Coaching under Pressure: Part Three – How Can Sport Psych Help?

It is well established that coaching can be a stressful occupation and that coaches should really be considered as performers in their own right. In part one, of this blog post, I questioned the availability and accessibility of coaching/psychology research for the coaches that could benefit from it. I also discussed what stress actually is and how the stress process works.

Part two looked at some of  my research into elite coaches’ experiences of stress, the kinds of environmental demands they encounter, the sometimes significant impact that stressors can have on coaches, and the sorts of things that coaches do (or don’t do) to cope with stress. Here in part three, I’ll be summarising some of the ways that sport psychology might help coaches to coach more effectively when the pressure is on.

Part Three: How Can Sport Psych Help?

In a third stress based study¹, my colleagues and I interviewed more coaches, this time, from one of the most successful Olympic programmes of the last 20 years (based on medals won). We asked them about the factors that influenced their ability to coach in a high pressure environment (the Olympic Games) and about some of the factors that had been important for their development as coaches. Intense preparation was key to successful coaching under pressure, but what coaches talked about most, were the psychological attributes required.

Preparing for the BIG games!

 

For example, our medal winning coaches discussed the need to be able to control their emotions and “not get too wrapped up” in the excitement and stressors of the Olympic environment. While confidence is known to be important for athletic performance, our coaches discussed how important it was for coaches to be confident performers; confident in their own ability and their coaching decisions, and the need for passion and commitment to the coaching role.

It’s easy for your tone of voice, your demeanour, your body language to change when you experience stress, and we saw in part two that they ways coaches interact with athletes might change in times of stress. The succesful coaches taking part in our study, talked about being able to specifically tailor their communication styles to specific athletes at a time when the pressure of the situation might impact upon the way they normally communicate.

Psych Attributes

In total, 11 different ‘psychological attributes’ were identified as being key to coaching successfully under pressure.

So while these blog posts have been an extremely truncated version of an extensive research project exploring stress in elite sports, here are some recommendations for coaches and for sports organisations, that might help coaches work effectively under pressure. Some of them are pretty obvious, but I’ve been surprised by the number of coaches I’ve encountered who aren’t doing these simple things.

Coaches:

1. Identify your stressors

Think about the things that cause you stress. Don’t forget that we experience strain (negative responses) when the stressors we encounter are really significant or there are too many of them for us to cope with. If you identify all of the things that are stressors for you, maybe you can do something about some of the smaller, controllable ones to stop them from piling up.

Not only that, but think about how you respond to the stressors you encounter. Do they affect they way you work with your athletes, or are they having a negative effect on you, personally? Do you ignore and avoid stressors or do you challenge them head on?

If your current coping strategies work, great. If they don’t, maybe it’s time to think of some better ways of coping?

2. Think of yourself as a performer too!

Mental Toughness. Confidence. Relaxation skills. Emotional control. I’m sure coaches would agree that these are hugely important skills for performers to possess, but how many coaches develop these skills for use in their own coaching ‘performances’?

Research has consistently shown the positive impacts that sport psychology can have on numerous aspects of performance, so why not embrace it?

3. Immerse yourself in the process of coaching

Our Olympic coaches talked about the idea of “immersion in the process” of coaching. Just as athletes focus on the processes, the small things that they can do that might make a 1% difference to their performance, our successful coaches did the same.

One example that will always stick in my mind, was the coach who told me that on occasion, he would go to the Old Bailey to watch court cases, just to see how people communicate under pressure, to watch their body language and see if he could learn anything. An extreme example, but what are you doing today that’s going to make you a better coach than you were yesterday?

4. Interact with other coaches as often as possible

Coaches are one of the most important factors in the development of other coaches².  How often do you really take the time to interact with coaches from other sports? Coaches in our study suggested that while attending coaching conferences and various coaching courses was important, it was the opportunity to interact with and learn from other coaches that seemed most valuable.

Make time for this, and realise how big an impact you can have on less experienced coaches.  Experienced coaches must be willing to share their experiences and be open and honest about their own practice in order for coaching as a profession to benefit.

game-plan-on-chalkboard

Sport Organisations:

1. Ensure that sport psychology support is available for coaching staff

Whether we like it or not, there is still a stigma attached to sport psychology, even at the elite level. As one experienced Olympic coach in our research stated, “I’d never go to the psychologist and say, ‘I’m not feeling confident’, or anything like that because it just isn’t in my nature.”

But we’ve seen the importance placed on psychological attributes and the development of these attributes in coaches. So sport psychology support must be made available for ALL members of sports clubs/teams/organisations. Can you encourage your coaches to look at themselves as performers?

2. Removing the stigma of sport psychology

How long will it be before we before we can all accept that sport psychology can play a major role in performance?  How many level one coaching awards make reference to the psychology of sport? It might take a while, but if young, developing coaches in all sports grow up with the idea that sport psychology is an integral part of performance, if sport psychology were embedded within coach education, then the coaches of the future might embrace it more readily.

3. Mentoring systems

Many organisations will have mentoring systems in place for their coaches. Where these systems are already in place, it’s important to review them periodically to make sure they’re achieving their purpose.

The experts of the future require different kinds of teachers during different stages of their careers³, so maybe the most experienced coaches won’t gain much from mentoring. But sport organisations need to ensure that coaches have the opportunity to interact with one another, to share ideas, and to openly discuss best practice.

References

  • ¹Olusoga, P., Maynard, I., Hays, K., & Butt, J. (2011). Coaching under pressure: A study of Olympic coaches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(3), 229-239.
  • ²Nash, C. S., & Sproule, J. (2009). Career development of expert coaches. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 4(1), 121-138.
  • ³Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., Cokely, & E. T. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard Business Review, 85, 114-121.

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