The coach is dead! Long live the coach!
Remember Coach (insert name here)? Baseball cap. Whistle on lanyard hanging around his neck. T-shirt with school/team logo on it. Khaki shorts. White tube socks pulled up to mid-calf. White sneakers. Big wrist watch. Loud voice. Got the mental image? Good. Chances are, if you participated in youth sports like AYSO or Pop Warner or school sports teams, you experienced athletic coaching in all its glory.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) reports that there are over 800,000 athletic coaches in the U.S. That’s alot of people working with athletes of all ages and experience levels! Nearly every amateur and professional athlete interfaces with a coach on a daily basis – whether a team coach or an individual coach. Coaching is so prevalent in the U.S. that the discipline has crossed industry barriers and become a common fixture in business (executive coaching), personal development (life coach), medicine (birth coach), finance (money coach), and many more areas.
Generally, the athletic coach:
- Provides instruction on the fundamental skills of a team or individual sport
- Coordinates practices and works with athletes to prepare them for competitions
- Prescribes and monitors the necessary physical training for athletes
- Encourages teamwork and good sportsmanship
- Determines strategies and plays for games and competitions
That’s quite a workload. And, for the job they do, amateur athletic coaches are aggregiously underpaid. No one can argue with the important role a coach plays in the development of young athletes.
But, does the model of amateur athletic coaching still apply to today’s adult performance athletes? Does coaching really work for the adult athlete or is the coach merely a psychological crutch used by not-so-serious ‘weekend warrior’ types in an attempt to validate their ‘pro cred’?
Let’s look at a coach’s five roles again — this time through the lens of the modern, adult athlete:
1. Coach as instructor: Provides instruction on the fundamental skills of a team or individual sport
Traditionally, the coach has been the keeper of a very specific body of knowledge pertaining to a particular sport. Usually this knowledge was gathered from experience and bestowed upon young, developing athletes who were generally receptive to the coach’s guidance. Today, the field of human performance is highly democratized and based on one principle: know your body and your sport. Knowledge — both theoretical and practical — is easily accessible through books, videos, DVDs, websites, published research findings, and online forums. Got a question about how to perfect your golf swing? You can buy hardware and software that will help you drive, putt, and chip just like Tiger Woods. Need to improve your swim stroke? Read a few books, watch a few videos, buy a gadget or two and you are on your way to becoming the next Michael Phelps. Want to pedal in perfect circles? Spend a few hours on You Tube, buy a CompuTrainer, and in three months you will have the fluid spin of a UCI ProTour rider. All the knowledge you need is out there in nice, neat pre-packaged bits and the vast majority is available for free. Yes, free. You just need to have the patience to find it, read it, process it, and apply it to your sport. The information to help you be a a better athlete is out there. Go find it!
2. Coach as motivator: Coordinates practices and works with athletes to prepare them for competitions
You are an adult. You are an athlete. You have commitments. You have a life to manage. If you need someone to tell you when to train, what to do for your training, and how to prepare for competition, then you need to reexamine your values and priorities. Know your body and your sport (see the previous section…) and take control of your athletic development! Don’t leave it to someone else. Success is fueled from within; no one can provide you with a magic potion to (legally) achieve your atheltic goals. Of course, every athlete needs a support system. But, there is a difference between ‘support’ and ‘dependence.’ Support is the bit of advice from a peer or the cheering family members near the finish line. Dependence is waiting for your coach to yell at you so you are ‘guilted’ into getting those last four 100s in before your hour in the pool is done. The motivation to achieve should come from a burning desire to do your best. Just as with all things in life, dedication counts. If you are not serious about reaching your professional, academic, personal, and athletic goals, then you will fail.
3. Coach as trainer: Prescribes and monitors the necessary physical training for athletes
Today, almost every adult athlete trains and competes with more electronic performance-monitoring devices than the Bionic Man (remember that 70′s TV show?). Garmin. Polar. Training Peaks. Strava. Any of these products sound familiar? These items are so common in today’s performance sports that to train or compete without them is, well, unheard of. These are the tools of the 21st century athlete. But, they are only tools to help athletes track and measure their performance. They do not motivate or inform. What is periodization? Lactate threshhold? Recovery? If you don’t know what these things are, then you need to read item #1 again. Know your body and your sport and you will know what you need to do to excel in your chosen sport. Sure, you can but a training program from one of many coaching websites. But, how can you accurately follow the program and understand its theoretical foundation if you are unaware of the basic principles upon which the program is based? For the adult athlete, success lies in taking full responsibility for your training and competition preparation.
