In the field of strength and conditioning (S&C), reflection is no longer an attribute, it’s a duty. One of the most fascinating aspects of working in the physical preparation environment is that no matter what individual reason(s) drives the athletes, may it be gaining advantage over an opponent or teammate, returning to play from injury or improving their physical performance, everyone in the room is striving to reach an upgraded self. As up-and-coming S&C coaches, we ought to engage in our professional development with the same drive for self-improvement, but also with a critical eye to what makes us most effective, resilient and which lessons, beyond the textbooks, have the most value in making us adaptable in pressured environments.
Reflecting on my young trajectory in S&C has moved me to pick apart the ‘upbringing process’ of new coaches into the professional field. In particular, my experiences at Municipal Grecia C. F., Team Bath, Team Bath AS, Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness and SUANFC, have opened my eyes to realise that the value we (young coaches) place on a particular internship or work experience is often internally dictated by our attitude towards it. Nowadays, the number of resources, methodologies and perspectives we are exposed to by simply partaking in one make it impossible for any internship to be useless.
If you are a young coach taking on an internship that you feel is not giving you much, think again. Hopefully this article will help you appreciate, extract and absorb valuable lessons from the opportunities you have at your immediate disposal, but that maybe you just haven’t identified their potential, yet.
One of the many things Coach Keir Wenham-Flatt has said that has stuck with me is:
"Whatever situation it is your athletes are going to face physically, tactically, technically or psychologically, you never want competition to be the first time they've ever been placed in that situation; so prepare accordingly."
My question to all young coaches, interns and mentors is: if this is the path to follow with athletes, why should it be any different with the people that will shape athletes (i.e. the up-and-coming coaches)? So, I am a strong advocate of embracing internships as your ultimate training for the real world. Let me detail what I believe your priorities should be in confronting this training process and unlocking its true value.
#1 - Be a sponge, but not a replica!
Absorb as much as possible but don’t be limited to your mentor’s beliefs, values, and methodologies. Don’t be a replica!
As is the case in many other disciplines, limiting oneself can be counter-productive in S&C. One of the key take-home messages from Dan Pfaff’s seminars at the University of Sydney this past September, was to not let popular trends dictate your way of operating. Don’t get me wrong, mentors have a lot to offer, they are your direct source of guidance and knowledge when it comes to practical coaching experience. Absorb as much of their expertise as you can and deem appropriate. However, I have come to understand that, as Dr. Dan Baker once told me: “there are many paths to the top of a mountain, find yours.” Don’t finish your internship and go off to coach like a duplicate of your mentor, be original, construct your own vision on what works and what doesn’t. If we all followed one way, everyone would be the same coach. Variety leads to discovery and innovation, this holds true in all areas!
With that said, be aware of the mighty-dangerous confirmational-bias! If something an old mentor preached worked for him, and maybe you’ve just seen it work again in a different place; do not automatically think it works with all athletes in all situations. Assume nothing, believe nothing (within reason) and confirm everything! Be a sponge, not a replica – absorb as many different perspectives, approaches and methodologies as you are exposed to; then form your own.
#2 – Go further, be the active seeker
I have regularly found myself in discussions with fellow young coaches regarding the question ‘what should I expect from my mentor?’. The answer is: you should not expect anything more than a learning platform. The mentor-mentee relationship (i.e. the professional development aspect of any internship) should always be mentee-driven. As young coaches we must exhibit a keen interest, enthusiasm and an eagerness to contribute with hopes of making a difference. A key advice I received from Dr. Trevor Clark this year was: “knowledge is already there for many of us, experience makes the difference. Get out there and build it.” There are already others out there with our same level of knowledge, if not more. We are young, with a long future ahead; with that comes our limited experience! So, we must know what we can offer.
Having said that, mentors can only provide us so much professional development. Professional development is personal. Search elsewhere, open up and beyond. You will find opportunities closer to you than you could have imagined – seek actively! Go to seminars, special-interest gatherings, get accredited; these aren’t the be-all and end-all, but they can provide good nuggets, networking opportunities and they are boxes to tick. Do things previous interns in your role haven’t done, inform yourself on what they did. Not sure where to start? Chat to your mentor formally!
