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Under the microscope: The role of the coach on competition day

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Dave Turner

SHADES OF SUCCESS: David Turner congratulates Hollie Arnold, left, and New Zealand silver medallist Holly Robinson

Set against the backdrop of his memorable experience at the World Para Athletics Championships, David Turner offers some advice to coaches on how to prepare yourselves and your athletes mentally for the big occasion, detailing some useful psychological techniques he employed to great effect in London to bring the best out of his gold medal-winning javelin thrower Hollie Arnold.

  • Coaches need to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally prior to competition, not just their athletes.
  • Coaches can get just as nervous, so every precaution should be taken to ensure both parties feel comfortable, controlled, calm and confident on the big day.
  • Facial expressions betray your emotions, so a coach must hide their feelings in the heat of competition or risk passing their fears and nerves on to their athletes.
  • Coaching athletes with disabilities is no different to coaching athletes without disabilities, in that the onus is on what the athlete can do, not what they can’t do because of their impairment.

At first glance, there does not appear to be any striking similarities between UK Coaching Development Lead Officer David Turner and pop megastar Lady Gaga.

Those who know David (as I do) will be able to corroborate that he does not share the same outlandish fashion sense, engage in quite the same shamelessly flamboyant antics around television cameras, or, and I’m hazarding a guess at this last one, reap nearly the same annual income as the eccentric songstress.

However, they do have one thing in common: they can both strike a mean poker face.

When it comes to coaching on the biggest of stages, ConnectedCoaches Community Champion David has mastered the art of assuming an expressionless countenance, making it impossible for his athletes to read his emotions.

This is an important coaching attribute and, as you will soon discover, served him well at the World Para Athletics Championships in London this summer, where he helped javelin thrower and Team GB captain Hollie Arnold win gold in the F46 category with a world record launch of 43.02metres.

It was another superb achievement by the reigning Olympic and multiple world champion, and a proud moment for David too, who was appearing in his first major championships as a Great Britain coach.

With the gold dust having settled, I spoke to David to find out the finer details of his contribution on the day and to ask him how important it was that coaches conquer their own nerves as well as those of their athletes.

Leave no stone unturned

All coaches will have a few tried and trusted tricks up their sleeve to help their athletes produce some magic and give them an edge over their rivals.

Fastidious preparation and attention to detail is one key safety measure that all performance coaches swear by prior to a big competition.

David’s experience in London was an object lesson in the need for punctilious precautions to make an athlete feel comfortable, controlled, calm and confident.

Effective time management tactics – such as devising precise schedules for warm-up sessions, physio work and travelling – are important, as is avoiding overloading athletes with last-minute technical instructions.

Other ‘nth degree’ considerations implemented by David in the hours before competition, aimed at establishing these 4 Cs, included:

  • Creating a time window in the schedule for Hollie to see her family to help her relax.
  • Getting team members to do Hollie’s hair – which, because of her impairment (she was born with no right arm), takes longer to do by herself.
  • Making sure to turn off social media to avoid unnecessary distractions.
  • Monitoring diet and hydration as excitement and nerves can make athletes neglect their nutritional needs.
  • Use of clear and simple communication. This, for example, helped the pair identify and quickly deal with an issue over clothing. Hollie felt the Team GB vest she was wearing was too revealing so, in order to feel more comfortable when competing, she changed into the athlete-issue T-shirt instead.

What can sometimes fall by the wayside is the need for coaches to prepare themselves just as thoroughly mentally and emotionally.

They can be as nervous as their athletes heading into, and during, a showpiece event.

‘I certainly felt the need to prepare myself mentally and emotionally because this is a high stakes environment,’ says David.

‘There are lots of emotions flying around – not just for athletes but for coaches too, for whom it also really matters.’

With this being his maiden ‘major’, David – who was stepping in for Hollie’s lead coach, who was away on international duty with the Under-23s team in Poland – felt in many ways that Hollie was the experienced campaigner and he was the novice.

There was pressure on both of them to perform, and he admits he felt an expectation to step up to the plate.

‘My job was, the day before the competition, make sure I was ready for everything that was going to come at me. So I went to see where I would sit, take in the stadium and soak up the atmosphere the night before – with Hollie having done the same thing 24 hours before me.

‘For example, Hollie is a left-hander so I wanted to sit in the most advantageous position, where it would be most beneficial to me watching a left-hander throw. So I purposely positioned myself on the opposite side to most of the other coaches in order to get a better view of her footwork.’

Hollie Arnold

LAUNCH PARTY: Hollie on her way to gold at the World Para Athletics Championships in London

Master of disguise

With coaches forging such close relationships with their athletes, having invested hundreds of hours and possibly many years of unconditional support into their performance progression, there is more than just professional pride at stake in seeing them perform to their full potential.

It can be difficult, therefore, for a coach to keep their reactions in check in the heat of competition. But do so they must, for the ability to disguise your true feelings and show no negative emotion can mean the difference between your athlete winning gold or finishing off the podium.

And so, in deliberating the importance of coaching yourself during a competition, we duly arrive at the important subject of cultivating the perfect poker face and learning the art of bluffing.

‘The coach is nervous, absolutely, but I can’t be showing any of that,’ says David.

