Every athlete has a way of being taught and coached that ignites their passion for their respective sport. Taking the time to find out the most effective and efficient way to coach your athletes can eliminate many stressful coach/athlete interactions, and make for a more rewarding and successful journey between coach and athlete. After all, helping your athlete reach their full potential and their dreams is a journey, a process that may last years. Your coaching style plays a significant role in how this journey plays out and what each of you find at the end of this road you will travel together.
When a coach is able to reach their athletes with effective and empowering strategies for learning, athletes learn faster, acquire skills and techniques faster, reach loftier goals, and enjoy their sport more. The experience of coaching is more enjoyable and rewarding for the coach as well.
This doesn’t mean that you have to coach every athlete differently. It means that you can learn to coach using different teaching/learning styles with your whole team. This allows you to reach every athlete effectively.
I hear from many coaches who are frustrated with their athletes lack of progress. I also hear from many athletes who are frustrated with the interaction that occurs between the athlete and their coach or coaches.
In many sports there is a dynamic in place where the athlete is sent clear messages to not ask questions, voice their opinion, speak up, or challenge a coaches tone, treatment and coaching techniques. The coach coaches and the athlete trains. The relationship is usually good until frustration increases and tension begins to build.
The personalities of coach and athlete can change dramatically under this kind of stress.
When something goes wrong in training, “corrections”, or feedback are given to help the athlete get back on track and progress. Too often these corrections bypass the athletes most effective learning style and the athlete does not improve as quickly as the coach might like. The coach might become frustrated, try to implement these corrections again, in an ineffective way, and continue with this cycle of ineffective coach/athlete interaction.
Over time, more and more of the athletes energy goes into avoiding making mistakes and upsetting their coach. Coaches can begin to “put the athlete in a box” or see them as incapable or un-coachable.
Using Energy Efficiently
Mental and emotional energy is the driving force behind excellence and brilliance in sport. This energy is also critical to building confidence, passion and rock solid belief.
Effective coaching helps the athlete channel this energy into the acquisition and mastery of physical skills necessary to compete at the highest level. Physical, mental and emotional energy moves in a highly efficient and productive direction.
Ineffective coaching creates an environment where more and more of the athletes mental and emotional energy is channeled away from training and improvement. Personality can begin to change. The athlete can become passive, timid, too focused on avoiding mistakes, highly emotional, and afraid of upsetting their coach.
The more shut down the athlete becomes, the more frustrated the coach can become. This can lead to intimidating behaviors from their coach such as ridicule, shaming, yelling and ignoring the athlete. In some instances the athlete receives extreme physical punishment or can get kicked out of practice.
Four Distinctly Different Learning Styles
Every athlete utilizes a specific learning style or combination of learning styles to learn most effectively. There are four different learning styles.
Visual Learning- Show the athlete visually what you want them to learn. Visual learners learn best by seeing what it is they need to work on or improve. Their brain processes information visually. Use video, images, illustrations or show the athlete the feedback or instruction you are trying to give them.
Aural Learning- The aural learner likes to hear feedback, instruction, and correction. Tell them what you want them to learn. Make sure that they are paying attention and then give them feedback or instruction with your voice, a recording, or some other form of aural input.
Reading and Writing– This learning style prefers to read or write about the improvements or corrections they need to make. When working on skills, they learn best by receiving written feedback that they can process. They also like to write or journal as a way of learning.
Kinesthetic- This learning style likes to hear and see feedback and then go to work making the necessary changes or corrections to help anchor in effective learning. They process best by taking in feedback visually and/or aurally and then getting to work mastering the skills and corrections. Tell them what to do, show them what to do, give them something to read, and then let them get to work. They learn from making mistakes, falls, and others struggles. They need time to integrate and learn.
Formula for Success
I have worked with world class athletes in trampoline, men’s, women’s and rhythmic gymnastics, track & field, swimming, fencing, football, baseball, basketball, judo, figure skating, ballet, luge, skeleton, and other sports. These athletes come from all over the world and many different cultures. Those that have reached their full potential, in most cases, have worked with coaches who are open to teaching them in ways that maximize learning and evoke passion. This is a common denominator for success at the highest levels.
This doesn’t mean that an athlete won’t reach peak potential with ineffective coaching and teaching. We have certainly seen this in many sports where the athlete is not allowed to question a coaches style or have a voice in their own training. These athletes have become Olympic and World Champions.
I strongly believe that these athletes could have been even better if they had been coached with more effective and empowering coaching and teaching styles.
Short Circuiting the Brain
It is very frustrating for an athlete to have their learning style short circuited by a coach who only gives feedback one way. The athlete has to take in and process information, feedback and correction in a way that does not allow them to learn at the highest level.
Most of these gymnasts are strong kinesthetic learners. They learn best when their coaches show them what they want them to work on or correct, and at the same time tell them what they need to improve or correct during training. The gymnasts is then empowered to get to work integrating the feedback they have received. They work hard, struggle, fall, and are free to make mistakes. The coach gives them more visual and aural feedback and corrections. The gymnasts then goes back to work integrating and learning. Gymnasts learn skills faster, increase the difficulty and execution of their routines, and progress in their development at a much higher level.
Many coaches interrupt their gymnast learning styles by getting on them when they make mistakes or make them do conditioning if they don’t get a “correction” quickly, or the first time. In worst case scenarios, coaches kick their gymnasts off of the apparatus or out of the gym. This is incredibly unproductive. Gymnasts don’t get better sitting on the sidelines watching or skipping an apparatus that they are struggling on. It is also very embarrassing for them, and it breaks trust with their coach.
“There Are No Mistakes, Only Learning”
Kinesthetic learners learn best when they are free to make mistakes.
Many coaches punish their gymnasts for getting emotional during training. They don’t understand that their coaching style might be contributing to the gymnasts frustration. The gymnasts is afraid to make mistakes. They are afraid to upset their coach. When the brain focuses on not doing something, it is guaranteed that they will experience more struggle. And most likely make more mistakes.
I work with gymnasts whose coaches tell them “you will never improve if you don’t get corrections the first time”, “you will never make it to level 10 if you keep making mistakes”, you will never make national team if you don’t get this skill by next camp”. If the gymnasts doesn’t improve quickly, the coach becomes frustrated. These coaches don’t understand that if they create an environment where it is safe for their gymnasts to struggle, they will go far beyond their current skill level.
Kicking them off the apparatus or out of the gym, shaming them in front of their teammates and yelling at them will only increase the gymnasts upset and the coaches frustration.
These types of coaches are usually highly reactive, meaning they bypass their most effective coaching traits and go strait to negative and dysfunctional methods of coaching when things aren’t going well in the gym.
If we retain the old abusive culture, nothing will change and we will continue to experience athletes with no voice, no sense of personal power, poor interpersonal boundaries and life skills, and low self esteem.
I think it is safe to say that in gymnastics we all know where this type of coaching has gotten us.
Building a New Culture
We are in the process of building a new culture in gymnastics. It will take open minded coaches willing to ask questions, seek out information, show a willingness to learn and admit mistakes, listen to their peers and pay attention to interactions with their athletes. This open minded coach will become a better coach. Athletes will grow in confidence and belief in themselves. They will acquire skills faster and reach higher levels of success. They will show up authentically and will be free to express their unique personalities in their gymnastics.
And I believe they will achieve greater success.
What kind of coach do you want to be?