Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A collection of thoughts on coaching.

                I want to open with my playing and coaching experiences to share a little of my back ground in sport.  I do not think of myself as the best coach in the world, I just want to share some of what I have learned over the years.  I grew up playing football, wrestling and rugby before moving to the States to continue with my football career.  I graduated from the University of Utah in 1999 and stayed in Salt Lake City for 2 more years where I worked as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with all 16 teams.  I started working for Level 10 Fitness in 2002 and began coaching wrestling and football at Carson Graham Secondary.  In the past 12 years I have worked with hundreds of coaches and teams as well as thousands of athletes from all disciplines.   I have worked with professional, national team(s), development, high school, paralympians and everyone else under the sun.  Coaching is my passion, whether it is an athlete or a recreational client or an active rehab patient.   There is nothing better than the feeling of helping someone reach their goal regardless of its magnitude. 
I think we can all agree that there is more to coaching than just teaching tactics, skills, technique, practice, game preparation, and team and player management.  What I have found is that there are many qualified coaches (and sometimes over qualified) on paper.  Certifications, experience and education all play an important role in one’s ability to coach, but there is more to it than just that.  The ability to talk to individuals or a group in a way that commands respect without asking for it and the ability to drive and motivate your athletes comes from something that cannot be quantified by any of the above qualifications.  If you lack personality, charisma, flare or passion; you will lack the ability to be a good coach.  Not all great coaches have all of these attributes, but all great staffs and teams do.  The mixture of theory, experience, personality and qualifications should be balanced amongst the staff to ensure the highest success rates.
I have been blessed to work under and with some amazing strength and conditioning coaches.  And with this position, I have also been fortunate to work with some outstanding head and positional coaches from all age levels and from the amateur level up to the professional level.  I have also coached sport as a head coach and as an assistant and I can honestly say I have picked the brains of all of them and have come up with some coaching points that I deem worthy to share.   As coaches, we need to learn from others successes and failures and formulate our own style while maintaining the concept that we must be able to evolve on a regular basis.   I have learned equally as important lessons from coaches that lack success and I deem the ability to learn from failures both as an athlete and coach an important attribute.

The use of motivational quotes or videos:
·         They are often over utilized.  If they are used too much, any meaning that may be attached to the message becomes lost. 
·         Quite often the message can be misconstrued.  “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” is perhaps my least favorite.  The message is great, but I hate to admit I have worked with hundreds of talented athletes that don’t work hard and are still very successful.   How do you prepare your kid that works his ass off, yet he gets no playing time because he is not a good athlete?
·         The majority of one’s motivation needs to come from intrinsic forces.  If you rely on quotes or motivational chants, you are a little too late.  Our athletes should be instructed how and when the best times for this type of stimulation is appropriate.  Minutes before kick-off is usually a case of too little too late!
·         Some athletes will connect very closely to certain quotes and ideologies.  Although this isn’t always a bad thing, it can lead to unrealistic expectations.  I am not a fan of the thought that every athlete just needs to “believe “or “dream” and your goals will be met.  Unfortunately you can’t dream yourself into a winner.  Athletes need to have a clear understanding that failure is often a great measure of your athletic prowess and mental fortitude.  At the highest level of sport, we are not training these athletes to get a participation ribbon, they are here to win.
·         They are great for sparking creativity and thought, especially in young athletes or those that may be searching for something to relate to.  There are no or very few new scenarios that are being played out that haven’t been repeated in history. 
·         I like to use them to hammer down important points and to disguise repetition.   Visual, mental and vocal points can easily be repeated and play an equally important role as the physical aspects would.

