What’s your Coaching Status? – Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith
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Peter Simmons

ALTIS Brand Lead & MD of 5or6 Design & Branding

Relationship status, and our interaction with others is a big thing in today’s social media-driven society. We’ve all heard people define themselves by their relationship status – ranging anywhere from single and ready to mingle to happily (or not so happily) married… 

Likewise, irrespective of situation, place, or time, we are unavoidably involved in some sort of relationship with each of the people we encounter on a daily basis – whether that be superficial and fleeting – or at a deeper, more meaningful level. In the coaching profession, this is no different: We are intertwined in professional relationships with athletes and colleagues alike; and therefore have the opportunity and choice to use our professional position to bring productive, meaningful interaction to these relationships.

I have encountered coaches operating across a broad spectrum of performance levels, and have observed with great interest the coach-athlete “relationship status” – if you will – which operates within our sport. After spending some time thinking about the wealth of interaction I have seen over the years, I put pen to paper and came up with three categories which stood out to me in this realm: single; dating; and in a relationship. Let me explain …

Coaching Status: Single

Have you ever been around a coach whose sole purpose and drive appear to revolve around seeing how their current situation can help them get ahead? These coaches have their own agenda. They tend to be focused on their own success, are noncommittal, and always looking for the next best thing, athlete, or position to move their status upwards.

Whilst I of cause applaud the drive to continually improve oneself, and understand certain positions are stepping stones to greater things, this internal drive for self-betterment should not come at the expense of an athlete. When coaches get tunnel vision and seek medals, titles, trophies, championships, and so forth so THEY can take the credit,  have bragging rights, or receive some type of benefit/compensation, relationships are inevitably compromised.

Have you heard the coaches that when asked a question about the success of the team, uses “I” instead of “we?”

… I have and it saddens me.

This “single” coach-athlete relationship status can create difficulties for athletes. When a coach’s focus is so heavily internalized, how can the athlete’s best interest be kept in mind? Often times an athlete working in this kind of dynamic is left feeling like a secondary player in a transactional relationship, realizing that the coach doesn’t truly care.

When I’ve been around athletes involved in this type of dynamic, I have heard them converse with their teammates about issues such as injury, where the teammate will advise “maybe you should tell Coach ____” and the response is: “Why, it’s not like he/she cares.”

An athlete should never feel like that.

Athletes involved in this kind of coach-athlete relationship (or lack of relationship more accurately) often have to instead seek counsel from other coaches, teammates, family and friends, rather than their coach.

Sport should be fun, lots of hard work and dedication – yes – but fun. I’m not trying to be derogatory towards those people that exist within this kind of dynamic … I just believe that it leaves both relationships and people neglected.

With some attention and redirection that can be resolved, resulting in even more success for the coach and athletes alike.

Dan Pfaff
“Athletes perform best in a positive and stable environment”

Coaching Status: Dating

I call this coaching with one foot in; one foot out. Unlike the “single” coach, this coach takes the time to know a few things about the athlete, but is very wary about getting too close, or delving too deep. They are great with the good situations, and OK with minor issues;  yet when things get rough, tough or messy, it’s too much for them to handle and they back away.

This can inevitably cause confusion for the athletes; it’s like the “fair weather friend” (if you haven’t had one consider yourself lucky). Think about it: You and your friend were close, you used to go everywhere together, did everything together, and you were always there for them and vice versa … wait – there is no vice versa because when times got rough they were no-where to be found. How did you feel at that point? Sad? Confused? Disappointed? Angry? Athletes experience one – if not all of these emotions, when they realize that the coach they thought was in their corner isn’t there.

Studies show that athletes perform best in a positive and stable environment, which includes the ability to maintain emotional stability. Permitting eustress (a positive stress) produces favorable effects on the mind and body – uplifting spirits, reinforcing emotional balance, and assisting increased performance. Having a negatively stressful environment (distress) creates taxation on the mind and body and emotional imbalance – which can lead to depression and/or withdrawal.

How can such distress be prevented?

… Be consistent and upfront.

If you don’t believe you can handle the tough stuff, let them know in the beginning with a conversation such as: “I’m here to support you the best way I can, but certain things are out of my league, and others may be more suitable to help you in those situations.” This gives the athlete foresight and prevents confusion, or the feeling of abandonment – as the coach has laid out their position with honesty and straight-forwardness. This is far more likely to drive a positive environment.

"Be consistent and upfront"
“Be consistent and upfront”

Coaching Status: In a Relationship

This type of coach-athlete relationship is often the most feared by coaches. I consider this relationship to be ‘all-in’ and many are afraid, or uncomfortable being this engaged and committed to a cause or person. Coaches operating this way are highly dedicated, have made sacrifices, and have gone out of their way to do what is best for their athletes. They aren’t afraid to dig deep or become “emotionally attached.” This relationship, I believe, forms the strongest bond between a coach and the athlete, and trust is one of the most important foundations established by engaging in a two way professional relationship to this extent. Other valuable attributes which support this are awareness, open lines of communication, and faith.

Once you are in tune with your athlete, you can tell if they are having a good or bad day before they tell you. You can tell if something isn’t quite right or bothering them by the way they move, run, or complete a task. If you have an athlete that is normally happy and full of life, and he/she comes to practice and is quiet or dragging, you have an immediate red flag that there is something going on.

Too obvious? Watch them during warm-ups and throughout the workout. How are they moving? Do they have the same range of motion as the day before? Is one foot able to dorsiflex more than the other? Is there a variance in their stride pattern, runway approach, or how they throw?

Study your athlete, know how they operate, be aware.

Operating with transparent communication and trust gives athletes the security to be able to tell you what is wrong, and express honestly how they feel. It also builds a rapport where the coach can ask questions and they can answer them truthfully. By taking the time to learn about an athlete on and off the track, you will gain insight to who they are as people – which in turn, helps you create programs that work towards their strengths.

For example, I had two athletes, one who stated he felt like a strong leader and liked to feel in control. I observed that he ran his best when he was in front, controlling the race. The other expressed his assertive nature and he ran his best chasing people down. With this information I was able to tailor workouts to allow them to run in their comfort zone, and create situations in practice that made them uncomfortable to teach them how to adjust when faced with that situation.

“Faith gives athletes the assurance to take steps, or even leaps of faith, to try things they would otherwise avoid”

Knowing your athlete can also bring underlying issues to the surface. An athlete I used to mentor ran times in practice that were outstanding, but would get to a meet and the times didn’t translate. In a casual conversation she said, “Coach L, you know I have stage-fright, right?” … I had no idea. There was a situation in her past that made her nervous to perform in front of crowds. I shared this bit of information with her coach, and together we were able to construct ways to work through her anxiety. This is also where faith comes in. Faith gives athletes the assurance to take steps, or even leaps of faith to try things they would otherwise avoid, if they believe in you and the program that you have written for them. My mentee did not have to try our suggestions, however, she trusted us and had faith in our advice. The rest of the season she competed with confidence, and without fear.

Having said all this, I am pertinently aware there aren’t always rainbows and butterflies with a relationship which is this invested. When you are this involved, you hurt when they hurt, you feel it when they’re down, and you may shed a few tears together.

On the flip side however, when athletes you coach gain personal bests; score higher than expected; win titles or championships, or – most importantly – have success off the track, seeing the joy on their faces are some of the most phenomenal moments that you will share with them. These are moments that will be a part of both of your lives for as long as you all can remember. The good times will always outweigh the bad.

Regardless of your coaching status, I hope you and your athletes are gaining knowledge, having fun, and increasing your love for this sport.

Coach L

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