In the sports community, coaches are among the people most affected by this pandemic and isolation, synonymous with an abrupt halt to training sessions and the competition season for a still as yet indeterminate period. For coaches, the emotional and financial costs are similar to those of parents with the added disappointment of not being able to fulfil their role, which for many of them represents their career, their livelihood, their professional identity and their passion.
Each coach is living through this situation according to their aspirations, the level of each athlete and their level of commitment. But all trainers are probably wondering what they can do to support their athletes during the coming weeks.
Take care of yourself first
- Identify your own emotions
Give yourself the space to recognize what you are currently feeling. Reflect on what affects you the most as a coach in the current situation, but also as a person. What are the consequences of these emotions? Do you feel nervous, apathetic, motivated, discouraged? Are these emotions affecting your behaviour?
- Recognize what you are feeling
- Identify your different emotions
- Try to understand them
Your emotions will likely change over time as the situation evolves. Allow yourself the time to integrate each new government or institutional decision and the consequences on your daily life and profession.
- Confide in someone and trust your network
Do not hesitate to verbalize how you feel about the situation. Contact other coaches and share your resources (e.g. physical preparation programs), your questions, your concerns and your frustration.
Turn to your network: You may already be collaborating with physical preparers, physiotherapists and certified mental performance consultants. These people can provide important support, not just for athletes, but also for you, the coaches. Don’t hesitate to call on them to help you maintain your level of physical activity which will be a great help for your physical and mental health.
- Take advantage of this time to question your practice
Just like athletes are advised to question their sports experience and other facets of their personality (see the blog Sportspersons and athletes confined – When emotions and uncertainty become overwhelming.), take advantage of this time to question your experience as a coach:
- Why did I want to become a coach?
- What knowledge do I base my decisions on to intervene?
- What are my values? What behaviours do I adopt in conjunction with these values? Do I have behaviours that are not in line with my values?
- Am I a good coach?
- What are my skills? My strong points?
- What goals am I trying to achieve by training these athletes, this team?
- What type of coach am I (democratic, autocratic, etc.)? What are the advantages and disadvantages of my approach?
- What aspects of my coaching could I improve? Would this be a good time to do it or to get informed and continue to keep informed?
- Do I have a balance between my persona life and professional life? Do I need to adjust it?
Take care of the athlete, but most of all the person
Other than managing your own emotions, you are probably concerned about how your athletes are going to get through the next few weeks. Beyond the range of emotions that athletes can go through, one of the greatest concerns among coaches is for the motivation of their athletes. In this respect, we have already seen a number of trends:
- Athletes who have trouble training alone, because their motivation is strongly linked to the feeling of belonging with their teammates or the sensations generated by the sport they practice.
- Athletes who feel an emptiness and a significant loss due to their inability to finish their season or finalize a multi-year cycle that they committed themselves to.
- Athletes who are relieved, due to injuries, exhaustion or performance anxiety.
Regardless of your athletes’ state of mind right now, the important thing is to understand them individually and consider each one’s needs in order to provide them with support and appropriate advice. Naturally, no coach’s behaviour is perfect and does not guarantee the well-being and performance of their athletes. But the principles used in sport psychology provide a few areas of intervention to favour intrinsic motivation, itself linked to both well-being and perseverance.
According to the integrated theory of motivation in sport (Vallerand & Losier, 1999), self-determination is a key ingredient of persistency and positive emotions. And happiness and perseverance are two things we really need right nowJ
An athlete’s feeling of self-determination will be favoured by satisfying their needs for competence, independence and social belonging.
These three psychological needs are considered fundamental psychological needs which all humans need to be happy, regardless of their age, their culture, their experience, their socio-cultural status, etc.