Commanding Respect
·         If you need to raise your voice to teach or coach, it means you are talking over people that are probably not listening.  There is a time and place to raise your voice, but if you are talking over people you do not have their respect.   By speaking in your regular tone to small groups or teams you can also determine who your keeners are and who your disrupters may be.  I find when working with groups of young kids, this is especially important for determining leadership.  The natural leaders will tend to quiet the rest of the group as your message is important to them.
·         You don’t have to have been an athlete at the highest level of sport to coach, but you do have to have the ability to understand what the athletes are going through at all times.  Your knowledge and ability to read when to push and when to pull back will garner more respect than trying to make up your short comings by being a hard ass.  At the elite level, I find this to be a big issue.  For the most part, the athletes are of the highest skill levels and the grinding attitude to push may lead to injury.  The problem arises when you are unable to read the athletes body language.  Most of them will do as they are told and will run through walls for you if they respect you and this can be a fault on both parties. 
·         Don’t be a cheerleader, be a leader.  There is a time to pump tires and show positive and negative emotion, but if you are doing this all the time, you will quickly set yourself up for both exhaustion and failure.  We all get emotionally tied into our athletes, but to make accurate and fair judgments; we must maintain our roles as coaches.
·         If something doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.  If you see a negative pattern or concern (change in behavior, formation of cliques) forming, step in immediately and rectify the situation.  Team management is as important aspect as any for a coach.  The same goes for technique, specifically in the developmental ages.  The longer an athlete can get away with poor technique or skill set, the longer it takes to rectify it.  This becomes a problem more so when we coach toward an athlete’s strengths.  If an athlete is very fast and agile, we form a plan around this, if they are powerful they may get away with poor technique against weaker athletes, if they are highly technical but weak or lack power they may get injured etc. 
  • Be clear and concise, if your audience doesn’t get what you are saying, you don’t know what you are talking about.  We need to have the ability to ensure that our knowledge base is high enough that our message can get through to an entire group regardless of age, ability and experience.    Quite often we coach to either the least experienced (and lose the focus of the more experienced athletes) or to the most experienced and lose the attention of the less experienced athletes.  If you frequently find yourself saying “they just don’t get it”, maybe it’s time to try another approach.
  • You must have the ability to tell your athlete(s) confidently that they have to work on a particular aspect of their game if you do not think it is up to par.  Athletes will always inherently gravitate to what they are good at and if we don’t recognize it, we are missing out on their overall development.   I have found that a large amount of coaches can identify the strengths and weakness of their athletes, but they approach it in a manner where they tend to drop doing what the athlete is good at to bring up the imbalances.  Instead of dropping what someone is good at entirely and only working on where they are underdeveloped, I like to keep their strengths strong (simply reduce the volume of work in stronger areas) and spend a larger amount of time bringing up their imbalances or weaknesses.   For someone to be at an elite level, practice may not always be entertaining or fun, even though we can all attest to the fact that repeating what we do well is usually fun.  Take it out completely and you will deal with an athlete that hates training.

Learning is not “past tense”
·         It’s ever evolving.  If you are stuck in the same method day after day and year after year, you are missing the boat.  Our main principles and philosophies do not need to change with every group we work with, but how we work with them may have to. 
·         There are many ways to skin a cat, but if you use the same method every time you will lose interest of your athletes.  We all understand the importance of repetition in skill development, so attempt to disguise it so that you can get your desired results. 
·         For the most part, we are working with a “bored” generation.  They are over stimulated daily from the electronic boom and they have the answer to everything at their fingertips.  If you do not use social media, smart phones, smart boards or any of the latest video analytic software, you may be living in the past. 
·         Learning doesn’t necessarily mean just honing your skills within the sport.  Learning how to read an athlete’s mood, demeanor and learning style(s) is equally as important when trying to get the most out of your athlete.  If you have not used the VARK, I strongly recommend taking a look at it and seeing if it is something worthy of placing in your tool box.  The VARK is not the be all to end all, but it does give you the opportunity to see how you may best relate to any given athlete. (http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp)
·         Practice and repetition are big keys to any successful athlete.  Playing games and competing is fun.  To quote my friend Jim Miller (former National Team Wrestling Coach) “you don’t get better at school by writing tests, so why would you get better at sport by just playing games.”  Incorporate competition into your skill and tactical work to keep the athletes enthused.
·         Your support staff of doctors, assistants, strength and conditioning coaches and therapists is keys to your success.  Quite often they notice specific trends that may be either detrimental or keys to performance.  They spend countless hours of individual time with the athletes and may pick up on some cues that you may miss when dealing with groups. 

