Sunday, February 27, 2011

Do the words ‘volunteer’ and or 'amateur’ need to be antonyms of excellence?

Rarely a day passes without the opportunity to watch and analyse a sports coach in action. I don’t mind at what level, what gender, what sport, or what country. I really enjoy studying the art of coaching and asking the question ‘how can it be done better?’

For me, we all have limited resources – limited energy, limited recovery ability, limited time, and limited attention span. The more efficient we teach athlete preparation, the more we have in reserve to include other aspects. Which is divergent to what I see as a growing and continuing trend – the limited focus on improving efficiency and the greater focus on adding more to the athletes schedule, in part because of ‘trends’.

In my discussions with coaches and coaching directors, one common theme appears – ‘We are amateurs and therefore you have to understand Ian’….-read – don’t expect us to pursue excellence because we are ‘just volunteers’.

To which I say – the main differences between a volunteer coach and an elite professional coach is the latter get’s paid, works with higher profiles players with more money at stake, and have bigger egos. There is nothing in my three decades plus of professional observations that leads me to believe that the professional coach is, should or needs to be a better coach. I just don’t understand why the volunteer coach and or amateur coach can’t, shouldn’t or don’t need to strive for excellence. To continually ask and answer the question – ‘How can I do this better? How can I get better results with athletes?’

From my conclusions, we have got sport upside down. The greatest window of opportunity to affect and shape an athlete is when they are young. Very young. And that window reduces with age. In most countries, however, we give the athletes to the volunteers and amateurs during this largest window of opportunity for development. And to those kids that rise to the surface, we give them more funds, allegedly better coaches, and definitely better facilities.  For every kid that rises to the surface in this process, hundreds fall through the cracks, lost potential for all.

Now I don’t have a problem with the fact that most of our young athletes will be coached by volunteers and amateur coaches. What I do have a challenge with is why the assumption that if a coach is a volunteer or amateur that we should all give up and assume the pursuit of excellence is out of the question.

I don’t buy into the cultural perception that to prove you are a great coach you have to show you have worked with elite athletes. Why can’t you be the greatest coach in the land and work with kids? I believe you can, and I believe you should aim to be – because I don’t accept that the words ‘volunteer’ and or ‘amateur’ coach and the world ‘excellence’ are oxymoron’s, incompatible, or are antonyms!


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  2. Excellent post Ian. As a volunteer coach for many years I was often criticised for striving, researching, listening and seeking to become more knowledgeable and better coach for my junior athletes.