The Power of Personal Skills

I reflect on my time as a coach since finishing formal education, and try to identify what was most relevant within those teachings, to working in coaching and impacting high performance teams. I can link the underpinning physiology, methods of strength and conditioning practice and the analysis of information, all very clearly as technical impact opportunities within high performance sport. Much of the content taught was aimed at raising our awareness of the “gold standards” of practice in strength and conditioning and sports science. What I have long come to realise more with each year that passes is that to truly achieve “gold standard” needs everything ahead of it to go your way. What I mean by that is, we assume that the strength diagnostic test we plan to complete with our athlete is a process that will occur in a plug and play manner. We assume they (the athlete) will just accept it as a given process and understand its place in the programme. We all know what they say about assumptions. The same can be said for formal certifications. They are selling a product, and that product is the most important centerpiece of that training (and rightly so). Nevertheless, imagine if every certification came with a module on “personal skill application” specific to their product? I have no doubt this could enhance effective use of the product or concept.

I made a transition to the US to work in Major League Baseball. I learnt a tremendous amount and grew as a practitioner. One of my roles was to lead a team of 12-13 other coaches, each working remotely across the US and the Dominican Republic. Ensuring that these co-workers delivered a program that created impact on performance with our players and technical coaches was a key accountability. Impact on performance is generally based on outcome measures (objective evidence) as it is the most valid, reliable and unbiased by experiences or preconceptions and biases on the human end. The environment was surrounded by those in leadership positions with growth mindset, seeking opportunities beyond all barriers, and agreeing on what the team needed to do in order to be pioneering. It was outcome focused. That meant using data to inform decisions, completing within house research on development players to understand the impact of our practices and what could help maximize performance and minimize player injury. I learnt through observation, surveys, and inquiry that there was a distinct lack of understanding both at the coaching end and the player end, comparative to what the leadership groups were trying to implement:

  • Why were S&C coaches (and those leaders with vision) getting so much resistance from players to wear GPS? 
  • Why were they resistant to jump on force plates and do shoulder assessments? 
  • Why was the perception information would be used against them?

I identified the issue as a poor application of the “human component” within the whole process. People in positions of leadership were dictating a process that was excellent on the outcome end, yet assuming there was full understanding from others of why it was needed to be completed or performed in that way. You may assume I mean the athlete when I say “others”, but this is inclusive of S&C coaches and medical staff too, so essentially the ones carrying out the work on the ground. This meant there was a disconnect between people making decisions about what process to implement, leaving others to connect the how and why. We as coaches and practitioners are the conduits between ideas, and realization of those those ideas. So, at the practitioner level, the delivery of a “gold standard” process could have many different perceptions of why it was being implemented. Is it for performance benefit directly (on outcome measures such as sprint speed or hitting power) or indirectly (injury risk mitigation)? If this isn’t clearly communicated by leadership, with a reference to impact within your own environment (team/organization), its not easy to be part of the shared vision and purpose of such methods. Take it a level deeper and consider that there is a possibility players saw data collection as a potential threat to their career and the perception. This is as a result of many uncontrollables, such as agent influence and arbitration/contract negotiations. Are formal training routes preparing our coaches of tomorrow to prepare for that type of resistance or conflict management? Don’t get me wrong, there is some good progression in this area, but it still sits in the background by comparison to the technical skills. This is where my first reference to devil in the detail comes in to play in terms of the articles title in point and the power our personal skills can have on effective outcomes.

The idea that a “gold standard test” is the optimum process to use is unlikely to be debated from the perspective of a staff member or leadership position, yet this is going to differ drastically at the athlete end. Considering that every decision we make is based on balancing risk against reward, then language and specific words matter. The simplest way to communicate to an athlete a particular need may be “can you come to the gym so we can do your jump testing?”. Notice that word “testing” in particular.  It is likely to be the word used by most of us as it suit the process in our own mind. It isn’t wrong at all, but just keep that sentence fresh in your mind.

