In my opinion most athlete preparation is doing more harm than good to most athletes. This statement should not be a surprise to those who have read my works over the last few decades. What surprises me is that so many decades later nothings changed. In fact, I fear it’s got worse. In seeking to understand why this might be I reflect on the career path of most would-be athlete preparation coaches, and share these reflections with you. You might not like what I say, although it is not written with any intent to offend. It does challenge the dominant thinking, so on the basis of this I understand that this may be the effect. However if so few as one athlete is saved from the rubbish training and subsequent career shortening and performance decreasing training stimulus that most athletes get exposed to, the bruising of the reader and the stab wounds in my back will be worth it.
After over thirty years of coaching athletes and educating coaches I have seen the athlete preparation industry go from being an unknown and unheard of role to being a frequently sought after career path. I have also seen many express their desire for the opportunity to train athletes, and watched how they have gone about it. My interest in this has been more than casual, due to my concurrent role in both training athletes and educating coaches. I will share with you the two most popular solutions I have seen used by those seeking to become trainers of athletes. I share them with you not because I endorse them, but rather because this is what I see. I don’t like these solutions and I will tell you exactly why that is. Then rather than leaving you with what not to do, I will share my preferred solution.
Solution 1 – Get higher levels of education
I watched a number of young men graduate from sports science degree in the 1980s and long to work with athletes. Nothing happened. One sustained himself with teaching first aid courses, and the others worked as gym instructors. After a few years most went back to university and obtained higher degrees. Then they succeed in obtaining work with athletes – by impressing the sports administrators, not by attracting the athletes independently.
I was working with a professional national league team in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a young man approached the team. He had never trained athletes before but he was involved in a higher degree course. The coach hired him on the basis of that.
I have seen this solution unfold on many occasions. A graduate wants to work with athletes, but cannot attract them. They go back to university and armed with the authority of their research needs or conclusions, they approach coaches and sporting administrators to gain work. This solution is very effective it seems, and the social status of ‘research’ may hold the explanation. When I say successful, I am referring to the would-be coach. Not the athlete. If you can’t coach, if you can’t attract athletes, there is nothing in a higher degree course that I have seen that is going to make you a better coach, or more likely to attract athletes. They don’t care. They go where their instincts tell them they can trust. Except in a team sport situation – their contractual obligations require them to conform and work with the ‘physical coach’ hired by their team.
As a result many athletes get trained by highly qualified inexperienced and incompetent coaches. The end result – shorter careers and lost opportunities, due to the application of performance decreasing and injury producing training methods.
Now let’s get real clear – I am not attacking higher education. I am critical however of the use of this socially respected qualification to back-door into coach athletes. If you can’t coach, if you lack the gift or the competency, getting a piece of paper, doing some research, and reading a lot of ‘information’ doesn’t change this. I know that is going to upset a lot of people, but irrespective of the unstoppable march of ‘research’ credibility, there is an art to coaching, and I have never seen this art taught successfully in a university.
I believe this trend will continue. In fact you will probably need a PhD in a decade or so just to get hired by many teams. Just remember – this doesn’t mean you can or should coach. It means you are more likely to get a job with a sports team, and more athletes are going to suffer for this.
I call this the back-door approach to coaching – what you can do to get into coaching if you can’t coach. I also liken it to the ‘bail-out’ strategies used by governments during the Global Financial Crisis of the late 2000s’. In the second half of the 2000’s decade a number of national economies got into strife (and are still there). The solution of choice by many governments was to ‘bail-out’ selected industries and companies. Those who support the free market system suggested that the bailed-out industries should have been left to market forces – if that meant they collapse and disappear so be it.
What will be the implications of the bail-out solution? The future holds the answer to this question.
Imagine what would happen if the ability to attract athletes based on competence rather than qualifications or marketing was the system applied? I suggest many currently employed would be out of a job, and many athletes would be better off for this.
Solution 2 – Market Yourself
This scenario starts out the same way, typically with a young person who has graduated from their sports science course and fails to attract athlete clients. The only difference is now some don’t wait to graduate to employ this strategy.
Here’s a great example. In the late 1990s I was approached by a young man who expressed his burning desire to gain employment training athletes. He expressed this goal in his CV, in his emails, and verbally.
“Objective: To gain a full time professional strength and conditioning position with a professional sports organization or high level training facility.”
