Last time, I wrote about the best coach I ever had. (If you haven’t read that post, feel free to take a moment now to do it; if you don’t have time, I’m about to provide a short summary.)
If you recall, this person was able to progressively take me (and many others) from beginners to sufficiently skilled players, both as individuals and as a team, to win a regional championship. How?
- He made showing up at practice a no-brainer (we were actually looking forward to practice, instead of dragging our feet to it);
- he made learning and developing our skills and physical condition fun through challenges we could achieve with reasonable effort (and some friendly competition);
- he provided advice and guidance during games, to make sure we could perform our best;
- he chided when absolutely necessary, and congratulated when applicable.
To elaborate a bit more, in my estimation this coach had the following attributes:
- He knew the sport inside-out, and was excellent at teaching technique as well as game tactics and strategy.
- He was a great planner for both individual training sessions and the overall season.
- He paid attention to individuals’ talents and guided each of us so we would progress as rapidly as possible.
- He built relationships with his athletes on the basis of mutual respect for our roles and responsibilities.
No doubt he was well served by many years of experience as a coach, but that’s still a tall order.
Yet isn’t it what all coaches do? On the other hand, is it all that one should expect from a coach? It begs the question:
What’s a “coach,” really?
A coach can, and must, be many things. But people generally agree about the following roles that a coach can fulfill:
- Teacher / Instructor / Technical Expert
- Planner / Scheduler
- Motivator ( / Cheerleader / Disciplinarian)
- First Aider ( / Medical Advisor)
- Basic Nutrition Advisor
I put a few items in parentheses because they represent certain expectations of coaches which I feel are not reasonable, or smart. For instance, unless the coach is a medical professional, the advice provided really should be very limited, and always conclude by telling the athlete to seek the opinion of a healthcare professional of the relevant specialty (or a GP with an interest in physical activity, though any GP should be professional enough to refer instead of just saying “stop”).
As to being a disciplinarian, really, that should fall in another category such as legal and/or sport regulations. The coach is expected to teach the rules of behaviour and sportspersonship, not to enforce them. (However, the coach must abide by such decisions as rendered by referees and disciplinary bodies, and support such decisions. But I digress.)
Finally, let’s hold off on talking about cheerleading for the moment.
Do I believe a coach, a good coach being implied, has to do all of that?
My answer is: It depends.
What most adult “athletes” seem to need
Nowadays, you see a lot of coaches who are primarily fitness instructors, in a very limited sense of showing techniques and guiding through workouts, and motivators, bordering on cheerleaders. Especially in gyms, the kind that one joins in order to lose weight (oh, and get into better shape as well, but primarily to look better).
This is fine for the majority of people who dabble in spurious gym attendance and faddish, er, novel, exercise classes. It might even be exactly what some people need. But it might also explain a great deal about the tendency for people to sign-up for, and then drop, such classes and gyms.
You see, there is a big difference between being able to illustrate how to do something, and being able to teach someone how to do it right, possibly by modifying the movement and gradually bringing about the correct form. That’s teaching, not instructing.
And there is a big difference between cheering someone on while they are exercising, and making exercising so much fun (or at least enjoyable) that they’ll keep coming. That the difference between being a cheerleader, and being a good motivator.
More to the point, coaching should involve personal attention to the needs and progression of the individual. Being instructor to dozens of people at the same time, seeing up to hundreds of fitness enthusiasts each week, is not the same kind of coaching as taking a few individuals through the skills and fitness development they need to complete a triathlon, for instance.
A lot of those instructors and personal coaches come from a relatively recent discovery of the benefits of being more fit, and keep on going by becoming coaches themselves. Their personal experiences (“I went from so many pounds, to looking like this, so you can do it, too!“) speaks to hopefuls, and gets them hooked. Often enough, a group dynamics also forms that further motivates participants, which is what gyms and classes count on.
But that kind of motivation is not, ultimately, what will keep folks showing up at the gym, or get truly fit and healthy. What is needed for that is a real Purpose, not just rapidly fading enthusiasm.
And beware in particular of any coach who offers more than a generic level of nutrition advice. Especially if they start talking about supplements, or some strange cleansing diet. A coach ought to know enough to provide some guidance as to how to eat well, but unless he or she is a nutritionist, it should only go so far.
I am not (really) trying to put anyone down; I’m simply trying to point out that there is a wide range of people having claims on the title “coach,” and that not all of them are the same.
Does that mean only certified coaches should be able to call themselves coaches? (Let’s forget for a moment that there are numerous bogus certifications out there…) Certainly not: You can find excellent coaches that have not bothered to obtain certifications by recognized sports bodies. Especially in sports like running and triathlon.
What matters for adults, who have the life experience to make their own decisions, is that there be a good approach to coaching, one that suits their own needs.
There is, however, one exception to the “certification not required” statement:
What kids need
Childhood is a critical time in the learning of skills and fitness principles.
Unfortunately, too many kids are turned off from sports through old-fashioned (and simply wrong-headed) gym classes. Coaches can play a role there, if the kids are also taking extra-curricular activities like soccer, football, baseball, or hockey, but that’s an uphill battle if gym classes set the wrong tone.
Worse than gym class, however, is when kids are being yelled at by improvised coaches who focus more on performance than on development.
Pretty much every parent wants his or her kids to be healthy and to move, so participation in little leagues is pretty strong. Which means the teams need coaches, and lots of them. Hence the parents are asked to help out.
While it is commendable of parents to want their kids to move (they seem to be applying something they understand intuitively, yet don’t do themselves), putting them into the hands of just about anybody is not a good idea. Adults don’t see team sports the same way as kids do, and so emphasis is often put on competition instead of fun. (And I’m not even talking about parents with dreams of their kids becoming professionals.)
That is something certified coaches are trained to deal with. That’s why I would much prefer there be fewer teams, with good coaches, than large leagues with yelling parents pretending to be coaching the teams.
Ok, I’ll admit, even some certified coaches are pushing the performance aspect too much, and much too soon. We are all human, it seems. But it is something that coaches are drilled about, and do know better, so a friendly reminder from time to time wouldn’t hurt.
Ultimately though, I feel it is primarily the job of parents to encourage their kids to move and learn to use their bodies. For that, nature has equipped us with a desire to play, to have fun. Organized sports and gym classes can be a part of that, but not at the cost of kids having fun.
The best thing one can do with kids is be a good example by moving as much as possible, and play with them (or let them play and organize their own games, that way they also learn to socialize). If you insist on organized team sports, make sure the coaches are certified and have the right approach to your kids’ age group and development level…
What a really good coach does
I’ve laid the foundation, put in place a few caveats, and even talked about kids. Together with the first post, you should start to get the picture of what a good coach’s actions and behaviour should be.
Next time, I’ll focus on what makes a good coach for adults interested in getting fit, and/or picking up a fun sport like triathlon.
Photos from Pixabay.