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Coaching the self-sufficient athlete

According to a study conducted by Tim Elmore, founder of GrowingLeaders.com, when asked, "What elements they appreciated most when learning something new in an academic or nonacademic environment?" students' top four responses were:

Story vs. Didactic
Conversation vs. Monologue
Visual vs. Verbal
Simple vs. Complex

Today's student prefers to hear stories that document what they are learning – we are in the "reality tv" era aren't we! They want to be involved in the conversation in order to give their valued opinion. They want to see images that help them process. Lastly, they appreciate when you can keep concepts simple; if you can connect a concept with a tagline they are more likely to understand and remember it.

I think as a teacher and coach, it is important to be myself but, to be effective, it is important for me to understand how each of my athletes learns best. My current coaching environment is not built to accomplish physiological training but rather neural.  With one on one interaction, it is easy to create a dialog that is engaging and that my athletes can relate to. When practicing a specific skill, I make a point of asking them "What were you focusing on or thinking about?, How did that feel?, What do you see?". Not only does this engage them in the learning process but, I also want them to be able to coach themselves when needed. A coach at a traditional swim practice does her/his best to give each athlete valuable feedback but, it is impossible to have eyes on every athlete all the time. Creating self-sufficient athletes should be a goal of every coach. We had a very special athlete at Auburn, Maggie Bowen, who made numerous National Team trips representing the USA; although she was always a medal contender, her coaches weren't selected to the staff. When we inquired why we were told, "Maggie knows how to take care of herself so well…she doesn't need you guys!" It was true! We reinforced what her parents and club coach had started: we allowed (and challenged) her to learn what her body needed and how to assess her own performance. I'm sure Mags would have loved having a personal coach with her – just for comfort sake – but I'm proud of her for not "needing" it.

I challenge you to try not to give your athletes all the answers. Like Dr. Elmore suggests, engage them in the process of learning. I loved conducting sets where my athletes had to tell me their time and/or tempo on a pace set rather than waiting for me to give them the information.  Ask your athletes to write down what they believe their appropriate meet warm  up/warm down is. Ask them to figure out their splits for their goal time.  At the end of a challenging set, get the group out, in a circle, and ask each athlete to rate their performance on a scale of 1-5. Make sure kids feel safe in this environment and don't allow others to ridicule their rating.

All of these exercises ensure that they begin to recognize there is a process to their desired outcome and that they are a part of it. They will become better problem solvers, take more initiative, and you'll see their confidence grow! Of course, this will require your ability to give up some control, find some patience and do some teaching beforehand, but that too is part of our coaching job.

posted on 9/17/2013

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