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2018 Season - Lessons Learnt

The 2018 Athletics season is now over! I’m fortunate that most of the athletes I’ve been working with progressed and those that recently joined the group after being in difficult periods also went on to show signs of improvement so I’m reasonably satisfied with how the season has gone. Being such a young coach it goes without saying that I’m learning something new almost every day and therefore listing everything that I’ve learnt this year would be a pretty heavy read! So here’s the top 5 lessons that I’ve taken from this season which should summarise things pretty well.

1 – Plan A will probably never happen… adaptable

At the start of every training year, coaches will usually sit down and plan out how the next year will look for their athletes. Some of these plans will be extremely detailed and take a significant amount of time to put together but how often are these plans actually followed? I can’t remember the last time Plan A was stuck to for more than a few weeks either for myself or an athlete that I’ve worked with. This season especially I noticed how Plan A tended to be thrown out the window extremely quickly as a result of personal issues, illness, injury or in most cases simply because a change was needed as the original plan no longer seemed optimal. I had a few athletes this year who’s plans changed so frequently that we were no longer on the same alphabet.

So does this mean having a Plan A is useless? Not at all. I still take the time to develop a Plan A as it provides direction and helps me to put together the subsequent plans. Eg If an athlete gets injured and can’t perform certain exercises, Plan B takes the reigns with the intent of keeping Plan B as close to Plan A as possible. Use your plan as a guide that you evolve and adapt as you see fit always remembering to coach what you see in front of you on that day rather than sticking rigidly to something you wrote on a piece of paper weeks or even months beforehand.

2 – The importance of trusting what you’re doing

No matter how well thought out a programme is or how sound the thinking is behind training decisions, there will be occasions where you get it wrong. As a result of what I’ve observed this past year, one of the main behaviours that I’m trying to install in my athletes is the ability to stay calm and channel their energy when in a rough patch. Hitting the panic button will only result in elevated stress levels, distracted focus and often friction between athlete and coach or other athletes in the group. None of these are beneficial in achieving the end goal so why should we accept this?

I’m well aware this is much harder for some athletes than others, especially those that are most passionate and emotionally involved in what they do, but I’m striving to at least get them to improve how they deal with difficult periods. If you truly trust what you and your coach are working on and you truly believe it will come good in the end then stop stressing and get to work. Channel your energy into making progress day by day on whatever you’ve agreed is the priority and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can turn things around. This year, especially with the higher level throwers that I work with, I realised just how close they are to throwing far even when things may appear to be going terribly. The higher level the athlete, the smaller the change that needs to be made to make a big difference. Having a stress head and a tense body will make it much harder to make these small changes so clear that mind, trust what you’re working on and get on with it.

3 – Athletes will do stupid things

It’s going to happen. Athletes are people first and even the best make the wrong decision on occasions. It can be anything from deciding to push through a niggle in a training session that results in a more serious injury to poor lifestyle choices that severely impacts their training or competition preparation. So how can we minimise the frequency with which athletes make the wrong decision? I don’t really know…..

I thought education would be the answer but it appears to be only part of it. Time and time again I’ve spoken to athletes about certain issues and thought I’d got through to them but the next time they’re faced with a similar situation they make the wrong decision again. Some of the messages I get, even from intelligent and experienced athletes, genuinely put me in a state of complete disbelief at times (you know who you are!).

I’m open to suggestions as to how to fix this problem so hit me up with any ideas on how best to punish poor decision making……I mean encourage good decision making.

4 – Split second decisions can completely change the outcome so stay rational

Coaching elite athletes is a complex business. A lot of them are completely crazy individuals with a unique arrangement of stuff upstairs which contributes to them being the special athletes that they are. With this in mind, managing each individual to get the best out of them brings unique challenges and this year I really had to work hard at developing my social and emotional intelligence in order to manage some of the athletes I work with. When you’re working with highly emotional individuals, you have to be extremely careful with what you say and even how you say it. One mistake can ruin a session, cause friction that lasts for weeks or months or cause a loss of trust that ruins the relationship all together.

So, how do you avoid making too many mistakes? In my opinion, keeping yourself in a state where you don’t get overwhelmed with emotion and can therefore continue to think rationally gives you the best chance. There were plenty of occasions this year where athletes were frustrating me and I wanted to get into them to get a response and encourage a change of behaviour. Sometimes this is what I chose to do and it turned out to be the right decision most the time but on other occasions I decided against it as it would have been a catastrophic error. I can’t tell you how many training sessions or competitions I could have ruined this year if I hadn’t managed to keep my emotions in check and allowed myself to make a rational decision in that split second. Breathe, think rationally and then go with what you think will have the most positive or productive effect. Over time you’ll figure out what each individual requires to make the desired change…..

5 – Is the coaching system backwards?

I haven’t been in the game long enough to have a fully informed opinion on this but I’m going to bring it up anyway. In recent years I’ve been lucky enough to coach some athletes who have never done throwing before other than maybe the odd occasion at school. I’ve therefore been presented with a blank canvas for me to develop as I see fit without interference from old habits or previous experiences.

And you know what? It’s so much easier to coach them! I can tell them to do something and they do it without their body or mind rejecting the idea. This means that they’re developing the correct movement patterns and feelings from day one and therefore have a more solid foundation in which to move forward with. In contrast, when I start working with an athlete who’s been throwing for some time, I usually have to focus on undoing bad technical habits or feelings that they’ve developed over years of throwing incorrectly.

Here’s my point – most young athletes who want to try an event go to the coach at their local track. Some will be fortunate enough to link up with a great coach who sets them up well with sound technical and physical foundations but most will be exposed to sub-optimal coaching which may hinder their performance for the rest of their career. Please understand that I’m not having a dig at grass roots coaches who kindly volunteer their time to help the sport, it’s just an honest look at the reality of the situation. If more youngsters worked with “elite” level coaches from Day 1, I believe we’d have a much higher percentage of athletes working their way to the top without being held back by poor foundations. It just seems backwards to me that so many athletes are set up for failure from the very beginning and that elite coaches then have to spend most of their time patching up issues rather than putting the finishing touches to athletes.

I guess the "lesson" is that it's becoming increasingly apparent to me that good coaching from Day 1 can have a huge impact on future success and it's frustrating that I don't know how to fix this issue to ensure everyone can access it. Analysing videos and providing training programmes may be helpful for some youngsters but the reality is that in-person coaching will always be much more beneficial.

Anyway, as I'm currently in the states I'll sign off like an American....Hope ya’ll have a great day now


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