Hello. Welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this Episode 80, we're going to look at what can coaches do to improve the mental performance and confidence of their athletes. Let's get into it. Coaching is a very challenging occupation. And all coaches, I think, have a great deal of difficulty in understanding exactly what their role is and what their role isn't. And it can be very easy for a coach to palm off 100% of the responsibility to athletes to build their own mental performance framework and to focus on their own confidence. Sometimes I even see coaches blame athletes for having poor confidence. But let's go back to when I was an athlete. So during the 70s and the 80s, where all coaches believed that their role was like the ringmaster of the circus. They needed to know absolutely everything. They needed to have their hands and their fingers on the pulse of absolutely everything that went on inside that sporting organisation, from the finances, through to the coaching, through to the judging, through to physiology, biomechanics, the S&C, absolutely everything.
So if I think back to my coach, Mitch Fenner, who was a phenomenal coach in his time, very groundbreaking in what he did, he wanted to have full control over absolutely everything that happened under the umbrella of his club. And that's great. However, in today's high performing world, that just wouldn't float. There's no way that any one coach can realistically understand and manage everything if they're looking at being a high performance environment. So what we tend to see today is you get specialists, you get people brought in who's going to look after the S&C. We get people who get brought in to look after the physicality, so that's physios or chiropractors of the athletes. You get people looking on the mental aspect, so people like performance psychologists or mental performance coaches, whatever those things are, they're brought in for a specific reason. Understanding as a coach specifically what your role is has become part and parcel of the dynamic of all coaching or all sporting organisations in today's competitive environment. That being said, a coach does have a responsibility. They have an input into the development of the athlete. Like I said at the start of this, without a doubt, the athlete has the lions share when it comes to organising their mental performance framework. And they should also take the lions share on building a structure that feeds confidence.
But what is the role of a coach? How does a coach play part in building the sustainability of an athlete? A coach can make or break an athlete's confidence, whether they like it or not, whether they try to, as I say, palm off the responsibility to the athlete, or whether they don't recognise or understand or even want to be part of building that framework. The reality is an athlete will always look up to the coach. Even if they don't like the coach, they will look up to the coach because the coach holds the key to their career to a certain degree. Again, let's look at my dynamic with my coach, Mitch Fenner. Like I said, he was an institution, groundbreaking in British sport back in the 70s and the 80s. And beyond that, where he was a commentator influencing the next generation. But he and I had a very tumultuous relationship. There was times where I just didn't like him, and I'm sure there were times where he just didn't like me. I was one of those really annoying athletes who had questions all the time.
After I retired and we maintained a coach athlete, but now peer to peer relationship, we started to understand each other much, much better. And I knew that I must have frustrated him. And I think he realised that I was frustrated by him, too. And what we understood from what we were communicating, both my job as a mental performance specialist and his job as an educator, was a lot of what he did as a coach, he didn't really understand how that worked. He just worked it out. But I also remember looking at him, particularly near the end of my career, and thinking, 'He's helped shape who I am. I don't think today I'd be the person I am. I don't think I would be in the industry I am. I don't think I would have looked at coaching the way that I look at coaching if it wasn't for Mitch Fenner.' I owe him a great deal of both positive and negative influences in my life that's helped shape who I am. So if you're a coach and you're listening to this, just understand that even if you choose not to be part of the athlete's personal development, you are always going to be part of the athlete's personal development, whether you like it or not.
So a coach, you can make or break an athlete's confidence. You can say something that could be a flippant, throw away response from you that can stick and have a monumental impact on that athlete, both positively and negatively. I was recently working with an athlete who's having some challenges around a specific performance. And the coach's responses, albeit coming from a really positive, very supportive and nurturing environment, were supporting the issues that the athlete was having. And that was purely because the coach had no idea. We don't know what we don't know. And that coach was doing their best to support the athlete, but their choice in words, was actually compounding the issues that the athlete was having. So our language and our actions as coaches will impact the athlete. Sometimes, as I say, it's really positively. Sometimes it's incredibly negatively. We need to be very conscious of the language we choose to use around athletes and the actions we choose to take, or not take. Sometimes as a coach, disengaging or not engaging or not responding or ignoring the athlete thinking, 'Hey, they've got this, they're going to work this out,' can be so detrimental.
