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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Balance is Better Principles Poster

Creating a positive parent culture

Creating a positive parent culture

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Running good trials and selections

Running good trials and selections

Balanced Female Health

Balanced Female Health

Letting Go of Control: How Coaches Can Lead and Be Vulnerable

CoachesLeadership 5 Min Read

A willingness to be vulnerable can be an incredibly valuable trait for both athletes and coaches. While traditional coaching outlooks may view vulnerability negatively, it’s increasingly recognised that openness — and an ability to admit mistakes and solicit advice — is key to creating supportive learning environments and facilitating great experiences for young athletes. In this article, we discuss the importance of leading with vulnerability, and explore how coaches can embrace vulnerability in order to improve themselves and enhance their learning environments.

Breaking With Tradition

The role of the coach is traditionally associated with control; the coach, acting as a font of knowledge, informs and dictates instructions; communication in the coach-athlete relationship is largely one way, with the coach speaking and the athlete listening; and the coach is rarely (or never) wrong. In many traditional coaching outlooks, vulnerability is something to be hidden — not embraced.

However, there is now a growing appreciation that more open coaching approaches — centred upon athlete empowerment and mutual respect — often lead to greater athlete engagement and retention, and are more beneficial for the long-term development of young people.

It’s also well-documented that the best coaches (especially in elite-level sports) are open-minded, and constantly seek to learn ways to improve their coaching or derive new benefits for their teams or athletes; similarly, the best leaders are receptive to the ideas of others, and take a collaborative approach to working with the people they lead.

These mentalities are underpinned by a recognition that we, as coaches, don’t have all of the answers; we must be prepared to admit our mistakes and acknowledge potential areas of improvement, and welcome advice and input from others. Ultimately, being vulnerable will help us to be better coaches and leaders.

Striking a Balance Between Empowerment and Guidance

Of course, we must remember that the young people we coach also need guidance. There is a balance to strike between empowering athletes and taking a sufficiently supportive role in their development; while some individuals will come to our sessions craving autonomy, others may simply want a release from the other concerns in their lives, and desire slightly more direction.

This requires us to incorporate variety in our session design — providing a mixture of activities over the course of each week so that athletes experience opportunities to express themselves freely and occasions where we offer more clarity and help them develop the confidence to play their sport.

To achieve this balance, it can help to dispense with our egos, and reconsider the metrics against which we judge ‘success’. For example, a facilitative coaching approach, whereby we give athletes space to experiment and make mistakes, will often produce positive developmental outcomes while also appearing more chaotic than prescriptive, drill-based activities; but are we prepared to utilise activities that are more beneficial to our athletes, even if they make our coaching seem less organised to parents and other onlookers? And do we prioritise the developmental outcomes of our athletes over short-term success in games and competitions?

This also demands a degree of vulnerability. But an open, honest coaching approach can be bolstered through effective communication. We’ll often find that it’s easier to overcome our egos when we create shared values and standards within our teams and organisations — giving us different criteria against which to appraise our performances as coaches.

Establishing Shared Values

Creating shared values and standards within our coaching environments is a great way to empower our athletes while still ensuring there’s a framework to guide them. Through team and individual meetings at the start of each season, we can work with athletes to establish our goals and expected behaviours, and then encourage them to uphold those standards themselves.

We can strengthen our collective adherence to these values further by proactively ‘living’ them — for instance, by focussing on a different one each week. Most importantly, we should encourage an open dialogue and remind our athletes that, while we will support them, we will also give them space to make decisions and lead conversations on their own.

It also helps to remember that culture is fluid; our athletes and coaching environments are constantly changing, and we may need to alter our expectations during the season. This is okay. In fact, admitting that something isn’t working, and being prepared to change it, is itself a display of vulnerability on our part — and a good opportunity to model this behaviour for the young people we coach.

Modelling Vulnerability

The behaviour we exhibit in front of young people can have a profound impact on their behaviour and actions. Therefore we must live up to team standards, just like our athletes.

As coaches, we will undoubtedly receive opportunities to be vulnerable over the course of a season — so we should take them when they arise. Sometimes we will have bad sessions or get things wrong. When this happens, are we capable of being honest with our athletes, admitting that we’ve tried something which didn’t work out as we’d planned, and explaining that we’ll adapt and try to do better next time?

This can set a great example to athletes — demonstrating that it’s okay to make mistakes, own those mistakes, and then use them as learning opportunities — and actually help us to change the narrative around vulnerability. Instead of hiding our vulnerability, we can embrace it as a positive trait — and this will implicitly encourage our athletes to do the same.

Moreover, we’ll often find that athletes appreciate our honesty and respond more positively than if we try to hide our mistakes or downplay their significance. By displaying our own vulnerability, we can encourage athletes to be vulnerable themselves, deepen the sense of trust we share, and help them to feel safe in our coaching environments.

Appreciating the Power of Vulnerability

Vulnerability can make us better coaches and leaders; by relinquishing control, we can empower athletes and other stakeholders, create coaching environments centred upon collaboration and trust, and make ourselves more amenable to improvement.

Additionally, we can set positive examples for our athletes. Individuals learn best by experimenting and making mistakes, which requires them to feel safe in their learning environments and able to try new things without fear of failure. Our athletes must be free to feel vulnerable, and this is easier when they see that their coaches can be vulnerable too.

Consequently, we must develop a new, shared understanding of vulnerability, whereby we appreciate it as necessary and helpful, and encourage every participant in our sporting programmes to feel comfortable exhibiting it; by embracing the power of vulnerability, we can normalise the act of being vulnerable.

Not only will this make us better leaders and coaches; it will vastly improve our coaching environments for every stakeholder — and help us to create healthier sporting environments for our athletes.

In Summary

  • We should strive to break from traditional, control-based coaching approaches.
  • As coaches, we should put our egos aside, and be prepared to empower athletes as well as guide them.
  • By establishing shared values, we can create a framework for athletes to uphold their own standards and expectations, enabling us to take a more facilitative role.
  • Modelling vulnerability is a great way to set positive examples for our athletes and encourage them to be vulnerable themselves.
  • We must challenge the narrative around vulnerability in coaching, and embrace the power of being vulnerable.

Image Source: SolStock from Getty Images Signature

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