Too Many Chefs (Coaches)

Too Many Chefs (Coaches) is an article by sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole on the perils of having too many advice givers.

Too Many Chefs, Too Many Sporting Coaches ..

Too Many Chefs In the Sporting Kitchen!

In my work I don’t actively seek any controversy. However as other trailblazers will be aware when you push the envelope regarding the work you do it comes with a certain amount of contention.

Once such area which I have always believed in but have really written about is this one. The topic of too many athletes having too many coaches. I use the word “coach” as the label to describe any official helper or advice giver. So although your grandfather would not count as a coach if chatting to you about some recent performances over a family dinner. He certainly would if he followed you down to the bowling alley twice a month and started giving you tips.

Let me start with the end in mind and work my way backwards. For team sport athletes I feel the ideal number of official coaches should be one. For those participating in individual sports the ideal number long terms is zero!

Let me explain …

The school system has it more or less correct. Teachers are generally aware of the fact that they have a limited amount of time to do their job. So although a maths teacher might be very proud of his or her contribution to someone who goes on to be a world-renowned engineer the maths teacher would not be involved past a certain point. This should be the same for developmental sporting coaches. But unfortunately it doesn’t happen that way very often.

In sport the more successful an athlete becomes the more coaches they tend to attract. Many of these coaches will be well intended but problematic nonetheless. The primary issue with having five or six official advice givers (which is common nowadays) is that much of their suggestions will be contradictory. This puts the athlete into a real predicament because he or she probably wants to trust all of them. But they soon find out this is not possible as different suggestions clash. I could write an entire book on one of the reasons why the advice tends to be so contradictory. But suffice to say it’s because sports coaching is still mainly based on guesswork. If you ask most coaches why they’d doing something the most common answer is this. “That’s what my coach used to do”.

There is also a real issue with role clarity. Which area of the “performance plane” each coach is supposed to be giving advice about is not obvious. In other words you get technical coaches giving psychological and tactical advice. You have physical coaches giving mental health and well-being advice.

What’s The Solution To Too Many Chefs / Coaches?

The answer is very different depending on if you play a team sport or an individual sport. For team sports there is no getting away from the fact that there needs to be a head coach. Ideally the head coach becomes the go-between for the players and all the other experts involved. In other words you may have a technical coach who is observing the players from a technical standpoint (biomechanics). But to ensure that any messaging around biomechanics does not accidentally get in the way of the bigger picture that message needs to come from one person – the head coach.

The same would apply to a sport psychologist working with a sporting team. Having a sport psychologist deliver mental skills training without the head coach being involved is absurd. Sport psychologists sometimes get into a huff when they hear this for fear of breaches in confidentiality. Or they feel the head coach is not been qualified to deliver the mental skills. All these potential issues can be nullified by proper communication and agreements before the start of the contract. 

This head coach can still work tremendously hard to make him or herself irrelevant on match day but ultimately the nature of team sports will still require them to be there before, during and after the match.

Coachless Individuals Athletes

This is not the case with individual athletes such as tennis players, golfers, surfers and boxers etc. These sports do not require a coach to be there during competition.

If you don’t have to have something at this important time, why would you want it? Central to sporting mental toughness is a low reliance on factors that we have little or no influence on. Other people, even the most reliable and well intended, are are partially influenceable. What does this mean? It means that athletes who depend on “certain” things or people are risking it from a psychological point of view. Why? Because you can’t guarantee these things or people will be there when you want them to be.

This philosophy, in part, explains why our team or sport psychologists and performance psychologists spend very little time with our clients whilst they are competing. Don’t get me wrong if a client insists on having a session the night before a competition we will certainly oblige. But we are trained to assist our clients improve in such a way that they would not feel like they needed such a session.

Too Many Coaches

From a systems point of you I’m not sure what the answer to that too many coaches dilemma is. What I do know is this. If you are a developmental aged elite athlete (13 – 17) and you have already had close to 10 official coaches then the system has failed you. Unless of course in the unlikely event that all of those coaches are singing from the same song book. And they are unbelievably good at communicating between one another. Until that happens then less is more when it comes to the number of coaches and formal advice giver as you have.

We would like to hear from readers via the comments section below about stories on this topic. Did you have too many coaches? How did it impact you? Can you give examples of when well intended advice was contradictory? To safeguard your identity feel free to add your comment using a false name.

