What does it mean to be athlete centred? Like, genuinely athlete centred? I’m using athlete here in the generic sense meaning it could be ‘player’ or whatever is appropriate for your sport, so please apply to your context. But what does it mean to you?
From my experiences, I still think there are further gains that gain be made here. Let’s take the example of players at a professional football club in a talent pathway; typically they are told when they need to be there, what time the sessions start in the gym, what their programme is, when they have to be on the training pitch, what they need to be wearing, what they will be doing and how to do it. Add in the element of pre-match meetings where they are told what time to be there, what clips they are going to be watching, what the game plan is going to be and how to execute it.
If we want to develop young people that are fit for adult life and armed with a selection box of skills such as being a reasonable communicator, an independent thinker and half decent at making decisions about matters that affect their lives, I’m not convinced that doing everything for them and taking away all this thinking is going to prove to be very helpful.
Here in could be the problem though as we flip from what is, let’s face it is in most cases, a pretty adult-led environment where all the decisions are made by them to one that is planned with the athletes. There will be nervousness about the lunatics running the asylum. I know if I give my 9yo son the choice of what to eat every night he will probably go for pizza and ice cream.
But let’s provide an alternative universe. However, before we go to what that may look like, I’m going to flip the phrase a little. Let’s use the phrase “co-created” instead and I’ll described what that could look like, building on the example from above.
Let’s use an U18 or U21 team sport example and start with understanding who they players are. They have played the ‘game’ for probably ten to twelve years already, experienced many different coaches and associated styles on their rocky road to the top of the talent pathway. They have played in different tactical systems, with numerous problems in front of them and have developed a network of people around their life that probably share views, affect their thinking and influence their growth.
That squad of people, maybe 16-20 of them in that space, have probably been part of nearly a hundred varieties of set pieces and restarts to the game they are playing. But what happens in many cases?
The game plan is developed by the analyst dept and the coaching team.
The sports science and S&C team think about the bigger picture of load monitoring during the week.
The coaches deliver coaching sessions in the build up to solve the tactical problems they think the opposition are going to pose.
The coaches present to the players around in-possession features, out of possession strategies and set pieces in a classroom with players sat listening to them.
The coaches deliver more coaching sessions based on the information they have shared.
Player meeting before the game where the coaches or analyst re-visits the messages they have delivered during the week.
Game takes place and a follow up reflection process (mostly on performance).
Here’s what a co-created example might look like.
The players sit down with the analyst and coaching team and share their views on the problems they think the opposition will pose. They have probably played against quite a lot of the players in the other team multiple times in the last ten years yet rarely get asked! Players can share where they think their weak spots are, the threats they might cause us and some possible solutions.
A game plan is then devised and refined with a smaller group of players from a unit/group/leadership team (whatever works for that team) with the coaching staff.
Coaches deliver coaching sessions during the week to help put into practice the game plan that has been mutually agreed. Reflection between players and coaches about what is needed more of, or less of, as they get closer to game.
Coaches refine last couple of sessions based on feedback.
Players meet with analyst and coach to choose the set pieces based on the information available, the players and opposition. This can be worked upon on the training pitch with the players taking the lead, the coaches supporting.
Players decide the substitution strategy and agree with coaches.
Two or three players lead the pre-match meeting, consolidating the learning from the week, and deliver the tactical strategy to the team including set pieces.
At half-time, players come together to feedback three points to coaches on what they are noticing from the game, coaches deliver their three points of feedback and pick up any individual conversations. Both against the game plan (primarily) and the moment (live feedback).
Post-match reflections involve process and performance, led by players first, coaches second.
The biggest challenge is not in what to do but in the mindset of the adults to hand over one of the reins. It's about letting go to gain more.
Would I approach it in this manner every week? Probably not. However, the outcomes of this include many of the skills that young people will need as they tackle the big world of professional sport and life:
The challenge is we get caught up in our ‘river of thinking’ and we need to jolt ourselves out of that to truly accelerate the development of human performance. Feel free to get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org if you want some observations of your environment and a sense check and don’t forget to check out the new website at www.riversofthinking.com.