Guest Post: Resilience by David Watts

Off the back of his successful 2015  Australian Strength & Conditioning Association Conference presentation I asked David Watts to pen his thoughts for the PropelPerform audience. Below he discusses 'Resilience' for the successful Coach. David has also presented at the Junior Sport Science Symposium


Achieving Long Term Success as a Strength and Conditioning Coach

When we conduct experiments to determine the demands of a given sport we regularly look at the specific qualities that are regularly exhibited by the best athletes competing in a given sport.

This approach is effective because it can inform our decision regarding which training methods we should be prioritising in order to help our athletes reach their physical potential.

So, why don’t we use a systematic approach like this when we aim to develop professionally?  If, like our athletes, we also want to reach our potential as coaches then we should determine the specific qualities that are required to become a successful coach.

Therefore, we should carefully look at the behaviours and histories of senior S&C coaches to determine which qualities are most important to being an effective practitioner.

When I look to those coaches who are both well respected and have also been highly successful over a long period of time there is one major quality that I feel they all exhibit, ‘resiliency’.

First and foremost, we have to understand and accept that S&C is a high performance profession where only the best will make it to the top and only the very best will remain there for a long period of time.

It will be hard, there will be challenges and it will push you to your breaking point.

Developing your knowledge and practical coaching skills combined with the day to day challenges of S&C builds an enormous amount of pressure.

Some might snap while others snap back.

How then do you prepare yourself so that you are one of those people who bends under pressure but instead of breaking, snaps back and ends up thriving under high stress?

It comes down to ‘Resilience’, a psychological capacity that is also commonly referred to as grit, although they are not exactly synonymous.

Resilience can be defined as ‘an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity’.  A common belief is that this is a genetic quality that cannot be trained but make no mistake this is a psychological skill that can be developed like any other.

So if we are going to train our resilience, it becomes important that we understand it fully and break down the global concept into multiple components so that we can effectively address each appropriately.

A great mentor of mine recently passed on an article from May 2002 in the Harvard Business Review, which was titled "How Resilience Works".  Authored by Diane Coutu, the article was an exceptional read and outlined exactly what resiliency is and the specific sub-qualities regularly seen in highly resilient people.

It was posited that resiliency isn't actually a good thing, or a bad thing, but simply a capacity required to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change.

The article then detailed how resilience was built from three primary sub-qualities including a realistic perception of the world, the ability to find meaning in work and a high level of adaptability.

The first component of resiliency was to hold a resolute and accurate perception of reality.

People who are able to see a situation as it truly is and act accordingly set themselves up to overcome difficult challenges because they are able to accurately appreciate the amount of preparation and work that they will be required to complete to overcome the challenge.

We are typically encouraged to be optimistic about the difficulties we face but if we are always looking at life’s predicaments through rose coloured glasses then we will not act in an appropriate fashion to prevail.

In other words, optimism can take its toll when your perfect expectations don't come to fruition.  Instead, we should try to train ourselves to understand each situation for what it really is and do the best work we are capable of given the constraints and difficulties presented to us.

There are many realities in the world of S&C coaching that need to be accepted and understood.  As an example, it needs to be acknowledged that this is a high performance industry in which only the best will get to the top. [Or the best connected? GJ]

This means the reality of the situation is that you will need to work extremely hard to become exceptional, well before you ever find success.

From a practical point of view this means that being able to teach technique and progressively overload training with appropriate programming gives you permission to play but the reality is that this will only get you so far.

In actuality you are also going to need to be an extremely skilled coach with an expansive toolbox of effective skill acquisition techniques that will allow you to influence an athlete’s movement quality.

Secondly, you are also going to need to be able to lift with outstanding technique so that you can demonstrate optimally.

Furthermore, you will need to be willing to continually expose yourself to high end strength and conditioning methodologies so that when you coach athletes through these interventions your direction is believable and comes from a place of genuine understanding.

This is just one of many harsh realities involved with the profession of S&C coaching and we have not even touched on the knowledge requirements, intra- and interpersonal skills needed and the scientific data analysis skills that will complement your artistic coaching skills.

In order to be exceptional you need to accept these realities which builds your resiliency and clear the path to success.

Second to a realistic view of the world, resilient people are also able to find a large amount of meaning in the work that they are doing.

As Simon Sinek recently wrote in his daily blog, ‘Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress, working hard for something we love is called passion’.

This is a great description of how meaning can change your perception of hard work.  If you believe in the work involved with strength and conditioning, then you will be able to fight through the challenges of the job and the discomfort of growth.

From a personal perspective, I have previously struggled with the meaning of the work involved in elite sport.  I couldn’t come to grips with the idea that next season there will be a new premier, in four years’ time there will be a new Olympic champion?

Success is fleeting... so why bother?.

However, after some extended reflection on the topic and some recent events I came to a conclusion that revitalized my passion for working in elite sport.

It's not about winning, it's about the human element.  Working in elite sport is about teaching and coaching others to be the best possible versions of themselves.

Helping these athletes learn the process of achievement and the ability to apply this process to all aspects of their life.

What could be more engaging and meaningful than helping, teaching and coaching others to be the best of which they are capable.

While the meaning that you are provided from S&C may be very different to mine, we all need to decide on the meaning that we take from the work involved in the profession.

When we find meaning in our work we become far more resilient because we are able to appreciate why we are doing what we are doing.   This permits us to push through when the demands of the job really begin to stack up.

The final building block of resiliency is ingenuity and specifically the ability to solve complex problems under conditions of high stress.

The article on resiliency stated that when we are in a stressful situation we revert to our most habituated state.  However, when we encounter complex problems we need to be at our most innovative to find an effective solution.

This requires a high level of personal awareness and emotional intelligence to appreciate when you are under such stressful conditions.

Once you realize the stress you are under then you can react appropriately and come up with a novel solution with a clear mind.

If we are unable to do this than we will simply go into autopilot and use the same old methods that have not worked in the past.

As Einstein has regularly been quoted ‘doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity’.

We are all aware that in the world of S&C it is not quite as simple as getting people fitter, faster and stronger.

You have to be able to do able to come up with solutions that achieve what you need to get done while also taking into account the wide variety of limitations placed on you.

This could include the amount of time you have with the athletes, the large numbers in the group, the equipment available, the space to work in and the limitations that each individual athlete brings to the table.

Finally, compound all of these issues with the fact that you often need to make come up with solutions to these problems on the fly and it is clear just how important it is to be adaptable in this profession.

Be aware that you are under stress, think clearly and come up with an ingenious solution that solves the problem at hand given all the limitations that you have to work within.

If you can adapt to your environment you will be able to navigate the complex terrain that is the profession of S&C.  Combine this with a certain level of ingenuity and you will be able to find a way to achieve the desired result even when it seems like there are too many factors working against you.

Three blocks, realistic perception, meaning and ingenuity.  Stack these three blocks and use them to climb every barrier that comes your way as you work towards becoming an exceptional S&C coach.

 David Watts is a Level 3 Strength & Conditioning Coach who is currently preparing Athletes for the future and for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Find out more about him here or follow him on Twitter @DaveWattsAU.

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