Surround yourself with good people that everyone can relate to, not just likeminded people that don’t challenge you.
·         Have you ever noticed the age, ethnicity and experience level of any of the NFL teams and their organizations?  Do you remember when you were an athlete?  Not everyone is compatible, but it’s important to have a mixture of different people on your staff so the athletes have someone they can relate to.  Quite often younger players will draw on the connection of a recently retired from playing coach where older players may gravitate towards the wisdom of someone that’s been around the block.  We can’t fulfill all the properties of a great coach, so your weaknesses need to be filled by surrounding yourself with people to fill those needs to create the most balanced approach.
·         Like the business world, it is important that your staff is not full of “yes men” or “hero worshippers.”  If your staff does not challenge you, make you think, or have the ability to give you input you will never be able to determine any flaws in your program.  Obviously there is a fine line here, but your staff’s input is one of the determining factors between being good and great.
·         Check your ego.  It is not possible to work with others that may challenge you if you let your ego get in the way.
·         Draw on the experiences of others (not just coaches!).  There is plenty of merit into reading up on the top inventors, innovators, business people etc.   As coaches, we all have times where we may be placed in a unique setting, but chances are, so has someone else. 

Identifying Different Populations:
·         Coaching kids, young adults, young men or women, adult men or women, master’s athletes, special needs or differently abled populations are all quite different.  If you can’t adapt to the specific needs of your group, you will not be able to get the full benefit of your message.   Here are a few points that I have noticed and are worth review.
o   Most females have a pre-conceived notion as to how they should look based off of what media tells them.   From a sport perspective, body type/composition and weight should only be a concern as to how it pertains to your sport.  Quite often, these two ideals are conflicted and can cause problems (especially for development athletes).  It is our job to understand the potential complications with this identify them and react quickly. 
o   If you are a male coach, it is quite hard to relate to young women.  As much as I do not ever want to talk about this, you need to be aware of the hormonal changes that occur in these athletes.  This becomes especially difficult in weight control sports.  You must be prepared to understand why cutting weight is tougher at different parts of the month than others or why attitudes or moods may change quickly.
o   Females are usually wonderful to coach.  They are very eager to learn, take your coaching to heart and give you everything they have.  As great as this is, it can also sometimes be to a fault.  Because they are so coachable (and the same can be said for male athletes that are very coachable) they can lack creativity at times.  In sports with set moves or plays, they will run it perfectly but may neglect to see an opening that may be more advantageous.    I am not going to say that it is because they don’t have huge ego’s, but it is a big part of it. 
o   Most male athletes already know everything so your job is redundant.  Obviously that is a bit of a joke, but there is some truth behind it.  Ego and confidence are slightly intertwined, but like everything there needs to be some balance.  
o   I have noticed that social pressures are making it harder and harder to find leadership amongst our young male athletes.  In the past, we could rely on the born leaders to emerge and groom them to fit our team dynamic.  We have to be creative in finding ways to bring these leaders out of their shells and encourage them a lot more than we did in the past.
o   Elite or masters athletes (25+) - Depending on their sport, special attention needs to be given to past, present or potential industries.  If they are a high level athlete, it is safe to assume their technique and skill level is very high.  There should be a high focus on refining technique, skill work and strategy.
o   Special needs or differently abled populations-Like all athletes, they want to be treated the same.  They don’t think of their disability as such, so either should you.  Obviously in my realm of strength and conditioning it plays a different role as there are some movements that will need to be modified.  I don’t believe in holding back for any athlete and they are no different, it just may take some time to determine limitations.  If anything, it gives you an appreciation to the essence of what a true athlete is. 
o   Kids or developmental athletes need to have the best coach’s available working with them (this is when they are most pliable with the largest learning curve).  It requires a tremendous amount of energy and attention to detail to ensure we are instilling perfect technique balanced with fun.  If you grind kids, you will lose their focus quickly, there needs to be balance of technique, fun and games, discipline and an upbeat energy. 
o   For all populations, we must identify the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.   If we leave it up to the individual, they will continue to work on what they are good at.  At the elite level, we need to keep the athletes strengths strong, and bring up their weaknesses. 

As I mentioned, I don’t profess to be the greatest coach, but these are some of the attributes I have picked up on over the years that I deem important for success.   The majority of my time is spent in the weight room or on the field, but at the end of the day, coaching is coaching.  If you have anything to add or comment on, please contact me at joe@level10fitness.com

Yours in Strength,
Joe McCullum
Director of High Performance Training
Level 10 Fitness

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