Well, the weather certainly has changed here in Beijing! It feels like yesterday that the rowers were getting bored sitting on the ergometers because the rivers and lakes were frozen but today it was a sweltering 32 degrees Celsius with the promise of more (and hotter) to come.
Today I was coaching a couple of groups from the National Swimming Team, along with my good friend and colleague Rett Larson. Afterwards, a group of us were sitting around and reflecting on coaching athletes where we don’t speak the language. It gave me cause to reflect on my own coaching style and how it has changed in the time that I’ve been here in China.
Previously, I used to give a lot more verbal cues regarding exercises. I quickly realised that this was not going to work. Even with my marvellous translators, the words get lost and I found that often the crucial moment had passed when the message needed to be delivered.
"There are many ways to skin a cat and removing language fluency has forced me to develop other coaching strategies, and these are skills that I will take forward throughout the rest of my career"
These days, I invest much more heavily in demonstrations. I do a demo before a drill and after subsequent sets should the need arise. I am much more reliant on sound effects and gestures / body language to relay my message. So much so, that anyone witnessing a session of mine would think that I’m channelling Michael Winslow from the Police Academy movies! A simple example is that I have found strategies like saying “boom” when I want a strong effort, but saying “bang” when I want a fast effort. It’s really like onomatopoeia, where the sound of the word conveys its meaning.
I have been chatting quite a bit to Frans Bosch who has a book coming out on the skill aspect of strength training and these discussions (and subsequent hours spent reflecting) have led me to cue less. I nowadays will demonstrate a drill and ask the athlete to copy it. I will guide the athlete if they are a kinaesthetic learner. I then allow the athlete time to explore the movement and correct themselves. Let’s face it, we don’t correct a toddler about walking every step they take wrongly.
I view strength work as a form of resisted skill work. The resistance is there to see how robust the skill is under duress. This is why I teach the exercise the way I want it performed, allow the athlete to develop the skill in it, and, once they proficient, then I may add weight (or speed, or increase repetitions etc).
It is by taking this approach, I have learned that the fundamental thing about coaching is not necessarily the words you say (I probably used to say too much!), but the way you convey meaning in such a manner that you can help an athlete develop a particular skill. There are many ways to skin a cat and removing language fluency has forced me to develop other coaching strategies, and these are skills that I will take forward throughout the rest of my career.
‘Til next week,
Stay robust, amigos!
Sports Medicine and Performance Consultant for Team China leading up to the London Olympics. Holds Masters degrees in both Sports Physiotherapy and Exercise Science and lectures on the MSc in Sports Physio course at the University of Bath and on the MSc in S+C at Edith Cowan University.