“The wise coach develops not only the fullest physical potential in his charges, but also those capacities and habits of mind and body which will enrich and ennoble their later years.”
(Geoffrey Dyson speaking to the 19th session of the International Olympic Academy, Greece 1979)
What should we be striving to achieve with our athletes? I’m sure that most coaches would agree that we need to have a long-term outlook in mind when developing an athlete, but is this long-term view still just considering the level of performance? This article will provide a snapshot into my philosophies regarding developing athletes.
The coaching relationship
There are two general types of the coach on the performance pathway:
- The career coach
The career coach begins working with an athlete as they enter the performance pathway and coaches them throughout their career. These coaches are few and far between in elite sport, Toni Minichiello perhaps the only obvious example.
- The stage coach
The stage coach operates at one level of the performance pathway. For instance a stage coach may be responsible for coaching 12-14 year olds. They work with an athlete for a couple of years and then pass them on to the coach at the next stage. This system is far more common within sport.
The coaching funnel
The performance pathway is also known as the performance pyramid. Huge numbers of youngsters start out in participating in sport at the base of the pyramid. As the age and standard of competition increases, more and more athletes will drop out of sport and leave the pyramid. Few athletes will make it to the top of the pyramid and will have what it takes to compete at an elite level. Although perhaps not as apparent, this pyramid is replicated in coaches – given the concept of supply and demand, it simply has to be. Few coaches will operate at the elite end of the performance pathway.
Equipping the athlete
If so few coaches will be practicing at the elite level, few will be playing the ‘end-game’. The goal of the sub-elite stage coach is prepare the athlete for each of the subsequent stages on their pathway to the top. Of course, to prepare for something you must know what is you are preparing for. So…
What are you preparing for?
The stage coach must understand what will be required of the athlete when they reach the top of the pyramid and at each of the stages of their way. For instance:
- What are the demands of elite level competition?
- What are the characteristics of elite performance?
- What the common injuries and their epidemiology?
This basic needs analysis of the sport – which should also consider how these factors change with the stage of development – will dictate much of what the stage coach will seek to accomplish, however, one important question is often overlooked.
What demands will subsequent coaches place on the athlete?
It’s all very well knowing what a good sport and S&C programme should look like at the elite end of the pathway, but that’s certainly not a guarantee your athlete will being doing anything close to this. We need to understand the likely demands of the training which they will undertake. If you’re working within a club or NGB you should have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. If the progression doesn’t follow a single ladder some research may well be required.
Specific S&C preparation
Every S&C coach will have their own specific ideas but the general principles will remain pretty much the same across the board. There’s a 99.9% chance that your athlete will have to back squat, 90% chance for front squats and an 87.5% chance for Olympic lifts (I should point out that I’ve made these stats up). Personally, I don’t think Olympic lifting is the best method for training power transferable to athletic performance, but I play the percentages and teach my athletes the exercises that they are likely to have to perform in future. The emphasis of the UKSCA accreditation ensures that new coaches grow up in a world where the Oly’s are king and almost an unwritten prerequisite of the S&C programme. I sleep more soundly knowing that my athletes understand how to perform the lifts properly.
So we finally get down what the title promised. I believe that the coach should try and instil the concept of self-sufficiency within each athlete. For me it’s important that the athlete, whatever the age, understands what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how to do it correctly. Get athletes coaching one another and it’s amazing how much more they start to get these concepts. We work towards athletes taking ownership of all aspects of their programme. Athletes should be best placed to judge what specific areas they need to work on, how hard they’ve been training, how energetic they’re feeling and so on. Given the knowledge we provide them with, they should become their own most effective monitoring tool. Athletes should seek to become masters of their sports and we should be facilitating this journey.
They won’t all make it
The nature of the pyramid means that it’s unlikely your athlete will reach the elite end of the pathway and be have full access to a coaching and sport science support team. Even if they do, potential issues with funding, programme selections and changing personal circumstances may result in them having to go it alone. Equip your athletes with the knowledge and tools to be self-sufficient in their exploits.
What are you striving to achieve with your athletes? Please share your thoughts and experiences by dropping a comment below.