Given that the coach-athlete relationship has been proposed as the core of effective coaching (Jowett, 2017), there is very little research available into what constitutes effective strength and conditioning coaching practice. In this article I am going to outline what has been identified as the core coaching traits and behaviours that positively impact the coach-athlete relationship in strength and conditioning, enabling coaches to increase their impact and work more effectively.
The coaching process itself has been defined as a process of social interaction (Côté and Gilbert, 2009). This I believe can sometimes be unappreciated in strength and conditioning, with a greater emphasis placed on the technical aspects of the role, such as physiology and biomechanics. This is supported by evidence from Gilbert and Baldis (2014) who found that there is a significantly larger body of research in the technical aspects of the discipline.
Self-determination theory suggests that motivation is defined by three core drivers: autonomy, competency and relatedness (Deci and Ryan, 2012). Autonomy relates to an athlete’s sense of control and choice in the coaching process. If this is not present, then motivation will be reduced. In terms of coaching approaches, this means that a coach who doesn’t provide an athlete with autonomy in the process is likely to get poorer results due to lack of motivation, trust and buy-in.
Behaviours from a coach that enable autonomy are related to improved satisfaction in the basic human needs (Felton and Jowett, 2013). Therefore, if a coach enables the athlete to have input into the coaching process, working together to achieve an outcome, then they increase the likelihood of athlete buy in, satisfaction and engagement. Adopting a more autocratic style of coaching is likely to not achieve these positive outcomes unless the context dictates this need.
A short thought experiment as an interlude. Who would likely get better results?
A coach with the ‘perfect’ plan on paper in a physiological sense, but who delivers this plan poorly
A coach with a very average plan on paper in a physiological sense, but who coaches this extremely well and engages the athlete
It would be my view that the coach who delivers the average plan very well, would get far better results. This is because the main limiting factor in a lot of coaching contexts is the athlete’s belief, buy-in and trust in their coach’s execution of a collaboratively designed plan.
This helps explain why the second scenario may lead to better results, even if on paper the programme is far less optimal in terms of intended outcomes, adaptation principles and loading parameters. This doesn’t need to be a dichotomy, and ideally, BOTH are in place in the coaching process, but often we can lose sight of the impact that coaching behaviours can have on the overall outcome of a training programme.
Jowett (2017) defines the coach-athlete relationship as dyadic, meaning that it involves the interaction of both parties, which empowers both the coach and athlete in a mutual process of development based on agreed goals and outcomes (Jowett et al., 2010). Taking this into account, we should consider the relationship between ourselves and the athlete as mutual, based on trust and interpersonal skills.
Trust is a central component of the coach-athlete relationship. Trust is the willingness someone has to be open vulnerable with someone else, irrespective of the other person’s influence on them (Mayer et al., 1995). I wrote more about this topic here, if you’d like to learn more about it. In strength and conditioning, as in any context, this is something that may take a bit of time to be established as we need to prove ourselves as coaches over a number of weeks to demonstrate credibility and integrity (Foulds et al., 2019). The use of positive feedback, and speaking to the athlete about life outside of training are a few ways that have been found to build trust with athletes in strength and conditioning contexts (Szedlak et al., 2018; Szedlak et al., 2015).
The use of teaching skills such as effective communication and planning have also been established as key skills for the strength and conditioning practitioner (Szedlak et al., 2018; Szedlak et al., 2015). Being innovative, turning up on time and being reliable, and having patience have all been highlighted in the literature as central to this (Tiberi and Moody, 2020). The reason for teaching skills having a high value is that athletes have a desire for coaches with high levels of expertise in their discipline, and the skill to teach these effectively (Carson et al., 2021).
Body language is another key behaviour that is associated with effective strength and conditioning coaching. Positive body language including an open, tall posture that indicates confidence, along with eye contact give the athlete trust in the coach’s abilities and self-belief (Lee et al., 2013).
Technical knowledge in the areas such as biomechanics and physiology are highly valued of course. It would be wrong to suggest that simply by demonstrating good coaching behaviours that we can achieve positive outcomes. You don’t go to a doctor for their ability to communicate well, this is just a nice bonus. We want their technical expertise, such as understanding of diagnosis and treatments.
Therefore, we should seek to demonstrate our technical expertise, but not at the cost of our ‘self-orientation’. This means how someone else perceives our self-interest. If we come across as wanting to show how much we know, this can often have the opposite effect to what we are looking for. Paradoxically, if we can take an interest in an athlete, their life and things outside of the training environment, we are more likely to build trust. Over time, our credentials as a coach can be proven through the results we achieve, which is ultimately what the athlete wants.
This quote sums up this concept nicely, highlighting the importance of taking an interest in the individual, rather than just demonstrating our technical expertise. It is my belief that the results are what speak to our technical expertise, not just our ability to communicate our knowledge. Having said that, there are athletes who are very interested in the technical aspects of their programmes, and there is a nice opportunity to demonstrate our technical knowledge and teaching abilities (which we know are important) when working with this type of athlete.
Finally, a good sense of humour is vital. We can lose sight of the fact that we are working with people, and humour is the great equaliser. If you can develop the skill to make anyone laugh, it is a highly valued skill that will build trust with the athlete. Szedlak et al. (2018) highlighted this, finding that through the use of vignettes (short narratives) that coaches who use humour skillfully can develop trusting, effective coach-athlete relationships.
Another type of needs analysis?
Ultimately, it does come down to knowing the person (or people) in front of you as a strength and conditioning coach. Everyone is unique, and just as we would perform a needs analysis for their technical/physiological needs, perhaps there is value in performing a needs analysis for their communication styles and preferences. We may spend considerable time understanding the sporting demands, such as forces experienced, muscles involved and physiological needs. But what are we missing if we don’t also seek to understand the athlete’s personality, preferences and traits? If we are to get the most out of people, then knowing the approaches that will help them to achieve the outcome faster has huge value.
Consider the following questions as a useful frame of reference when doing a needs analysis of a person:
What is their personality type? Are they more introverted or extroverted? What are the considerations here?
What styles of coaching have they enjoyed and got value from previously?
What is my own personality (based on the 5 core dimensions) and how does this impact my coaching style?
How can I adapt my coaching style to meet this person’s needs?
Where are the opportunities for the use of humour to build trust with this person?
What are they interested in outside of training? How can I find opportunities to engage them on these topics?
When are my opportunities for demonstrating my credibility as a coach?
How can I help this person to learn more about their training programme?
What teaching style should I adopt to help them get the most out of their training?
What is my body language saying? Am I giving off the right impression?
How can I ensure that I promote autonomy in this relationship?
What is the best way to ensure that I get the best out of this person?
I hope that you have enjoyed this article. If you have, sign up to my email list to receive regular content around training, coaching and sports performance.
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