Every once in a while, I choose a book that happens to be perfectly in sync with the stage of life I’m in. When I picked up Prepared: Unlocking Human Performance with Lessons from Elite Sport by Paul Gamble, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Gamble is the author of a number of books on the technical side of coaching (including, strength and conditioning and speed and agility), but Prepared is a step above in terms of levels of thinking.
At that same time, I had become even more interested in coaching and in understanding what makes a good coach. I was less concerned with the technical Xs and Os and more on:
- The non-technical skills and actions of effective coaches.
- The psychological attributes of elite coaches (which include having a drive for personal development, and possessing high levels of emotional awareness, understanding, and control).
- How coaches learn (a mixture of on-the-job experience, discussions with others, experience as an athlete, and formal education).
The aim of Prepared is to explore how to enhance human performance—which, as Gamble points out in the prologue, is not just constrained to sport but can be applied to high-performing individuals across a variety of domains. This is important because elite coaches are able to apply their knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines in differing contexts. The book is split into four key sections:
- Part one explores the creation of the environment, which is where coach–athlete interactions occur and where optimization can support sustained success.
- Part two looks at leading and coaching others, which is a recognition of the importance of both leadership and development as important functions of the coach.
- Part three explores the art of coaching.
- Part four focuses on the importance of managing the self in coaching.
1. Creating the Environment
The environment in which we coach can be highly influential in terms of supporting athlete development. Research into Talent Development Environments (TDEs) by Russell Martindale and colleagues, for example, has identified some key traits of successful TDEs, such as having a long-term vision, purpose, and identity; coherent support and messaging; role models; and regular review processes.
Similarly, research into Athletic Talent Development Environments (ATDEs) by Henriksen and colleagues, led to the development of two models of successful ATDEs: the Athletic Talent Development Model and the Environmental Success Factors working model, both of which highlight the important role aspects such as family, school, peers, the media, various sporting programs, and espoused values play in the development of future athletes.
In Prepared, Gamble writes that effective change begins with the environment over which we have stewardship. As a coach, controlling and optimizing the environment of practice is an area that, while often poorly considered, could reap potentially huge rewards. This also links into the second part of the book on leadership. When I look at sporting systems (which is a slightly esoteric way of saying how elite sport is delivered across a country), I tend to consider it through “spheres of influence.”As a coach, controlling and optimizing the environment of practice is an area that, while often poorly considered, could reap potentially huge rewards, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
A performance director has a wide sphere of influence. It is macro in nature: they have to work with various partners and set strategy, which filters down to the system. The next level is national coaches; their sphere of influence is also quite large but constrained to their own event group—they have ownership of performance in their area of expertise, and again have to influence down (to the coaches in their event group). The next level, that of personal coaches, is the most granular sphere of influence: the individual coach working with their own group of athletes. While this might be the smallest sphere, it’s also potentially the most important, as it is where champions are made. As a coach, your sphere of influence is composed of the group of athletes you work with, therefore creating the environmental conditions for success is crucial.
So, how do we do this?
Firstly, we need to create a culture of high performance. Gamble identifies the fluffiness of the word culture—he refers to it as the ‘C’ word and quotes a paper that refers to it as “the most vaguely deployed term in social science.” This means that we must live the values and behaviors we want our athletes to exhibit; we can’t expect them to be on time if we’re constantly late, and we can’t expect them to exhibit resilient behaviors if we’re consistently moaning. There must be clarity for your athletes and any support staff you work with about the standards and behaviors that are required from them—but, crucially, you must also model these behaviors and live up to these standards.
Next, Gamble examines the dynamics of the performance environment we create. If we want high performance from our athletes, then we need to create an environment that is conducive to high performance. Key among this is setting a climate that is motivational for the athletes who are in it, something which the All Blacks rugby team took very seriously, as outlined in a seminal paper on their approach. Everyone involved in the environment (in this case, coach and training group) must be aligned on a shared goal, which everyone works towards.
As a coach, you likely have goals for the athletes you work with; the key here would be to work with them to ensure that your goals and their goals align. Once alignment has occurred, the next step is to develop a set of process goals and key performance indicators—milestones that let you know that you’re on your way to success and identify small deviations from the path before they become large ones. Leadership style is also important here, with most successful coaches utilizing a transformational leadership approach. This includes:
- Possessing inspirational motivation (articulating your vision to the people you work with).
- Having high performance expectations.
- Being an effective role model.
- Providing individual consideration to the athletes you work with.
Transformational leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire others to success and, as such, is an important component of a successful talent development environment—certainly more so than a transactional leadership style.
When it comes to setting a performance environment, Gamble also writes about the value of diversity—particularly cognitive diversity—as a way of fostering better decision-making processes. Attempting to gain insights from people with different experiences can bring new ideas to the table. Seeking out and analyzing new ideas and fresh ways of thinking—from a variety of different domains—is very useful. This, in turn, helps guard against binary thinking—another of Gamble’s key performance environmental pillars—whereby we view issues as either/or, and miss the context (something increasingly important in the tribalism demonstrated on social media).Attempting to gain insights from people with different experiences can bring new ideas to the table. Click To Tweet
2. Leading and Coaching Others
In this section, Gamble discusses some of the contemporary issues in coaching today, identifying key traits of elite coaches that are present across a variety of different sports and domains, such as curiosity, skepticism, and divergent thinking.
