. Early age success can be applauded and admired but the judgement of results should not be age related. As examples, reaching the top 200 in tennis is a significant achievement at any age and winning a major title at 17 is unusual and amazing, but so is winning it at any age.
Often targets are developed based on of the very best in the world. This discounts the pathway of the majority of good pros who through hard earned experience, diligence and perseverance not only survive but thrive in their sport. There is no question that there are powerful indicators of potential but it is important to be careful in judging everyone by the same yardsticks because there are many exceptions who come through despite the odds, especially in complex sports.
My message is that it is vital for all sports to create an encouraging environment that turns people onto the sport. Yes, when involved with high-performance there must be a realism and I can say with confidence, that it is very easy to pick the great players or the players with no chance of making it as a pro, but the grey area is always much bigger than we think. It is impossible to measure ambition or see into someone’s mind. It is foolhardy to presume to know the desire that burns within a person. When all the manifestations of ambition and perseverance are present and we witness a tremendous work ethic, then it is very arrogant to write off the chances of anyone with discipline. So much can be learned through repetition and experience and it is sad when athletes are discouraged from following their dreams or subjectively judged that they don’t have the so-called talent necessary to succeed.
The grey area
I do not believe in a system where everybody is told that they can make it as a pro. I understand that not everyone can always be kept on a programme. Team sports are extremely difficult to administer and by their nature, due to selection, very judgemental and subjective. There is no option to the subjective opinion needed to select a team or choosing who remains in an academy or not. We do know that many clubs have dropped players from their youth programmes only for them to come back in later years and haunt them, playing for a rival. The responsibility is with coaches to set a supportive environment, even when delivering bad news. My advice is to look closely at the mental application that each player is bringing to the programme. If there is extreme diligence shown then evaluate very carefully whether the judgement is weighted more towards the physical attributes because mentality often outlives physical ability. The equally tough decision is the precocious talent who is totally undisciplined. (Read the next section on *supportive discipline.)
If an athlete is in the grey area and has a good attitude and work ethic then the way the person is let go is extremely important. The conversation must be one of truth yet equally one of encouragement. An example of a supportive cut is along these lines:
“Every programme has limited resources and therefore cannot keep everyone on board. There is a cutoff point, and someone is always on the other side of this point. At this moment, you are one of these people, but your attitude and work ethic are such that if you can improve your level, we will always be interested in having you back, but we also understand that you may well find another support system that facilitates your improvement and becomes your home. We would like nothing more than for you to succeed.
These decisions are never easy. Think about it. If it were your decision to select 12 from the 24 players here, who would make your cut? This is the position we face and it is difficult, and being human we make mistakes. This decision is taken in a moment in time – and who is to know what it would look like in 3 months or 3 years? Please do not see this decision as your failure but rather as a step in your journey that may well turn out to be the best thing to happen to you, because no one knows for sure what or who will happen. We understand your disappointment, but encourage you to persevere, because whatever happens it will be worthwhile, whilst you enjoy it.
Supportive discipline – The five-minute rule
The five-minute rule is in the best interest of the athletes and works. I explain the purpose of its use in advance and always express the fact that I might be wrong one or two times out of ten, but “no ones perfect and therefore if I’m wrong, just suck up five minutes of rest and get on with it.”
Never use this rule as an ego play to gain authority. If it remains authentic it is incredibly powerful and supportive.
This is my only rule and is the most successful and effective tool. When a player is not giving of their best in terms of effort, I send them away from the session for a minimum of 5 minutes with the understanding that they can only return when they are ready to meet the required standards of effort and focus. I do this in a pleasant tone and when the athlete returns, I re-integrate them without any fuss. The players must stay away for a minimum of five minutes. I have yet to encounter a player who returns to the session and failed to give of their best. When a player makes the decision to return of their own volition, it is very powerful. This rule alone ensures that the coach sets the standard of behaviour and work ethic. It does not take long for athletes to learn what is expected in terms of intensity and focus. The educational challenge is to get all the coaches in the programme requiring a similar level of application from the athletes.
- Setting transparent and measurable targets is healthy. Encouraging athletes to reach these is part of a coach’s job, but equally, these need to be part of the process. Missing targets, whilst disappointing, are not defining.
- Time is not a goal!
- Judgement based on age is not reliable, especially in very young athletes whose minds and bodies will develop at incredibly different rates.
- Mind goals are felt. There is no way to measure mind goals, which is a big reason why the mind is talked about a lot.
- Time must be set aside to work on the mind. The rewards are intrinsically felt – you just know if the athlete is stronger and so do they.
- The coach sets standards of intensity and focus that every athlete involved in the session understands with a clear expectation of the level that needs to be delivered every day.
- This level of focus must be viewed as normal and on the odd occasion when a is not delivered, there is an established consequence that does not define them. It is purely a decision to “return when ready.
- It is no big deal if the athlete does not return on a given day. Respect their decision to take a rest, or study, or any myriad of reasons why they feel that they cannot bring it on a given day.
- Naturally, questions must be asked if the occurrence is regular. The tone of questioning must be one of enquiry as to anything in their lives that is harming their focus.
- An environment that is strict on focus yet supportive of the individual’s choice is by far and away my number one tool for motivation.