I've got another client who at the moment is having a great deal of difficulty with their coach. I can see what their coach is trying to achieve. They're trying to get this athlete to stand on their own two feet. They're trying to get them to take some responsibility for their actions. Again, they're in actions, but they're ghosting of them, they're standing back and waiting for the athlete just to figure it out, has caused so much internal trauma and tribulations for this athlete that they don't feel supported. Therefore, they're not making the decisions they need to make. They're not taking the actions that they should be taking purely and simply because they're feeling isolated. Again, standing on the outside looking in, I can see both parts of this dynamic playing out. This is where I step in and I have a conversation with the coach initially and say, 'Hey, look, I understand what you're trying to achieve. I know what you're trying to do for this athlete, and it's the right thing. However, your application in how you do that isn't getting the result that you're looking for. So you're getting frustrated, so therefore you move back even more.'
Then I sit with the athlete and go, 'Okay, so what the coach is trying to achieve here is X, Y, and Z. What you need to do is communicate. If you're feeling isolated, if you're feeling that you're being unsupported, then you need to speak up and tell, "This is what I need from you. What do you need from me?"' So we talk about that symbiotic relationship. A symbiotic relationship is the opposite to a parasitic relationship. A parasitic relationship is one directional. And I don't mean the band. It's going in one direction. It's only taking or giving. It's not taking and receiving or receiving and giving. So we want that symbiotic relationship. We want that relationship that's built on collaboration. And as a coach, that's our role. Often the athletes have a great deal of focus, and often they're quite young. So what they're trying to do is heavily focus on their performance. What we need to do is create the environment for them to perform. So as coaches, we have a responsibility to foster mental performance strategies. We need to understand and help the athlete better understand how they work, how they tick, how they operate, their performance DNA, how they do what they do, the best version of them.
By asking specific questions rather than getting in there and doing it for them, we can encourage that athlete to:
1. Understand themselves, what they need to do, the frameworks they need to put in place to feel confident; and
2. Allow them to feel both heard and understood. When they feel heard and understood, they'll feel more confident in growing what they're doing.
The analogy I use with this, with all of my clients, is think about an octopus. When an octopus is in an environment that they feel really comfortable, really confident in, they become very big and they stretch their tentacles out as far as they possibly can. They look intimidating, they own their space. But when an octopus gets a nip on one of their tentacles, it brings everything flying in really close and make themselves as small and imposing as possible. What they're trying to do is limit their exposure. Think of this from an athlete's perspective. When an athlete feels comfortable, confident, or in an environment where they can thrive. They're in an environment where they feel heard and supported and they're getting everything they possibly can from the coach, from their peers, from the organisation, then they're going to expand and grow and do everything they can to be better, to have that 4% improvement each time.
So our job as coaches is to give them that environment. Part of that is our ability to ask the right questions. I always say to my athletes, the quality of the information you get from your coach is dictated by the quality of the questions you ask them. That cuts both ways, too. The quality of the information that you give your athlete is dictated by the quality of the questions you ask of them so you can have this symbolic relationship. What do you need? What specifically is it that you're focusing on? What are the challenges for you? What are you doing to overcome those? And what do you need from me to help you do that? This is just some of the dialogue, some of the language patterns that we as coaches need to adopt.
Now, as somebody who was initially an athlete and then became a high performance coach, I know the frustration of being a coach. I know what it's like when you're trying to give the information but you feel like you're a record stuck on repeat and you're saying the same things and every single time you say it, you add a little bit more emotion to it because you're getting more and more frustrated.
I know that. I've been there. I've been that frustrated. However, what we're doing is compounding not only our frustration, but the athlete's frustration. So when I'm working with somebody today, what I tend to try and do is have a very sniper, specific, tailored approach to them. And every single time I'm having an interaction, a conversation, I'm watching and I'm observing. And what I'm looking for is the information that I've shared, has it hit? And you can tell when it hits because you can see people start nodding, or they'll understand, or they'll ask an even more specific question because they get that first part of the information, or they'll ask you, 'Okay, I understand now. I can see what you're trying to teach me. How do I implement that?' So they're comfortable with the information you've given them. What they want to do is action that now. As a coach, it's critical that we're looking for these tells, these key indicators that the athlete is receiving the information that we're sharing. It's very easy as a coach to have a one size fits all strategy that we try and implement to everybody.
The education system was initially built to be like this conveyor belt that everybody had to assimilate to fit onto. Unfortunately, coaching had the same ethos for many decades. As coaching has started to evolve and realise that the best prescription for any coach/athlete dynamic is specificity, is uniqueness. We're not necessarily moving at the same speed as coaches to recognise that, to implement that and to understand that. So sometimes we need to be a little bit more conscious and cognisant of the fact that we need to adjust our delivery. So if we're looking for those key indicators to see that the athlete is understanding, has taken on board the messages, we've also got to look and see, what if they don't? Are they looking confused? Have they stopped processing? Are they overthinking? Has the process that you've taught them stopped progressing? These are key indicators to say, Maybe we need to adjust our delivery system. Because when we're speaking with an athlete, communicate with an athlete, be it physically, articulately, or in any other format, what we want to do is speak to them in the language that they're most likely to understand, most likely to be able to process and implement. So as a coach, when you're communicating with your athlete, when you're giving them that feedback, it's important that you watch them.
