Guest Post: Developmental vs. Elite Sport

If the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA) had an award called 'Most Popular Coach as Voted by Their Peers' Ian McKeown would probably win it! As someone who has done research in the Developmental space but currently plies his trade in arguably the most competitive, Elite league in the world, he remains as down to earth as ever. 

Development versus Elite Sport

Tips for prospective coaches that matter in development and professional sport

I love a bit of twitter banter and have been known to have a few rants on there about various things. One of the most recent twitter threads I have been following with interest is the one regarding the differences between coaching at development level and at professional level. There have been some interesting points and of course there are some very big differences between the two environments. They are obvious and not something I want to discuss today.

What does grab my attention however is the dismissive attitude people have towards those coaches working in professional sports, having everything their own way and that it is easy to coach there.

Conversely there is the other attitude that professional coaching is the pinnacle and that if you are not working at this level you are somehow less of a coach. This is outrageously wrong and is very offensive to both sides of coaching.

Thankfully I know that those lucky to work full time in sport know and appreciate that this is not the case. For those people who are coasting through thinking coaching is easy then yeah, this may be the case. I am not about coasting; if you are coaching then be the best bloody coach you can be, never settle for mediocrity as it cannot become a habit.

From my experiences I firmly believe that the skills developed and required in both environments are actually much closer than some of the twitter comments would lead you to believe.

I have put together 3 themes that are absolutely the same no matter where you coach. It's essential to strive for excellence regardless of standard or age of your athletes.

I do not want to appear to tell you how to coach, as coaching should be a fluid and dynamic. However, I hope that the following points are of use and provide some clarity for your coaching development.

The importance of technical skills and theoretical understanding


You must have an appreciation of the technical nuances of the movements you are coaching and understand why you are doing it.

Technical skills should not be limited to exercise correction. No matter who you are coaching you must have completely thought through your rationale for doing what you are doing. Know how that fits into the long term plan for each player/athlete, where are you going next with this exercise, and what is the end point and why?

I tend to use a curriculum-based approach to my coaching to help me with this. In my head this works well as I know where I want to go, where I am now and how I am going to get there with my athletes.

I will develop all sorts of pathways based upon individual circumstances. This doesn’t change between senior or professional sports and junior sports. The principle is the same. Build the athlete.

In order to develop a coaching system the range of topics that you need to appreciate and understand is diverse and appears to be never-ending.

You need to understand and critique all methods and models and come up with what you feel will work best in your coaching environment.

The more diverse and deeper your understanding of athletic performance, the more options you have open to you and you will reach a more optimal outcome with your programs.

As an example, just because Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD, and I don’t just mean Balyi’s model either!) is based around junior athletes does not mean the principles cannot apply in senior coaching environments.

In fact I would argue that so many coaches and sports are so blissfully unaware of LTAD that actually we as coaches are starting from the very start of the LTAD continuum with our athletes, even those in professional sports.

Your theoretical knowledge of performance must be excellent but as you will discover the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

This can be daunting but the skill here is how to learn. Can you identify a problem and think about how best to solve it? What information do you need and where are you going to find it? Being aware of your limits and how to push these limits of understanding further is a massive skill.

You must be brave here though; you have to ask for help, this isn’t easy. If you ask a mentor or a more senior coach for help and they belittle you for not knowing the answer they are not worth going to again. Coaching is teaching and training is learning. If there is someone out there who doesn’t want to enable you to do that then stay away from them.

I would ask you to practice when looking into new areas. Whether it be for university or personal interest, please do not just learn the words on the page but strive to understand them. Engage with them and imagine how you are going to use this new found theory in practice.

Ask yourself how you will use it? When would it work?

Even if you can't use it with your athletes right now, stick it in the memory bank to bring out later.

Never limit your imagination to your immediate coaching environment.  I can promise you I wasn’t using some of the information in Zatsiorsky’s Science and Practice of Strength Training when I was coaching U14 hockey girls, but I can guarantee you I have used it at some stage.

Be the sponge. Learn as much as you can and be smart about how and when you use it.images

Appropriate use of technical skills and theoretical understanding of what you are coaching should never change.

