I’m moving away from the series on Training Made Simple, just for a week to talk about delivering a decent coaching session. It’s primarily for coaches but that shouldn’t stop you reading on if you’re an athlete. In fact, I’d be delighted to hear your perspective.
Being a coach is a challenging job, especially when it involves delivering practical coaching sessions. It means standing in front of an expectant audience, delivering a technically accurate session which meets athlete expectations and helps improve their performance.
To be effective in this environment requires the ability to engage with a wide variety of athletes all with different personalities and a range of learning styles. To demonstrate the point, think about your favourite comedian? Why do they make you laugh? It is more than likely that they do so because they understand and empathise with you as part of their target audience. They will understand what makes you happy, sad and, most importantly, what is likely to make you laugh. Good comedians understand that what is funny in one environment, may not be so in another and will adjust their act accordingly. They may simply tell a joke, but most of the time they will use body language to support the telling or simply use a movement to convey the message they want to.
Of course, as a coach your aim is not to make everyone laugh all the time, but you will need to stand up in front of an audience, keep them motivated, engaged, entertained, and elicit the responses that you are looking for. Doing so will help you achieve the session’s aims.
In this blog, I’ll reflect on some of my own coach experiences, whether delivering sessions or being on the receiving end as an athlete. I’ll focus mostly on swimming, simply because I’ve got experience of watching swimming coaches, being coached by them and delivering sessions (albeit as a teacher, rather than a coach). Hopefully, the tips I provide will be equally relevant to cycling and triathlon coaches so keep reading if you are one of them.
Developing an Understanding of How to Understand
The elite side of sport appears to be where the glamour is at and many coaches aspire to work in such an environment. However, starting at the bottom, in grass-roots sport, offers just as many opportunities to learn. It’s a slightly more forgiving environment when you get it wrong too.
One of the best jobs at uni’ was being a swimming teacher. My original aim for going to uni was to develop the knowledge to be able to make a difference at elite level. However, here I was teaching swimming to kids aged 3 to 8 years old how to swim.
It couldn’t have provided a better education in coaching though. Water is not the most natural environment for human beings to be in. In fact, for young children taking their first strokes in a pool can be absolutely terrifying. One of the most difficult things for them is to put their face in the water. Staying afloat when calm is easy, but it’s a rather different experience when having a tantrum.
However, when young children develop trust with you and get over their fear of water, most learn to swim relatively quickly. Their motor skill acquisition is huge when compared to adults but the difference between slow and fast learners is also magnified. If you struggle to communicate effectively with them, they will disengage quickly, misbehave or simply not come back. My favourite bit of working with young children is that most have not developed the social skills to worry about hurting your feelings. They will tell you when you’re crap and there’s no arguing because they rarely have ulterior motives in doing so. Basically, if you have a weakness in communication, they will find it.
Older people aren’t so different in the way they learn. However, one big difference is that they have developed both an ego and an awareness of feelings. Athletes will rarely tell you when your coaching is crap as they may be scared about your response. If they are fearful of doing a specific activity, then their ego sometimes prevents them from telling you so. Including me in this, adults are often resistive in getting involved in technical cycling sessions because they may not have the skills to perform basic activities or they’re simply scared of damaging their fancy bike!
Are you one of these people that have always excelled in sport and who develops new skills quickly? It may be difficult to empathise with those who are slow to learn or are scared doing something you think is simple. If that’s you, think about putting yourself in a position where you’re really uncomfortable….maybe try flower arranging or a naked still life drawing class and then reflect on how you felt. Joking aside, having patience and understanding the perspective of athletes that may be quite different to you is a key coaching skill. Treat them the way they want to be treated. In coaching “treating others the way you would like to be treated yourself” is nonsense.
Watching Other Coaches and Being Coached
An important part of my own development is to watch other coaches deliver sessions. That’s where I get many of my ideas from. Additionally, it’s easier to critique others coaching practice than your own, so you will learn more quickly about what works well or less well i.e. learning from the mistakes of others!
