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Conehead: Athletes are people, not machines

Recognising the humanity in our athletes is to recognise ‘them’

High Performance Manager Darren Roberts on why he needs to listen to athletes and to not just look at the stats.

Athletes can seem like straightforward characters to deal with, all they want to do is ‘win’… right? The reality of course is far more complex, just like the athletes themselves are far more complex. As a ‘performance’ guy it’s easy for me to lose myself in the continual physical progression of the athletes as I strive to continually make them faster, fitter, stronger, more powerful. This in itself is not as straightforward as it sounds. Performance is small things done well over time, the ordinary done extraordinarily well to try and improve capacity and the athletes ability to tolerate their sport. As the benefits aren’t immediately obvious, it’s important to assess, monitor and re-assess where the athlete is at, to show improvement. That’s OK, and ultimately necessary, but it’s easy to lose yourself in this process as a coach. The numbers can become king as the pursuit of physical improvement takes over as the sole outcome, which is completely understandable as a ‘performance’ practitioner, it’s what we’re paid to do.

In my experience the more you treat an athlete like a set of key performance indicators, data points and soft tissues to be manipulated with adaptations, the more you will be a limiting factor to their performance. Athletes are, obviously, people… so treat them exactly like that, as a person. Science might not care what an athlete believes, but it’s those beliefs which can drive an athlete to achieve great things. They have hopes, doubts, desires, dreams, with very real consequences to success and failure all in front of a crowd. I’m not talking about sports psychology, as a performance practitioner you’re probably the person the athlete spends most time with outside of partners, friends and family. This is simply understanding and treating the athlete as they are, a complex and fallible person with the same feelings as a person should have.

The problem is you can’t arrange any aspect of this into a nice spreadsheet and show progression after each re-assessment, there’s no pretty coloured graphs for any of these abstract concepts. Athlete’s instincts need nurturing and expressing, not questioned and undermined by technology – simply asking an athlete ‘how are you’ can elicit a plethora of information that a piece of equipment can’t. Anxiety, pressure, unpredictability, consequence and simply not knowing what happens next are all elements of competition, does it feature in the athlete’s preparation? When reflecting on a ‘great performance’ no one is saying things like ‘amazing glute activation during that run’ and ‘did you see them use their transverse abs!’ The commentary is about determination, rising to the occasion and putting on a show – things which aren’t easily ‘graphed’. Just to be clear, I’m not saying an athlete doesn’t need to be physically and mentally prepared, nor am I saying we shouldn’t measure what is relevant in that preparation to inform training decisions and show any progression.

Familiarity breeds what you want it to in the coach/athlete relationship. By treating them as people things like co-operation rather than compliance happen, which leads to ownership and accountability for both athlete and coach. Recognising the humanity in our athletes is to recognise ‘them’, it’s not something we should hide from if we truly want to help them in their performance.

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