Should the main focus of a coach be the performance or the person? Should a coach’s worth be measured only by the performance of the person they coach?
The Tokyo Olympic Games has been an exhibition of examples that, in our opinion, help to demonstrate great coaching.
It’s tough times that define us, and certainly, the support, advice and counsel that coaches such as Cecil Canqueteu-Landi or Mel Marshall have shown to athletes such as Simonne Biles and Adam Peaty has helped define them as great coaches.
All these examples demonstrate that coaching is not only about performance; in fact, they show that the main concern for a coach must be about the people they coach.
Pictures like the one of Landi and Biles after the latter won bronze speak for themselves. As the saying goes, an image is worth a thousand words, and this one reveals how much they care for each other.
And the thing is that if you spend as much time together as a coach spends coaching an elite athlete, they are not just a coach; they are almost part of the family, at least the great ones. And for some, they are actually family, being the case of Jade Carey and his father and coach, Brian Carey.
What makes a great coach?
Depending on who you ask, the answer may vary, but for us, some of the most essential qualities of a great coach are:
The ability to inspire. A great coach must be able to motivate and inspire the people they coach.
We all are capable of achieving something amazing, but first, we need to be extremely motivated to do it. Otherwise, it will be difficult to put in all the effort that great results require.
The ability to build trust. Any relationship between a coach and a coachee, whatever the coachee may be, needs to be based on trust.
Can you imagine what the situation would be like if Biles or Peaty didn’t trust their coaches to support and guide them through these tough moments?
And trust is not only between the athlete and coach but also between the people around them. For example, Peaty’s mum knows that she can trust Mel Marshall to look out for her son.
And she demonstrated how much she trusts her when she said, “He’ll definitely miss the pool, and within a few weeks, he’ll be itching to get back in, but Mel is very strict; he’s not allowed to.”
Nurture. It’s not only in tough moments when coaches need to focus on the wellbeing of the people they are coaching. Sometimes, even more so at the elite end of sport, people may be pushing too hard, and it’s the coach’s job to always make well-being and health a priority.
Focus on learning and development. A great coach should always invest time and effort into learning and development. This is just as important for the coach as for the coachee. It’s by focusing on our own development that we can evolve and grow.
Adaptability. As we’ve seen, everything can change, and coaches need to be able to adapt and thrive through change.
A good example of this was when the Olympics games were postponed a year until 2021 due to Covid. Coaches and athletes had been preparing for four years for this event; they had a plan and a structure, and suddenly all that changed.
“We’ve had to plan differently: we’ve had to plan and then re-plan and then re-plan”, said Mel Marshall when asking about how this change has impacted them.
But we think, above all, the most important quality of being a great coach is “people first”. At the end of the day, they are dealing with human beings who are under a lot of pressure, and they need to always keep in mind that behind the great athlete, there is a person who needs to be at his or her best in order to perform.
As Russell Earnshaw said, “coaching is about understanding where people are at and supporting them to move forward and grow.”
A person-centred coach
The person-centred approach to coaching was developed as a new form of therapy in the 1940s by Carl Rogers. He called it “non-directive therapy”.
The idea was that people were the best experts of their own lives, and therefore the therapist should follow the client’s lead.
In the 1950s, Rogers renamed the approach “client-centred therapy”. It wasn’t until the 2000s that personal/private coaching and mentoring started to gain traction, and people began to recognise the real value that it had to offer them and their personal performance.
The way we understand it, a client-centred approach to coaching has three essential components:
Listening. The first and probably most important one is listening with empathy and without judgment.
Using the example of Biles, the athlete was the one who decided she needed the time off, and the coach was there to listen.
No one knows how we feel better than ourselves, and Biles knew she needed time to focus on her mental health. The job of the coach is both to listen and avoid judgement.
Any athlete or person who is working with a coach will trust their judgement, which means it could have a negative impact on them if they felt that the people they trusted the most were judging them and their decisions.
Read more about Active Listening here.
Supporting. The second component is support, because, as we all have seen, it’s pretty difficult to make these types of decisions, and it always comes with consequences. But it’s always the job of the coach to support their people.
Guidance. The third step is guidance. While the only person who can do the work is the person who takes the break, the coach must be there to provide the support and guidance needed during these tough periods.
For us, this approach is also based on the premise that the focus is on the person and not the performance.
As Wayne Goldsmith says, “Athletes are only athletes for an hour or two at most each day. For the other 22-23 hours each day, they are human beings. Many coaches concentrate on preparing the athlete to perform: the great ones prepare the human being to be all they can be, then; as a result, the athlete will perform.”
Considering how big an event like the Olympic games is, it can be challenging for an athlete or a coach to prioritise health, but as Biles replied when asked about her goals for the games,
“To focus on my well-being. There is more to life than just gymnastics”.She also said, “We’re not just athletes. We are people at the end of the day, so we have to focus on that.”
The Optimist View…
For us, a great coach shares a lot with a great leader. Both need to know and understand the people they coach or lead, recognise their strengths and weaknesses, whilst building trust and nurturing long-term relationships, with a continual reminder that it’s people first.
Whether you are coaching an Olympic athlete, an executive, or leading a team, the priority must always be the person behind the performance. This is also our approach in our executive coaching programmes.
Learn more about our executive coaching here.
This week we have seen great examples of what support looks like. And surely, these great athletes will find not only the support but the guidance they need, the time off to recover and focus on their mental health, to ensure that they come back full of energy and strength to demonstrate once again how great a performer they are.
Read our post “What I’ve learned about mental health since quitting rugby – By Ollie Phillips” here.
If you are wondering if you need a coach and how it may help you, get in touch with us today and book a free touchpoint first call with one of our coaches. This is an opportunity for you to explore how we can help you achieve your goals and fulfil your potential.