An Overlooked Aspect of Coaching in Athletic Development

In our athletic development programs we work with a lot of highly skilled athletes and just as many uncoordinated youth, hoping to one day become highly skilled athletes. No matter what level they are at, they are constantly being introduced to new movements, drills, and exercises that we feel will help them get better at their given sport. When teaching an athlete to perform a given task, there are a lot of different factors that go into the success you’ll have in getting the desired result.

A Deeper Understanding of the Activity

One of the best things you can do to speed up learning a new task is to properly explain the reasoning and the details before you start. Let’s use sprinting mechanics as an example. We think it’s important to teach sprint mechanics to all of our athletes, yet with some sports where running isn’t used often, some great athletes can struggle the first few times we go through it. Just having an athlete start running, then cueing them on specific details will not have a lasting effect on how well they repeat proper technique. Instead, it is better to describe proper sprint mechanics, throughout the whole body, and elaborate on how these mechanics improve the speed of the runner. Most athletes won’t remember all of the key points after the first explanation, but what they will see is how each correction fits into the bigger picture. This improved awareness provides much more meaning to them when you say things like ‘hammer the elbow back’ and ‘step over the stick’. I know that many people say that athletes don’t need to know how everything works, they just need to be told what to do, but I believe a deeper understanding in the mechanics of movement helps athletes use coaching cues better.

A Growth Mindset Atmosphere

An athlete with a growth mindset will see challenges as opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. An athlete with a fixed mindset will see a challenge as something that can’t be done, and something that can be avoided. It goes back to the ‘white man can’t jump’ concept. Some people will say, “Oh I’ve never been able to jump, that’s just not me” and avoid the concept of learning and improving, writing themselves off before they start. An athlete with a growth mindset will see a small vertical as a chance to improve their athleticism and accomplish something great. As coaches and professionals in the training field we know that you CAN teach the ability to jump, and you CAN teach speed. When tackling new exercises and techniques, fostering a growth mindset will help your athletes tremendously. Helping your athletes understand that they won’t be perfect at everything they try, but instead will meet a challenge, learn, improve, and overcome the difficulty. Don’t let your athletes get discouraged when trying something new because it doesn’t feel right or go as well as hoped. Learn more about different types of failure here.

Different Types of Cues

It would be interesting to record yourself coaching your athletes. Do you always give the same cues? How many times do you have to repeat ‘faster’, ‘harder’, and ‘stronger’ before you realize those instructions aren’t working? It’s important to think about the types of cues you use when coaching and try to change them. You can use internal and external cues. This means relating the cue to the athlete and how they control their body versus what is happening with the training implement or the environment around them. Another good approach is to be more interactive with the athlete. Ask them what they feel. Ask them the difference between two different techniques or repetitions or sets. Sometimes it’s not the athlete’s failure to understand or execute, but rather the coaches failure to give proper direction when searching for a specific result.

Coaching is a very important part of athletic development but it is also a very subjective activity, and often its success is measured by the success of the athlete or team in competition. This doesn’t always tell the whole story though, so it’s important to sit down every once in a while and ask yourself, am I doing the right things to help my athletes succeed? Everyone has effort, but sometimes misdirected effort can be a tough pill to swallow. Don’t confuse passion and effort for proper coaching. Those are two important factors that every great coach should have, but they don’t guarantee a great learning environment. Go through a checklist and figure out some things about your approach. How are you cueing? Do your athletes know why they are doing something? Are you providing a supportive and growth-centred environment? Your answers may surprise you.

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