‘I want the athlete to look at me and think, “He’s got the answers whatever happens” and to see nothing but steel.

‘I have developed an excellent poker face that shows no negative emotion. It’s very much a case of giving your athlete complete reassurance. You cannot let them see fear, nervousness or anxiety in your eyes.’

His practiced deadpan expression was to prove invaluable in London.

Thrown off course

One hour before the competition was about to start, David was informed that Hollie would not be allowed to use the javelin that she broke the world record with in Rio.

It had been refurbished in the intervening months and had a different sticker on it. As a result, the officials could not find it on the printed list of approved javelins.

‘Why are they telling us this now?’ was David’s first thought, before a hasty appeal was lodged.

Officious officialdom won the day and the decision would not be reversed but David had to camouflage his understandable frustration.

Now was not the time to react in the manner of Basil Fawlty attacking his car with a tree branch, and risk Hollie’s confidence and composure disintegrating in a matter of seconds.

‘I decided at first I wouldn’t mention it to Hollie in case the appeal was successful. But then, ten minutes before the start of the competition, I had to tell her.’

How this conversation panned out could prove instrumental to Hollie’s performance. He had to maintain her confident mental state just minutes before her first throw by being psychologically astute.

‘I explained to her that the only reason it was the world record javelin was because that was the javelin she had picked up in the sixth round at the Paralympics in Rio, and if she’d picked any other javelin it would have gone just as far. That was the only reason for it being her favourite javelin.

‘I said, “All you need to do is go out there and pick another javelin you like the feel of, stick with it and away you go. Set a new world record and then that will be your favourite.”

‘It was a case of being really matter fact, even blasé about it. It was an irrelevance, I told her, it didn’t matter in the slightest. The only difference would be you wouldn’t have a javelin with that particular paint job.’

Technically speaking

This anecdote also serves to highlight that, in athletics, a coach should not be imparting complex technical instruction during, or in the immediate run-up to, a competition.

The role of the coach on the day is not to slip into teacher mode and begin making unnecessary tweaks, rather to assume the role of confidence-builder and communicator, simply reinforcing the work you have done previously and reiterating those tactical and technical points discussed prior to competition.

Information relayed during the warm-up should take the form of familiar routines and patterns rather than a string of explicit instructions.

As David explains: ‘The technique was already ground in for what we wanted to do from the warm-up and, in terms of the competition itself, the cues were super-duper simple. It’s all the hard work that goes before that makes this approach possible.

‘You don’t want to fry the athlete’s brain by deviating from the plan and passing on different bits of technical information. You could overload them and they might lose their discipline.

‘You should only work on one, maximum of two things in a competition, and that’s it.’

Carbon-copy coaching

We have got this far into a blog about para athletics without discussing the particulars of Hollie’s disability or angling the article on advice specifically aimed at those who coach disabled athletes.

And for good reason. Because David’s advice holds true whether you are coaching disabled or non-disabled athletes.

‘I can’t think of anything I did with Hollie that I would have done differently if this was a non-disabled athlete,’ he says.

‘Coaching an athlete with a disability is no different to coaching an athlete without a disability. It’s about what the athlete can do, not what the athlete can’t do because of their disability.’

If an athlete with a disability comes down to your club, what is the first thing you should do as a coach, I ask?

‘Not panic,’ says David without hesitation. ‘There are always adaptations that you can make. Every single athlete will have challenges to overcome.

‘To be honest it just makes it all the more fun, more challenging, finding different ways to do things.’

And totally worthwhile, as David’s beaming smile in the group picture at the top of the page beautifully demonstrates.

The signature poker face has vanished, replaced by a spontaneous and far more natural expression.

What are your tips for dealing with pressure on competition day and the importance of the coach coaching themselves?

Next Steps

If you enjoyed this blog you might also be interested in the UK Coaching Podcast interview with David. Listen here.

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Comments (5)

   
pippaglen

Excellent Read and some excellent advice too. Well done David what a great achievement.

21/08/17
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Muddy_Paws

Yep, great piece. Thanks. Useful not just from a Coaching perspective, but also supporting my other half towards race day, rather than putting my foot in it (which has been known!). Top Tip - If you know there will be a Jelly Baby station, never suggest they may have run out by the time they get there!!

21/08/17
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Laddo

Great read. Full of useful tips and common sense that can be lost in the pressure moment. Thank you and well done!

22/08/17
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fibubb

Really informative piece, thank you! I feel nicely assured about not over loading athletes with loads of technical instructions on the day and keeping things familiar and straight forward. All too often, I've seen in equestrianism, coaches delivering 'lessons' rather than letting the rider actually warm-up leading to an athlete who can no longer think for themselves. A warm up should do exactly what it says!

22/08/17
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swimalan

In my experience the coaches role should be passive,all competition preparation should already be covered during training sessions,the coach need only be there to provide help with the competition arrangements i/e time of competition warm up times and any paper work that is required,Always be there to praise there athletes in victory and in defeat or failure,there is plenty of good things you can comment on find the good stuff.At this point a good coach will already be planning the follow on training to be talked out with your athlete back at the training sessions.

26/08/17
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