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Over the last number of years, I have been lucky enough to work alongside different athletes and coaches that have taught me lots of great lessons. I have grown to appreciate the role that both technical knowledge and soft skills play in our roles as strength and conditioning coaches.
Sometimes, it feels like it is easier to learn about the technical skills needed to become a successful coach. Personally, I have found it more difficult to refine the soft skills needed. I have found that reflecting on experiences is a great way to refine my approach going forward.
Pictured: Cian Gormley
Typically, I view myself as somewhat of an overthinker. Recently, however, I have tried to reframe this to be more of a reflective process, rather than a worrying about things I should have done.
This article is a compilation of five pieces of advice/ tips - one for each year since graduating from my undergraduate degree - that I have been offered as well as learned in that time. Ultimately, they have all helped me become a better coach, which is why I want to share them with you. While the list is by no means exhaustive, the following lessons are the ones I am most asked about by younger coaches hoping to progress their careers as strength and conditioning coaches.
I have received endless amounts of messages from young coaches wondering how they differentiate themselves from other graduates, and the advice is simple – start working with athletes as soon as possible.
Usually, imposter syndrome takes over us in our formative years. It prevents us from putting ourselves out there at the time when we have the most to learn. The sooner we can move past this, the sooner we can grow.
“Our only limitations are the ones we set up in our own minds” – Napoleon Hill
If I could go back to my first year in my undergraduate degree, I would have started some form of coaching, straight away. To really understand the theory we learn during our time in university, we must put it into practice. The simplest place to start is by offering yourself up to take a warm-up for a local sports team. I would advise starting in a place that you feel comfortable and where you have contacts that can link you with a team where you can assist.
Once you have completed your first session, you will immediately become more comfortable with putting yourself out there. My advice is to continue gaining momentum with this new-found confidence and start looking for teams or athletes that are outside your comfort zone.
By diversifying your experiences early on, you will broaden your horizons as you progress through your coaching career. By challenging yourself early on in your career, you will find that the challenges you face later, will seem much more manageable. Only taking on with things that seem manageable, will hinder you in the long run, so escape this mindset as soon as possible!
The sooner you start working with teams and athletes, the more opportunities you have to refine the strength and conditioning principles that will lay the foundation for the rest of your career.
We spend a lot of our early years in a classroom or lab setting, where we learn the theory of athletic performance. It is important to spend the time learning about these principles before we can start to explore the various methods of training available to us as coaches. For example, there is little benefit in jumping in the deep end, prescribing a program based around Triphasic Training as developed by Cal Dietz, if we do not understand the basic concept of progressive overload or specificity.
The sooner we understand that principles precede any of the methods that we use to elicit the desired changes, the easier programming becomes. Especially in an age where information overload is rife, it can be easy to focus ‘what’ we are programming, rather than understanding ‘why’ we are using it and ‘how’ it will affect our athletes.
One caveat to this, however, is that I would encourage coaches to explore different training methods in their own training, to accelerate their learning. Nail the fundamentals with your clients. Experiment with yourself.
Once I began to understand how to differentiate methods and principles, the next challenge I encountered was the vast array of data that was available to evaluate how we employ these different training modalities. I was quickly enamored by the vast array of objective and subjective data that was available to me, and I quickly learned that data can be both our best friend and our worst enemy.
As performance coaches, we must identify gaps in our programs and fill them appropriately. Using the relevant principles and methods, we can ensure we are developing robust and resilient athletes who have the physical capacity to perform in their chosen sport.
Data can be used to identify these weaknesses in our program, and it can also be used to quantify the improvements associated with the subsequent training intervention. In addition, we can collect subjective data from our athletes to monitor the perceived difficulty, as well as their response and adaptation, to the sessions we designed.
Output data showing athletes performance results
As coaches we are constantly battling to maximize the training stimulus, while ensuring we give our athletes sufficient time to recover. While more data should in theory help to inform practice, it can also act as a distraction to the outcome we are looking to achieve.
I have found myself in this position several times where I am reporting data that is interesting but irrelevant. For example, when working with GPS data, it can be easy to include a range of metrics that look like they inform training, when in fact it is simply a fancy report that is not actionable.
I learned the hard way that we need to identify a problem in our environment, decide how we are going to improve the situation, and evaluate the effectiveness of our intervention. Data is the perfect tool to help us ensure we are on the right track for each of these three stages – but it is up to us as coaches to filter through the noise, to find right data!
