When teams go from Good to Great: Coaching Elite Athletes part I - Tim Goodenough
Ever since Jim Collins wrote “Good to Great” in 2001, there has become a growing awareness that there are specific and identifiable aspects to consistently good performance and very good or great performance in companies. This is the first part of a multi-part series that examines what these performance aspects may be for sports teams, and what implication that may have for coaches and athletes.
Paddy Upton, the Indian Cricket Mental Coach, defined and explored the difference between instruction based coaching and collaborative coaching for elite cricketers in his Masters Dissertation.
“Instruction based coaching style is characterized by an authoritarian, dogmatic, dictatorial, my-way-or-the-highway style, by contrast a collaborative style may be followed ranging from democratic to laissez-faire.” (Upton 2006)
Upton interviewed 21 senior provincial cricketers (8 of whom were national players) and asked them to share their experience of all 4 national coaches and 36 provincial coaches they worked with in South Africa from 1991-2004. Upton came to the conclusion that the instruction based coaching style can often limit players both personally and professionally.
Upton is one of a handful of specialists who are using best practise in the business world, specifically the world of executive coaching and applying those principles, techniques and strategies to working with elite athletes.
Tim Goodenough, the mental coach of the Sharks rugby team, and his business partner Michael Cooper are two other specialists in this domain. In their book, “In the zone with South Africa’s sports heroes.” (2007), they examined the effect of the thinking styles of athletes and their coaches on performance. One of the areas they focused on is the thinking style that leads to instruction based coaching, or collaborative based coaching, they identified this thinking style as internally referent or externally referent.
Whether an athlete is internally or externally referent, “deals with an individual’s sense of authority and where that individual places it. If you were to draw a circle of authority for you, are you inside or outside that circle?” (Cooper & Goodenough 2007) Are you internally referent to authority – i.e. are you the authority on your decisions, your performance, your technique, your style, your choices, or is the authority outside yourself – is it external, perhaps in your coach, is he/she the authority on your approach, your style, your decisions, your performance?
Instruction based coaches’ work best with externally referent athletes, they do not look to collaborate, debate, discuss technique, strategy or approach with these athletes. They prefer to do the thinking, and they like the athlete to do the doing. This approach often works really well with junior and age groups teams, where the players are not mature enough or haven’t taken enough ownership to partner with their coach; however this approach can be incredibly limiting for elite athletes – athletes who are looking to transition from good to great.
In the South African context Upton recognised former South African cricket coach Eric Simons (2002-2004) as being, “before his time.” His revolutionary collaborative approach was too radical a departure from what the South African team was used to experience that he was unable to support them moving from good to great in the way he would have liked.
An ideal mix is for a coach to be an internally referent thinking with an external check, and be adept at identifying whether his/her team would need an instruction based approach or a collaborative based approach. The coach’s goal would be to develop the individuals and team to become collaborative partners, in a way that maximised the collective talent of the group but didn’t supersede the time needed to create the space and opportunity to make mistakes and create learnings during the transition. For a coach to be able to function at this level he/she would need extraordinary flexibility and insight as well as a strongly developed sense of self that will enable him/her to facilitate learning, growth and development in areas where they already have expertise.
Put simply if you are hired because of your technical knowledge to do a job, and do it successfully by maximizing the technical knowledge of the players around you, there is strong requirement to give up the role of the expert, and take on the role of learner. This takes a very strong sense of self to be able to accomplish.
Elite athletes who are extremely internally referent can be a destructive or negative force in a team environment. They are so certain that their view point is correct and their thinking is appropriate in most or all instances that they struggle to work in an environment that isn’t aligned to their thinking or have team-mates or coaches who do not see things the same way.
Collaborative coaches are able to use the athletes they are working with as an extra intellectual resource, they create more buy-in through this approach, and most importantly supports the athlete creating a strong independent identity, an identity that has at its heart an emphasis on decision making.
An ideal mix for a team is
a group of athletes who are internally referent with an external check,
and a coach who has the same thinking styles. This will mean a group
of people who can make their own decisions, know what they want and
stand for, AND can discuss and have fierce conversations where necessary
about differing points of views. This type of team takes time to develop,
and requires a tremendous amount of communication, courage and humility
to support the learning environment that is at its heart.
Cooper, Michael; Goodenough, Tim.
(2007). In the Zone with South Africa’s Sports Heroes: How to
Achieve Top Performance in Sport and Life.
McLoughlin, M [editor] (2006)
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