By Marvin Zauderer
In last month’s Sport Psychology column, we heard from three top North American cyclists – Andy Hampsten, Meredith Miller, and Amber Rais – about facing the mental and emotional challenges of living, training, and racing in Europe. This month, we explore the relationship between athlete and coach. Although it takes two to tango, there is much you can do to get the most from a coach.
Courtesy of my friend and teammate, Tim, I recently watched the DVD of Bicycle Dreams, an astonishing new documentary by Stephen Auerbach about RAAM: The Race Across America. As perhaps the pinnacle of endurance sport competition worldwide, RAAM begins on the west coast of the U.S. and ends on the east coast each June, touching 14 states and climbing 100,000 feet. Although there are also 2-, 4-, and 8-person teams, the race is legendary for its solo categories. The winning soloists finish in as few as 8 days and sleep as little as 12 hours. Total. And no drafting, no hotels, no rest days. It’s 30% longer than the Tour de France. Oh, and one other thing: the clock never stops. It’s a 3000-mile time trial. Now that’s a race of truth.
A central theme of the film is the profoundly inspiring strength of the individual human spirit in facing monumental challenge and tragedy. The film is a ride of many stark contrasts; when it ended, I felt both shattered and triumphant. I realized I was experiencing its genius: I had been given as close of an approximation to what a RAAM finisher feels as a movie-watcher can get.
But it was another theme that stuck with me long after the film ended: the crucial relationships between RAAM athletes and people who are literally and figuratively along for the ride. These relationships made – or broke – the experience of every rider.
As I’ve noted in such articles as Communication, Sustaining Motivation, and Self-Interest and Cooperation, relationships can have a profound effect on performance, at any level of sport. And sometimes – for better or for worse – an athlete’s relationship with a coach can have the biggest effect of all.
In the current issue of the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Rhind and Jowett have an interesting article, “Relationship Maintenance Strategies in the Coach-Athlete Relationship: The Development of the COMPASS Model.” The authors first note, shockingly, that “no research…has yet investigated the use of maintenance strategies in the coach-athlete partnership.” In other words, nobody has published any research, before these folks, on what exactly makes the coach-athlete relationship work well. (Which suggests that there will soon be an onslaught of dissertations. I hope.) At any rate, the authors interviewed 12 coaches and athletes who had never worked with each other, and who had “experienced a range of different coach-athlete relationships.” From the interviews, the authors identified seven strategies that coaches and athletes use to “maintain the quality of their athletic relationships”:
• Conflict Management. This includes not only working through disagreements cooperatively, but also proactively clarifying expectations – and the consequences of unmet expectations – in order to avoid conflict.
• Openness. This is related to the coach and athlete disclosing their feelings, and includes (a) feeling comfortable discussing topics not having to do with sport, (b) having a sense that anything – sport-related or not – can be discussed, and (c) indicating awareness that the partner actually has feelings. (!)
• Motivation. This is the strategy that was most frequently mentioned. In short, “coaches need to show that they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to help the athletes achieve their goals, and athletes need to show that they have the abilities to meet the expectations of the coaches.” Clearly, the relationship is more effective if both partners are sufficiently motivated to work with each other.
• Positivity. This isn’t about being upbeat. It’s about taking positive steps to deal with issues rather than allowing the issues to erode the relationship. Specific themes here include adapting to each other, being fair, and dealing effectively with pressures from outside of the sport.
• Advice. This is not only about giving opinions on problems, but also about giving and receiving praise and constructive feedback.
• Support. This took three forms: showing commitment, giving sport-specific support (eg. after poor performance), and giving support around personal issues (e.g. family stresses) that so often affect sport performance.
• Social Networks. Having social time together, both alone and with mutual friends, was also an important relationship-maintenance strategy cited by the coaches and athletes.
Are you cringing at a relationship being reduced to a set of “maintenance strategies,” or about strategies being concluded from interviews with only 12 people? Take a deep breath. If you have a coach now (or are a coach yourself), think for a minute about these themes. And if you don’t have a coach, think of the kind of relationship you’d want if you did. Do the themes fit? Is anything missing?