One lesson I have learned time and time again is that feedback can sometimes be hard to swallow – but it is always beneficial. Dealing with feedback is something that we learn to do over time. However, I always wondered if I could have learned some of the lessons earlier – and without having to find out the hard way!
We all know the way children learn about hot cookers. Children can be told an infinite number of times not to touch the cooker because it is hot – but until they learn for themselves by touching it – they will not learn. The difference between toddlers and aspiring coaches is that young adults can use second order thinking to think through what might happen, without having to experience it first-hand!
Giving and receiving feedback the right way, can be one of those things we should be able to learn from others, rather than learning through our own mistakes.
Use Output data in our Hub to give feedback to athletes
I recently listened to the audiobook ‘No Rules, Rules’ by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, which is about the Netflix culture. One of the big takeaways that I found was the 4A Format for Feedback.
The 4A’s stand for – Aim to Assist, Actionable, Appreciate, and Accept or Discard. The first two A’s are centred around giving feedback, while the latter are about receiving feedback.
As coaches we will find ourselves in scenarios where we must give and receive feedback. When we are giving feedback to our athletes and to coaches, we must be able to deliver it appropriately. Too often I have jumped the gun and focused on the thing I am looking to improve, listing off the negatives associated with whatever I would like to change, without offering any form of solution. I may have been aiming to assist, but I forgot to make the feedback actionable!
As coaches, we must focus on the controllable’s. Often, we cannot control how our advice is received – but we can certainly control how it is delivered.
Alternatively, when we are refining our own coaching abilities, we must be able to receive feedback in an appropriate manner. When someone comes to us with advice, we must resist the urge to be defensive. We must understand it is hard for the person to speak openly and honestly with us, and therefore we should thank them for coming to us with feedback.
Viewing feedback as an opportunity for growth, rather than a personal attack, allows us to be more appreciative when we receive it. Even when we are subject to our first ‘hair-dryer treatment’, we must try our best to appreciate the feedback before giving ourselves some time to decide whether we accept or discard the feedback.
We do not need to accept and action every piece of feedback we receive, but we must look at each piece of feedback objectively and understand the long-term effects that disregarding feedback will have on our ability to develop as coaches.
Finally, while it is important to learn some of life’s lessons on our own, I believe as a coaching community, our best opportunity for grow is through collaboration with others. I admire how willing young coaches are to reach out to those within their network to look for advice on issues they have encountered on their coaching journeys. I was lucky enough to have received advice from several coaches that I am fortunate to now call friends.
I am hoping I can repay the favour that so many others afforded me, by talking with young and aspiring strength and conditioning coaches who reach out to me now, looking for advice.
It is also worth noting that as coaches, we are all looking for novel ways to improve ourselves and the environments in which we work, and I have quickly learned the collaboration enhances innovation. To clarify – collaboration doesn’t need to be in the form of projects – I believe it can simply be the act of talking to other coaches about their experiences and applying their learnings to tackle your own challenges.
One thing I have found to be an excellent icebreaker for starting these conversations with other coaches is the act of writing. While I initially started with the goal of clarifying my own thoughts, I quickly found that it facilitated conversations with other coaches from different environments.
As a result of connecting with other coaches from different environments, I have learned that things that might seem critical in my own environment, might be an after thought in another. As humans, we are inherently biased, and it is up to us to challenges our biases.
Speaking to new people is a fantastic way to challenge these biases, find innovative ways to tackle challenges, and develop friendships along the way.
If you are reading this article and have some unread messages from young coaches, I encourage you to reply if you have time and are able to. On the other hand, if you are a young coach wondering how to connect with others, I would encourage you to find a way to add value to the industry which will naturally open you up to messages from other coaches.
We are a young industry and I think the sense of community we have is one of our strengths. Hopefully we can continue to grow together and learn from each-others’ experiences.
“Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius
Cian is an experienced Strength & Conditioning Coach with a demonstrated history of working in the sports industry. He has worked with Leinster rugby, Dublin GAA as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach and Munster rugby within their Academy as Strength and Conditioning coach. Cian has a BSc Health and Performance Science from UCD and is currently completing his MSc by Research in Institute of Technology, Carlow.