Hello and 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. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this episode 90, we're going to look at what happens when an athlete loses trust in their coach. Now, the relationship between a coach and an athlete is a sacred relationship. It's a professional relationship that is born to produce performance. It has a very clear mandate that there's an athlete role and a coach role. But often when I'm working with athletes, I've worked with athletes who absolutely detest their coach, yet have a very good professional working relationship with them. I know athletes on the other side of that who look up to their coach like they're their long lost parent, yet have very counterproductive and almost destructive relationships with their coach. So how do we get the fine balance in this? How do we find a relationship that is both professional and also performance based? The way we do that is to really understand, from a psychological perspective, on what the different roles are.
So let's start with the athlete. What is the athlete's role? Well, most people will just turn around and say, well, the athlete's role is to listen to the coach and perform. But that's not necessarily true. Yes, the athlete needs to perform. They need to be the one that goes out there and executes – the routine, the skills, the play – whatever that is. So there's that part of the dynamic which is 100% correct. But there's also this collaboration process that goes on. And the reason it needs to be a collaboration process is because we know for an athlete to perform subconsciously, to be in that flow, and to perform at their best, they need to trust what they're going out there to perform. Now, there's a part of that which is, do they trust that they're capable of performing that skill or that routine or the exercise? And that's something that the athlete does have control over. But there's also another aspect to this which is, 'Do I trust what my coach has taught me? Do I trust what the game plan is? Do I trust what the strategy behind this is?' And if the athlete doesn't trust what they've been told, one of two things is going to happen:
- Either all of that trust they have in themselves gets watered down, or even capitulated, and they don't trust them at all and they don't perform,
- Or they go against what the coach has told them.
And we know that anybody who makes an emotional decision to go against something will go to the polar opposite of that. They don't adjust it; what they do is they swap it. And so if the coach has given you a piece of information, given you a gameplay strategy, and you're saying to yourself, as an athlete, 'You know what I don't think this is the right one. I don't think going to the left is the right choice. I'm going to go to the right.' They don't necessarily say, I don't think going to the left is the right choice. I'm going to come back towards the centre by 20 foot. They don't adjust it; they go to the opposite.
So this is why understanding the relationship between a coach and an athlete is critical. It's not only about preparation. It's not only about what happens in their preparation process, or in their gyms, or on the poolside, or on the pitch. It comes down to their ability as an athlete to perform under pressure. We already know that under pressure, an athlete will have to rely on a process that they've built over and above their emotional stability. That emotional resilience to that process is what's going to allow them to perform consistently under pressure. If we introduce into that already slightly volatile situation the doubts of, 'My coach doesn't know what they're talking about, they're not the one running out on the pitch with me, they're not the one going out there.' Then we are more likely to introduce doubts into our own performance.
And to be honest with you, an athlete at this stage, thinking about it from this perspective, its actually quite true. The coach very rarely is the one running out onto the pitch with you. The coach very rarely is the one out there under pressure having to perform this strategy that they've built. They were having to rely on other people to do that for you.
So getting your athletes as a coach to trust you to understand where you're coming from, is critical both for their performance and the execution of your strategies. So the relationship between you as a coach, and your athlete needs to be one built on trust. How do we do that? How do we build trust with our athletes? And it's not what you probably think. Having been an athlete that grew up and performing during the 70s and 80s, where the understanding was, 'You're the athlete, you just do as you're told. You go out there, whatever the coach tells you to do, you go do.' That's what we did. And often as an individual athlete, not as a team athlete, but as an individual athlete, there was times I went to perform that I not only doubted myself, but that doubt came off the back of, I doubted I'd done the right things with my coach. I hadn't prepared the way I thought I needed to prepare. I might have been under prepared, I might have been over prepared. All of that came off of me essentially distrusting my coach's strategy in my preparation. Now, sometimes I performed anyway and sometimes I didn't. So that inconsistency came from an emotional reaction to that distrust in my coach at that point, rather than an actual reality of, well, I didn't prepare correctly, I was under-prepared, or over-prepared. So as an adult, I can look back at that and tell myself that my doubts in my coach's strategy is what cost me my performance, not the actual strategy itself.
