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No Coach is An Island: Coaching in Competition

The all too familiar sights (above) at the side of a kid’s sports competition, and the sounds to match.  As an interested observer and listener I find it really interesting to watch and listen to these coaches, and I do wonder…which of the instructions, if any, do the players hear or process?...have the kid’s been supported and prepared for the situation they’re in, if so much instruction is needed?... and is the communication from the ‘side-lines’ helping the kids develop their decision making ability for the longer term?

Last year I was lucky enough to be invited along to the ‘Topper Worlds’, a world event for young sailors hosted at Ballyholme County Down,  to accompany a local coach working with his young performers on race day.  In the process of gaining my “sea legs” on the coach’s boat, it was hugely interesting to watch the approach of the coach and the context he was operating within.  On the day the coach was supporting around a dozen sailors and his approach was to give each of them one or two key things to think about, checking they were prepared for the race, asking the participants about their race strategy, wishing them luck and watching them sail off into the distance.  After each race the coach then asked each sailor a couple of reflective questions, offered some support and set them on their way again.

How different from the ‘side-lines’ I’d been watching and listening to, and what an empowering environment for the young performers to think for themselves and cope with the situations that arise.  Does this leave them more prepared for the future?  The well-known John Donne line “no man is an island” is perhaps well placed here, or maybe it should be reversed.  Maybe to help young performers we need coaches to occasionally be ‘an island’ or at least allow their athletes to ‘sail their own boat’ for a little while, acknowledging that different approaches are required at times to support the needs of the individual participants/performers at various stages of development and in different sporting environments.

"Bad coaches make their students dependent.  Good coaches make themselves redundant".

The words of Paul Strikwerda (above) suggest that good coaching reduces the levels of dependence that the athlete has on the coach, and that was certainly the case with the sailing coaching I experienced first-hand at the ‘Topper worlds’. 

England Rugby Coach Eddie Jones has also stated his support for a player driven approach to competitive scenarios:

“We kid ourselves that we’re important during the game, but we’re not.  The players are the important ones.  We can send out one or two messages, that sometime help, sometimes it doesn’t help.  You want to get to the situation where players take the decisions on the field”.

In a chapter entitled ‘Coach Effectively on Game Day’ in his recently published book, Coaching Better Every Season, Wade Gilbert poses some interesting questions on the balance between silent observation & athlete problem solving versus coach intervention, and how best to communicate in breaks or between events.  In the chapter ‘over-coaching’ in competitive situations is cited as a common mistake made of many coaches right from youth environments to Olympic level.  However, while effective coaches generally adopt a ‘less is more’ approach in competition contexts, they play more than a passive role.  Instead they will spend more than 50% of their time silently observing, and the remainder encouraging with support and praise, and providing concise feedback and reminders during natural breaks or ‘teachable’ moments (Gilbert, 2017).  

The latter was apparently captured by Rene Meulensteen in a simple strategy during his time within the Academy at Manchester United Football Club.   While formal commitment was obtained from parents to not give technical instructions, coaches were also silent while the ball was in play saving any interventions for breaks in play.  The rationale for this at the club was that players cannot learn how to make their own decisions if they are used to receiving instruction from the touchline.

So if there is general consensus around the benefits of providing athletes with the space to make their own decisions, and clear evidence that coaches should observe more and intervene less during competition – why do we continue to see and hear so much intervention from coaches during competition?  Is it that a more refined/reduced intervention/increased observation form of coaching looks like the coach isn’t coaching?  Is it that we see some high profile coaches making frequent interventions during competition and model this?  Or is it that we haven’t got the messages out widely enough about what effective in competition coaching looks… and sounds like?

“The ability to refrain from immediately intervening and instead to observe the play patiently appears to be a separator between top coaches and less skilled coaches” (Gilbert, 2017).  That being the case, lets fill our coaches with the confidence to focus on delivering the ‘effective’ coaching behaviours in competition rather than the ‘expected’. 

Bibliography

Strikwerda, P (2014). Getting the Edge in Voice Overs: http://blog.edgestudio.com/getting-the-edge-in-voice-overs.  New York: Edge Studio.

Jones, E (2016). England Rugby – Keep Your Boots On! Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kb4qAnw7D8E.  YouTube.

Gilbert, W (2017). The Coaching Panel 2016: Coaching Better Every Season: A Year-Round System for Athlete Development and Program Success.  Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.

White, J (2014).  Sound of Silence Speaks Volumes About Bawling Parents.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/10693435/Sound-of-silence-speaks-volumes-about-bawling-parents.html London: The Telegraph. 

Author:

Simon is currently a Coaching Consultant at Sport Northern Ireland, where he has been employed since 2007.  This role combines support for governing body coaching system development, management of sport investments, and the development and delivery of interventions to support further learning for coaches and coach developers.  Simon takes an active role within sport as a hockey coach at Lisnagarvey Hockey Club and tutor of national governing body coaching qualifications for Ulster Hockey/Hockey Ireland.  He has a particular passion for and interest in the development of children in and through sport, and children’s coach development.