Forget getting your athletes fit, strong and robust; that’s the easy part!!
Being an S&C coach in high performance sport is more complicated than just coaching movement and getting guys strong. In fact it’s a tactical operation whereby you have to manage a number of difficult situations, influence strong-minded coaches and continually educate & inspire those around you. That’s why I write this blog, to give aspiring coaches a real insight into what the job involves to support the foundational knowledge you learn in University.
So what’s the hardest part of the job? Well in my opinion it’s working effectively with your technical coaches to implement a successful performance programme and create the optimal environment. Ok so that’s the long-winded way to say it’s the technical coaches! Throughout this article I’ll discuss some of the challenging situations you’ll inevitably face and some principals that I try to stick to whilst working as part of an interdisciplinary team. By the way, this is the first part of 2 articles. Some time ago towards the end of an interview it was my turn to ask the questions. The first question I asked to the previous coach was “what’s the hardest part of this role?” When his eyes shot across the table towards the head coach, he didn’t need to say much more! Knowing that this is a shared feeling amongst many S&C coaches, this post is in fact a general answer. We all have our own challenges and I will specifically address the hardest part of my job in the next post.
You’re the performance expert but you’re not the boss! First thing’s first, we must understand that as much as we may want it to be, it is not our programme. You may have the greatest amount of education and knowledge surrounding the areas of human performance, but that doesn’t make you the boss. The head coach is the boss; he or she will have the final say on all matters. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree, you need to be on the same side and you need to support the decisions of the technical staff. That being said you are an integral part of the team and as an S&C coach you will have an important influence on decisions. That influence will vary considerably from sport to sport and team to team. Working in skiing I certainly have more control than most S&Cs throughout the entire preseason. I have even been told that during the summer, I am the boss. This isn’t actually true, I just happen to have more organizational responsibility, making sure everything runs smoothly through preseason. Half the time is still spent away on camps, I have no say when these are as it depends entirely on budget and weather, and if the technical coaches want to arrange a 4 day “army style” endurance camp in the mountains bang in the middle of an intensive physical training block then they sure as hell will. So put aside your ego and remember that the technical side comes first. It doesn’t matter how much weight athletes lift in the gym; well it does but what’s much more important is that the whole team are working together to create an environment that drives the athletes’ best performance.
Everyone has his or her own opinions and priorities. Moving on from the last point, a number of people will make up your coaching staff, all from different backgrounds, different points of view and everyone will want to say their piece. It’s only natural that some of these opinions will differ and conflict. I’ve seen physios who are avidly against squatting, technical coaches ignore the advice of doctors and S&Cs on numerous occasions, athletes thinking they know better than coaches (I’m not saying they don’t sometimes) and various staff/athletes seeking a second or third opinion when the first one isn’t what they want to hear. All I’ll say for now is approach each situation with patience, an open mind and I’ll give some more specific advice later on.
“What plan??” You know that carefully constructed periodization you have for the season, with the pre-planned high volume weeks, high intensity weeks, regular deloading, planned exercise progressions etc.? You know how you write your gym programmes in advance with a specific exercise selection and structured loading pattern? You know all that time and effort that you put into Excel? Yea? Well I’m afraid most technical coaches either don’t know that or they’ll simply be able to think of something better on the spot. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of high performance teams work extremely well together and are consequently very successful. Many coaches understand the need for scheduled lighter training and many S&Cs are capable of conveying the importance of that message. All I’m saying is that there will be occasions when the Head Coach will go off course, run over session times, throw in extras, do something completely different and feel the need to “mix it up” at the last moment. Be flexible! If you would like to hear some delightful stories on this subject, I have many!
They will question you, especially when you do things differently. This is something that I’ve recently become accustomed to. It’s safe to say that the concept of physical training is somewhat different in most of Europe compared to the UK. I used to judge; I try to think I’m over that now. Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse, just different and something can be learnt from everything. That being said, when you go against the grain, it’s natural for people to ask questions. Last year I was new to the role and given pretty much poetic freedom to do what I wanted, last year was also very successful (even if I say so myself). I’ve tried to introduce change relatively slowly (I may have mentioned before that the whole culture is “poco a poco”!), though I’ve certainly taken bigger steps forward this year. However as we move forward as a team and technical coaches have been pushed to have more involvement through the summer by senior management, this year I’ve found there have been a few more questions asked. I don’t mind, in fact I take it positively but I understand that for many people (and for a long time myself included) it can be very difficult having other staff watching over your shoulder questioning what you do. Indeed some may ask the question “If you’ve hired me to do a job, why are you telling me how to do it?” I only beg you not to think like this. Instead a positive way of taking such situations is to acknowledge that regardless of who asks, questioning your approach is a good thing. It allows you to consider all the options and reinforce what you believe in. If you have a solid enough thought process then you should have already considered the alternative solutions to the problem at hand, you should have a thorough understanding of WHY you’ve chosen a certain method to solve it and WHY you haven’t chosen the alternatives. Perhaps if you don’t have this understanding of why and you can’t explain it to the technical staff in an easy to understand manner then you should be questioned; or at least question yourself until you can.