I also participate as an ‘athlete’ in around 3 swimming sessions per week so I know what it feels like to be coached too! I see plenty of good practice but get frustrated when coaches don’t get the basics right. I often want to jump out the pool and take over a session but somehow resist that desire. Rather, my way is to write this blog in the hope that coaches will identify things that they don’t do so well and their behaviour as a result. Please feel free to add further tips in the comments box below or simply recognise poor practice in what you do and do something about it.
Knowing your Audience
We’re back to the comedian analogy again. Before you begin the session, it’s essential to know a bit about your audience. That means being at the session early and attempting to welcome everyone personally as they arrive. A simple “how are you feeling?” may reveal quite a bit! This is a particularly important question for triathlon coaches to ask, as athletes may have just done sessions in the other disciplines. My 1st proper swimming coach, Ally, who I have a great deal of respect for, initially made the mistake of not taking into account that some of us were multi-sport athletes. A typical weekend for me when I was focussing on Ironman included a fast bike ride and then a swim on the Saturday, a 100km+ bike on Sunday followed by a wee run if I was up to it. It took Ally a while to realise that a ‘lactate tolerance’ set wasn’t ideal on a Monday at 6am for us in the slow masters lane! But he did eventually realise!
Email out your session plan in advance so athletes can decide if it fits in with their other training. It also gives those who can’t attend the opportunity to do the session in their own time.
In reality it’s difficult to speak to everyone but it’s essential that you introduce yourself to newcomers and find out a little about them. That includes finding out their name and how experienced they are. Give them a simple activity to do to start off with, to ensure that their competency matches what they have told you.
To re-iterate this point, I recently turned up at my first coached swim session in over a year. The coach simply said “right, in you get, 200 FC. 200IM….50 fly, 50 breast, 50 back, 50 free….go”. Sheesh! I’m glad I knew the lingo and had swum with a club before. I’m reasonably confident in new environments but if I was a novice, I certainly wouldn’t have been back.
Introducing the Session
Ok, so you now know everyone and how they are feeling. Do you then write up on the white board what the session is? Yes? Well don’t! That’s not coaching. The only skill you need to do that is writing.
What are the goals of the session? Will you be working on endurance, speed or technique? Will intensity be hard, moderate, easy or a combination of each? What impact will the session have on athlete performance? As an athlete, I want to know these things; if I don’t, I feel short-changed. Additionally, it demonstrates that the coach has thought about and understands the session content. For me, that helps develop trust, which is essential between a coach and athlete. If you email your sessions out to the club beforehand, put your aims on it! It will help your athletes understand what they are doing and why, thus, becoming more independent.
They don’t generally teach crowd control on coaching courses but it’s pretty important. Large egos are common in athletes, especially males of the species. For example, at a recent swim session my lane was asked to keep intensity at 70% and take 20 seconds rest between each effort. I suspect for most of those involved intensity was closer to 110% and I know the recovery taken was 10 seconds or less. OK, the coach wasn’t to blame. However, the coach needs to ensure that instructions are adhered to. If they don’t then the session goals will not be achieved and undisciplined athletes may ruin it for others.
In my own cycle coaching, I’m a big advocate of questioning athletes or simply saying nothing. ‘Telling’ is my least favourite method of coaching. I want riders to become independent and self-aware . This enables them to reflect on their own performance, learning to self-correct when they perform a skill or technique poorly. If they overshoot a corner because they’re travelling too fast, they don’t need me to tell them they have done so. They see and feel the consequences of their actions. I may intervene if they make the same mistakes repeatedly. I will ask why they think the error is happening and how to they could self-correct. Telling is a last resort.
Swimming is a bit different as an athlete can’t really see what they’re doing effectively . Rather kinaesthetic perception, a sense of body and limb position, and movements is how the athlete gets the majority of their (intrinsic) feedback from. Unfortunately, this is not the most reliable of senses. For example, my breast-stroke feels like I’m doing what I should. However, the fact that I feel knackered after swimming 50 metres in 90sec suggests that Eric Moussambani could teach me a thing or two about technique. The coach is my eyes and needs to be able to be able to give me accurate feedback and coaching points to help me improve.