I've stood in many, many, many environments and watched a coach give information as they're walking away, or as the athlete is walking away and you can't see the athlete's face, so you have no way of knowing, has that information landed? And if it is being absorbed by the athlete, how well do they understand it? Are they breaking it down in a way to be able to use it, or are they breaking it down in a way to go, I just don't get this. So it's critical for you as an information-sharer to make sure that the information that you shared is being received.
Now, when I was a very young child, I was incredibly accident prone. Those of you who've listened to my podcast over the years or been an attendee in my trainings, you'll know I talk about the fact that at a very young age, they worked out that I'm deaf in my left ear and partially deaf in my right ear. So I have very little quality in hearing. And as a child, I saw that as a disadvantage, as a disability. And then in essence, that's why my parents put me into gymnastics, because I also have no natural sense of balance in my left ear, which made for great entertainment for my brother and sister as a child, where I constantly fell over.
But it made it very difficult for me to have balance. So I became a gymnast. As I moved through my younger years, through my teens, and into my early 20s, I started to realise that what I thought was a disability had become a gift. And that gift was, in order for me to understand, I do a lot of lip reading, so I need to be able to see. It made me incredibly aware of people's reactions. I would see a physical reaction in somebody long before other people did, because it was my form of communication. It was my form of understanding. And in essence, because I didn't have or don't have particularly good hearing, I have a lot of eye-to-eye contact. As an athlete, if I look back to the times I spent with Mitch Fenner, I can now see that I would always look at him when he was communicating with me. And again, I didn't understand the psychology of what I was doing, and I don't actually honestly believe he understood that either at that time. We're talking the 70s and early 80s. I just think it was serendipitous, the fact that I couldn't hear, so I had to see him.
He could see me when he was communicating and understood me so well because he would see the reactions in me. If I looked confused, he would keep telling me, sometimes in the same way and would repeat himself, sometimes in a different way. But I think what that taught me was the importance of connection. When we're giving information, it's critical that we are connected. I talk about the sniper versus the machine gunner versus the graveyard communicators. Now, the graveyard communicator are those that don't necessarily say a great deal. And as athletes, you get used to a grunting coach. Don't actually say anything, but you see their physical response or you hear their grunts. Then all of a sudden they'll give you a barrage of information. And because you're not used to listening to them, it's like walking through a graveyard and someone call your name. You jump out of your skin. So that's a graveyard communicator style. Then we've got the machine gunner. Now, this is where I think the vast majority of coaches live. And that's why we're just going to keep firing information, hoping that something hits and lands on that athlete. And unfortunately, we don't get the quality. And even if things do hit, they're normally the things that speak to the highest emotion of the athlete because what they're looking for is something to hold on to. The third version is that sniper. And if I look at some of the best coaches that I've worked with over the years... Now, hands up here, when I was a young coach, I don't actually think I was particularly good at this. I don't think I was a particularly effective sniper coach. But because of my hearing, I was a very engaged coach. So I think my messaging to my clients, my athletes when I was a young fledgling coach, was incredibly successful because of that connection. I think most coaches machine gun. So for me, when I look at the coaches who are trying their utmost, it's always coming from the right place. They're trying to give the information to the athlete that they require. Often what they miss is that sniper hit. What's the one piece of information I can give that athlete that's going to make the biggest difference right now? And then let me build on that. Let me compound that. They'll choose to machine gun rather than sniper.
So we're looking at connection, making eye contact, reading the athlete that you're giving the information to, and then making sure that the information you're giving them is the most relevant information right now. What's the next number one thing to teach them? So this environment that we're creating, yes, it's about efficiency, it's about effectiveness, it's about making sure that us as coaches aren't getting frustrated and delivering information time and time and time and time and time again that's the same and not having an impact on the outcome that we're looking for. But it's more than that. What we're creating is an environment of trust, and it's that environment of trust that helps the athlete trust their skills, which improves their performance. So we know, again, if you've listened to my podcast in the past where I've talked about how we learn as humans, our prefrontal cortex creates the blueprint, the skill, the routine, the performance, and then we get our subconscious, our flow state to perform it. But in order to go through our prefrontal cortex, or the boss in the office, to that flow state, our subconscious or the workers on the factory floor, what we're looking for is a little window to transfer, to delegate that.