The feeling of competence refers to feeling efficient and experiencing opportunities to exercise and express one’s capacities (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The need for independence is defined as the perceived origin of one’s own behaviour by experiencing one’s choices and feelings, feeling like the initiator of one’s own actions and will (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
The feeling of social belonging refers to the fact of having a social affiliation, both with others and with one’s community and taking care of others by being taken care of by others (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
On the basis of these theoretical principles, a few areas of intervention are available to coaches:
Favour reflection and involve your athletes in their way of managing their training. How?
By helping your athletes to respect on the performance aspects that they want to and can work on right now.
- Allow them to manage their experience. Do not start from the principle that your athletes will feel bad while some feel relieved, well, balanced and happy to meet up again. Listen to them and support them while respecting their way of managing the situation.
- Don’t try to fill up your schedule and that of your athletes. Some have a very low level of motivation right now and having them train will not help them. Depending on your athletes’ goals (and not your own 😉 ), identify if the important thing right now is to maintain a minimum level of physical activity or pursue goals.
One week at a time: we don’t know when training will start up again
- While considering your athletes needs and interests, help them to implement regular training to maintain their physical and mental health. More specifically, encourage individual reflection on aspects of performance (physical, technical, psychological, strategic and tactical) which can be maintained and/or improved right now and which will be of great use when training and competitions resume.
- While being a resource for your athletes, give them the keys to their routine by allowing them to reflect on their own goals. For example, question your athletes individually on:
- What can be maintained in the current conditions (e.g. concentration, strength).
- What can be developed or improved in the current conditions (e.g. shoulder flexibility, mental imaging capacity).
- The weekly goals that can be pursued based on what has been determined in points 1 and 2. Each week, ask your athletes to reflect on a goal that is specific to them and organize short sessions with them.
See the sample table below.
Invite your athletes to note their progress in a log which allows them to see what has been worked on, maintained and improved. Offer them the possibility of talking to you about their progress on a more or less regular basis to ensure a follow-up and to reassess their goals as needed. It is important that you highlight their individual improvement.
Keep in contact
- Keep in contact with your athletes on a group and individual basis as much as possible. Recognize that you probably play an important and precious role in their life, making you one of the rare people whom they trust and with whom they can express their feelings, their insecurity, their concerns and their well-being. As much as possible, create a space in which they will be free to share what they are experiencing. Listen to them and ask how you can help them. Do not hesitate to solicit the help of resources that you already rely on (doctors, physical preparers, mental performance consultants, etc.) to manage this situation together.
- Continue to be a resource based on your athletes’ needs – Provide an overview of ongoing training options; suggestions for training at home using credible online programs or applications; healthy recipes to try; as well as opportunities to get out and move, such as hiking, walking or cycling. You can also consider creative ways for them to remain engaged in their sport, like sending them specific questions-answers to research for their sport, suggested reading or podcasts to listen to.
- It is also important to recognize that humans are wired and connected. That is why it is natural to want to see and be with one’s family, friends, teammates, neighbours and others. Even though we are currently limited in our face to face interactions, use virtual methods to stay connected, such as text messages, video applications (FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, etc.), social media or other types of technology.
- Encourage communication between athletes (exchanges, team work, feedback, etc.)
Take advantage of this confinement situation to find a fair balance with them between activities that will keep them physically and mentally active while leaving them the time to rest, read, spend time with their family, etc. Leave them the time and opportunity to discover other aspects about themselves. They will be more motivated to devote themselves to their sport once again.
To summarize, there is no magical recipe to be a good coach right now. Among the right things to do, you must take care of yourself, have confidence in yourself, listen to your athletes and offer them support, while respecting the state of mind they find themselves in.
Élise Marsollier, PhD
Mental Performance Consultant
Sports Psychology Researcher
Association pour la psychologie du sport appliquée : The COVID-19 Pandemic: Tips for Athletes, Coaches, Parents, and the Sport Community.
Vallerand, R. J., & Losier, G. F. (1999). An integrative analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in sport. Journal of applied sport psychology, 11(1), 142-169.
[…] the principles used in sport psychology provide a few areas of intervention to favour intrinsic motivation, itself linked to both well-being and perseverance.