Let’s face it, going on a short coaching course doesn’t make you an expert on technique. I often still struggle to identify what is good and bad technique in cycling because I was more interested in training zones for the 1st 15 years. In swimming my understanding of freestyle technique is not too bad…. (in fact I have distinct recollection of commenting to a coach on a swimmer’s technique at the Olympic Trials one year…..but that’s another story. Bollocking from the boss doesn’t even come close). However, swimming mechanics are complex and it takes time to develop a good understanding of them. The only ways to develop this understanding is to regularly watch swimmers with the aim of understanding why their technique is good or bad. If possible, try to work alongside a good technical coach to compare and contrast on your separate evaluations of performance.
Quite a few years ago, Daz Smith had agreed to let me help out at a training camp. I was doing the odd bit of filming, watching coaching sessions and being a bit of a ‘dog’s body’. Daz called me over and asked me what I thought about a certain athlete’s hand entryAK-“Bit close to the centre line, not impacting on body line much, but seems to be shortening the glide and minimal sculling action in down-sweep”
DS-“Excellent, now tell me what feedback you’re going to give her”
AK-“Think about entering the hand in the water about here (demonstration) glide a bit more…” “Once, that bit’s better, we can move on to the down-sweep”.
DS-“wrong! Lat’s and trap’s are tight and we’re working to loosen them… this is origin of poor hand entry. We’ve also been working to simplify the stroke as she started swimming too late to develop excellent technique. Also, the simpler, the better for open water. We don’t need to tell her anything as she’s doing as I asked”.
So, my eyes were telling me accurately what was wrong with the technique but not why! Therefore, I didn’t have the knowledge or experience to effectively feedback and help adapt athlete’s technique.
Correct Use of Language
This is a personal bias, but it freaks me when coaches relate the ‘physiology’ to a session i.e. VO2max set and, my biggest hate…..to work on developing lactate tolerance. For relatively untrained athletes, VO2max will generally improve by simply doing exercise…..and there is no such thing as ‘lactate tolerance’. I may be a pedant, but I recommend that you don’t use terminology unless you understand why you are using it. My preference is for coaches to only use terminology if it is essential to the athlete’s understanding of what they need to do.
A few weeks ago, I saw Tony the coach at my triathlon club out the corner of my eye. He was using a notepad and pen. Wow…. it was like seeing the proverbial dodo! He was walking the pool-deck, evaluating the technique of every swimmer, writing down what he saw. Then, he went through each swimmer in turn giving them a specific coaching point to work on. Tony also adapted sets when they were not working out as expected. Brilliant coaching!
Coaching points should be thought about in advance of the session, for example, coaching points only relating to hand entry. It is very difficult to focus on more than a few things in a session unless you are working with only one or two athletes. Also, be very clear on how the technique should be performed . Develop an awareness of the things that may prevent a swimmer from executing it correctly, such as poor hip rotation, kick etc. Additionally, demonstrations should be as technically accurate as possible, even though it can be challenging to demonstrate breast-stroke kick from the pool-deck.
The biggest ‘faux pas’ is to say “what I saw most of you doing is…….”. No! No! No! If a coach says that to a group I’m in, I automatically think that as it was ‘most’ rather than ‘all’ that my technique was perfect and it must have been others doing it wrong. My guess is that everyone else thought the same as me, so no one benefits.
Wrapping up the Session
How was the session? You’ll never know unless you ask. How did the athletes enjoy it, what did they learn, what did they struggle with? Can they repeat coaching points back to you, and will what they have learnt stick for subsequent sessions?
Asking for feedback is essential, regardless of what level you are coaching at, as it will help you develop your coaching practice for subsequent sessions.
Wow….we’re there! There’s a lot to delivering a decent coaching session. Some people are natural at doing so, but for others it takes work. Some of the most effective coaches I’ve met have lacked experience but they do understand their limitations and work within their boundaries. The least effective ones are often experienced athletes who believe they are an expert coach simply because they have been an expert athlete. It doesn’t work like that. Just keep it simple, do the basics well and before you know it, you’ll see real progress. Oh… and it’s about the athlete benefiting, not an opportunity to show them how clever you are.