So as an athlete, understanding that our role is to execute the best process, the best strategy, then we've got to understand the thought process behind the strategy. And this is where it comes back to the coaches part to play in this, which is the communication modelling between you and your athlete, is predominantly where the relationship gets built. If the athlete can understand your thought process, can understand why you're executing in certain ways, why you're preparing in certain ways what your thought process is, particularly in relation to them, then they're more likely to trust you. If you burn that trust, if you just generically coach or you turn around to your athlete and say, 'Well, I'm the coach, you do as you're told,' then you are setting yourself up with a performance that's got a lot of weak points in it.
So as a coach, it's counterintuitive for us to dictate to the athlete. It's way more intuitive for us to build a collaborative relationship with our athletes. It might sound, as a coach, that you're being soft on them. It might sound that, 'This is all hairy fairy. I don't want to necessarily have to build this negotiation with my athletes.' But it's not about compromising what you're after them to do, it's about getting them to understand why you want them to do it. And if you can get them to understand your why, then the execution becomes a collaborative execution rather than a dictator execution. Explaining to the athlete: this is our strategy; this is where you're up to; these are the key skills that you've learned; this is why I'm putting this routine together for you; or this is why we are playing this play, is to make the most of that player's skillset and your skillset of communication. So then when you get your players to run out there and you're as a coach standing on the sidelines, essentially what you've done is you've put your thought process inside their head. And if your thought process is the right thought process, you're more likely to have them think the way that you're thinking and execute the way you want them to execute.
So as a coach, getting your message across is: how do I build a collaborative relationship with my athletes? And part of that is: this is what I'm thinking. What do you need to know from me to understand it better? And if you can do that as a coach, this is our strategy for this competition – any questions? What do you need to know from me? Now, they will probably turn around and say, no questions, coach, we're just going to do as we're told because they're young athletes. However, what you're introducing into their thought process is at a later date, you've already given them permission when they don't understand, when they're not on the same page as you, to ask that question.
So let's look at it from the athlete's perspective. Obviously, as an athlete, you want to go out every single time and perform at your best. Now, what we know from a high performing athlete is they're very easily putting on the blinkers, which what I mean by that is they're very one eyed or narrow viewed over their approach. And this internal referencing of this is what I want to do, this is how I want to perform, doesn't allow for a collection of peripheral data. As a coach – standing on the outside of that preparation or that performance – hopefully that coach does have the ability to see that peripheral data. And so their information could be critical to your execution of either that skill or that performance. So you as an athlete, not only need to back yourself, but you also need to be able to ask the right questions of your coach. If you're not asking the right questions and you're making assumptions or the coach is telling you something that you don't necessarily understand, then you're setting yourself up to go out there with a compromised set of data, which means you're more likely to make the wrong call. So it really is a communication collaboration.
One of the exercises I take a lot of my elite athletes through is blindfolded rock climbing. Now, this blindfolding rock climbing has a couple of different core processes that we're building inside that athlete who's climbing up the wall. And the initial process that we're aiming to build in that athlete is that internal referencing, that internal belief that this is the right process for me to get from the bottom of the wall to the top of the wall without being able to see. I need to be able to trust the patterns that I've built. So this exercise teaches the athlete to follow a process because they've built that process.
A secondary part to this exercise that isn't always as obvious is teaching the athlete how to: one, listen properly. And two: ask the right questions. Because as the athlete is climbing up the wall, the person belaying at the bottom is relaying information. 'Move to the left, move to the right. You're two foot short. You've got to climb a bit higher. Put your right hand lower.' Whatever that information that they're receiving is, the athlete needs to be able to listen, be able to receive and process and execute that information. So we're teaching the athlete to be able to listen to the data and make a good analytical thought process and build a pattern, even though they can't actually see what the person at the bottom is seeing. Which is very much like an athlete and a coach relationship, right. We want that athlete to be able to listen and trust the information that's coming from that coach. Another part of the blindfolded rock climbing is teaching the athlete to ask the right questions. So if the athlete doesn't understand where they need to put their hands or their feet or what side they need to move to, whether they need to go higher or lower, then they need to be able to ask the right kind of questions of the person down the bottom who's giving them the information. And again, within our athlete and coach dynamic, we want that athlete to be able to ask the right questions. If the athlete isn't understanding exactly what that coach is saying or isn't necessarily believing and buying into the message, then we want that athlete to be able to ask respectful, targeted questions for clarification. And if we are teaching our athletes to be able to do that from a very young age, then we are building a professional relationship that's collaborative and optimised.
