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Coaches are not mind-readers … the art of the daily debrief

February 26th, 2015 • News
Written by Ellie Spain (@elliespain)
ALTIS Digital Education Manager

Hailing from Boerne, Texas, Kyle Hierholzer joined the staff of Altis in 2014, following coaching positions at Kansas State University, South Plains College and Texas State. In this blog-post the former Decathlete, now Jumps & Multi-Event Coach, examines the importance of coach-athlete communication through the use of daily debriefs.

Generally speaking, anyone who has been in any kind of relationship has at some point heard the phrase “I’m not a mind reader!” Well the truth of this old axiom also applies strongly to Track & Field coaches – however, the expectation that is carried by athletes at all levels is often the converse. At Altis we believe one key to creating a transparent two-way relationship into what our athletes are feeling and thinking is a carefully planned, mindful, daily debrief strategy. Daily debriefs can give coaches great insight into training effectiveness, possible adjustments, and open doors to unpacking suitcases that athletes might be carrying around with them.

“Daily debriefs can give coaches great insight into training effectiveness.”

Kyle Hierholzer

So how do we do this? We believe it’s part of the art of Mindfulness. The definition of Mindful being “attentive, aware, or careful.” As Coach Dan Pfaff stated in one of our Apprentice Coaching Programs earlier this season: “The best monitoring system out there is a Coach who comes to practice and pays attention.” We believe to have an effective debrief system the coach must have some level of mindfulness credibility with the athletes; let’s call this mindful or debrief capital if you will. I use the word capital because it can be defined as “wealth, often financial or physical assets, used in the accumulation of more wealth.” In our case, the wealth we seek is an accurate and honest reporting of all the things an athlete is experiencing that may affect their training or competition performance. This capital can be built by paying attention, asking pertinent questions, and creating a conversation friendly environment.

Paying Attention. Being mindful and responsible: Are we as coaches arriving early to see the energy with which our athletes walk from their cars; how they set their backpacks down, or what their conversation is like with their training partners? As coaches, if we arrive halfway through the warm up, then we aren’t building much capital with our athletes that day. Why should they report accurately and honestly to us if we appear to not really care how their day is going the majority of the time?

These are some takeaways regarding building capital:

1. Arrive early more days than you arrive late, so you’re filling the bank with capital
assets instead of paying them out.

2. Stay off your cell phone as much as possible during training sessions. Athletes pay
attention as well, and if they see you sitting in your chair checking stocks or playing
angry birds then they know you probably didn’t see the A-skip they just did.

3. Be prepared. Know the training session details – even if you wrote it 4 weeks ago. If
the coach is lost on what the plan is for the day, then that’s sending some signals that
probably don’t reflect extreme excitement about reporting for athletes.

4. Know what you are looking for. Learn to read body language. Watch movement with
intent. Carefully assess the little things. Do you notice longer ground contact times
than normal; is the athlete having a hard time focusing on posture or dorsiflexion; do
they look really sharp or crisp in all of their movements? Whatever the landmark cues
are in your system, judge them on the bandwidth of where they are that day.

"Know what you are looking for.  Learn to read body language.  Watch movement with  intent." Kyle Hierholzer

“Know what you are looking for. Learn to read body language. Watch movement with
intent.”

Kyle Hierholzer

Ask Pertinent Questions: We try to ask some (or all) of our athletes these simple questions each day. We have some people we know report honestly, and others we know are generally going to say what they think we want to hear. We use the ones with no filter as temperature gauges for the rest of the group. In general, most of our athletes report openly and honestly, but there are definitely some who trend to the side of under-reporting instead of over-reporting. We feel athletes under-report because they are hesitant to discuss topics relating to their fears, or they feel inexperienced and naïve. Often times they are embarrassed about how a situation unfolded as well. Especially if they made a mistake. How do we overcome this? Ask Questions!

Below is a list of simple questions that can give you valuable insight into what is going on that day for your athletes.

1. What would you say your fatigue level is today?
(Always tired to very fresh)

2. What would you say your quality of sleep was last night? Last week? Last month?
(Insomnia to very restful)

3. Where on the spectrum is your general muscle soreness today?
(Very sore to feeling great)

4. If you could describe your stress level today what would you say?
(Highly stressed to very relaxed)

5. What would you say your overall mood is today?
(Highly irritable to very positive)

"Create a conversation friendly environment." Kyle Hierholzer

“Create a conversation friendly environment.”

Kyle Hierholzer

Create a conversation friendly environment: As I stated earlier, we do our best to encourage our athletes to over-report on how things are going. However, generally we find that people trend towards under-reporting. Have you heard this conversation before?

Athlete: “Coach I’m feeling some tension in my upper calf, and it is quite painful today … I’m not sure I can do XYZ today.”

Coach: “Oh ok, thanks for letting me know. When did you first start to feel this tension?”

Athlete: “About two weeks ago during a jump session, I felt ABC happen but I thought it would go away by now.”

As a coach, these kinds of conversations can really make you scratch your head in confusion. The reality of it is that these conversations happen all the time, and often times they happen too late. So how do we avoid this lag in accurate reporting?

• Have proven Plan B strategies. We tend to find that a lot of athletes don’t report accurately because they fear being shut down from training. Use your resources to keep training gaps as small as possible. Athletes soon realize that being injured, sick or fatigued doesn’t have to equal life in a plastic bubble, nor does it always have to equal a significant drop in training. There are many roads to Rome.

“Use your resources to keep training gaps as small as possible”

Kyle Hierholzer

• Give answers with kindness. Sometimes we as coaches can get offended or defensive if an athlete asks questions or reports information in a way that appears to question training design. Most of the time these athletes are just curious about the why and how of training, or they want to feel like they are involved in the process. If we coaches can remind ourselves that as teachers every answer we give has the power to spark curiosity and creativity; yet also has the power to create a feeling of being dumb or without common sense, then I think we can avoid some of the hesitancy that comes with athletes reporting. Especially if they are already timid in nature.

• Have an open door policy, but a closed mouth philosophy. We strive to keep an environment where athletes know they have the freedom to report, but also know that whatever they report is not going to be distributed around to the rest of the staff, other athletes, and therapists unless it is necessary to solve the problem. Developing a sense of trust requires the safeguarding of athlete’s personal information.

"Have an open door policy, but a closed mouth philosophy." Kyle Hierholzer

“Have an open door policy, but a closed mouth philosophy.”

Kyle Hierholzer

We hope this blog provides some insights into the daily debrief strategy we try to implement with our Jumpers and Combined Eventers at Altis. In my next blog post I will delve into post competition and post season debrief strategies as well. Best wishes in your training this season!

Kyle Hierholzer is on Twitter. You can follow him here.