“Is coaching the artistic application of science or the scientific interpretation of art?”
I have lost count of the amount of times that Toni and I have discussed the current state of Athletics ‘coaching’ in the UK during our conversations. It is a theme that constantly emerges from chats about analysis, planning and preparation whist he explores how best to support his athletes and enable them to perform to their potential. However, his opener today throws me a little, so I hedge my bets, “Err, both?”
“It falls somewhere between. What people fail to understand is that, fundamentally, coaching is about process, environment and relationships. Coaching is about trying to add value to another person”.
“..fundamentally, coaching is about process, environment and relationships”.
Immediately Toni takes another unexpected turn,
“Coaches are, or should be, the focal point for the performance of an athlete or team. Take football. In many ways football coaches are the noblest in our profession”.
“It’s going to surprise a few people to hear you say that. Including me”.
“The responsibility for a teams’ poor performance is always on the head coach in football. They put their hands up. You’ll seldom see a coach in athletics put their hands up in relation to an athletes’ poor performance and you’ll never, ever hear a sports scientist take the blame. When a football team fails to deliver it’s the coach that gets sacked. Ever seen them sack a scientist or a player? No, they sack the coach”.
I stick my head into the lions’ mouth, “But they sacked you when you won gold with Jess. Why’s it different in Athletics?”
“Unfortunately, coaching sits on the outside of our national sports structures. Coaches are often just seen as the plucky volunteers who turn the lights off at the end of the night. Science got to front of the queue in the world of athletics whilst coaching has done itself down by not being able to answer for itself”.
“Science plays Art?”.
“Although it takes time, scientists can explain themselves, numerically, using terms that can be readily measured – that provides comfort to Governing Bodies. A coach has only a few seconds to observe and feedback. Scientists work in isolated sciences whereas coaches have to bond a whole range of data into a single performance delivery; physiology, psychology nutrition, strength, technique and tactics all operating at the same time in different measures to produce a win, hence the “art” analogy.
“Basically, the difference between dealing with the whole person in present context rather assessing a specific, independent aspect?”
“Scientific intervention is periodic and transactional. It happens infrequently and deals in clearly quantifiable elements. Coaching is lifelong, daily and holistic”.
“Scientific intervention is periodic and transactional. It happens infrequently and deals in clearly quantifiable elements. Coaching is lifelong, daily and holistic. We deal in trial and error, exploration. It’s a continuous testing cycle where our ‘lab conditions’ are constantly evolving and changing because we deal with people and all the wonderful, complex, frustrating challenges they bring. Science should be there to help and support an athlete centred, coach led approach. That is what is fundamental to maximising performance potential”.
He pauses for breath, “Performance is simple; it’s an athlete, a coach and an outcome. Everything else should sit around that”.
Toni is speaking with as much fluency, passion and conviction as I’ve ever heard from him but I feel duty bound and so, with a degree of reluctance, heft a spanner into the conversation, “But I’ve heard you say many times that there are far too few decent coaches. And virtually none at world class level. I’m not sure that we can entrust coaches at this point either”.
“Performance is simple; it’s an athlete, a coach and an outcome. Everything else should sit around that”.
Toni doesn’t miss a beat, “The Governing Body Coaching Award is not fit for purpose. End of. Coaches are not equipped with enough information or supported to develop the abilities they need to achieve what they’ve set out to do: add genuine value to athletes.
Remember, effective coaching is about three things; process, environment and relationships. The current award doesn’t even come close on part one; process. They are simply no-where near providing coaches with enough information. Currently it’s like strapping someone into a car for the first time, pointing out the pedals, gear stick and steering wheel before firing up the ignition and leaving them to figure it out. It’s beyond irresponsible. A comprehensive understanding of technical process should be a fundamental foundation stone for any coaching qualification”.
“Currently it’s like strapping someone into a car for the first time, pointing out the pedals, gear stick and steering wheel before firing up the ignition and leaving them to figure it out”.
“You’d overhaul the current Coaching Awards then? You’ll be even more popular with the Governing Bodies”.
“Governing Bodies already complain that coaches are a difficult group to work with but then they’ve neglected coaches as a group for years, so what do they expect? Instead of listening and trying to understand what coaching needs they’re currently in the process of introducing a Code of Conduct for coaches. That’s not there for coaches, it’s the Governing Body protecting themselves from a group of people it doesn’t support”.
“Where do you start trying to fix it?”
“Understanding. Education. Like everything in life. Governing bodies need to strive to understand what effective coaching is and what it can achieve whilst many coaches, who’ve come through the current system, also need to take a look at themselves”.
“In what way?”
“Coaches can forget that coaching is a giving process and put themselves at centre of things. A great coach gets satisfaction from giving. You get what you give. It’s a mind-set you must adopt to be effective. When you coach others, you’re giving to yourself through the act of giving to others”. Toni laughs, “This is getting deep. Look, as soon as you allow the focus to shift to yourself you’re lost and more importantly so is your athlete”.
“Focus on the athlete and the rewards will come, focus on the rewards, or yourself and…?”
“And you’ve failed your athlete. Most coaches at the top end of coaching, coach across the entire spectrum and are successful at all levels. Coaching is a lifelong commitment, a vocation. That’s what’s missing from coach education”.
“That and the fact that coaches seem to be the only group without their own representative body”.
“Because coaching in the UK is marginalised and belittled. I’ve heard senior representatives of Governing Bodies say something to the effect of, ‘anyone can do coaching’. Try giving an athlete with real ability to a novice coach and see what happens. Clue – it doesn’t include getting on a podium”.
“I want to see a better duty of care, in relation to athletes, being exercised and that means supporting coaches differently”.
“And this is why you’re sticking your head above the parapet to try and ring in the changes?”.
“I believe it’s the only way we’re going to achieve genuine success on the International stage – that means podium positions. Also, I want to see a better duty of care, in relation to athletes, being exercised and that means supporting coaches differently. If we’re going to succeed at developing better athletes, better people then we must focus on coaching. And that means from the top down and the bottom up”.
“And are you the one to turn things around?”
“I’ll give it my best shot”.
I don’t doubt he will.