Team Talk by Chris Stafford

When Coaches Over-Coach

Jill Ellis, Coach

Pressure to succeed can result in coaches missing the goal of developing independence and responsibility in athletes

Chris Stafford

Chris Stafford

Author’s Note:  The featured image does not imply over-coaching but rather is intended to illustrate a coaching moment. Jill Ellis is a highly successful coach who clearly does get it right!

A recent article quoting a prominent New Zealand event rider prompted a conversation about how a large number of young people are often receiving too much coaching. Over-coaching is a problem in many sports and, while it’s at best over protecting the athlete, at worst it’s doing a disservice to the sport, as well as the athlete. And it’s something athletes may not even realize because where they have grown up they have been conditioned to have a coach by their side at all times in training and competition. I spoke to athletes and parents from different sports who shared a variety of experiences that had inhibited the athlete’s development of independence and confidence. 

The coach may feel the need to be in control, to become indispensable for the sake of job security

As former Canadian team rugby player Maria Samson observed: “ You don’t realize a coach is over-coaching until you have one that doesn’t.”

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It can be said that in some societies there is a culture of mollycoddling, which both coach and parents are party too, and while this is intended to be protective, it guards against taking chances, making mistakes and learning from them. After all, that’s when we learn the most when things go wrong. Too often coaches avoid the problem by circumnavigating it.

Volleyball Coach

In equestrian sports the coaches anticipate a difficult situation with a horse playing out that may cause a problem for a rider and as a result a teaching moment is missed. Instead, coaches could let the rider learn by giving them the tools to deal with whatever crops up and have the riders work it out themselves. Micro-managing develops a false sense of security and importantly denies the rider an opportunity to gain confidence through successful problem solving.

The coach thinks that they are doing everything they can to prepare the athlete for competition, but in reality, the coach is putting the athlete at a disadvantage

Understandably parents want to do what’s best for their child to succeed, to maybe have opportunities they themselves did not, to realize ambitions that they were unable to. But too often we see from the pool to the playing field, and especially in equestrian sport, where a shallow sense of confidence outweighs competence. This is manifested by coaches who, for various reasons, take this even further by over-coaching. This can too often be seen in how an athlete becomes so dependent on their coach that it strips them of responsibility, decision-making, independence, confidence, true character development and, very likely, a strong role in a team.  It’s short-sighted at best and at worse the rewards are short-lived with the focus being instant gratification. 

Why do coaches over-coach?

Let’s consider some of the reasons that over-coaching happens and again this is painting a broad brush across different sports at different levels while highlighting some anecdotes from specific sports.

For me, watching the young today is alarming, they cannot do anything without a trainer. What’s wrong with making mistakes at home?

The coach may feel the need to be in control, to become indispensable for the sake of job security. They may be pressured by parents or peers or their employer to prove themselves, to justify their fee, to live up to their reputation and, let’s be candid, they may also have an ego to feed. But whatever their motivation, either conscious or otherwise, they are not truly putting the interests of the athlete first if they do anything other than encourage independence and for the athlete to make decisions and take responsibility. In my view coaching is not just about trophies and titles, it should be about the whole package.

horse-riding-instructor

The words of my first coach and trainer still ring in my ear and I can recite them verbatim. They were the solid foundation of my career and I will be forever grateful for how those words established my principles and values as a rider and horsewoman because they taught me far more than being a good rider. I applied those early lessons in school as a track & field athlete, tennis player, playing Goal Attack in Netball and Centre Forward in Field Hockey.

The most important thing to remember is to pay attention to your athlete.

As a track athlete recently put it to me: “The coach thinks that they are doing everything they can to prepare the athlete for competition, but in reality, the coach is putting the athlete at a disadvantage — they are hindering their athletes’ ability to choose their commitment to training, their ability to listen to their own body, to decide for themselves what is best for them as an athlete and as a person. Being told what to do feels a lot worse than deciding to do something for yourself, even if that “thing” is the same in both scenarios.”

For the athlete, being over-coached gives them someone to blame when things go wrong because they have not learned to take responsibility and they’ve come to expect someone telling them what to do every step of the way

Coaches take away the problem

When coaches over-coach they anticipate what may happen in any given situation and endeavor to avoid or pre-empt a problem. We see this in equestrian sport all the time.  And it does not help the rider, as Andrew Nicholson so aptly expressed:   

“For me, watching the young today is alarming, they cannot do anything without a trainer. What’s wrong with making mistakes at home? When you crash through a fence and have to hop off to put it up again yourself, you then start working out how you can get over without having to hop off to pick it up again.”

In the early stages of a teen’s athletic career, they mostly just want to get a feel for what the sport is like.  They aren’t trying to maximize their athletic capabilities right away.

What’s wrong with making mistakes?  Isn’t that what training is all about? Learning from mistakes and, given the tools, working through the solution. Problem solving is a part of life, after all, and if it’s all handed to you on a plate how will you learn to adjust and resolve when it’s crunch time and your team mates are relying on you?!