The importance of Coaching

No matter what environment you are in and who you are coaching you must be able to coach.

This may sound like an obvious statement but I think in S+C, and in particular with developing coaches, we get too caught up in the theory at the expense of the other “softer” skills.

You must be aware that no matter how good your program is on paper if you cannot deliver that session accurately and expertly to your athletes you are no better than anyone else.

Don’t settle for average; be brilliant. Learn the theory but also learn how to put it into practice. One cannot happen without the other.

To deliver a S+C session to a junior athlete or squad requires some of the very best coaching skills, similarly professional athletes are the hardest critics if you can’t get them better they’ll tell you about it and you’ll end up on your ear.

Junior athletes need coaching. They must have a solid movement vocabulary that is diverse and capable of being taken to the next level.

This is no different in professional sport where players must move well or be trying to get better. You may hear that professional athletes are already an expert and all you have to do is open the door and let them get to work. This is wrong and disrespectful to the athletes and the coaches involved.

Professionals want to get better and it is your job to get them there. Of course there are differences here, but coaching isn’t just about reciting the cues for squats and cleans. It is about getting the best out of your athletes/players and making sure you are doing the very best for them to perform on the field or the pitch.

On this point, too many developing coaches are worried about getting that perfect coaching job to use all their new found knowledge. They wait and wait (maybe even go and get more qualifications) for that perfect job, full time, working in professional sport and guess what? You have waited around, read the articles and books but you haven’t actually put what you have learned into practice.

Unfortunately this is not going to get you a job, and if you are lucky enough to get one, you are going to run into trouble that first instance you have to lead a session. Actually interacting with a human wanting to get better. Never mind 30 testosterone filled rugby players ready to kill things!

If you really want to be tested, try and coach a little athletics session, see how you get on then! You must get out there and coach, I don’t care where, just do it. Don’t take the easy option and become the coach of your old team/club - put yourself out there. Go to a different sport to experience how to think on your feet.

This will be uncomfortable but “reaching” is what makes you better… a better coach and a better person.

It doesn’t even have to be S+C coaching, coach a multi-sports camp or coach some track and field. Just go out there and teach someone how to do something better. It’s simple and if you can’t do that I don’t care how much you have learned in that textbook, it'll just going to stay on the page or in your head unless you bring it to life.

Moral Compass

The final theme that I believe does not change no matter where you work, is the importance of having a strong moral compass.index

This doesn’t mean being a goody two shoes, but just being aware that your actions will have a knock-on effect.

Be the good bloke.

As a coach you are doing much more than getting someone to lift heavier stuff, you are enabling someone to be a better version of themselves.

In junior sport, parents entrust you with the welfare of their little star, and they will pick up on everything.

Teach them. Teach them good habits about lifestyle and about what it takes to move to the next level in their preparation. Help prepare them for the physiological, structural and emotional roller coaster of performance sport.

This may sound soft and fluffy but I think it is only those who are brave enough to see the opportunity you have to impact on an athlete as a whole that truly become successful as a coach, and find they have a fulfilling and satisfying job.

In professional sport, as in life, no one wants to be associated with problem people.

If you are one of these people you will have no respect from the playing group. Without respect, how are you going to coach and enable them to get better? You don’t have to change those around you, just look after yourself. Athletes are very perceptive and have very high standards.

No matter who you work with make sure you are the good person.

On a final note, coaching is a privilege - never forget that.

We have one of the most rewarding and stimulating jobs going. Take pride in that and never assume that learning the cues for a squat makes you capable of leading a strength session. Sure it is necessary but that doesn’t mean you are a coach.

Learn how to teach, solve the movement problems with your athletes; keep developing them.

No matter who you are coaching, care.

If you don’t care about what you are doing then coaching isn't for you. Professional athletes deserve better but so do junior athletes. There is no difference and I promise you they will pick up on your attitude.

Ian McKeown is the Head of Athletic Development at Port Adelaide FC who balances the complex interaction of injury prevention, long term athlete development, athletic performance and elite S+C coaching. Follow him on Twitter @IanMackers

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