Coaching Behaviour in Olympic Weightlifting

This article is narrated.

If you are close enough to the action in an Olympic Weightlifting competition, you will see significant differences in the way that coaches communicate with their athletes in the last moments before they lift. These differences range from a few quiet words said at the door of the competition arena, to loud and persistent coaching commands that continue even while the athlete is on the platform. Such variation in coaching behaviour raises many questions, for example:

  • Are the coach’s words retained in memory as the athlete approaches the competition platform?
  • Should such words just be about encouragement or is it useful to give technique cues?
  • Does encouragement need to be loud or persistent to be effective?
  • Is the athlete aware of the coach’s communications while they are on the platform?
  • Is observed coaching behaviour mostly about the needs of the athlete, or more about the needs of the coach?
  • Does coaching behaviour have any effect on the outcome of a competition lift?

The almost total absence of research on Weightlifting coaching means that these questions cannot be authoritatively answered. To properly investigate this topic would require the monitoring of coaches and athletes in experimental conditions in which the behaviour of participating coaches was manipulated. A less demanding approach would be to capture coach-athlete interactions on video, and immediately interview athletes after their last lift. One way or another, investigating coaching behaviour is likely to be intrusive and difficult to achieve. “What about research on coaching behaviour in other sports”, I hear you say? Well, yes, coaching behaviour has been widely studied and is very informative on matters such as the characteristics of successful coaches, coach-athlete relationships and the effect of coaching behaviour on athlete attitudes. But what we need to know, as Weightlifting coaches, is how best to operate in those last moments before a competition lift and there is yet no definitive guide on this subject as yet.

Determinants of Coaching Behaviour

Differences in coaching behaviour tend not to be a subject of discussion when coaches come together in formal or informal meetings. The topic is very personal and coaches are naturally defensive of their own coaching style. If challenged, coaches will often argue that their own coaching style is purposefully crafted to suit the individual needs of their athlete. However, although a coach may implicitly believe this, there are other plausible determinants of their coaching behaviour.

Here are some possible contenders:

  • Personal experience of coaches and being coached
  • Observation of coaches in action (while spectating a sport)
  • The influence of a mentor coach
  • The personality of the coach

Personal experience of being coached

While not every coach has experience as an athlete in Olympic Weightlifting, most will have played several sports in their youth. This experience provides first hand knowledge of coaches and being coached. Such knowledge is likely to be stored in memory and becomes a starting point for their own coaching behaviour. For example, in field games, it is normal for coaches to give loud and frequent coaching instructions while a match is in progress. It would be unsurprising, therefore, if Weightlifting coaches who have a background in field games are at the louder and more vociferous end of the spectrum. On the other hand, coaches who have previous playing experience in racquet sports will likely have witnessed coaching of an entirely different nature. In such sports, loud coaching from the sidelines is completely out of place and would not be permitted during competition.

For coaches who have experience as an athlete in Olympic Weightlifting, the coaching style of their own club coach will be a primary model of coaching behaviour. It would be difficult to envisage that an athlete who stays with a single coach for several years would not internalise and emulate this model, at least in part. It can become an issue, however, if coaching behaviour learned in this way is not also accompanied by sources of coaching knowledge that are external to the club. Otherwise, there are risks as well as benefits associated with this form of coach education.

Observing Weightlifting Coaches in action

Although emulation of predecessors is a worthwhile starting point, coaching behaviour will evolve with experience. In particular, the opportunity to observe other coaches in action is profoundly important. This might especially be the case if a coach is lucky enough to gain an athlete who has the ability to advance to national championships or beyond. Participation in such major events provides an opportunity to observe coaches from a wider geographical area and to see how athletes at higher levels performance are handled.

While there are always exceptions, in general, coaches with experience in high performance tend to operate at the quieter end of the communication spectrum. They purposefully abstain from pumping out coaching cues and cautiously avoid any over-elevation of the athlete’s arousal level. At the international level, coaches are often observed to give athletes a moment of quietness before they exit the warm-up area and seek to shelter them from all forms of distraction. Furthermore, experienced coaches understand that athletes are perceptive of the coach’s own emotional state. In pressure moments coaches need to display calmness and control, and portray confidence in their athletes. While it is likely that every coach will experience some level of anxiety, the ability to disguise such emotions is a part of performing the coaching role.

Influence of Mentors

The importance of mentoring in coach education has been stressed by many (Bloom et al.,1998; Nash, 2003; Cassidy, Jones and Potrac, 2008). Mentoring generally involves an individual with greater experience in a specific field (the mentor) providing knowledge and assistance to a less experienced individual (the mentee) (Nash, 2003). For mentoring to have greatest value, there must be a high level of trust between between mentee and mentor. As stated previously, discussion of coaching behaviour is not easy and coaches can be naturally defensive of their own coaching style. Therefore having a mentor who is well trusted is perhaps the best and only way that a coach’s methodology and behaviour can be effectively modified. For example, a coach who utters multiple coaching cues while their athlete is on the competition platform is likely to continue this practise until someone they trust suggests this is unsound coaching behaviour.

Personality of the Coach

People who coach come from all walks of life, and all levels of education. They may emerge from a distinguished career in Olympic Weightlifting or have absolutely no prior experience of the sport. However, the one factor that all good coaches will share is a love of learning. This includes the valuable activities of self-reflection, observing others and persistently asking questions. Cushion (2010) makes the point that it is important for coaches to reflect critically on why they behave as they do in order to make meaningful judgements in coaching situations rather than reinforce personal beliefs or traditional practises.

Coaching is a highly complex task and it takes years of learning to be effective in any of its domains – dealing with beginners, developing athletes or high performance. The coach must have a growth mindset and thrive on finding answers to the multitude of difficult problems they will undoubtedly face.

Coaches can be extraverts or introverts in their normal daily life and this may partially explain why there are differences in behaviour among coaches. However, coaches must be performers irrespective of their natural personality traits and they must adapt to the demands of the task.

Coaches must also be effective communicators, develop excellent working relationships with athletes, be empathetic and respect the diversity of goals and needs of athletes. In terms of empathy, Parkes and Ross (2012) make the point that when communicating with athletes, it is very important for the coach to consider carefully the effect of their instructions and feedback on the internal state of their athlete.

Key personality attributes are therefore a love of learning, a growth mindset, adaptability and empathy.

Final Comment

Coaching behaviour has been the subject of study in many sports over many decades but in Olympic Weightlifting there is a paucity of research, books or journal articles on this topic. Coaches must be active learners, seek out professional development opportunities, discuss problems and issues with peers, and reach out for mentoring when needed. Without this desire for learning, the accumulation of knowledge will be slow or perhaps never achieved.

References

Bloom, G. A., Durand-Bush, N., Schinke, R. J., & Salmela, J. H. (1998). The importance of mentoring in the development of coaches and athletes. International journal of sport psychology29, 267-281.

Nash, C. (2003). Development of a mentoring system within coaching practice. Journal of Hospitality, leisure, sport and tourism education2(2), 39-47.

Cassidy, T. G., Jones, R. L., & Potrac, P. (2008). Understanding sports coaching: The social, cultural and pedagogical foundations of coaching practice. Routledge.

Cushion, C., 2010, Coach Behaviour, in Lyle, J. and Cushion, C., 2010, Sports Coaching: Professionalism and Practise, Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, p43-60.

Parkes, J. and Ross, A., 2012, Is obtaining ideal performance states workable?, Active Education, Issue 33, Feb/Mar