Dr Ed Coughlan: The whole coaching set-up must have skin in the game

What we see is what they got. Rarely, if ever, will an athlete do something they haven’t been coached to do or practised at length before the ball is thrown in. 

The athletes that take to the field, court or course are a representation of their training environment and practice history. However, that doesn’t stop them from being front and centre of the firing line for scrutiny. Yet they are a product of every coach and support staff that they have ever worked with.

While it is infinitely difficult to quantify the impact of coaches and support staff past or present, those currently sitting in the hot seat need to be aware of the importance of each and every role in a set-up.

All too often we throw our hands up in the air in defeat because an athlete cannot do something we believe should be well within their capability by that stage of their development. Let’s stop bemoaning what was not done before, and let’s get stuck in to a process of ensuring you are not a similar point of discussion for the next coach.

We see and hear this even at the pinnacle of a sport, where deficiencies are plain for all to see. For example, the current Lions rugby squad have a lot of players whose accuracy in passing off one side compared to the other is significantly different. It is obvious to suggest this basic, fundamental, bilateral skill should be second nature to a professional rugby player – yet it is not.

Who is responsible for this? The easy answer is it’s the athlete’s responsibility. But we live in an athletic space nowadays where the players are told what to eat, when to sleep, when to train and for how long and how often. This type of prescribed regimen is beginning at younger and younger stages of an athlete’s development and the consequence of such structure places a greater spotlight on the coaching and management of athletes.

The argument for such structure is to prevent overtraining and to maximise all-important recovery time for athletes between sessions or games. There is sound evidence to support such a rationale. But again, this places the responsibility back at the feet of the coaching, management and support staff.

The insatiable appetite of the world’s media across multiple platforms for a go-to person to answer for a result moments after the final whistle, whether good, bad or indifferent, is the world we now live in. Ultimately it comes down to responsibility or even culpability. There is never a shortfall of people claiming their responsibility and contribution to a success. However, in defeat the list of responsible candidates rapidly reduces. Is there a way to change this rhetoric? The quote, “we win together, we lose together” sounds great, but in reality, the collateral damage associated with being involved in an unsuccessful set-up quickly means it becomes “every man for himself”. However, there may be a way to get people more invested in a set-up which may ultimately improve the outcome for everyone involved.

This is not to suggest everyone gets a medal at the end of the day, but when results don’t go the way people had hoped, we need more people to stand up to be counted.

So how can we create a space where the battle within a set-up is between those fighting to take responsibility for how they are to impact on the athlete’s progression and development?

Again, the answer may exist in the innate competitive spirit that simmers within us all. We are told competition breeds competition. It would be interesting to know how many set-ups compete against their opponents in every facet of their sport, not just tactically on the day of the match, but across the spectrum of the set-up.

No doubt the athletes that tog out are indeed engaged in the most intense level of competition. But if everyone involved in the set-up are themselves competing against their opposite number, things may begin to change.

The more people are invested at an intensely competitive level in what they are doing, the more likely it is standards will rise and maybe even exponentially.

This may result in more difficult conversations between coaches, support staff and management. So what! Great, in fact. If everyone is in agreement all the time, you’re on a fast track to nowhere.

Some of the more disappointing moments in my coaching career are all the more difficult to overcome because of the knowledge things that should have been said were not said.

Minding myself in the space. Playing the political game. Keeping my powder dry. Excuse me as I puke into my bag of self- preservation.

In those situations, not only do you lose out as a coach, because there is a learning opportunity missed, but ultimately and more unforgivingly, you have let the athletes down. Athletes work on the assumption and hope that everyone involved in their set-up is sweating the small stuff and fighting battles on their behalf so that they are training at the very limit of everyone’s ability.

If the strength & PTT conditioning coach is making sure that the programme prescribed to the squad is not only right for them but also better than what the opposition strength & conditioning coach is prescribing, standards will rise. Groupthink will be avoided.

In the same way that tactical coaches find out what opponents are working on to best prepare for what may happen at match time; every other coach and support staff should also have that sense of competition against their opposite number.

What should emerge from this approach is a greater rigour of decision-making before anything is finalised and presented to the athletes.

The process of comparison between and within set-ups does not happen often enough. We are not all doing the next best thing all the time. Someone is, so it is important to find out what that is.

The next time you are watching a match on TV, consider this: winning team is simply a representation of those who support it.

The athletes are under enough pressure as it is before we assume that they are also responsible for everything that happens once they cross the whitewash.

Similar to a game of trump cards, how a set-up match up off the field will have a significant impact on how their athletes play on it. And like all good card games, some cards have higher weighting than others.

Of course the manager or head coach will have the heaviest weighting, with reduced figures for the coaches, S&C, sport psychologist, medical team, nutritionist and on through to the kit-man and beyond.

But be under no illusion, everyone has a critical part to play, and your part may be the decisive figure when the final numbers are totted up to determine who wins on that day of days.

So no matter who you are and what your role is, put some skin in the game. You never know, it might be what gets you over the line!


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