A lot has been written about the impact of technology in society today, particularly smart phones and social media. One of the biggest changes has been that we now have the answer to any question we might want to answer in our pocket. All we need to do is Google it. For sports – and coaches, in particular – I think this has caused a significant shift. The old saying was “knowledge is power”, and the coach is meant to have all the answers, and therefore all the power.
However, knowledge is no longer power because everyone has access to knowledge in their pocket. Simply “knowing” loads of stuff – having great technical and tactical knowledge – about our sport is not enough to develop athletes that fulfill their potential. If we believe that our athletes have been successful because of what we have told them, I think we are giving ourselves too much credit. This approach also infers that an athlete can only be as good as the knowledge in OUR head.
What differentiates the great coaches from the good ones is their ability to form close relationships with their athletes and create an environment where they feel safe – not just physically safe, but psychologically safe. Great coaches care for their athletes while constantly pushing them out of their comfort zone. Great coaches create environments where athletes can confidently take risks, try, fail, try, fail and try again on the long, slow road to fulfilling their potential.
Technical and tactical knowledge is still important. Indeed, great coaches do not downplay mistakes and do not allow them to go unnoticed. It is not about simply trying to make the athlete feel happy, or praising everything that they do. Behaviors that meet expectations should be acknowledged, and only behaviors that exceed expectations should be praised.
However, what is more important than our level of technical and tactical knowledge is how we deal with the person in front of us. One of the best coaches I ever had the pleasure of talking to about his work said his success was due to him “coaching people that played rugby, not coaching rugby players”. It does not matter how much we know about a sport if we cannot form relationships with people, gain their trust and get the best from them.
As coaches, we see the best and worst in athletes. We need to deal with people when they are at their lowest, after a poor performance or a defeat. I think it is no longer in anyone’s interest to deal with this by saying “don’t worry about it”. Instead, we have a responsibility to turn bad situations into positive learning experiences, especially those of us who are working with young athletes. Our level of technical or tactical knowledge will not help in this situation; but a trusting relationship that we have cultivated over a period of time will certainly make it easier for the person to take the feedback on board, learn something and come back stronger next time.
In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek‘s research shows that, more than ever, people (especially young people) crave a fulfilling relationship with their leader. If we take this to be true, then as coaches we need to adapt! We need to make sure we are putting our energy into building these relationships, which play it’s part in creating an environment that will get the best out of the next generation of athletes.
There will be implications for the education of coaches, and this is healthy. Ultimately, we can train people what to coach, but it is much harder (and more important) to train them to connect with people.