He had graduated some five years prior and was having no success. He had hoped gaining access to my information would be the key to him overcoming this challenge and finally attracting athletes. It wasn’t.
“I have read "so you want..." thoroughly. While I agree with your statements it is easier for you with an established record to attract new clients than it is for an "outsider" like me to break in. The reason I'm asking is to see where my weaknesses are - what is holding me back in other words as I'm failing to identify it somehow.”
Even when I sought to help him out be referring athletes to him it didn’t work.
“Incidentally the volleyball team that you put me in contact with didn't return my emails. I guess I'm not important enough yet.”
He could not understand why it wasn’t happening.
“I don't think it is qualifications - I have a bundle - and I don't think its training experience - I have lots of that - it just seems to be sports teams/organisations in general that I can't break into …Your other comments as regards not allowing administrators to evaluate you is a good one - but until I am "in" as it were I don't see what I can do to avoid it.”
Finally he began to lose hope and consider alternative career paths.
“I'd like to move out of the personal training field and train athletes exclusively but bills need to be paid. I've been at this gym since late Sep and was this week offered the head personal trainer position -- unsure as to whether or not to accept it -- the money is a little more - but the job becomes more of an administrative position….I'm just concerned as to whether or not the move to an administrative position would "hurt" my career in the longer term (ie the goal being to train athletes similar to yourself).”
Then he found marketing. With the tools developed by a fellow failed coach turned marketing expert, he was able to market his way to his desired perception of significance. Through self claims and claims through third party, the perception was promoted.
“In the fitness industry I am probably best known for my ability to design programs…
…he has a stable of Olympic and national level athletes that swear by his training methods.
…he’s a performance coach….”
He just needed to take another coaches experiences and training theories, mix them with the deception that they were his experiences and conclusions, turbo-charge them with marketing – and voila – he was instantly a great coach worthy of learning from.
In fact people pay top dollar to attend his coach education seminars, and he is given regular speaking opportunities at professional development seminars. And people are influenced by this information. Not bad for a person who failed to attract any meaningful athlete client base. That is, if you think that is good. History has shown – he would starve if he relied on his ability to attract athlete clients based on his coaching ability.
In my opinion there is no positive correlation between marketing competency and coaching competency. Rather I suggest their may be an inverse correlation – the more a person markets the lower their coaching competency. You could liken to the theory of compensating.
Here’s another ‘challenge’ from these first two solutions. The two solutions outlined above are now the dominant methods of choice. So when a young or new coach entering the profession seeks ‘practical’ information, they are more likely to be influenced by those who have chosen these two solutions than any other influence.
If they watch sport covered by television they will see the dominant training trends – and probably copy them. When they select books and articles on the basis of the best marketing – because this is the path I suggest most take in selecting their influences – their minds are filled with a lot of damaging, ineffective and confused training methods. Who does this serve? The egos and the bank accounts of those who seek to achieve the perception of ‘greatness’ through marketing. No-one else.
Solution 3 – Get better
For me this is the only solution that serves the world. If you want to attract more athletes, or any athletes, get better at coaching. Not the answer you wanted, I’m sure. I have seen this concept rejected by many before you, some who have turned to the above two solutions instead.
Imagine this. You get one person and train them. You analyse the results of a long period of time. If the results are not good enough you change, experiment. You don’t talk about it, boast about it, lie about it, embellish it, and post about it. You just do it and accept the realities of the outcome. Then you do it again, and with more people, and get better. You may start with kids. You may not charge when you start. The only constant variable is you do and objectively assess. And keep going. To aid your progress you avoid being influenced by those who failed to attract athlete clients or can’t coach. You selectively choose influences that from your first hand experience you know have coached successfully. It means putting the athlete first, ahead of your own ego.
Yes, this would take delayed gratification. It might be slow. It might be hard work. It might mean not feeling important or significant for a long time. It may mean playing second fiddle to the needs of the athlete. This is why most don’t do this. The first two solutions I reviewed above will get faster results in terms of perceptions. They won’t mean you can coach, and they won’t provide you with the tools to attract an athlete client base independent of team employment for the rest of your life.
What it will mean if you follow my third solution of getting better at coaching is that you will positively enhance the careers and lives of athletes. You will develop skills that will ensure you can put food on the table for the rest of your life. You might not become ‘internet famous’ but you may fulfill your potential to serve others. Imagine that.
It’s your choice. I believe however that the world needs more people to follow solution three.