We all have that one athlete, no matter what you try, no matter how long you work on something with them, they just never seem to get it. I do not believe its entirely their fault. As a coach, I have run into people that have forced me to change my perspective on how to teach a technique or movement, and as an athlete, I have been pleaded with to make changes that I just have been able to grasp (and its still an ongoing process). This does not imply a lack of effort on the athlete’s part but a whole host of other issues that are unbeknownst to the coach, anything from a musculoskeletal issue, a miscommunication, or an inability to visualize what is the desired outcome. All of these issues fall squarely on the athlete AND coach’s shoulders to solve, but so often many coaches are stuck in their way of instructing that the common ground of communication is never reached and the athlete is written off as “uncoachable”. Working with both athletes and “non-athletes” below are a few of the tips I would offer to coaches dealing with an “uncoachable” athlete from my own experiences as both athlete and coach. Nothing earth shattering but hopefully just enough insight to get your own creative juices flowing.
1. Flexibility – The most basic and most overarching, I still think its one of the most critical components for working with these athletes. Chances are, if your coaching style isn’t changing or the way you are explaining a concept isn’t changing, you have no way of knowing if the athlete is just being difficult or is simply confused about what it is you want to see. Many great athletes have made abysmal coaches simply because they could not change the way they presented their information to their athletes to a way they would understand. Most athletes are not going to get a technical change on the first go, so for the coach to understand what it is they want and then being able to explain it in a variety of ways is critical.
2. Deconstructing – Almost every movement in sport is the result of a fluid transition and combination of different positions, coming together to produce power, grace, strength, etc. I believe this is an instinctual understanding by any coach but how often is a movement broken down into its basic components when its being constructed? The top coaches have a finite understanding of the movement they want and know how to deconstruct it to its basic elements, allowing them to coach individual components of the movement to better serve the athlete. If you are running into an issue where an athlete is not making the strides you want, breaking the movement down to its key components might expose a weakness or lack of understanding in the athlete that, once corrected, will clean up the overall movement.
3. Imagery – Research has shown that imagery and concentrated effort on visualization of a movement actually leads to improvements in performance. Having the ability to create a verbal image of what you want from your athlete can be an incredibly powerful tool to use, even if its not a perfect image, you have given your athlete a reference to work from, creating a platform from which you can tweak and make minor adjustments to execution. In addition, having the ability to create an image for the athlete will make it easier for them to visualize it on their own, leading to even more development from visualization practice beyond your together.
4. Education – Perhaps the most important things for a coach to do for his athletes is educate them. Especially with older athletes, i.e. college and beyond, most of them will have begun to develop their own theories and preferences for training. To help bring about a particular change I have found that educating my athlete on why we are doing something, why I am having them do something a particular way is usually enough to create buy-in with my program. It gives a sense of ownership to the athlete, they know what you are building towards which gives them a fixed goal to strive for. As an added bonus, by understanding the end result, they might just correct or figure out what you have be hounding them about on their own, saving you more headache and making minor tweaks all the easier.
5. Personalization – Probably the most difficult to achieve with an athlete and definitely the most time consuming. It is more or less the culmination of the previous points with a little something extra. Knowing your athlete, how they learn, what makes them tick, what motivates them; it is not something that happens overnight and it is very much a process, but when you can understand your athlete, you will know exactly how to reach them to get them through a plateau, learning curve, etc.
Now although a coach can do everything in their power to help and guide their athlete, ultimately, the willingness and ability to change and develop falls on the athlete. I can attest to this fact from my own experiences as an athlete and times when I have made leaps and bounds in training and those times when I have plateaued for months. If the athlete does not want to make the changes, or is too stubborn to change, then progress will not be seen. I personally do not believe that most athletes in high school and beyond fall into this category; they are competing and training, carving out time they might otherwise use for social activities or studying to spend time in a sport that, in 99% of the cases, will never produce any sort of monetary benefit. They practice, play, and compete, for the love of the game, for the comradery and friendships, the healthy lifestyle (work hard play hard, right??) that comes with the territory of striving for that elusive goal. Bear that in mind next time you are frustrated, perplexed, or just downright stumped with how to proceed. They are not being difficult to spite you, I promise.