And that little window is a window of trust. Now, we can say to an athlete, until we're blue in the face, 'Yeah, you can do that. I've seen you do that. I know you can do that.' But until the athlete sees it themselves, understands it, and believes it, then it will always stay in our prefrontal cortex, which means it will always stay over thought. So we start to see these athletes who overthink, never really trust, and never allow it to transfer into our subconscious, that area of flow. So as a coach, creating an environment where the athlete feels comfortable enough to ask you more specific questions to tick the boxes so that they can trust, will allow the athlete to create an environment where their mental performance is based on fact, not on fear, not on feeling, not on assumption, but fact. That environment is the coach's responsibility. That environment will, if it's consistent, if it's connected and it's collaborative with the athletes, build confidence in them.
So as a coach, what I want you to do right now is think about your current environment that you've created, and I want you to score it out of 10. If it's 10 out of 10, then absolutely you have the best environment in the world. I'd like you to contact me and tell me where that is so I can come and visit it. Because in all the years I've done this, there's never been a 10 out of 10. So if you're sitting at nine out of 10, then you're doing a really good job. You've optimised your environment so that your athletes are building confidence off of mental performance frameworks that they can trust and collaborate with you. If it's anything below a six... Now you need to be really honest, no one's going to see this other than you and your own self worth as a coach, your own ego. If it's anything under a six, then much of your athletes issues and challenges around consistency and performance comes from you because you've created an environment where they don't necessarily trust. Now that could be the communication modeling. You might be that graveyard communicator, or you might be that machine gun communicator. It may be the environment where, in reality, you're not connected. You don't know how much of the information, doesn't matter how good that information is, but you don't know how much of that information has actually landed on that athlete in a way that they can receive it, process it, and use it.
Or it may be the fact that the information that you're sharing isn't targeted enough for that athlete because you don't understand the athlete. You've created a conveyor belt and you've expected them to assimilate onto that conveyor belt and fit your coaching style.
I worked with a coach many, many years ago who was, again, another different sport, but it was an institution in that sport. Everything that this coach had done had created champions. When this coach would speak at conferences, people listened, and rightly so. They had got phenomenal results. That is until you, and you look at the amount of athletes that went through that program. Yes, absolutely, they had created some of the world's most successful performers. Yet the sheer number of athletes who had fallen off of that conveyor belt had never reached any form of their best performance potential, and often walked away from the sport frustrated, not feeling connected, not feeling heard, feeling like that they had not been treated the right way, was phenomenal. So I sat with this coach and we had this conversation around the number of athletes, the fodder they had gone through to get this small percentage, realistically, of successful athletes. And their ethos was, this is how I coach, this is how I was taught to coach, and I get results. And all of that is true. All of that is significantly important as part of the identity, the DNA of that coach. When I asked them one simple question: if you had done it differently, would you have had more champions? And it stopped them in their tracks. They looked at me and they said, 'You know what? Probably.' So success. This coach had had success. However, had they had full potential success for them? Probably not. So learning to do it differently, learning to do it in a way that is targeted, will increase the likelihood of your success as a coach. Unfortunately, and fortunately, most coaches coached the way they were coached. I ran a training recently and I asked the coaches that were sitting in the room, I said, 'How many of you were students or athletes before you became coaches?' And every single one of those coaches put their hands up. And I said to them, 'How many of you were sons and daughters before you become an adult?' And there's always one or two who put their hands down because they don't understand the question.
But in reality, they all put their hand back up and said, Absolutely, of course, we were kids before we became adults. So therefore, we were sons and daughters to somebody before we became an adult. I said to you, How many of you, if you choose to be parents, will parent the way that your parents parented you? And only a couple of people have put their hands up. So this was a very big room of coaches. And so percentage wise, a very small percentage said, Yes, absolutely. My parents were gold standard, and I'm going to parent the way that I was parented. When I asked the rest of them, How will you choose to parent if you won't parent the way that you were parented? And they'll turn around and they'll say, Oh, it's a different time. My parents grew up in this certain era, so there was different things that were socially acceptable during those times. In this era, there's different things that are socially acceptable, so I have to adapt. I said, Excellent. Coaching is no different. So if you're still coaching the way that you were coached, the reality is coaching has moved on.