Inevitably as you gain experience, as your philosophies evolve and new research emerges, you will adapt and change your approach to athletic development, the way you believe is best. You’ll have new ideas in new environments and it’s perfectly normal for each of us to do things differently. Many roads lead to Rome and all that! Just bare in mind that change is scary, everyone has preconceived ideas about what they believe are the right ways to do things and when you do decide that there’s a more effective way to reach a certain objective then you’ll need to be able to justify exactly WHY you believe that.
There will be disagreements – Stemming from the points made above, there will be disagreements! It is natural when two strong opinions clash, someone criticizes your work or a situation arises when you feel the need to say something with full knowledge that it might not go down so well. Understanding this in advance may help a little. Ultimately a huge factor in your success as a coach will depend on how you handle these situations. How you interact with your colleagues & athletes, how well you get on with them and how much they like you will probably play a greater role in whether or not you keep your job over the physical condition of the athletes.
And when sh*t goes wrong, it’s all going to be your fault! Have you ever heard a head coach say, “they’re not fit enough” after a game, especially after a loss? I have. I’ve also heard “he needs to be stronger” regarding one of the strongest (albeit “gym strong”) athletes on a team, “if he was more flexible he wouldn’t have got injured” in relation to an athlete who suffered a nasty crash and fractured his tibia in several places, and “we look tired out there” following 3 months of no squad rotation, consistently running 30-60 minutes over scheduled practice times and ignoring advice from conditioning staff regarding the issue. Despite the technical coaches being the tactical architect and the athletes being the ones actually competing, we live in a blame culture and when things don’t go to plan, it’s easy to point the finger at the conditioning staff. I’m not saying that we aren’t often to blame, maybe we are. Athletes can always be fitter, faster & stronger. It’s our responsibility to make sure they recover well, don’t over-train and influence the decisions made by senior technical staff for the best interests of the team. That doesn’t make it any easier when you do take the fall though! But it’s natural to find reasons for failures and it’s perhaps often easiest to look in the direction of physical preparation. All you can do is be prepared for it. Do your best to establish the kinds of relationships where you won’t get put straight in the firing line. Make sure that your athletes are in their best physical condition. Anticipate possible problems in advance and find ways to avoid them. Then ultimately when you do have to take the blame for something, have a robust solution ready to put in place that will fix the apparent problem.
They were just a few common challenges that you’re likely to face in high performance sport. Now here’s a few of my philosophical principals on which I base my operations as an integral part of the Inter Disciplinary Team:
Seek first to understand what drives your colleagues. What’s at the top of their agenda? What are their main philosophies and key operating principals? What motivates them? Most importantly what are the key philosophies of the head coach? There are two ways to go about this, you can tactically try to analyse the motives of your colleagues or you can genuinely get to know who they are, listen to what they have to say and show an interest in what interests them. I highly recommend the later and you’ll form much stronger relationships by doing so. Without meaning to sound too righteous, being genuine just makes you a better person and people will like you much more because of it. Understanding what drives your colleagues will enable you to relate to them on their level and communication will be clearer. It will also give you a clear direction of where the programme is heading and a foundation to form your own ideas if they are ever going to be accepted by the rest of the team. Just as an example, if the head coach is on a tight budget and you’re new monitoring strategy to help you better manage fatigue will cost a significant outlay, you can guarantee he won’t give it much consideration. However if you can approach the situation such as “I know we’re on a tight budget and we also need to improve the way we manage the guys’ fatigue. I’ve thought of a way we can do this that won’t cost us anything, what do you think?” The head coach will be more open to implementing change in that way.
Further to the point above, remember that the sport always comes first; physical training second (if that). You will inevitably work with some incredible physical specimens in your time, but the reason they are competing at the level they do is because of their skills in relation to their sport. Not everyone who can jump high can play basketball, likewise not everyone who can squat 250kg can scrummage. Technical skills must come first and you can bet your mortgage that this will be how the head coach operates. Align yourself to that philosophy and make your programme fit around his or hers.
Focus on the best interests of the athletes. This is your job, this is probably why you do what you do, to help others improve and be the best they can be. After all, we’re all “passionate S&C coaches”! I believe putting my athletes first is what enables me to form such good relationships with them. I genuinely care about them as people, not only their performance. I’m sure this is apparent in the way I talk with them and with my colleagues; in the effort I give to my work and in the decisions I make. It creates trust and ensures everyone understands that my actions are based on what I believe are the right reasons. I have an athlete who suffers from Lupus, his health is my primary concern, way before his performance. I believe that is the best way to approach his training; whilst he needs to get both fitter and stronger, he also stands the risk of being seriously ill if he’s pushed too hard. It may not always be the case, but I like to believe that the athletes’ best interests also come pretty high on the list of priorities for all members of staff, especially medical staff. Thus should be a pretty common operating principal amongst all staff.