So, do you have to like your coach? No. It helps if you do, but it doesn't necessarily need to be the case that you like them. But what you do need to do is trust that the information that they're giving you is the right information. And you're going to have your own metrics for that. Is it that they've given you the information you've executed and you've got the outcome that you wouldn't have got if you hadn't have listened to them? So there's proof of concept, proof of life in that. Or is it because you want to give them the benefit of the doubt until they go wrong, which is not necessarily the best form of strategy in my book, because you're always looking for: when are they going to mess up? Rather than: there's a history of success here. However, you may have that as part of your strategy as an athlete that, look, I'm going to trust my coach, but if he messes around, he doesn't do the right thing, or she doesn't do the right thing, then I'm never listening to them again. Or you can have a more productive relationship building process where you are collaborating. And if your coach says, this is a strategy based on your skill set and your opponents this week, and you can say, Okay, I can see where you're coming from with that, but what about this? And you have that healthy, robust conversation; you don't always have to agree, but you do need to understand each other. You do need to be able to turn around and go, Okay, coach, that's not how I really want to do this, but I can see why you're saying that. And you've got my best thoughts at heart here, so I'm going to back that for you and with you. So then you've got a bought-in athlete who's way more likely to execute the way that you as a coach want them to execute. But with that comes a responsibility. If you as a coach haven't thought through your strategies diligently, haven't thought through your strategies to optimise that individual athlete, or you might have just generically put a statement out there and hopefully it's going to affect most people like machine gun coaching, then be aware that your athlete will stop trusting you. Remember, they have way more investment in their outcome than you do. So if they find that people aren't giving them what they need for them to be successful, the likelihood is they'll look for somebody who will. So never, ever think about shortchanging your athletes or treating them just like a plug and play. It's never a plug and play process.
So the dynamic between a coach and an athlete is critical. We know that. We know that. We want in a perfect world, every coach to be 100% attentive to the needs and the objectives and the direction of each individual athlete. The reality is coaches are busy. The reality is a coach doesn't always necessarily understand every component and moving part of that athlete or their athlete's world. So in order for it to be successful, the athlete, you have a very clear part of the process to play too. And that is collaboration, communication, asking the right kinds of questions, knowing what your metrics to trust are. And when you understand those metrics of trust and being able to communicate with your coach and say, 'Yeah, I get it, I understand why you're asking me to do that, I buy in. I believe why we should be doing that. I'm with your coach, I'm going to go and do that.' Then you've got a successful professional relationship and dynamic that's not only got an internal drive, it's got an external referencing to it.
So if you're telling me you don't trust your coach has your best interests at heart, ask yourself first, as an athlete, am I asking the right questions? And if you are and your coach still doesn't have your best interests at heart, then find one who does. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and go, right, just because that didn't work, I don't trust my coach. There's got to be credible data for that to have occurred. And if you haven't challenged your coach and as a coach, if you haven't communicated in an efficient and effective targeted way, then the likelihood of that relationship being productive and proactive is really heavily reduced.
So when we started this podcast, we started with there's an athlete who doesn't necessarily believe that their coach has their best interest at heart and they don't trust them. Now at the end of this podcast, hopefully what we can see, it's about building efficient, effective, targeted and purposeful relationships, ones that both partners have a part to play. And remember, if you're an athlete and you're looking at your coach and going, you need to better understand me, understand that they've probably got a multitude of other athletes that they're trying to do exactly the same thing with. So maybe your process of building that relationship with your coach could be targeted slightly differently.
So I hope you've got a lot from this and maybe thought about your dynamic with your coach a little bit differently. Like I said, I've had athletes who really dislike their coach but have such a successful, mechanical, working relationship that makes both of them shine. And on the other hand, I've had many, many athletes who treat their coaches like gods and best friends and parents, but really, the relationship isn't based off of performance, it's based off of being friends. Understand what you need from that relationship. Be prepared to build that relationship. And if you're in the Smart Mind programme, utilise The Entourage Process. Those of you who have been through The Entourage with me know exactly how to build an efficient, effective relationship that's based off symbiotic communication. And when you've built that relationship, it will withstand against anything that's thrown at it.
And as I said, I hope you've got a lot from this episode of Brain in the Game, episode 90. I look forward to working with you on our next Brain In the Game. And until then, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name's Dave Diggle and I'm your mental performance specialist.