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Evolution of the Athlete: Lessons from two great coaches

Here are some of the many lessons from the 4th Annual Coach Education Conference – Evolution of the Athlete – in Brisbane.  It was a great opportunity to hear from leading authorities in sports coaching and learn from their experiences…

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Ewen McKenzie who is the Head Coach for the QLD Reds. Ewen spoke a lot about the importance of team culture and equated 10-15% of performance to having an effective team culture.  Whether at training or at a game the whole team (athletes and coaching staff) are all working towards a common purpose.  Ewen stated that from his experiences coaching at the elite level, the most effective team culture is one that is developed with the athletes.  The reason being is that they are then involved in the process of making the culture and therefore the culture established is meaningful to them.  To set a team culture it is important to brainstorm with the athletes what they want to stand for as a team and how they want to be described.  Based on the description developed athletes and coaching staff are all involved in defining behaviours that demonstrate this description.

Ewen also discussed the importance of revisiting the culture set by the team and to model the culture through their actions every day.  That is, all players and coaching staff are required to model the culture.  Additionally, Ewen told us the story of how he helped the Waratahs develop a team culture and the lesson he learned when over the couple of years the culture appeared to lose importance and relevance for the new players coming in to the team.  The reason being, he stated, was that he learned that the culture had no meaning to them; they were not involved in the development process.  From his experience he suggested that each year (preferably pre-season) it would be beneficial to revisit and review the existing culture with the current players.  Another message Ewen talked about was the mantra, ‘minute by minute’.  That is, you can live in the moment and there is no point worrying about the past or the future, it is more helpful for performance to just stay in the present.

Another of the keynote speakers was John Quinn who is a high performance coach and founder of Quinn Elite Sports.  Following on from Ewen, John also spoke of the importance of team culture and in particular, a mission statement.  With regards to the mission statement, John talked about getting athletes and coaches to identify what success would look like for them to help identify the mission statement of the squad/club.  He suggested that each individual identify their own definition of success as well as the group’s collective definition of success.  As John described, the mission statement is really a group collaboration and can not only be written in words but also created using images (such as drawing pictures).  John also spoke about the relationship between coaches and athletes.  There are two points that are worth highlighting:

1. He stated that it is important to understand where the athlete comes from to get the best out of them as well as to help them develop not only as an athlete but as a person.  We are all more than our career.  It is important to separate the athletes from the person and to help individuals realise that being an athlete is only part of the whole person.  This is a great message for coaches and sporting professionals as well.  We can all draw an example from our experiences where being so wrapped up in one area of our lives can be at the detriment to ourselves as well as people around us.

2. The second point relates to the development of a relationship between a coach and an athlete.  We are all different, with different personalities, likes and dislikes, and life experiences.  It is always easiest to form and maintain relationships with people who we have things in common with.  To build an effective working relationship it is always useful to discover what you have in common but also to acknowledge the differences between you and move on from this.  Additionally, it is important for coaches to understand where the athletes they work with come from and what is most important to the athlete.  Remember it is about developing the person as well as the athlete and by doing so you will establish an effective and beneficial relationship.

It’s clear that these two great coaches value relationships…