Overcoming Obstacles to an Effective Coach-Athlete Relationship
It’s not unusual for us mental skills types, in our work with amateur and professional athletes and coaches, to assist clients with difficulties they face in the coach-athlete relationship. For both athlete and coach, specific kinds of skill-building can often make a significant difference in the quality of the relationship. Let’s look at five typical obstacles implied by the COMPASS model, along with some skills you can practice and use to overcome those obstacles.
• Communicating needs and expectations. What do you need from a coach? Help with specific limiters? Responsiveness? A hands-on approach? A hands-off approach? Praise? Constructive feedback? To communicate your needs and expectations to a coach, you first have to know what they are. So, take inventory. And, if you’re having trouble, use the suggestions in the article on self-awareness to find your answers. Once you know what your needs and expectations are, let the coach know. Discuss. Ask for the coach’s needs and expectations. Maybe you’ll even change your mind a bit. Use your goal-setting skills. Whatever happens, it’s the beginning of creating something very clear between the two of you.
• Knowing the difference between feedback and criticism. Both in what you say to a coach and what you hear from a coach, it’s important to identify the often-subtle differences between feedback and criticism. There’s a classic picture that I use when I give workshops on conflict management: feedback is when I hand you the scissors with the handles facing you, and criticism is when I hand you the scissors with the sharp point facing you. But notice that feedback and criticism are also in the eye of the beholder; for example, what I intend as feedback, you may take as criticism. What’s really going on there? Beware of taking things too personally, and of your coach taking things too personally. At the same time, check yourself that you’re being honest and yet compassionate, rather than harsh, in the way you deliver feedback to a coach. And be prepared not only to discuss it, but perhaps to hear some feedback…back!
• Fearing conflict. Conflict turns up the heat. And we all have fear – some of us a little bit, some of us a lot – of getting burned: feeling hurt, or angry, or disappointed, or abandoned, and so on. But with heat something stronger can be forged. Or, a hidden truth can be forced to the surface. Either way, it’s going to help you. Tell the coach how things are going for you – with your cycling, and, if appropriate, with things outside of cycling that affect it – even if it might cause a conflict. Bring it on! Not only your communication skills but also your skill in managing anxiety may come in handy here.
• Ambivalence. For the coach-athlete relationship to be at its best, both of you need to have “both feet in.” If you’re feeling unsure about the coach, the training program, the cost, the time required, or your commitment to your goals, talk about it with someone you trust (ideally, the coach). If you sense – or worry – that the coach isn’t fully committed to you, bring that up. And be prepared to discuss what “fully committed” means to you.
• Idealizing. It’s not unusual for human beings to idealize parents, teachers, mentors, gurus, elders…and of course, coaches. Dr. Heinz Kohut, originator of the “self psychology” model of human development, held that we are born with the need to connect with idealized, admired figures whom we believe will make us feel safe and calm. If all goes well in development, our internal capacities for self-esteem and self-soothing increase as a result of minor failures by those figures, and our need for idealization decreases – but never ends – throughout our lifespan. (Think of it as inner strength training, so to speak.) Often, though, we experience major rather than minor failures, and we have a greater need for idealization over a longer period of time. And that brings us back to needs and expectations. If you’re putting your coach on (too high of) a pedestal, you might be asking for too much – or too little. On the other hand, maybe some idealizing is just what you need, for now. Give it some thought. And if you can’t sort it out, get some consultation. This one can be hard to see.
So much of Bicycle Dreams evokes a deep sense of interdependence: the fragile magnificence of the American landscape; competitors propelling each other to discover new heights of the human spirit; cyclists and support teams on the paradoxical edge of complete disintegration and transcendent unity. So, too, is there interdependence between athlete and coach, on the road to discover what both are made of.
Marvin Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marvin leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marvin welcomes comments, suggestions, and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.