The necessity, the professionalism, the expertise has moved on. Like I said at the start of this podcast, if we go back to when I was an athlete, all coaches thought they had to be the master of everything, from the finances, through to the sport, through to strength and conditioning, physio, chiropractor, psychologist. They had to wear every single hat. So it's understandable if their skill set was spread very thin. Today, we don't have that. We're fortunate. Even at grassroots level, there's so much information, there's so many resources available to coaches that to learn how to do it smarter is a lot easier today than it's ever been.
I run a program, a membership called Main Arena Coach, and the whole concept of this is to help coaches coach smarter, to learn how they do what they do in a way more efficient and effective way. One of the lessons that I learn in running these programs is when I listen to coaches, a lot of the frustrations, a lot of the fear comes from the fact they don't know how to do it different. So they revert back to coaching the way that they were coached.
As do most people revert back to parenting the way they were parented. So if you truly do have gold standard parents and coaches that you've learned from, then absolutely you've probably got everything that you need to have to be the best coach in the world. However, even if you look at both your parents or your coaching peers that you've learned from and gone, There's things I would do differently, then there's an opportunity for you to learn more about how to do it differently, to change the next generation of athletes.
So let's bring all this together. When we look at what we're trying to create for the athletes, we're trying to create an environment that allows them to learn, to absorb, to get great information from us as coaches in a way that they can understand it, break it down, integrate it, and apply it. When they can use the information that we're giving them in such a specific format, then we're doing the right thing. Our job as a coach is to improve their mental performance by giving them the right environment. Now, there's another couple of caveats to that. We have to acknowledge that mental performance is a thing.
We have to understand that the operating system inside these athletes isn't necessarily their physical skills or the time that they spend training. It's the application. It's the software that they're using to utilise that operating system. So again, the analogy I use with this, I've been fortunate enough to work in motorsport at all levels. If you look at the F1 vehicle, the F1 racing car, the amount of millions of dollars that is invested into the technology, into the materials, into absolutely everything that goes into that vehicle. Every time that vehicle comes in, it goes through almost a mini service. There's new equipment that's supplied, there's new operating systems that are put inside that, there's new parts and pieces and all sorts. There's no stone left unturned in building that vehicle. But if we put a driver in that vehicle that doesn't know how to drive that vehicle, it doesn't matter how much money, time, effort, and people have gone into building that vehicle. It's just a really expensive paper weight because it's either going to be crashed straight away, it's not going to get off the grid, or everyone's going to be really frustrated and feel that they've been ripped off because he just isn't going to go and perform.
So the body, the techniques, the strategies that we teach the athlete is only as good as the driver, and the driver is a psychology. So as a coach, it makes sense if we want to get bang for buck, time and effort out of that one athlete, that team of athletes out of the whole club, then we've got to focus on the driver, the psychology of the athlete. So mental performance is just as critical as physical and technical performance. And until we as coaches validate that for the athlete, they will always believe that the issue is them. They will always believe that they're not good enough, they can't achieve, that the mistakes that are being made are because of a fault in them as a person, rather than we haven't spent enough time on the operating system. So as a coach, I hope what we've managed to achieve during this podcast is to explain to you just how critical your role is to create, recognise, and improve the mental performance framework of your athletes. Once you do that and you create a symbiotic relationship that is built on looking for the best version of that athlete, because let's be honest, the best version of them everybody's going to benefit from.
You, the team, the organisation, the sport, and of course, the individual athlete. When you can help them build that, then you've got an environment that's going to allow you to do the best version as a coach of you.
So I hope you've got a lot from this podcast. It's a passion aspect of my coaching is to better educate coaches in how they do what they do smarter. A lot of time, effort, and money is invested in the athlete. Us as coaches need to see that if we want to be the best version of ourselves, we've got to invest in ourselves. And that be knowledge, that be being around like-minded people who are looking to explore smarter ways of doing what you do. Just to finish off, again, when we talked about the Main Arena Coach, one of the greatest benefits of this program is I've got rugby coaches, swimming coaches, water polo coaches, ice skating coaches, everything that you can imagine in the one group. And what that does is it adds diverse ways of thinking. It adds a whole different array of different strategies that have been applied and tried, and we can learn from that. So if you're a rugby coach and you're listening to an ice skating coach and you come up with a solution, it's because you've thought outside the box. You've thought outside your sport and seen that there are smarter ways for you to deliver the information that rugby specific information. And of course, I just use two sports there, but it doesn't stop anywhere.
So I hope you've got a lot from this. I hope it's created a hunger in you to find a smarter way of doing it. And until the next episode of Brain in the Game, train and coach smarter. My name is Dave Diggle. I look forward to seeing you in the next Brain in the Game.