The Mentoring Coach

Perhaps, if you are lucky as a coach, you will one day find yourself working with an athlete who shows special qualities. They rarely miss a session, out-train all others in the gym, and focus their life around their sport. They devoutly attend to coaching advice, revel in hard work, and show great determination to succeed. It becomes apparent that you have a potential high-performance athlete and you now find yourself in a whole new coaching situation. Although it may be a coach’s dream come true, you realise that the road ahead is onerous and you don’t have the experience to deal with this sharp end of coaching. What do you do?

In such a situation, would you:

  1. Coach the athlete yourself and take sole responsibility?
  2. Find a mentoring coach to assist?
  3. Hand over the athlete to a more experienced coach?

Coach the athlete yourself

The boundary between these options is not necessarily distinct and clear. In the first option, the coach is bound to garner knowledge from wherever they can. They will seek to self-educate by conducting research, look for examples to follow and copy the ideas of other coaches. They will also implement training methods that are founded on their own athletic experience and the principles handed down by their own mentors. If difficulties are encountered, coaches will usually reach out for help but they may also feel empowered to create and implement their own unique solutions, sometimes ignoring advice to the contrary. The situation of maintaining sole responsibility and control for the athlete and hoping to upskill in the process, is the option most commonly taken.

Benefits

  • Stimulates coach’s learning
  • Club retains the athlete at least temporarily
  • Good for club environment
  • Improves coach’s profile

Issues

  • May suppress athlete’s progress
  • Risk of significant coaching errors
  • Athlete may view their coach as inadequate
  • Coaching commitment increases

Find a mentoring coach to assist

In some circumstances, sharing responsibility with a more experienced coach is feasible. The second coach may be from outside the club, and at too great a distance to see the athlete in person. In effect, second coach acts as a mentor of the first and provides guidance when needed. If the mentor is the right person, this option is likely to accelerate the learning of the first coach and improve outcomes for the athlete. It should not be assumed that mentoring is easy as it requires careful and respectful communication and an ability to keep matters ‘in confidence’. There is a good argument for mentors to receive training also.

If the mentoring coach is also a member of the same club, or operates in the same region, issues can arise easily. The athlete is likely to seek advice directly from the mentoring coach and then initial coach may feel undermined and feel they have unintentionally relinquished control. Furthermore, the athlete will likely be concerned if they receive significantly different advice from each coach. Nonetheless, sharing responsibility with another coach in the same club is possible if there is a high level of trust, coaches have similar philosophies and collude on a frequent basis?

Despite being potentially a workable solution, the mentoring or shared responsibility arrangement is uncommon. To a large extent, this is a systemic failure. It is not generally a part of the coach education system and not promoted sufficiently by lead organisations. For athlete development on a national scale, this option should be frequently discussed.

Benefits

  • Accelerates coach’s learning
  • Facilitates athlete development
  • Reduces risk of significant coaching error
  • Creates a more systemic approach to developing high performance athletes

Issues

  • Mentoring should be embedded in coach education curricula.
  • Requires high level trust between coaches
  • Work best when mentor coach resides in different region.

Hand over to another coach

The option to voluntarily hand over an athlete to an appropriately experience coach would seem, on the face of it, to be the right thing to do. A coach may prefer to do this rather if they feel they cannot meet the commitment that the aspiring athlete will likely need. They may also feel they have no option because, sooner or later, the athlete will leave to find a different coach anyway. However, this option also has some issues that need to be considered. Firstly, coaching is very much about building working relationships and it does not always follow that the athlete will fit with the ethos of the new coach and club. The transition needs to be thoughtfully managed so that the athlete is inducted into the new community and has time to adapt to new training demands.

This option is likely not the best for the coach who relinquishes the athlete. They lose a significant opportunity for personal growth and development. How does a coach gain a reputation and learn to deal with emerging athletes if they voluntarily give the away? The loss of the athlete can also negatively impact the club, especially in terms of the training atmosphere. Often the value of having a rising star is greater than merely performance statistics. They create promotional opportunities, encourage other members and take on leadership roles.

Benefits

  • Athlete has immediate unfettered access to an experienced coach.
  • Relieves the initial coach of the need for increased coaching commitment.

Issues

  • Poor outcome for systemic development of coaches at the base of the sport.
  • May cause abrupt changes to athlete’s training