Is coaching dying?

from Chasing Mavericks

Poacher turned Gamekeeper? He’s fallen out with his Governing Bodies on more than one occasion. Now he’s been voted to represent the UK’s Athletics Coaches.

Toni Minichiello-Coaching Conundrum

Toni Minichiello has been voted, by Coaches, to represent them on the UK Athletics Members Council.

It’s not the most obvious appointment. Everyone knows that these types of roles, more often than not, go to the company man, the insiders’ preferred candidate. I ask the question,

“Why do you think got you the vote?  A weariness with the status quo? Devilment? A genuine desire to see some positive change for coaching?”

Coaches and the role of coaching are misunderstood, poorly represented and inadequately rewarded.

Toni puts his card on the table,

“I’ve made no secret of my agenda or why I went for the role in the first place.  In my opinion Coaches and the role of coaching are misunderstood, poorly represented and inadequately rewarded. Since taking up the role nothing has changed, in fact that view has been cemented. I believe there is a need for a Coaches Commission with executive powers to support the welfare and development of Coaches and coaching.  Something like the Football League Managers Association, with the ability to commission reports and effectively influence the administrators of our sport”.

Although I can understand Toni’s position (in my experience the challenge for coaches stretches way beyond athletics), I’m not sure that answers the question. “Can you achieve that through the members Council?”

He pauses before he answers,

“The Members Council represents different bodies within the sport. Coaching is only one. Fundamentally its role is to raise questions. I’m not seeking to be adversarial but I was voted by a significant majority, in one of the biggest voting turnouts ever,  to represent the opinions and views of coaches. However, we have no policy making powers. We’re simply an influencer for good. I’m concerned it may be a toothless dog. Any coach worth their salt would always be going through a process of reflective practice to establish their impact. It would be pertinent for any Governing Body to go through the same process on a regular basis”.

Conscious that we’re treading into delicate territory, I turn the focus away from the failings of the present towards the possibilities of the future,

“What would you do with the Coaches Commission?”

“Firstly it would have to be independent. Ideally it would be full of cantankerous coaches. People not afraid to express their opinion. People who don’t agree with each other but are able to conduct themselves respectfully and achieve results”.

It sounds a little like ‘Team of Rivals’.

Is that a reference to Abraham Lincoln?*

“It is. But let’s not get carried away. You say you’d like to support and develop coaches. What would that look like?”.

“Firstly we need an effective means of communicating with coaches. Look at the recent announcement of the athlete to Coach initiative (an elite athlete programme designed to fast-track athletes into coaching positions. More on this later).  As far as I’m aware, this was brought in after consultation with only athletes and ex-athletes. I’d like to think that a decision relating to coaching would have included consultation with Coaches”.

Instances like this highlight Toni’s continuing position that coaching is poorly represented and understood. Conscious we may be about to move onto another topic, I ask again about how Toni would tackle the challenge of supporting and developing Coaches more effectively. Toni happily picks up the thread,

Let’s stop confusing safe leadership with coaching…

“This is my proposed solution to structuring the coaching pathway. Firstly let’s put an end to this bizarre notion that coaching is a ladder where you should start at the bottom rung and work your way up. Nonsense. Even now my coaching takes on-board elite, club and beginner level athletes. And I learn from each group. It’s a continuum that I move along and back. Secondly, our current structure fails to adequately support and recognise those people that have no interest in the competitive side of the sport. Let’s stop confusing safe leadership with coaching. Safe leadership is important, it makes you and the athletes safe and no-one gets sued. But it’s not coaching. There’s a difference between safe and competent. We need to do more for those that want to stay at the participatory level and enable them to continue to develop as Coaches in that role and recognise them accordingly.”.

This is a topic Toni and I have discussed before so I chip in, “Enable people to focus on being the best Coach they could possibly be, irrespective of the level of the sport the want to work in?”.

“Precisely. You should be able to develop yourself in line with your interests, circumstances and ability and still receive support and recognition. If someone wants to work towards becoming an elite Coach, fine, but it’s not the top of the ladder – it’s just a different choice”.

What Toni is talking about is an overall strategy to support coaching, something he feels is currently lacking,

“Currently there are three strands. The first, are courses delivered by the Home Countries looking after Levels One and Two. Level Three is online. The third, led by David Bunyon is, in my understanding, only looking at coaches whose athletes who are on the World Class Performance Plan. At most that’s 100 coaches. That’s approximately 2.5% of the coaching community. Sitting in between them is the athlete to coach programme. None of these talk to each other, at least not effectively. Coaches are being let down left, right and centre”.

