Although athletes are the ones who stand in the arena, we know that the influence of their coach on their performance is massive. Coaches are responsible for guiding athletes toward their maximum potential—often for much less recognition—which has led to coaches being viewed as “performers in their own right.”
This suggests that, like the athletes they’re developing, coaches need to consider their own performance:
- Can they make effective decisions under pressure?
- Are they providing sufficiently effective feedback?
- How does their body language influence the athletes?
By taking a high-performance view of how their coaching is “performed,” coaches can better develop their athletes. High performance, however, can also be difficult and stressful. Research has demonstrated that sports coaches are at a high risk of burnout due to various factors: physical demands, time away from family and friends, long hours, fear of negative athlete performance, often a lack of job stability, and managing conflict with others. Similarly, rates of mental health issues in elite coaches are not low.
This is somewhat of a paradox. Coaches know how to deliver high levels of performance in elite athletes: they know the influence of injury and illness on performance and the importance of a good diet, adequate sleep, and rest. They understand the principle of periodization, whereby the overall volume and intensity of the athletes’ workloads are varied across the training year. They know the importance of recovery to allow athletes to realize their potential. And yet, for a variety of complex reasons—personal, social, organizational—they often don’t apply the same principles to themselves.If the coach is a performer in their own right, can we actually say with confidence that they are a high performer if they are stressed, burned out, and tired, asks @craig100m. Click To Tweet
If the coach is a performer in their own right, can we actually say with confidence that they are a high performer if they are stressed, burned out, and tired? Can we rely on them to make good decisions under pressure? Can we rely on them to handle the physical loads of a long season or a high-pressure championship?
Job Performance and the Performance Pyramid
The above questions percolated through my brain as I read “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” a 2001 article published in The Harvard Business Review and authored by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Earlier this year, I was the team leader for an important competition. I was ultimately responsible for the health, safety, well-being, and performance of more than 80 athletes and staff. I was aware of the need for me to be able to make good decisions under pressure, so I made an effort to ensure my lifestyle—both while away and in the lead-up to traveling—was set up to allow that. Even though their article was aimed more at those with traditional office jobs, the advice from Loehr and Schwartz was helpful to me as I prepared for my team leader role, and I think it is beneficial for all coaches.
Loehr and Schwartz highlight that the majority of organizational and occupational performance research is primarily psychological in nature; it focuses on the neck up and, in their opinion, omits the role played by physical capacities. To overcome this, Loehr and Schwartz developed the performance pyramid, in which each level influences the other, and failure to address one level compromises overall performance.
Similarly, coaches tend to focus on the long term when working with their athletes, aiming to maintain high levels of performance over a career. The career of a coach can, in many cases, be much longer than that of an athlete, meaning that coaches need to consider how they can achieve sustainable personal high performance over a 20-, 30-, 40-, or even 50-year career.
The purpose of the performance pyramid is to support coaches (or “corporate athletes”) to achieve the ideal performance state. Much like there is a zone of optimal functioning for athletes in the arena, Loehr and Schwartz maintain that a similar construct exists for coaches. The foundation of the ideal performance state is the ability to effectively manage energy, whereby we oscillate between stress (energy expenditure) and recovery (energy renewal). While we might consider stress to be a negative thing, it actually isn’t; stress allows us to grow, develop, and adapt. Instead, the bigger issue is a lack of recovery—a concept familiar to athletes.Stress actually isn’t a negative thing; stress allows us to grow, develop, and adapt. Instead, the bigger issue is a lack of recovery—a concept familiar to athletes, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
From a physical standpoint, Loehr and Schwartz highlight that coaches need to be able to perform at a high level in the conditions in which they find themselves. In track and field, coaching at a major championship can include a lot of walking, often in high temperatures and/or across long days; as a coach, are you physically prepared to handle this?
On a personal note, I have a very dodgy back resulting from a chronic injury that eventually led to my retirement from sports. To ensure I could perform optimally in my role as team leader, I knew I had to be in a position where my back wasn’t a limiting factor. As such, I had a rehabilitation plan in place for months before traveling and an emergency management plan should I have a flare-up. Similarly, a coach I know prepares for major championships by upping their walking loads for the 12 weeks before the competition, ensuring they can tolerate the loads they will experience once there.
In short, being able to match the physical demands of the environment means that you are likely to be a more effective coach and are better able to buffer the effects of fatigue to make good decisions. Finally, physical training is actually a really good way to support mental health and well-being, making it an important part of the high-performance coach’s toolkit.
