Dear Former Athlete,
First up, congratulations on your career. Competing at the highest-level puts you amongst a select group of individuals, an achievement most of us could only dream of accomplishing. In that regard, you have earned respect. There is no doubt that you will have lots to offer as you transition into the coaching realm.
Secondly, it is fantastic to hear that you’re interested in contributing to the sport through coaching – there is no doubt you’ll have much to give the next generation of athletes.
While wishing you the best in your transition, it would be remiss of us not to provide you with some insight we have gathered through our own collective careers. This information will hopefully help you navigate your new vocation.
It’s interesting that many people think ‘a great athlete will make a great coach’ yet there are not many who would think that ‘a great coach will make a great athlete’.
It seems that in the second paradigm we understand that the skills do not transfer well - they’re different domains; but in the first paradigm the misconception is that the skills do transfer well.
While we understand the ’10,000 Hour Rule’ is less of a rule and more of a ‘good message’ it could help you in your coaching.
Understanding that it probably took you about ten years to become an expert athlete, it’ll probably take you about ten years before you could consider yourself an expert coach. Remember this and enjoy the journey.
If you believed most coaching courses, you’d be forgiven for having the impression that coaching is mainly about addressing the Technical, Tactical, Physical & Mental aspects of the sport.
This leads to the assumption that you, the former athlete, should excel at coaching and hit the ground running. It makes sense to the uninitiated: You’ve obviously had a good appreciation of the Technical & Tactical aspects; you would’ve had some of the best physical training (though we have to ask: did you understand the principles being applied or did you just do what you were told?); as well as some exposure to Mental training too.
Unfortunately, this is quite far from the truth. Speak to any experienced coach and you’ll see that they’re more interested in learning how to build their relationship with their athletes. They understand that no rapport means no influence, which means no impact.
‘How and when to give feedback’ is another critical area for a coach to understand. Early in our careers, coaching is mainly about ‘us’ (our way, our methods, our influence, what we want to say) but, as we progress, we learn that it is actually about the athlete and giving them what they need, when they need it.
This is a skill that can be learnt, over time.
There are a range of other skills that you’ll need to learn: how to build a culture, how to motivate your charges, how to select your coaching staff, etc. Very few of the skills you had as an athlete will help you in this regard.
There will probably be other steep learning curves ahead: as an athlete your ability to believe in what you were told could have a significant effect on your performance. In fact, more belief could translate into more success: your belief in ice baths could help your recovery; your belief in altitude training could help your fitness levels; your belief in the fabric of your competition-clothing could help your confidence levels.
However, as a coach you need to have healthy doses of doubt and skepticism.You will need to question everything. And you should expect that the answers you receive are backed up with robust evidence. This change in mindset won’t be easy but it will be necessary.
Something else that was praised when you were an athlete is now going to handicap you as a coach: loyalty. Your loyalty to that one club, or your loyalty to that one coach, means that your exposure to different training methods and protocols has been inhibited. Remember, the old adage: There are many ways to skin a cat (apparently).
You’re going to have to get out and learn from other coaches, other teams, other countries and other sports. And never think ‘That could never work in my sport’ because it probably could, you’re just not experienced enough to understand how, why, when & where.
Following the same lines, please do not even think about coaching at the club you competed at, no matter how much the board plead and beg. For your own development, get out and learn. You could always return later, better prepared.
Having coached developmental athletes for over a decade, we understand how your confidence in your ability to coach, though unproven, will still be high.
We have seen your coaches build you up; we have seen the fans adore you and how the press embraces you. We have seen your managers minimise your faults and emphasise your strengths. We have seen how many people agree with you and how few correct you.
When you become a coach, you’ll need to shun most of these people and surround yourself with those that can stand up to you, disagree with you and correct you. These are the people who you can trust; the others are just going along for the ride.
Lastly, we are going to wish that you experience a fair amount of failure in your first few years of coaching. It sounds negative but it isn’t. Too many young coaches who experience early success think they know all the answers when, in fact, they haven’t been asked all the questions.
This perceived failure will be a blessing, as it will force you to extend yourself; seeking and creating learning opportunities, potentially leading to sustained, long term success.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and good luck with your coaching journey.
Your Fellow Coaches
PS Never, ever use the phrase ‘back in my day…’
Grant Jenkins is a coach who was never talented enough to be an athlete. Follow him on Twitter @Grant_Jenkins