The following diagram illustrates Toni’s proposal: people can move up and across towards the more technical elements of competitive coaching or they can excel within their chosen area. The ‘certificates’ referenced relate to CPD.

“You mentioned the athlete to coach initiative, launched by Kelly Sotherton and Goldie Sayers to, as I understand, create ‘better able coaches’ ?”.

Toni takes a deep breath,

“Yes. Basically you are only eligible to enter the programme if you’ve competed at senior level and a major championships. Which, by the way would  total 480 athletes if all four Nations took three competitors to every event. That’s never going to happen”.

“Aren’t there potentially 250 thousand athletes in Britain?”

“That’s not counting the unregistered ones”.

“OK. It applies to a tiny minority. But I assume the criteria for eligibility relates to the experiences competing at the top level brings?”.

“The assumption is that having been a great performer you’ll naturally be a great Coach. There is no substantive evidence to support this.  In other sports that would discount Jose Mourinho, Angelo Dundee and  Bill Belichick.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing if you’ve competed, as you have an affinity with the sport. But coaching is much more than building on your personal performance.  Some athletes turned Coaches fail because they can’t understand why an athlete can’t do what they did.   Let’s not forget when you’re a Coach you’re not running, jumping or throwing for your athlete. You’re not on the track, pitch or field”.

I’ve seen Toni ‘running’ but as people in glass houses shouldn’t lob shot-puts around I stay on topic,

“That doesn’t even take into account the adaptations a Coach needs to make for individual athletes?”

Toni grunts his affirmation,

“I know as well as anyone that every athlete is  different. Alicia Barrett is quicker than Jess was at her age.  But will Alicia be able to run 12.54? Time will tell. Their needs for training are vastly different”.

Also, an athlete has additional challenges to overcome that a career Coach has not. It’s not often referenced but to succeed, by definition, an athlete has to be self-focussed, selfish even. Everything you do, every choice you make is about making yourself better. There is a singularity about being an athlete. A great Coach has to be focussed on the needs of others. It’s selfless and multi-dimensional.

Toni and athlete Alicia Barrett

Coaching is about process, relationship and environment. A Coach is a facilitator for the success of their athletes. That’s a huge paradigm shift for an athlete. Of course it can be done, but the nature of that change shouldn’t be underestimated. Toni picks up the thread,

“There is evidence to support this. Professor Sophia Jowett at Loughborough University has led studies in this area. The coach-athlete relationship is at the heart of effective coaching. That requires a particular set of behaviours – particularly from the Coach”.

“Do you think the challenge of adapting athlete behaviours to coaching behaviours is even more significant than the challenge faced by a Coach who hasn’t competed at the highest level?”

“Unquestionably. I’d say there is no comparison. Experience is acquired as part of your development as a Coach – it’s systematic and progressive in its own way. On the other hand if you have spent over half your life developing behaviours centred on your own performance, supported by a team, enjoying the rewards that come with success it’s a huge turnaround to step aside and give your all to someone else”.

If you’re ever around Coaches who were once athletes (at whatever level), and want to understand who is able to do that you just have to read and listen to the language someone uses.

I find Toni’s exasperation infectious and express my own concerns, “ It seems we’re cutting too many Coaches and too much of the reality of coaching, adrift. Does it stem from a fundamental failing to recognise and appreciate coaching: in every sense?”.

“Absolutely, but that is for the authorities and governing bodies to address. It’s not for a Coach to put themselves forward – they should be there for their athletes, end of. That doesn’t mean their input shouldn’t be more highly valued. Quite the opposite”.

“Perhaps that’s a Coaches’ dilemma?  A Coach is always going to come second in that race because self-promotion is not their bag”.

I know I’ll get criticised and probably burn a few bridges along the way but Coaching has been failed for too long by those in authority.

“Which is why it’s about time Coaches were adequately represented. Someone has to take a stand and it’s fallen to me. I know I’ll get criticised and probably burn a few bridges along the way but coaching has been failed for too long by those in authority”.

Toni pauses and I can almost see the rueful smile down the phone line,

“I can take a few hits.  It’ll be worth it if we start to change the way people understand, view and ultimately reward coaching as the  profession it is”.

On reflection, I think the first thing Toni wants is for the sporting authorities to stop talking at Coaches and start listening to them.

That would be something.

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*Team of Rivals is a remarkable book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin charting the Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency and his masterful leadership of a team of hugely talented but disparate characters. If you’re short on time and want a flavour of the 900 plus pages you can always watch the film based on the book: ‘Lincoln’. The added bonus is Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning performance as the big man himself.

This is part of a series

This article is from the Performance Life channel.

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