Staying with the theme of physical capacity, Loehr and Schwartz highlight the importance of sleep and good nutritional habits in optimizing the performance of coaches. Just as we ask athletes to get plenty of sleep each night and optimize their diet, coaches should do the same. We know that burning the candle at both ends and having a diet high in fat and processed foods won’t support high-performance athletes, so why should it work for coaches? This is an area in which researchers and practitioners alike are becoming increasingly interested, as evidenced by a recent paper.
The Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual Layers
Next, Loehr and Schwartz look at emotional capacity, which they define as the internal climate that supports peak performance. This is a really useful way of presenting it, and it highlights the importance of strong, healthy foundations, which in turn allow for high-performance actions to be built on top in support of performance. According to Loehr and Schwartz, the key to this is to maximize the experience of positive emotions (e.g., calm, challenged, engaged, focused)—which provide energy—while avoiding the energy-draining effects of negative emotions (e.g., frustration, resentment, anger). A potential key to this is having and maintaining positive relationships outside of sports; having clear boundaries between work and home can optimize satisfaction in both areas.
The third level of the pyramid focuses on mental capacity; here, Loehr and Schwartz focus on enhancing the cognitive capacities of those they work with. This includes developing their time management abilities, critical thinking skills, and ability to focus. A research paper from 2010 highlights how a mental skills training program—comprised of six workshops aimed at providing coaches with the skills to operate effectively under pressure—assisted coaches in their own performance.
Athletes often work with sports and performance psychologists to develop their ability to perform under pressure by utilizing skills such as goal setting, imagery, and relaxation…why can’t coaches? Throughout my sporting career, I’ve seen a number of coaches sabotage—completely unintentionally—the performance of their athletes by not being able to control and manage their emotions when under pressure. It seems counterintuitive to spend time developing your athletes and getting them to the biggest stage only to undermine your own time and efforts (and those of the athlete) by harming performance at the last minute.
Finally, Loehr and Schwartz’s last pyramid layer is spiritual capacity, which they define as “the energy that is unleashed by tapping into one’s deepest values and defining a strong sense of purpose.” To me, this is about knowing what you stand for and staying true to that.
As an example, in early 2014, in the lead-in to the Winter Olympics, I was the fifth man in a four-person bobsleigh team. It was clear that, by my competing for a place on the sled, the team’s performance was suffering, and rightly or wrongly, I felt blamed by some team members for that. Ultimately, I wasn’t having a good time—I didn’t feel comfortable, and there was no fun involved.
In the end, I requested to be moved from that team onto the second team in a bid to try and get them to qualify for the Olympics—something that we ultimately achieved. I made that decision because I wanted to be someplace where I was having fun, felt comfortable, and had a strong sense of purpose—things that were missing on my previous team. Being able to identify your values, and aligning your behavior and environment in support of them, will provide you with the energy required to deliver your best work—making you the most effective coach you can be.By supporting their own performance, coaches can increase their effectiveness and, in turn, better serve the athletes they work with—the goal of all high-performing coaches, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
All of this serves to demonstrate that, like athletes, coaches should think of themselves as high performers and develop their ability to deliver high performance effectively. Coaches are uniquely positioned to do this well, given their knowledge of developing high performance and frequent interactions with performance support practitioners, all of whom have their own areas of expertise. By supporting their own performance, coaches can increase their effectiveness and, in turn, better serve the athletes they work with—the goal of all high-performing coaches.
Six Key Habits
How can coaches optimize their performance?
- While periods of intensification (e.g., major championships) are unavoidable, the key aspect is for coaches to manage their energy—both acutely and across the performance year. This requires systems and processes to be in place to support recovery, much like the planning processes coaches go through with athletes. Being able to periodize your energy across the performance year should assist you in being a more effective coach.
- Have a physical training plan aimed at optimizing readiness to meet the demanding conditions in which they perform, just like their athletes. Being in good physical health can buffer the effects of fatigue and stress and ensure the coach can make good decisions under pressure.
- Aim for sufficient sleep each night to support recovery, and ensure a nutrient-rich diet.
- Develop and maintain clear boundaries between “work” and “home,” allowing time for adequate recovery and a focus on developing relationships with family members.
- Consider working with a sports or performance psychologist to develop your mental skills and capabilities, enabling you to perform better under pressure.
- Identify your core values, and ensure that your behaviors and environment align with these.
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