However you also need to be a team player! Sometimes two areas that can conflict are the best interests of the team and the best interests of individual athletes. For example when a rugby player needs the rest but he’s still a better option at 80% match fit than your second string who’s 100%. Or as I experienced a few months back, when one of our skiers was going through late stage MCL rehab (thus my responsibility) but I was needed to drive 1 of the buses that took 7 other athletes to a competition camp based in the Alps for a week. Bare in mind that the head coach’s main priority should be for the whole team. If your priorities are aligned, it’ll make for a much more effective working environment. You’ll often need to make utilitarian based decisions.
Pick your battles! For me, this is one of the most important ways of thinking for two main reasons. Firstly, you can’t win them all. It’s simple enough to acknowledge that no matter how good your influence is, how good at persuading and explaining your point of view, you’re not going to change someone’s mind every time you try. Indeed if you manage to succeed occasionally then you’re doing a great job. Secondly, no one likes problems and problems are caused by disagreements. You want people to think of you as a problem solver, not a problem maker! So be wise in picking your battles, let the little things go, be prepared to sacrifice your principals in the short term for greater long term benefit and save your influence for when it matters most.
Pick your moments! Just like good comedy, timing is everything. The time at which you raise an important issue can be critical to how someone responds to it. There are several factors within this that you should consider. The first is that we all have external influences, good days and bad days; hence our mood can effect how open to certain ideas we are. If someone’s in a bad mood already, it’s probably not a good time to tell them something that they don’t want to hear (it may never be a good time, only some are better than others!). So be good at reading body language. Humans are a little more complicated than dogs but we do express our moods and emotions through the way we carry ourselves, our facial expressions and through our actions. Reading someone’s body language will give you a good insight to whether it’s a good or bad time to talk. As well as someone’s mood, reading their body language should tell you whether they’re busy or free. Don’t interrupt someone when they are in the middle of doing something else because it’ll be much harder to gain their full attention. Instead schedule a time in advance when you know they’ll be free. Finally, as I recently learnt from James Clear, our will power varies throughout the day. This means that there are times when we are more suited to making hard decisions and times when our will power is saturated which means it’s easier to just say no. The best times in the day to make such tough choices are early in the morning and straight after lunch.
Lead a united front – get support! Personally, within my team our doctor is one of the longest standing members of the team, he’s great at his job and he’s extremely well trusted by the technical staff. Whenever I have an issue to raise regarding the athletes, the programme or anything else important, our doctor is the first person I go to discuss it with and ask his opinion. In previous roles I have always ensured the strongest of relationships with physiotherapy staff and would always raise topics of concern together. This provides so much more solidarity and strength to what you are trying to influence. Furthermore, approaching colleagues in advance shows that you value their opinion, which will only strengthen your relationship when done in the right way (genuinely).
Communicate effectively. I aim to write a future post on this topic alone. For now I’ll keep it brief. In my experience there’s generally two types of coaches. There are those who want to see the research behind your rationale, all the data and detailed written reports. Then there are those who just want it explained clearly through simple conversation. Understand who you’re working with, what they prefer and be excellent at delivering your message through both means. Always be clear, concise and when presenting data make sure it is easy to understand.
Finally, something I always preach and endeavour to stick to is one of Dale Carnegie’s principal rules “Never Criticise, Condemn or Complain”. No one responds well to criticism, the automatic response is to go on the defensive regardless of whether what you think is right or wrong. Therefore when faced with a difference of opinion and there will be many, I highly recommend you think hard before you say anything of controversy. I’ve long believed that the biggest influence on human behaviour (and thus performance) is one’s environment. Whilst it takes time to change cultures, you can control the effect you have in that environment. You need to be a positive influence; a problem solver, an energy giver and lead by example. The 2 phrases I have as daily mantras at the front of my journal are “Never Criticise, Condemn or Complain” and “Ductus Exemplo” (Lead By Eaxample).
For further insight and more advice on being an effective “influencer” from a guy with a lot more experience than myself, check out this article by Jason Weber on oldbullfitness.com.
DISCLAIMER – By no means throughout this post am I suggesting that you neglect your primary responsibilities towards athletic development! Just consider that successfully working alongside the senior technical staff can sometimes be tough. I highly recommend investing some time developing these relationships and a conscious understanding of how you can have the most effective influence when it’s needed.
Believe me when I say regardless of what you do or achieve as a coach, everyone is much happier and your life is much easier when you’ve got a good relationship with the head coach and technical staff!
As always, thanks for reading and I’ll post the second part of this article with some of the cultural challenges I face here in Andorra as soon as I can.
All the best