As Strength & Conditioning coaches we know the influence of varying our language in coaching cues and using external versus internal language. Nonetheless, I see so many young coaches limiting their effectiveness based on choice of words and personal skill interaction in anything outside of a coaching cue. Moreover, the in the moment self-awareness that is critical to personal development is constrained by the coach-athlete relationship. Consistent reflection for self awareness and growth in the area of personal skills, is what consistent repetition is for motor skill development. Much like skill acquisition, to create a behavioural change and raise awareness requires immediate (or as close to the event as possible) feedback with our communication or personal skills from coach to athlete. How often do we purposefully put yourself in a position to have others reflect and feedback to us as a coach in the same way? Some organisations are likely to be elite at this, but many environments that support the developing practitioner are likely to not. The likelihood of a young coach being out on there own at times as a coach is highly likely, which concerns me in terms of being able to provide this coaching support to coaches. Additionally, in our role as an S&C coach, feedback occurs from us towards athletes as a norm. It is relatively uncommon for an athlete to feedback in reverse. Now glance back to that word “testing” in the previous paragraph and the impact it could have had on your athlete? What would you think if the athlete said;

“do you think you’d have more impact if you used the word assessment instead of test when encouraging me to buy in? When you say test, all I think is that you are examining me and it defines there will be success or failure from the jump.”

Obviously, previous experiences shape our decision making (for both us and the athlete), and this will differ from person to person. Mindset differs between individuals based on how they see the same situation. Some will be highly risk averse, some will not see risk, and only perceive barriers. Others will be so optimistic they will chase the reward of a situation with no worry or care in the world about negative connotations, so the positive outweighs the negative for them. It wont be a new concept that choice of words matter (both negative and positive). Just as we choose our coaching cues and words wisely when coaching the back squat, how self aware are we about the detail in the words we are having in the moment with an athlete. I would debate that the interaction when communicating freely in a non technical situation back and forth with an athlete in conflict resolution situation, is much more dynamic and 2 way than simply coaching that athlete in a back squat. Yet we disproportionately focus on gold standard coaching cues. 

Keeping with the content of the article, each one of you will perceive that differently based on previous experiences and what you associate to the words I have used. Which brings me to my next point. In this context, I write and you read. I may hit the nail on the head with 50% of you. The other 50% may not agree, buy in, or “get it” based purely on my choice of words at times, or my organization and structure of my sentences, or your previous experiences. To guarantee impact, I’d have to know more about you, your personality, mindset, and experiences, and write an individual article with subtle tweaks and adaptations with plays on words to ensure my points come across as intended. To learn about you would clearly take time, but the point here is that’s again only 50% of the puzzle. What about us ourselves as coaches? How often are we evaluating our words? If young coaches could learn about adapting their personal skill effectiveness, understand personality and mindset preferences early on in our career, and techniques to deal with difficult conversations and conflict management, our ability to move our approach and adapt in the moment for these interactions would be enhanced immensely in the field.

Only recently working with a coach I mentor, we were talking about his feedback to his intern that he line manages. He conveyed that he struggled to get the interaction and commitment to the feedback from the intern that he had hoped for when doing an appraisal, having gone in with a guided discovery style of communication. The case in point was the staff member was constantly on his phone or laptop in the gym and the concern was he wasn’t aware that these actions didn’t match elite coaching expectations. The coach constructed a sentence to the effects of: “so how do you think you could improve, focusing specifically on professionalism?” directed towards the internThis was met with some resistance, a change in non verbal behaviour (arms crossed) and not much feedback. The coach/leader noticed the responses and aimed to deflect the directness of the question, and re-focus the guided discovery approach on himself to give the intern more confidence that mistakes are normal and part of the growth process. He followed up with; “put another way, what things do I do when I am at my worst when coaching?”The intention to guide the intern to the answers for himself were great, but the detail in the words used were lacking. Professionalism as a word implies “highest standard” so the intern was most likely to interpret this guided question as suggesting they were not up to scratch. The redirect again was with great intention, but using the word worst again has negative connotations. Couple this with a potential mindset of prudency where any interpretation on a situation may be “glass half empty” (as opposed to a mindset of opportunity to grow and learn), and our choice of words have limited our effectiveness as a leader or coach vastly in this situation. We have limited the feedback loop required to impact behaviour change and potentially created more barriers and contributed to more negative experiences along the way. Other options could include a carefully managed direct approach such as providing feedback in a sandwich approach (positive – negative – positive feedback) to highlight one area to work on. Wrapping the negative with positives allows you to deliver detail, and caveat that with a balance of good feedback too. Sometimes being direct is needed to get the point across. However, again being aware that you may need to adapt or adopt a different style is crucial. Another solution could be that rather than using the word professionalism, restructuring a sentence to the effect of, “how do you think being on your laptop and phone during coaching sessions could be perceived by others? What could be the varying perceptions?”. You aren’t giving them the answers, you are giving them the opportunity to explore possibilities. From that point, you are suggesting its open to interpretation, and can start to hone in on the reasons why this behaviour isn’t acceptable in that environment, but this would be more welcomed by exploring the range of perceptions as opposed to a “my opinion” versus “yours” concept to start with.