These skills come in handy for coaches in the modern era, where there is more information and research being shared than ever before. Coaches need to be able to critically analyze what is being offered, before integrating what they think will work into their practice. An example of this is the illogic of being data driven; we should not blindly accept the data output we collect, but instead use it to inform our decisions about what approach to take.
Elite coaches also tend to possess high levels of both inter- and intra-personal intelligence (knowledge of others and knowledge of self), two skills that broadly comprise emotional intelligence. These, along with emotional management and being able to understand emotions in others, are the cornerstones of developing functional relationships. Emotional intelligence in coaching is crucial; the athletes we work with will experience a variety of stressors throughout their life, both in their sporting and personal lives, and a healthy coach–athlete relationship can provide the athlete with the tools to successfully navigate these stressors. But it’s also important in managing our own coaching abilities—if we can successfully understand and control (or regulate) our emotions, we can make better decisions, understand when we are acting with bias, and be less likely to respond with anger.If we can successfully understand and control (or regulate) our emotions, we can make better decisions, understand when we are acting with bias, and be less likely to respond with anger, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Being able to manage and control our own emotional states means that, as coaches, we can take steps to insulate our athletes from some level of stress. For example, at a major championship, a coach who is nervous and anxious is far more likely to:
- Pass this nervousness and anxiety onto their athletes.
- Make poor decisions that harm performance.
The first point relates to stress contagion, whereby our athletes pick up on our feelings of stress and anxiety and begin to exhibit them too—it’s clear to see how this may harm their performance. Similarly, being able to understand the emotional states of the athletes we work with—a further hallmark of emotional intelligence—means that we can identify when they are struggling to regulate their own emotions. In turn, this allows us to develop strategies to make them better in this area, which Gamble outlines through his strategies for manipulating challenge and perceived threats during training. This then allows the athlete to develop resilience and perform better in subsequent competitions.
The final pillar Gamble identifies in this section is a big one: agency.
Gamble writes that agency allows us to avoid a victim mindset—both in ourselves and in the athletes we work with. In part, this is by acknowledging that our choices and actions have a significant influence in creating our reality. As such, being accountable for our outcomes and accepting responsibility for when things don’t go well, is crucial—something that can be effectively role-modelled by coaches to their athletes. Elite athletes, for example, are much more likely to make the choice to practice the skills they’re not so good at—they are accountable for their performances and want to be successful, so, given the choice, they select a process which supports their success. In essence, they own their performance.Elite athletes are much more likely to make the choice to practice the skills they’re not so good at, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
3. The Art of Coaching
In part three of Prepared, Gamble explores contemporary issues affecting sports coaching and human performance. One of these aspects is iatrogenics. In medicine, this refers to an illness caused by a medical examination or treatment (i.e., accidently harming someone). This is in contrast to the notion of first, do no harm (or primum non nocere). Gamble explores the concept of iatrogenics in sports and coaching—it is perhaps best illustrated by medal targets, which, in the face of recent sporting scandals, have had the unexpected effect of driving unethical (and, in some cases, illegal) behavior.
Similarly, training too intensely or too often, while coming from the hope of improving athlete performance, actually has the opposite effect, leading to overtraining and underperformance. Load management is another area where Gamble identifies iatrogenic behavior in practice—while the idea of quantifying load to identify at-risk athletes is useful in theory, in practice we often see athletes incorrectly designated as at-risk, who then see an unnecessary reduction in load—and, as a result, perhaps underperform due to a lack of stimulus.
In this section, Gamble also discusses tempering, whereby we use training to impart strength and toughness into the athletes we work with. By applying stress to our athletes, we can drive positive adaptations. This means that we might have to reconsider some commonly held beliefs. For example, when it comes to training loads, we are typically counselled to avoid any major spikes. However, Gamble writes that something without any tolerance for deviation from normal is a fragile system; so, by attempting to reduce any unpredictability, we’re actually harming our athlete’s performance longer-term. Utilizing both variability and volatility in our program, therefore, allows us to create performers who are both future-proof and highly adaptive—similar to the worst case scenario approach to developing training programs.Something without any tolerance for deviation from normal is a fragile system; so, by attempting to reduce any unpredictability, we’re actually harming our athlete’s performance longer-term. Click To Tweet
4. Managing the Self
The importance of this is identified in the section introduction, where Gamble writes: “Our physical and mental wellbeing is integral to our ability to fulfil the requirements of our role in service of athletes; we have an obligation to fulfil these responsibilities.”
This underpins the importance of taking care of ourselves so that, like our athletes, we can perform at the highest level. It also relates to knowing how to get the best out of ourselves, including self-improvement. Whole chapters are devoted to navigating the information age and the importance of sleep—two aspects all coaches potentially vie with from time to time.
The final chapter outlines how stress affects our ability to think clearly—something which affects us all with increasing regularity—and provides some strategies we can use to optimize our own performance under stress and pressure.
A Spot in Your HP Library
Prepared was the best book I read in 2020. Ensuring we understand that coaching is much more than just technical knowledge, and then taking steps to ensure we’re taking care of the other aspects, is a crucial yet potentially under-explored area of understanding when it comes to optimizing human performance.
In Prepared, Gamble provides a clear framework to begin thinking about some of these issues and considering how to implement them in our practice. I got so much from the book when I first read it and, going over my notes when writing this article, I was reminded of even more practical take-homes. The reference list alone is worth the price of the book and taking time to go through some of the papers and resources listed there will expose you to many new ideas and ways of thinking. As I said at the start, I came across this book at the time of my life where I was primed to get the most out of it—if you’re involved in coaching in any capacity, there will be a lot you can take from it as well.
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