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Good coaches empower athletes

Published: 
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Reflections of the Water

Coaching is one of the few things that is as much of an art as it is a science. There are varying degrees in the spectrum of coaching, from so called coaches that merely supervise physical activity, to the few who profoundly change lives for the better.

We all know of coaches in various sports who seem to consistently win championships and produce great athletes year after year. What distinguishes them from the rest and what are they doing differently? Although we are exploring good coaching here, the same principles apply to leadership, parenting.

Unless you have been fortunate enough to participate in sports and have had the privilege of working with a great coach you may never appreciate the difference that one can make.

Along with a child’s parents, a coach is one of the biggest influences in a young athlete’s life followed by teachers. Unfortunately in our materialistic society, coaches are not given the respect that they deserve because the remuneration for their efforts is generally lower than the lucrative professions that are held in high esteem. 

Empowerment versus control; great coaches empower their athletes instead of attempting to control them. It’s really about power, and who is wielding it. The best coaches gradually give their athletes more freedom to make decisions that are in their own best interest. They equip athletes with the knowledge and skill set necessary to do so, instead of seeking to micromanage their charge and keep them dependent. 

The philosophy of control is doomed to failure simply because it’s impossible for the coach to know as much about an athlete as the athlete can learn about themselves. After all, it’s the athlete that decides the ultimate outcome, as they are the ones competing and not the coach. Furthermore, when it really counts in the heat of competition a controlling coach will never have the power to affect the situation from the sidelines.  

Ask any athlete who has worked under a great coach and they will attest to the fact that they are coached to coach themselves. This is done by cultivating understanding in the method which fosters belief in what they are doing and therefore confidence. Once an athlete believes in the coach’s method, it is only natural that they will want to employ it if they desire to get better. 

The truly great coaches never claim the victory. They give that to the athletes to further build their self confidence. However, they almost always claim the defeat, to selflessly preserve the remnants of that fragile self confidence. In doing so they immediately begin the rebuilding process. Later on their athletes will look back with gratitude and realise what was done for them.

Successful instruction has to be subjective because each athlete is unique. Great coaches often employ the process of scaffolding whereby they encourage autonomy by providing just enough help necessary to allow athletes and teams to solve problems and derive solutions themselves, thereby learning in the process.

In this approach, guidelines will be provided and athletes will be encouraged to innovate as the coach observes and continues to learn. Be wary of any coach who claims to have it all figured out because there are so many right ways to do things that it’s confusing.

I have been lucky enough know a few of these great coaches; humble men who are grateful for the opportunity to work in a rewarding career that they enjoy. Many are referred to as not just coaches but life coaches by their former athletes have almost all gone on to be incredibly successful in life. 

One interesting thing I have noticed about these trainers is that they have a huge network of former athletes who are now industry leaders just dying for the opportunity to give back and help their old coach. If the coach ever needs anything from airline ticket upgrades, legal or financial advice to healthcare he just taps into this network. However, these connections are mostly used to help their current athletes make the difficult transition into their post sporting careers.  

The same benefits of empowerment and the limitations of control that apply to coaching, athletes also apply to the greater context of life and society. We are all being coached and are coaching. Are you being controlled or empowered and are you controlling or empowering? 

• Find George on Twitter: @georgebovell 

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