I talk with S&C coaches about the importance of “knowing your data” with regards to any sports science information used within their sporting environment. Part of this is to ensure it informs your decision making processes. Its somewhat easier to make a clear decision when data can objectively guide you. It can add clarity to gut instinct and experience, which I think is more powerful that experience alone. You are the only person who knows of your experience and trusts it, an athlete who has only known you for 6 months has every right to challenge that. They have their own agenda also. However, there is another reason for pushing this concept and that is it gives you another communication tool. It allows you to strategise an opportunity to use objective information to illustrate a point and take you opinion versus theirs out of the equation. There are many techniques out there that go way beyond this article that merely aims to raise awareness for you. But this brings me to my main point – we (including me now) cannot do this alone. We need to practice this work as much as we do perfecting our acceleration start drills. Its very easy to self learn for a formal qualification or technical certification – the answers are right and wrong. Perception doesn’t come in to it. We pass the certification, we go and apply it. There is no right or wrong in personal skills, because the ever present concept of “it depends” plays its part. This doesn’t stop you becoming as prepared as possible in terms of your personal skill toolbox in order to resource the right strategy, for the right situation moving forward. 

The earliest “lightbulb” moment for me on this area of having to practice came from a management course I was placed on when working in a national institute. The organization had the foresight to put coaching practitioners and medical staff though a management course. I distinctly remember having to role play throughout the 3 days to the most uncomfortable levels. Situations like dealing with an aggressive coworker, dealing with a closed off colleague, conflict resolution across a team and much more. It reminds be of the scene in the office where David Brent consistently chooses the wrong strategy, its very uncomfortable to watch, but no one closed the loop of feedback on why it was ineffective, the perception of the style and how it could be improved. We spent days critiquing each others use of language, how each stutter in our sentences created lack of assurance in the message we were delivering, and how paused silences at the end of a direct question add weight to the importance of the statement you are making. It was amazing. Why? Because we were paying the same level of attention to detail as we would in mastering all movement variations in change of direction. This brings me to my final point. We were resourcing ourselves with many options to choose from in a dynamic environment of human interaction. We were performing “live” reps and sets of personal skill development. 

I challenge you to ask yourself, just as you practice your coaching daily, how often do you practice conflict resolution, or difficult conversations?

These experiences, coupled with my observations about those coaches who can clearly “reach” people in different ways, has led me to realise my personal strengths in the skillset of coaching coaches in the non technical skills, as well as coaching the technical skills to athletes. It brought me to start raising awareness for coaches about the importance of this work for our effectiveness in high performance environments. Just as we invest in resources and personal development credits (or CEUs) to stay skilled in technical areas, I urge developing coaches and especially those with aspirations to move in to leadership roles, to not wait till its too late to seek out practicing these personal skills! Remember, just like any physical movement, we learn more from the mistakes than we do the successes. My advice is to practice, reflect on previous situations you could have been more effectives and get uncomfortable getting it wrong in the moment, but reflecting immediately to explore why, in order to realise how to be more effective moving forward. 

About the Author
High Performance Coach. Experiences include Houston Astros, England 7s, Team GB 7s, Wasps, EIS. Founded Collaborate Sports to develop practitioners.