Ask yourself, can the reason why I think my internship is not valuable be related to my attitude towards it? Am I being proactive enough and taking all opportunities presented to me? Maybe I’m not seeing them? Be active, go further and you will stand out!
#3 – Build relationships and a good rapport
An article by Coach Fernando Levy on the Rugby Strength Coach blog nicely outlined the Personal Trifecta. Three aspects underlie the professional life: work quality, social relationships and timing. As mentioned by Coach Levy, coaches have stated that to be successful in any working environment any professional must stand out in at least two of these qualities. It’s been said that if people don’t like you, but your work is of high-standard and you have reliable timing, your value in the workplace will not be questioned. Maybe this is true, my question is: is it sustainable?
I am of the belief that because as humans we are social animals, building good relationships and rapport with the athletes, coaches and stakeholders we are directly and indirectly involved with is pivotal. Especially as an intern, a bad time can be made better if you are surrounded by friendly, easy-going company. Being a decent well-intended person, having a likeable personality and simply being generous are attributes that can serve to give and to receive. Not many books explore the importance of social interactions in establishing buy-in with athletes as precisely as Conscious Coaching: The Art & Science of Building Buy-In by Coach Brett Bartholomew. Establish good relationships with the athletes and coaches you are interning under and start building buy-in for yourself! Make an effort to approach the different personalities you encounter in the most relatable way, even if you have to take some hits, and you will go from that intern in charge of putting away stuff in the gym to a coach who is listened to.
With that said, generosity is critical. Be generous, give and help without expectations. Generosity is attractive. Be the guy that wants to help, not the one that has to. Have no hidden motives to your generosity, and don’t keep count of the favours you do; in time they will come back. These people are and will continue to be professional colleagues. They can help you out in the future, all of them, not only your mentor. But first, you must help them and set a name for yourself.
#4 – Learn to stand corrected
A few months ago, I met Coach Paul Downes, Head S&C Coach at Auckland Rugby. We had some very thought-provoking discussions. I spoke to him about my experience thus far as a young coach in Costa Rica, China, England and Australia. Coach Downes introduced to me the concept of the 7 why’s, a technique developed in Japan to identify the core of issues. He said to me that, in a perfect scenario, if a coach has a strong understanding and rationale behind a component of an athlete’s training programme, he would be able to answer the 7 why’s. Although this is a very methodical way to understand and learn from the rationale behind particular training components, we agreed that it is not the most practical way for us, interns, to question a mentor’s approach.
Young coaches must be cautious when requesting an explanation or challenging a decision by a mentor, as this can be received as disrespectful. Over my work experience I have developed a 6-step structure that has allowed me to formulate questions in the most respectful and thought-driven manner:
Challenge respectfully if you do not agree but be open to stand corrected and learn from it. Even in the probable situation where athletes are on your side, because you are the easy-going intern or maybe because they don’t have the best of relationships with their coach, it is important that you know your place. Your mentor is aware of what he is doing. They have years on you and have probably encountered similar situations with this type of athlete in the past. Your mentor is already willing to help build you as a coach, even if they don’t show it, this is why you’re here. So, show respect and have their back; this should always be mutual.
However, if you still fundamentally disagree even after discussion, keep it in and use it to build you as a coach going forward. As of now, these are his athletes, not yours. Two ears one mouth, use them in that ratio.
#5 – Embrace your mistakes
A valuable lesson I took from listening to keynote speaker Coach Bob Alejo is that fundamentals are cutting-edge. As a young coach, I primarily took this as guidance for programming training. Nevertheless, from this message I also understood that sticking to our fundamental knowledge (theoretical and practical) can provide what I call a ‘safety net’ to limit the risk, amount and magnitude of our mistakes; allowing us to better engage in the process of trial and error.
Embrace your mistakes. If you want to work in sport, internships will be the only time that you will be in a controlled environment where someone (your mentor) is willing to take accountability for what you do, to an extent. Take risks and learn from when you fall short or fall wrong. At the end of the day, wonders are born from trial and error! Extract value from those errors in the form of lessons learnt and turning-point experiences to build your knowledge and inform your decisions going forward. Ultimately, ensure you stick to your fundamentals and use your internship to experiment different things. This will help solidify your coaching principles and preferred methodologies.
With that said, care for your mentor too. Minimise the chances of making an error as much as possible – they’re already doing so much for you, don’t stitch them up!
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