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Dare to dream: Great coaching can be as influential as genetics in the making of a champion. Discuss

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Genetic inheritance and environmental factors both impact greatly on sporting development. Thankfully, effective coaching strategies combined with good old fashioned hard work and persistence can also radically enhance the full range of behavioural, psychological, physical and technical skills that are fundamental to success at the highest echelons of sport. 

  • Expert coaching is like playing your joker in the great game of life. It vastly increases your probability of success.
  • Key performance attributes associated with high-achieving athletes are identified below, along with the coaching models and techniques that can be used to develop those skills in individual performers.
  • ‘Nobody is born to be an athlete of some description. It’s hard, it’s lengthy, it’s challenging.’

‘It’s not about the cards you’re dealt, but how you play the hand.’ 

This sentence reverberated more than all the other maxims imparted by Professor Randy Pausch in his motivational ‘Last Lecture’

Pausch delivered his poignant lessons on life talk, entitled Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, one month after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. 

The disease robbed the world of an incredible man and a brilliant mind ten months later, but his words – serving, as was his intention, as farewell advice from a father to his children – live on. 

For those who may be motivated to achieve their childhood dream of representing their country in their chosen sport, genetic make-up will have an important part to play, for sure. 

But, as Pausch pointed out, while inherent abilities can give you a head start on the journey to achieving success in life, it should be a reassuring fact for children enthused by sport to learn that natural talent can only take you so far, while self-belief and hard work can take you further.

When Martina Navratilova delivered a response to the nature v nurture debate, it was as deftly and expertly executed as one of her point-winning drop shots: ‘I totally disagree with the idea that champions are made not born,’ she said. ‘Champions are born, and then they have the right environment to be made.’

Whichever view you lean towards in a topic that is as fascinating as it can be mentally frustrating, it is universally accepted that, in any regional, national or global race to be the best, number one status can never be guaranteed by genetics alone. There are a thousand and one variables that can make or break your chances of reaching, or even approaching, the pinnacle of success.

A dynamic double act

Okay, so being blessed with ‘good genes’ or biological advantages is down to Lady Luck. But hang on a second, children don’t get to choose the environment they grow up in either. Isn’t our environmental conditioning then also pot luck?

If you experience an inequality of opportunities during your childhood, your chances of reaching the top will have suffered a potential double whammy of setbacks before you even lace up your first pair of boots or trainers.

But what if we can eliminate the element of chance (random outcomes beyond our control) to allow us to effectively take control of our sporting journey and tip the balance back in our favour?

This is where great coaching can have a monumental effect – especially if the influence, knowledge and support a coach provides is matched by an athlete’s passion, desire, motivation and enduring commitment to work harder than his or her rivals.

The formation of such a dynamic double act can help athletes manufacture a winning hand, even if they believe they were dealt a dud one to begin with. 

Aces high in pack of cards

Environmentally unfriendly

Habits and behaviours are established slowly over time by the unique set of conditions present in our environment. The external factors you are exposed to and learn from through experience shape your personality and behaviour, your psychological characteristics and your physical and mental abilities. 

These environmental advantages/disadvantages can also affect your opportunity to practice and the quality of your practice and therefore act as obstacles in reaching your potential. 

They include but are not restricted to: 

  • Location: Limited access to sports clubs, youth clubs, play centres or leisure facilities through geographical location or economic deprivation. Low income families, for instance, might struggle to get their children to a required destination because of transport costs or because they do not own their own vehicle.
  • Money: Cost of participation fees and equipment also has a detrimental effect on the behaviour habits of poorer families, whose ability to take part in sports activities is compromised. Think the cost of a top spec road bike for a budding club cyclist, a top-of-the-range graphite tennis racket, club fees, lessons and region-wide travel for an avid tennis player. Even being able to provide a balanced diet to ensure children are receiving all the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy body and healthy lifestyle can be a struggle for some families.
  • Time and parental support: your parents may both work full-time, or are separated, and not be able to take you to and from training on a consistent basis.*
  • School: public/private schools traditionally have better facilities (a swimming pool, synthetic running track, squash courts on site, for example, while offering a wider variety of sports and after-school clubs, such as golf) as well as a deeper pool of coaches (in some cases employing former professionals).
  • Siblings: It can be an advantage if you have a brother or sister of a similar age to compete against and motivate you while you are growing up.
  • Date of birth: If you are a summer baby, statistics suggest it could harm your chances of achieving sporting success. Read more about the potential repercussions of Relative Age Effect here.

*Just to complicate matters, the environment can sometimes work for or against you in apparent contradiction of societal norms. For example, children whose parents have divorced may in fact enjoy more opportunities, spoilt by parents who feel guilty over the potential impact the split may have on their children.

Attributes of a champion

In other words, you can be a victim of your circumstances. You may be blessed with a certain amount of talent and hunger to succeed, but if a sporting rival living in the next village shares your natural athleticism, dedication to practice and passion for sport but has environmental factors weighted heavily in their favour, they will likely improve more rapidly, despite your best efforts.

Which is why it is so refreshing to learn that you can establish your own set of conditions to reduce the impact luck has on your life (or indeed, maximise those advantages you are born with or born into). 

Consider this statement for a moment. Coaching strategies allied with deliberate practice can improve an athlete’s focus and concentration, resilience, problem solving, decision making and leadership qualities, creativity and curiosity, bravery and physicality, stamina, courage, ability to cope with pressure, setbacks and adversity. It can instil a sense of responsibility and develop team-work, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, heart and desire and a competitive edge.  

All, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes of a champion. 

The traits listed can remain underdeveloped in people who do not have exposure to coaching, mentoring or strong community role models growing up. 

We will go on to pin-point the various coaching methodologies used to develop these important individual attributes. But first… 

Deliberate practice

To maximise the supportive and strategic input of a coach, an athlete must also possess the quality of self-regulation. That is, be able to police themselves without outside intervention or assistance.

Admittedly, this is something of an oxymoron, but what this means is that to ensure long term engagement with a sport – and continued improvement – an individual must possess inner drive and persistence towards training separate from the motivation provided by external parties such as a teacher, coach, parent, peer or other form of role model. 

Self-regulation is intrinsic to successful and sustained deliberate practice. 

As UK Coaching Head of Talent and Performance Nick Levett explained to me: ‘I don’t subscribe to the fact you must do 10,000 hours – the magic number – to become an expert. But I do subscribe that you have to do some deliberate practice because to get better at something you have to put in the hard work. Nobody is born to be an athlete of some description. It’s hard, it’s lengthy, it’s challenging.’ 

Coaching methodologies have evolved to help athletes retain their enjoyment through long-term engagement and practice, as the process can become repetitive and relentless – relentlessly repetitive even – for those chasing their dreams. 

This throws up obvious ethical dilemmas, such as the physical demands and mental pressures placed on a child when growing up.

Which seems an appropriate juncture to mention those famous fathers who conditioned their sons and daughters to be champions. Richard Williams and Earl Woods successfully manufactured the required conditions for athletic development we have been discussing. 

However, in engineering their route to the top, through micro-management and a hard-line approach to practice, there was a price to pay. Many would argue Tiger, Venus and Serena bypassed their childhoods. 

And yet, when the teenage Tiger was asked by a journalist how he felt about missing out on so many childhood experiences, Woods replied: ‘This is better than childhood’.

And mother of the Williams sisters, Oracene, said her daughters maintained an insatiable zeal for practice throughout their adolescence: ‘They were always in the courts early, even before their father or I would get there.’ 

I'll leave you to decide which side of the fence you sit on in that particular debate.

Marginal gains approach 

Clearly, genetics has more of an influence in some sports than others. 

If you want to be an Olympic sprinter, you will need to be born with a certain kind of fast-twitch muscle fibre. 

If you dream of becoming the next Sir Steve Redgrave and you stop growing when you are 5ft 6ins and weigh in at less than 10 stone dripping wet, then a gold medal on the lake may be destined to elude you. 

But what is also beyond dispute is that coaches have a vast array of techniques at their disposal to help them produce champions, or at the very least help athletes become the best that they can possibly be. 

I have included below a number of key performance attributes that high-achieving athletes and coaches will identify with, along with some coaching models and techniques that, utilised effectively, could potentially improve key areas of an athlete’s repertoire. 

Each links to a ConnectedCoaches blog which details how to implement the techniques in your coaching practice. 

The cumulative effect – rather like the doctrine of marginal gains – will be incremental all-round improvement in an athlete’s behavioural, psychological, physical and technical qualities, helping them flourish over time into outstanding performers. 

If life is one big game of chance that we must all play, with our probability of success swayed by our DNA and our environment, then the likelihood of an athlete beating the odds will be greatly improved with a chain of outstanding coaches at their side to nurture their progress.

  • Problem solving and decision making: Games-based Approach (games and constraints encourage participants to search and find solutions to problems, thereby aiding the development of new skills. The games motivate children to learn in more effective, creative ways). See also these blogs on games-based learning, TGfU and CLA.
  • Mental strength, resilience and coping with adversity: Growth mindset (There are some easy to apply techniques that can be used by coaches to foster growth mindset in their athletes. Your mindset shapes your behaviour. Changing the beliefs people have about their abilities and the way they respond to challenges can help individuals modify their behaviour habits and help them fulfil their potential as performers).
  • Dealing with pressure:  Replication, repetition, visualisation, preparation (Work to replicate the distractions, disruptions and differences that occur in a competitive environment so athletes become used to the external stimuli they will encounter in competition. Another tip: What seems like pressure initially, if you do it repeatedly, is not pressure).
  • Making new skills stick: Intentional training (This practice strategy requires athletes to train with purpose and with unswerving mental focus. The practice has to be interesting, intense, integrated and internalised).
  • Managing your emotions: Emotional intelligence and self-awareness (The ability to understand and control your emotions is key to being able to perform to your absolute potential). 
  • Improving self-control and reducing impulsive behaviour: Self-talk (This stress-busting relaxation and motivation technique uses the power of the mind, with athletes encouraged to enter into a cycle of thought and action). 
  • Learning and improving: Pre-mortem and reflective practice (Looking to the future, imagining a project has failed, then working backwards from that point to identify all the possible reasons why is pre-mortem practice. Learning from information extracted from the past is reflective practice. American Educator Peter Drucker said: ‘Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action’).
  • Building confidence: Feedback and appropriate communication. (Confidence develops when goal-setting and reinforcement of positive behaviours is rewarded and celebrated. To go for our goals we must first eliminate fear and see failure as feedback).
  • Refining skills and technique: Technology, data analytics and video analysis (Technology can provide a competitive advantage in elite sport, but it needs a coach to drive it. All data being analysed must be actionable and used in conjunction with a clear strategy, vision and well-defined performance goal).
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