4. Coach as model: Encourages teamwork and good sportsmanship
Really? If you are a sore loser and a cheater, no coach is going to be able to change that. Sorry. How many coaches were employed by Lance Armstrong during his two decades as a professional cyclist? Intrinsic values, ethics, morals, and motivation are instilled in children at a very young age. By the time a child becomes an adult, their psycho-social framework is built upon a foundation of principles and beliefs that guides their thoughts, words, and deeds. No amount of coaching (unless accompanied by cogntive behavioral therapy and psychotropic drugs) will change a ‘bad athlete’ into a ‘good athlete.’ Nope.
5. Coach as strategist: Determines strategies and plays for games and competitions
A smart athlete is a successful athlete. In preparing for a competition, do you: 1) Pre-ride the course? 2) Check the split times of the other competitors in your age group? 3) Train on courses of similar length and difficulty? 4) Dial-in your race nutrition four weeks ahead of the event? 5) Solicit advice from peers who have done the event before? 6) Read the ‘Race Bible’? 7) Check the weather seven, four, and two days before the event? All elite athletes are Type A personalities whose pre-race behaviors border on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The successful athlete makes sure that he or she is well-informed about the event, the conditions, and the competition. Knowledge is power on the race course. Even simple bits of information like knowing where it is safe to pass someone on the trail can be the difference between a pack finish and a podium spot. An athlete that leaves the gathering, processing, and applying of this type of information to someone else is consciously dulling their competitive edge.
So, if the traditional coaching model doesn’t work for today’s adult performance athlete, what does work?
With quick and easy access to essential practical and theoretical knowledge — as well as the availability of resources and tools needed to apply and capitalize on that information — the modern athlete has the capability to know and understand more than most coaches about training and competing in a particular sport. So, the coach is no longer needed as an instructor. Today’s successful athletes find the desire within themselves to pursure their goals. So, the coach is no longer needed as a motivator. Taking full responsibility for the proper execution of a comprehensive training program is a priority for all successful athletes. So, the coach is no longer needed as a trainer. An adult athlete comes to each competition pre-programmed with a set of behaviors that will emerge in response to positive and negative stimuli before, during, and after the event. So, the coach is no longer needed as a model. The athlete that comes to a competition knowing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and how it needs to be done, will be successful. So, the coach is no longer needed as a strategist.
This is the death of coaching as we know it.
So, how can the professionals-formerly-known-as-coaches re-make themselves to accommodate the shifting landscape of adult atheltic performance? Here’s an idea: be the knife, not the spoon. In other words, rather than dishing-out servings of knowledge to the athlete, focus on spreading the concepts and information over the athlete so that every area is covered. Get it? Stop talking, start listening. Provide the athlete with options and let them make their own decisions. Give up the “coach knows best” mindset and adopt an approach to athletic training that treats the athlete as an equal, a peer, not as a subservient plebe. Suggest, don’t order. Advise, don’t command. Question, don’t doubt. This approach leaves behind the old coaching concept and ushers in a new model to help adult performance athletes achieve their goals: the athletic mentor. The athletic mentor is the future of coaching and the idea reflects the increasing prevalence of the well-informed, self-directed athlete.
Taking the five roles of the coach examined above and translating them into the athletic mentor conceptual framework gives you:
- Athletic mentor as skills builder: Fosters the development of fundamental skills of a team or individual sport in an athlete
- Athletic mentor as project manager: Works with athletes to prepare them for competitions
- Athletic mentor as consultant: Recommends physical training methods and techniques for athletes
- Athletic mentor as behavioral therapist: Models teamwork and good sportsmanship
- Athletic mentor as strategic advisor: Suggests strategies for competitions
Today’s coaches who are genuinely invested in their adult performance athletes – and their athletes’ goals — will see this paradigm shift as step forward in the coaching profession. Making the transition to athletic mentor will require the coach to update his or her ‘toolbox’, but the final outcome will be empowered adult athletes, a dynamic mentoring relationship, and a deeper undertstanding of the sport by the athlete and the athlete by the mentor.
About The Author
Aaron Hanson (a.k.a The Cap’n) is manager of the Southern California Colavita Regional Amateur Team. A 25-year veteran of the sport and lifestyle of cycling, Aaron has raced both road and mountain bikes, advocated for bicycle transportation funding and facilities at the city, county, state, and federal levels, planned and facilitated numerous bicycle events, and helped several municipalities and counties create viable bikeway master plans.
Aaron has been honored by IMBA, CORBA, Clif Bar, the City of Los Angeles, the County of Ventura, the City of Simi Valley, the United States House of Representatives, and the United States Senate for his bicycle advocacy work. He has even won a bike race or two.
Aaron can be contacted via e-mail at: email@example.com
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