Applied coachingYouth strength and conditioning

The 4 abilities for successful coaching

I’ve been reflecting recently over a number of weeks, intermittently, about what abilities are important both in coaching athletes, as well as in day to day life itself. The list below is what I’ve settled on at this point in time. I wouldn’t say this is set in stone or exhaustive, but at this point in my coaching journey these are the ones that stand out for me.

  1. Likeability

This might seem a strange one to put at the top of the list. Surely, “knowledge” or understanding of the sport should be the priority right – wrong. Every day I see incredibly knowledgeable coaches who SHOULD be able to secure great jobs, or create buy in with athletes and coaches. Ever been in a conversation where someone says, “I can’t believe they got that role?” or “How did he land that?”. Often it isn’t a coaches  knowledge that lets them down, it is their likeability. This isn’t to say they aren’t nice people, but what I notice is that coaches who “over-science” and want to explain every physiological mechanism, rarely have great coach-athlete relationships. They lack the social skills.  Let me explain this a little further…
I’ve seen very basic, low level programmes produce great results with athletes. In contrast, I’ve seen incredibly well thought out, science based programmes fail to produce results. What is the reason? Buy in from athletes and coaches. Very often the thing that will dictate your success as a coach is the presence or lack of buy in from athletes/coaches. As S&C coaches, we love the science underpinning our coaching, however we have to remember that very often human beings make decisions based on emotion and then later use logic to rationalise our emotional decisions. This is the reason advertising works – it creates a desire which may be illogically in a financial sense, but we rationalise why we need that new car/iPhone etc. to ourselves after the fact. So athletes/coaches are far more likely to help you, or follow the programme if they have a good relationship with you.
Remember, no matter how good you are as a coach, if the key people don’t like you (athletes, technical coach, physios etc.) you won’t be there long. You don’t have to be loved 24/7 but you need to have good working relationships. Relationships are key. Here is a key example of how NOT to create good relationships/buy in:

It’s cringy but “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
2. Adaptability
Following on from above, you need to be adaptable. If you are set on something: a particular working schedule, an exact exercise being performed or certain working conditions, you are likely headed for a battle. This may undermine your “Likeability”.
I have heard two of the best S&C coaches in the world independently use the phrase, “Kill them with kindness”. I think they might be on to something. You may need to be adaptable in:

  • working conditions
  • sessions timings/hours
  • drill/exercise selection
  • training methods
  • working outside of your job spec to help others get their tasks done

In my day to day role rarely a day goes by when there isn’t some sort of adaptation required to an exercise program due to change of venue, injury, or in one case – someone forgetting their lifting shoes! I’ve actually begun to really enjoy challenging myself to think of how we can still get something productive done, working around the barrier.
“Adapt and overcome“, is a phrase I’ve found myself thinking regularly in recent months. A key part of this is picking your battles. Is it really worth insisting an athlete completes a certain exercise they hate, if it causes disruption to your relationship, or the group atmosphere in the session. Remember, if you are in a multi-disciplinary team, ultimately you are all in it together, with the same ultimate goal. Be smart – sometimes you may have to lose a battle to win the war.
3. Durability
Sport is ruthless. The higher up the performance ladder you go, the more ruthless it becomes on your time, energy, relationships and potentially your health/body! This may mean getting your own exercise done at awkward times, or protecting time with the family etc. Again, if you don’t do these things you won’t be in the game for long, or your relationships, body and health will start to break down. If you want to keep coaching into the future take the time to invest in your durability!
Additionally, you need to be durable to shrug off unwarranted criticism from various angles (parents, other coaches, media etc.) and keep working away in the background to get the job done. Mostly you won’t get recognition for your work, particularly when working with youth athletes – accept this now. Don’t be fragile about it. Get back on your feet and get back to work on the job!
4. Ability to learn
You might have expected this to be the first on the list. Certainly some might put it there, really, its a given.  At the end of the day, pretty much everything other coaches know can be learnt, whether its through books, workshops, podcasts or conferences. I once heard Keir Weham Flatt say “Who you know gets you a job, but what you know keeps you there”. There’s definitely some truth to that. You are either moving forward or backward. Even if your standing still, people will be moving going ahead of you. Read books and journals, listen to podcasts, attend conferences and workshops – if you learn 1 new thing, then it was worthwhile. Don’t just stay inside the arena of your sport – look into leadership, business, self development and coaches of other sports too! You don’t know what nuggets of gold you’ll find!

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2 thoughts on “The 4 abilities for successful coaching

  1. Once again great post. I actually agree with you and the order in which you have put these especially the likability one… ive seen coaches that are really knowledgeable and sciency but cannot get a job.
    One I like too is; coach-athlete communication, a lot of coaches believe they need to talk AT the athlete to create that buy-in from parents as well as athletes themselves, quite often the info they are blurring out is no necessary, good that they know it but just not necessary to the athlete!
    Good post, look forward to reading more

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