For the athletes, being over-coached gives them someone to blame when things go wrong because they have not learned to take responsibility and they’ve come to expect that someone will tell them what to do every step of the way. How can that be healthy for the athlete, for a team or for the sport’s development?!  Of course everyone is an individual; some need more coaching than others depending on their personality —maybe she is an introvert or self-conscious in some way that inhibits her, but that’s a coach’s call and does not necessarily fall into the realm of over-coaching per se.

And over-coaching extends beyond the field of play, it permeates into all aspects of the coach-athlete relationship, as a Collegiate Middle-Distance Runner explained:

“A teenager who is new to running, for example, probably does not want to be told what to eat, how much to sleep, etc. In the early stages of a teen’s athletic career, they mostly just want to get a feel for what the sport is like.  They aren’t trying to maximize their athletic capabilities right away. 

“At the early stages, coaches should focus on making athletics fun, and on teaching athletes how to work hard and be a good teammate — not on the exact pacing of workouts or micromanaging their lives outside of training. They should provide insight and guidance, but in a relaxed way.  The athlete can then choose whether or not to take those insights and put them into practice.  The most important thing to remember is to pay attention to your athlete. 

“The best way to know when to coach more is when your athlete asks for advice, or extra attention. Coaches can better maximize their time by only coaching to the extent that their athletes want, or are ready for.”

Entitlement and Pressure

I have often heard it said, and this may not be a popular notion, that there are some young people who have developed a sense of entitlement for whatever reason and which inevitably extends to their participation in sport. They think they should have things made easy for them and often don’t have the same work ethic as someone who has had to work for everything they have or have achieved.

When you look at it at elite level it’s no wonder athletes are over-coached

And there’s also peer pressure too — in some cases that sense of entitlement comes from within the sport when emerging talent is granted a travel bursary or funding for training. This recognition can sometimes come early on and may be short-lived in some cases but during that time the athlete is under-pressure to perform from everyone around them and the coach is under pressure to deliver. In some countries when athletes or a team doesn’t deliver medals funding is pulled and it becomes a pressure cooker environment.

And then there’s the relationship between a personal coach and a team coach when an athlete makes it onto a team and that team coach takes over.  In some development teams, athletes are handed coaches and trainers for every aspect of their life, from performance to conditioning to nutrition and sports psychology. When you look at it at elite level it’s no wonder athletes are over-coached!

Sponsorship and Social Media

And in today’s culture too there is pressure on an athlete to attract sponsorship, to establish her profile and, again, deal with peer pressure if her friends have sponsors or more followers on social media.  How many young athletes spend time every day on their social media to share everything from the latest training session to their latest kit or equipment. The pressure on them to keep up with their friends creates in itself yet more pressure on them to deliver as an athlete. So it’s a vicious circle, and if coaches add unnecessary pressure by over-coaching the result is plain to see. We are placing expectations on an athlete from every quarter.

The role of a coach carries so many responsibilities. One of them is to not over-coach or inhibit athletes at any stage.

But to return to the grass roots; when young people come into a sport we want them to first of all learn the sport, yes, but also to understand it and that to me means to understand every aspect of it, its tradition, culture, rules, history and the achievements of the sport’s heroes and heroines. To understand what and who makes that sport, not to change it to suit their own goals or achieve easy rewards for their short-term efforts but to earn it in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. These young athletes may not appreciate the value of sport or fully understand why they are pursuing a sport. possibly due to external pressures, or simply because it’s available to them — along with the many choices that they have as young athletes.

The role of a coach carries so many responsibilities. One of them is to not over-coach or inhibit athletes at any stage. We want them to develop a passion and dedication to realize their potential at whatever level and to have fun, to enjoy the whole process and environment that sport offers. And, importantly, we want them to stay in the sport and not be disillusioned or overwhelmed because the adults around them got it wrong.

So coaches, please take a second to ask yourself — “Am I over-coaching?”

Chris Stafford

Chris is the President & CEO of  WiSP Sports Inc. which she co-founded in 2015.  She is a veteran sport’s broadcaster and journalist with more than forty years experience covering international sports and has reported at Olympic Games, World and European Championships and World Cups. Having established her career in print and photography she switched to broadcast and was Vice President of Production at HorseTV in Los Angeles. Chris’ previous career was in equestrian sport as a rider and trainer, which took her around the world working with high performance riders and coaches. She graduated from the University of Westminster with a Masters in Journalism majoring in broadcast. She also graduated from the London School of Public Relations.  In 2006, Chris produced daily TV coverage of the World Equestrian Games, and in 2010 hosted daily WebTV coverage of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.  She hosted a 5-hour live broadcast from downtown Lexington, KY to mark the 100-day countdown to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2009, which was broadcast worldwide.  Chris has provided voice-overs for video and TV and narrated a number of audio books. She has been published extensively in several languages, is the author of three books and edited several other sporting titles. Chris was also a sport’s and travel photographer for numerous magazines and books and has held exhibitions in the USA. In 2009, she began producing and hosting radio podcasts and established her own network in 2011. Chris also produces and hosts the official podcasts for the U.S. Eventing Association and U.S. Dressage Federation.

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