Coaching is easy. Coaching people? Now that’s hard. Humans are amazingly complex, and as a result also amazingly difficult to model and predict. Fears, expectations, prior history, current context, changing goals, changing bodies, and on and on. Some of my earliest struggles as a coach came from my expectations of there being a natural order to the training process, a deterministic relationship between a stimulus and the resulting adaptation. Blame the dormant engineer in me, but I desperately craved for there to be simple and predictable solutions to recurring problems. And I’m willing to admit that it took an embarrassingly long time for me to discover the truth. What worked for Athlete A isn’t always what will work for Athlete B. What worked for Athlete A last year might not work for them this year. The sad truth is that there isn’t always an ‘answer’, as much as we might want there to be one.
Knowing this, and accepting it, allows us as coaches to adopt an approach that becomes more process oriented rather than outcome oriented. We acknowledge that the most effective route towards progress involves taking a long term approach, one where we have the time and the flexibility to make mistakes, figure out what didn’t work and why, and armed with that knowledge move to the next option. It’s basically a glorified version of trial and error. This might sound like I’m downplaying the value of technical knowledge and the possession of a large coaching toolset, which is not my intention at all. It’s simply saying that I believe that this knowledge and experience serves as a guide in our guesswork, not as the source of some magic bullet solution, and implying otherwise is a manipulation that preys on our desire for instant gratification.
Removing this expectation of quick fixes, we come to realize that the best training program isn’t necessarily determined by the technical content or the expertise of the coach. The best program is the one that’s sustainable, where the coach and athlete have completely bought into the plan, have full trust in each other, and are willing to ride out the highs and lows that come with the process. This is where the dynamic of the coach/athlete relationship comes into play.
Now I’m not going to pretend like I’m some sort of relationship guru who has all the answers for building bulletproof connections with anyone you meet. Far from it. Anyone who is unfortunate enough to deal with me often knows that I have more than my fair share of introverted (read: anti-social) tendencies, and that I’ve been cursed with a resting bitch face that could rival that of any teenage girl. But what I do possess is a very genuine desire to truly help everyone I work with, and a willingness to improve my ability to do so, even if that means getting out of my comfort zone (read: my office, by myself, with my computer) and trying to figure out how to relate to other people. So what follows here are some of the tips that I’ve picked up along my own journey of development that I think might be helpful to someone else on a similar path.
1. Be prepared to open up about yourself. Creating a feeling of reciprocity is a powerful thing. By sharing personal information or anecdotes or embarrassing stories about yourself, you can simultaneously remove some of the tension of a face to face chat while also opening the door for the other person to reciprocate. As some of my athletes can probably attest, I’m 99% sure that when I was first experimenting with this approach, I would go a little too far and share things that probably made the other party more than a little uncomfortable. But the positive side of this was that it was usually good for a laugh and allowed them to see me as a human as well, with my own set of faults and quirks just like them, making them less hesitant to open up in turn.
2. Listen. As George Bernard Shaw so aptly stated, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Too often we ask a question for the sake of asking, and rather than listen to the person’s answer we’re already thinking about the next question we’re going to ask, or formulating our response to what they’ve begun to articulate, or maybe thinking about what we’re going to eat for dinner. Slowing down, and genuinely listening and staying present with them as they respond, will go a long way towards making the other person feel like their opinion has value and ensuring that you are both on the same page.
3. Listen some more. You asked your question, you listened to the answer, and you think that you’re good to move on. Again, slow down. Ask if there’s anything else they’d like to add, anything else that comes to mind, does that capture everything? You might think that you know what they want, they might even think that they know what they want, but having a little persistence (and being ok with some lingering silences) will ensure that you are leaving no stone unturned and giving them every opportunity to communicate with full transparency.
4. Don’t default to advice-giving mode. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Stanier talks about the ‘advice monster’. This person is so eager to jump in and rescue someone from their problems, or prove their worth and superior knowledge, that before the challenge has even been fully articulated they have launched themselves into advice mode. This was me in a nutshell as a young coach. You got a problem? I had the solution, or at least thought I did and was going to make sure that it appeared that way. The moderately more mature version of myself is now able to recognize that I’m not even close to having all the answers, and has completely given up on trying to pretend like I do. Instead of immediately offering up my advice, I try to instead create a dialogue around the issue at hand, and ensure that there is back and forth as we seek either a resolution or a path towards one. Not only does this strengthen the relationship by improving the lines of communication, it also forces me to consider other alternatives.
5. Be open to their ideas. I’ve found that a very big factor in establishing an athlete’s belief and trust in the program is to help them create a sense of agency in the process. If they are able to feel like their voice is being heard, and that their concerns are being addressed, they are exponentially more likely to fully buy-in and commit to the plan for the long haul. Granted there are some athletes who will desire to simply be told what to do and when to do it, but in my experience I’ve found that being persistent (as in steps 2 and 3) will lead to the sharing of at least some ideas, and trying to find ways to work these thoughts into the design structure is enormously beneficial for the relationship and for the success of the process.
While I tried to condense some of my learned lessons into a set of consumable tips, I have to admit that there is no shortcut to this process. In order to build a meaningful relationship with your athlete (or anyone), you have to care about them enough to put the work in. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. For me, I found that it wasn’t my lack of desire, but a pretty blatant lack of understanding of human interaction. But after educating myself on the topic, putting myself in plenty of uncomfortable situations, and acting against my nature in order to improve this skill set, I have found that the connections that I’ve made have become more meaningful and more valuable for me as well as the people I work with. And through strengthening these connections, we make it much more likely that our athletes will place their full trust and belief in the program, which then lends itself to a higher potential of long term success/progress.