Psychological considerations for strength coaches

“What allows you to perform at your peak in the season?” mental performance coach Julian Coffman asked a room full of America’s top developmental skiers last summer. “Confidence,” one of the athletes offers. “And where does that confidence come from?” Julian counters. “From trusting in your preparation and in your summer training,” the athlete replies.

The importance of confidence cannot be understated in a sport where a moment of hesitation at 90 mph could not only cost you the podium, but could be truly catastrophic. Creating a successful athlete and giving them confidence often requires a team of coaches building up different parts of the athlete. In skiing the rule book even pinpoints the exact characteristics needed. The opening lines describing the makeup of a downhill course in the FIS rules describe it as having “six components of technique, courage, speed, risk, physical condition and judgement.” The athletic development coach’s role should be more than just developing the physical condition. With the possible exception of sport-specific “judgement,” a robust athletic development program can positively impact all of these characteristics, some even directly.

As a starting point, athletic development coaches can do many things to contribute across the spectrum, including:

  1. Building a strong positive relationship with each and every athlete is critical. It’s on this relationship that all physical preparation hinges.
  2. Fostering belief in the athletic development coach, their program, and in the training process set forth, both in the short-term and the long-term.
  3. Weaving elements of sports psychology into an athlete’s training, as every training session offers a learning opportunity.
  4. Working to bring together the entire support team surrounding the athlete – from sport coaches to technicians to medical support to parents, or the entire process could be undermined and risks crumbling.

Though the individual strategies for accomplishing each of these are varied and complex, a general outline for each will be given below.

It all starts with relationships

The relationship and trust-building process begins with the athletic development coach understanding their role in the athlete’s journey as a whole. If the roles in a relationship are not clear, it is bound to fail. We might like to think that we are the most important part of the athlete’s journey, but the truth is that athletic development coaches are a piece of a much bigger puzzle that spans many years across countless other professionals. Approaching the drawing board with this in mind will prove incredibly valuable. While the hopefully has specific expertise that can likely benefit the athlete in their preparation, approaching these discussions with the athlete with strong mutual respect is key.

As Bill Sands has explained, coaches need to play different roles for different athletes. There are three main phases of coaching: the coach as a dictator, the coach as a comrade, and the coach as a resource. A large part of understanding a role will depend on the coach knowing what stage he or she should be in with each individual athlete. Athlete performance should not be confused with their coaching stage as it is often very common for different “elite” athletes to have quite different experience levels with their physical training and maturity.

The best way to define the roles of the relationship is through a 1-on-1 pre-prep-period meeting with the athlete. An athlete who needs a coach at the dictator level often doesn’t know what their goals should be, how they should train, or when and where they should start. They need the coach to tell them all these things, which is typical and expected of the athlete with little to no training age. You can find this out very quickly in a meeting.

On the other end of the spectrum, an elite-level athlete who has trained in a weight room for a number of years and is consistently performing on the World Cup circuit may just need the coach to act as a resource. This relationship often shows itself through the athlete coming to the coach saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking for my plan – are there any adjustments you’d recommend?” It is critical that regardless of where the athlete is on this spectrum, the coach and the athlete are clear on one major point: They’re in this together and they’re working toward a common goal. Whether clearly stated or heavily implied, this is the rock on which everything is built.

Building belief and buy-in

While a strong relationship is important and will help the coach build the athlete’s belief, for most athletes something more is required. Belief in a process requires more than simple blind faith in the person. To this end, education is critical. Training should be deliberate practice, i.e. sessions built and executed with deliberate intent and focused attention with a specific goal in mind. Without the understanding, without the reasoning for performing the exercise or training, it’s nearly impossible to have intent. And without intent, training becomes mindless work that is less effective. An athlete must be armed with a “WHY”, with a true understanding of the reasons behind the training, in order to experience deliberate practice.

Athletic development coaches will not build trust by drowning athletes in research or literature – this is minimally helpful at best, and will drive the athletes away at worst. AD coaches need to meet the athletes where they are. They need to find the best, most appropriate channels by which to educate the athletes, then they need to appropriately arm the athletes with the most relevant information. Caution should be taken to not use this as a means to “prove” to the athletes how much the coach knows in an effort to win buy-in as this can quickly backfire in the face of the coach by turning it into a vanity show. Finding a happy medium between too little and too much information will take some thought and balance from the coach, and will depend on the athletes’ level of interest, educational background, past experience, etc.

Listening is also as important as explaining in nurturing belief. Coaches should try to understand what the athlete believes is beneficial, both from an exercise-specific point of view as well as an overall perspective point of view. How heavily an athlete’s opinion and past experience is weighted into the program depends on a number of different factors, from their age to their training age to their understanding of the process, so each case will need to be handled individually. If, for example, an athlete believes that putting in brutal, all-out-effort intervals is critical to their performance (as is the case with many in ski racing), the coach is encouraged to find a way to fit that into the program in a beneficial way, so long as it doesn’t put the athlete at risk or seriously derail the entire training program. Furthermore, if the athlete truly believes in something that the coach doesn’t believe in, and that specific methodology won’t seriously negatively impact the coach’s program or the athlete’s health, the coach should not only consider the training methodology in question seriously, but should embrace it with genuine interest and a smile.

Athletes are humans and can see straight through a coach who isn’t on-board with what the athlete believes in. Though the athlete may not bring it up, these differences will work to erode trust over time.

The coach as sports psychologist

Physical training inherently teaches us a number of different lessons: resilience, adaptability, patience, hard work, and a sense of calm under pressure, to name a few. In every situation, the coach should keep a “sport psychology” hat at least partially on, looking for every opportunity to act as an extension of the team’s sport psychologist. When the resources are available, coaches should sit down regularly with the team’s sport psychologist to discuss different methods of incorporating mental strength training will ensure the coach is employing the most sound methods for athletes. The sports psychologist is not just a resource for athletes, it is a resource for coaches too. Even in support staff is not available, the athletic development coach should take it upon himself to learn more about the applied avenues of sport psychology

After all, it’s an incredibly rare day when everything goes as planned on the hill. The more an athlete can be prepared to handle these challenges that racing and life throw at him, the better. The coaches by their side should be equipped to help.

Bringing the team together

Lastly, to ensure success in the program from a psychological standpoint, the coach needs to have all other key players on board with the athlete’s plan. One misinformed negative comment from a sport coach, a parent, or a technician can plant a seed of doubt in the athlete’s mind, and if watered, it can grow to derail not just the preparation the coach has planned, but the entire athlete/coach relationship. It is the responsibility of the coach to share relevant information; to engage, empower, and educate sport coaches, parents, sports med staff, and all others involved in building the framework within which an athlete lives.

As with the sports psychologist example above, simply sitting together is often enough. The coach must build positive relationships with all of these parties. This isn’t just a suggestion – it’s quite nearly a requirement. All who support the athlete in any form or fashion are worth getting to know, and it would serve the coach well to be open and honest in order to encourage openness and honesty from the others.

In a high-risk sport such as alpine ski racing, sport psychology plays a massively understated role. It is everyone’s goal to have the athlete stepping into the gate fully prepared and fully confident in every race possible. Taking these considerations into account when building a physical preparation program will maximize the chances of this consistently happening for the athlete.