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Improve Your Athlete’s Chances of Success

As a coach, you are in a privileged position to have a great impact on your athlete's development. Learn how to use this wisely.

USA Cycling coach talks with a female cyclist athlete during a race

Your job as a coach is to assist the athlete in achieving a personal goal. As an endurance coach this is typically sport-specific and the result is usually measurable. The outcome is commonly related to some marker of performance in the event—finishing position in the athlete’s age group, completion time, or another specific achievement.  

Other goals are highly personal and unique to the individual, such as weight loss, personal satisfaction defined by accomplishment, a feeling of task completion, and psychological achievement against the odds. Such exceptions might not be characteristic of the bulk of your daily coaching tasks, but your role in guiding the athlete’s progress is similar.  

Regardless of the goal type, how can you improve your athlete’s chances of success? This is the heart of coaching. Let’s dig a bit deeper into how you can drive the athlete to strive for and achieve their goals.  

Lead with empathy

The single most important thing you can do to boost athlete performance is to be empathetic. Show a true and deep concern for the athlete’s situation. I know that probably sounds too easy, so let me give you an example. 

In the business world, empathy is explained by the “Hawthorne Effect.” It’s the same for the sport world. In the 1920s, the U.S. National Research Council initiated a study on the effects of changes in shop floor lighting on workers in a telephone parts company in Hawthorne, Illinois. Sure enough, when the lighting in the room was increased, production performance also increased. The researchers concluded that making the room brighter caused the employees to work harder. But they decided to reduce the lighting to see if performance returned to previous levels. Interestingly, they found that productivity continued at a high level. The same held true for other modifications they tried, such as changes to work hours and breaks. In fact, everything they tried reinforced high performance.  

After a great deal of head-scratching, they finally reached the conclusion that worker performance improved because someone was concerned enough about their working conditions to study it. It had nothing to do with lighting or anything else. From the employees’ point of view, management was empathetic. Someone cared. This perception led to greater productivity. The bottom line: There is nothing more potent to individual performance than having someone who is respected show real concern and support. Being an empathetic ally has a tremendous impact on performance.

RELATED: Julie Dibens’ Top Tips for Getting Started in Coaching

Athletes know when you’re faking it

Of course, empathy can’t be simulated. People can tell if you are truly empathetic or just faking it. If you don’t sincerely feel and demonstrate concern for the athlete then your task, and the athlete’s, is greatly increased. How do you demonstrate concern? This starts with asking questions that get to the heart of the athlete’s unique condition. Listen closely and express concern and support for the athlete’s situation, especially the obstacles they must overcome. Comments such as “I understand how you feel,” “How can I help?” and “What can we do to solve this?” all show your support. Your purpose is to learn how you can take appropriate action to help the athlete overcome obstacles and succeed. There are an endless number of actions here. But the mere fact that you are supportive, concerned, and intend to take action can have a significant impact on the athlete’s success in training and racing. 

I’ll give you a real example of a coach who showed no empathy for his athletes. It’s a sad story that doesn’t reflect our profession well. 

One of my first selections to be an assistant coach in my company was a pro athlete with a degree in a related field and experience in the sports nutrition industry. He seemed, at the time, like a perfect coach. I hired him and gave him five athletes. Within a month they complained that he showed no interest in them. One athlete told me that when he contacted the new coach he was essentially told, “I’ll write you a training plan and you pay my fee. Otherwise, leave me alone.” It could have been the best training plan ever created. But that was beside the point. The coach not only showed a complete lack of empathy, he didn’t even seem to care about his athlete’s most basic needs. This is an extreme example, however, I’ve come across coaches who are more willing to talk with their clients, but they demonstrate no depth of concern beyond that. 

Other keys to unlocking athletic performance

I expect you fully understand why empathy is such a powerful factor in successful coaching. And more than likely you express such concern for your athletes’ challenges in succeeding. Is there anything else that boosts performance over which you have some control? Here are some other topics to consider in working with your athletes:  

Determine what motivates the client and how substantial that motivation is. Then carefully rely on it to make progress toward the athlete’s goal. (There will be more on this topic in the next module, which will focus on process-driven training.) 

Model good lifestyle and sport habits

This applies to the full gamut of preparation—safety, health, nutrition, sleep, commitment to training, and following the plan. It must always be, “Do as I do,” not, “Do as I say.” Your actions speak much louder than your words. Live and train as you would like your clients to live and train. 

Provide positive and honest feedback on progress

The primary question every athlete wants to have answered by their coach is, “How am I doing?” Don’t wait for the athlete to pose the question. Frequently tell them how you see their progress relative to the goal. And be honest. If you try to sweet talk the athlete, it will come back to haunt you. Even if it hurts, you must be honest. And the longer you wait to be honest about progress the more it will hurt. If their progress is not satisfactory let them know—and right away. And follow that up with what needs to be done to get back on track. If things are going well then also don’t hesitate to tell them that.  

RELATED: Establishing a Positive Coach-Athlete Relationship

Always do what you said you would do

I’ve said this many times already, but if the athlete asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, admit it. Then find the answer and get back to the athlete. No one expects you to know everything. Don’t pretend you do.  

Encourage dedication to the goal

Frequently remind the athlete what they are working toward, including comments on progress. There should be mutually agreed upon, short-term objectives that are indicators of progress toward the goal. Of course, the goal should be clear and attainable. Objectives along the way are good indicators of progress. As objectives are achieved, celebrate the successes. And as always, measure progress, provide frequent feedback, and make changes to the plan as necessary.