There is a fine line between anxiety or nervousness that enhances OR inhibits performance; how do we as coaches help our athletes find the balance for a successful outcome?
This is such a common issue and it can even vary much from athlete to athlete depending on context: how big the race, perceived quality of training, etc. There are a few things I suggest coaches implement in their interactions with athletes re. race anxiety: First and most basic - remind them that what they’re experiencing is completely normal. Even the world’s best deal with pre-race nerves or anxiety - I know this first hand because a pro runner once told me this at a major marathon! Once they know they are not alone in their experience, I recommend helping the athlete shift their perspective towards the event; framing it as something challenging versus something threatening. The rationale behind that is that when humans are typically approached with a challenge, they are likely to move toward it. When something is seen as threatening or beyond their capacity, we often see hesitation.
Coaches often work with athletes who have a fear of failure; what can coaches do to help athletes overcome this fear?
The first thing I would recommend is to help them clearly define what success means to them. Another mechanism coaches can use is to help the athlete set a range of goals, such as a range of finish times (ex. A 3:30-3:40 Marathon, etc.) and incorporate ‘process goals’ for races and big workouts. Some examples of process goals are: starting on pace or finish on empty, use positive self-talk, etc. Giving athletes helpful reminders to set who they are apart from what they do is also a good thing for coaches to remind athletes of. Lastly, helping an athlete understand that failure is part of becoming a better athlete and an opportunity to learn cannot be emphasized enough. When an athlete comes into my office after an unsatisfactory performance, I encourage them to reframe failure into something they can use instead of a way to judge oneself and their abilities.
Additionally, how do you help athletes who have a fear of success?
This is a trickier one! Setting shorter term goals for these athletes to help them experience “little wins” along the way and get used to the way it feels to make progress. Asking an athlete about past achievements and positive experiences may help foster a more favorable response. One thing I find in runners is the belief that they can only run “so fast”, and tend to get fearful if they push to certain paces they are actually capable of running. Getting them to see paces as just numbers or if you suspect someone isn’t performing to their potential, perhaps experiment or have them experiment training without a watch and by effort. Just like dealing with fear of failure, a coach can never reinforce enough that running in the big picture does not define the athlete.
I think every coach has encountered an involved parent who simply wants the best for his/her athlete but ends up hindering them, either through competitive anxiety (wanting to please parents with outcome) or unrealistic expectations of the athlete’s ability or outcome. Do you have any advice for coaches in balancing a parent’s expectations with realistic goals for said athletes?
The first thing that pops into my head is to build it into team policy and what I mean by that is to set the expectation and clearly define the roles of the athlete, coach, and parent in the youth sport context. Parents are a support role, providing the basics of transportation, etc. and have the opportunity to encourage their athlete. Good coaches communicate some guidelines for dealing with success and failure, such as not discussing for an amount of time or praising effort and ‘showing up’ over results. Coaches provide the structure, instruction, and feedback. They also are in a great position to make a difference by encouraging their athletes, regardless of their talent or standing on the team. The athletes, it’s ultimately up to them how hard they choose to work. When all three entities are at least in some degree of congruence, good things can happen. Notice how the emphasis on effort on all fronts and enjoying the sport no matter what the level rings true here. Back to the guidelines or expectations, this can be done in meeting or letter format, and I recommend regularly checking in with athletes to determine if any levels of pressure exist. Also, I like to tell coaches that at the end of the day, they can only control so much - it is ultimately up to the athlete and their family to draw boundaries.
Do you have suggestions on how to help an athlete who is “burned out” or athlete who has past success but currently struggling?
If possible, find a way to help them find or reconnect with their “why” for doing the sport and remind the athlete that ups and downs are common and may help them grow. De-emphasizing results (see a theme here?!) and setting some short-term, realistic goals is often helpful. I encourage athletes who are dealing with setbacks or lack of success to “be where their feet are” and work from there, not past results. To be honest, I’ve experienced both burnout and being “victimized by past success” in my own running and found to take where I currently am and make steps from there. If necessary, discussing the option of time off or changing events/races/distances to spice things up may also be helpful, as is investing in other parts of themselves outside of running.
How do you manage a group of athletes who have different motivations, fears, and hopes?
Good question! First, the coach needs to realize that everyone has a different story and a different ‘why’ for what they do. If it is a team situation, I suggest having a talk early in the season to work towards a common goal or objective. Typically, if discussed collaboratively, groups of athletes can find ways to come together. Keeping open communication and listening to athletes is important as well - remind them that they are free to discuss concerns and ideas and acknowledge them accordingly, and initiate consideration to an athlete’s viewpoint. Communication and building relationships are key to understanding whom you’re working with and creates some cohesion in settings even when not everyone’s viewpoints completely align. Realize as a coach, you have the ability to set guidelines you think are best for the team and trust your training, experience, and instincts - if athletes feel that they are at least ‘heard’, the likelihood of buy-in to a program typically increases.