How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

How do you measure your Mental Toughness?

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates

Okay, I’ll admit it. We’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt it. Instead we simply asked a series of questions at the start of their sport psychology journey.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business . So over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.

Measuring Mental Toughness Will Always Be An Estimation

Fact: there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide”. Measuring Mental Toughness will always be an estimation, an approximation.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.

With The Luxury Of Time …

With the luxury of time the reliability of the information collected can be improved. For example, by asking the opinions of those close to the client and/or via direct observation. Observing athletes or performers in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions. Then image having of video footage of the outburst to use in session.

Relative Subjectivity

But just because the answers are opinions it doesn’t render these tools useless by any means. It just means we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have some idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.

For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long term goals

I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

Five Major Subcomponents of Mental Toughness

The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness; Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus are all subcomponents of MT. This provides the sport psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.

Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires have become misleading. Why? Well they they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

Four Free Mental Toughness Questionnaires

The four questionnaires are listed below. They can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentioned. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

Metuf = Mental Toughness

Below is a 16 minute video on what has become known as The Aeroplane Analogy. It basically explains how mental toughness and mental health fit into the overall performance picture. And below that a full transcription of the video in case you’d rather read than watch (or do both). Enjoy and as always please share and comment.

Transcription

Greetings, everybody. I hope you’re well. My name is Gareth Mole. I’m one of the senior sport and performance psychologists that has the great pleasure to work for Condor Performance. We’re an Australian-based group of sport and performance psychologists that have been providing mental toughness training services since 2005. My colleagues and I at Condor Performance are the creators and the custodians of Metuf. Metuf has been designed to solve one of the most common problems in competitive sport, and that is that everybody seems to be aware of the importance of the mental side. Yet, at the same time, there is a tremendous lack of understanding in terms of how to improve it. So Metuf is the answer to that dilemma.

In order for me to explain how mental toughness fits into the bigger picture as part of this very brief introductory video, I’m going to use an analogy that the competitive athlete is a little bit like a four-engined airplane, similar to the one that has just flown onto your screen. So there’s a couple of things to mention before I actually take you through what each part of the airplane represents. So the first thing to mention is that the mindset of those that actually work on airplanes, so for example, aeronautical engineers, is a mindset that we believe would be incredibly valuable if adopted by competitive athletes and coaches.

The mindset that they have is one whereby they do not wait for something to go wrong before they attend to it. They are constantly checking in on the state of all different aspects of their aircraft. The likelihood that something goes wrong is a lot, lot lower because they are constantly doing checks and maintenance. This is a mindset that would be incredibly valuable if you are a competitive athlete or a competitive sporting coach. Unfortunately, the default is for something to only get a significant amount of attention when something goes wrong.

The second reason why this analogy is so helpful is because as you can imagine, there is no point in having four engines that are in fantastic condition if they’re attached to an aircraft that is falling into disrepair. I’m going to come back to that second part of the analogy after I’ve taken you through all the different aspects of the airplane. Okay. So let’s start by giving you some clues. So engine one is PC. Engine two is TC. The main body of the aircraft is MB and WB. The third engine is MT, and the fourth engine is TW. If you like, pause the video and have a little bit of a go at trying to work out what each of these five different aspects of the airplane is referring to.

Okay, so let’s go through the answers. Let’s see how you end. So PC refers to physical capabilities, and one way you could break down the physical aspects of your sport is to think about it in terms of speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance. TC refers to technical consistency, and technical consistency is basically where we would consider all the different skills that are applicable for your sport. Of course, because this Metuf program is designed for all coaches and all athletes of all sports, then I’m simply going to refer to them here as skill A, skill B, skill C, and skill D, for example.

But to give you a bit of a clue as to what these are for you in your particular sport, it’s probably the area that you’ve spent the most amount of time on. So for example, if you’re a golfer, then I suspect that you have spent the most amount of time on areas such as practicing your putting, practicing your short game, practicing your long game. If you are a rugby player, then I suspect you spent the most amount of time practicing your passing, practicing your catching, practicing your kicking, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Okay. Next, we have mental toughness, and all I’m going to do for mental toughness at this stage is give you the first letter of each of the five different aspects of mental toughness. So M, E, T, U, and F. I’ll let you think about that for a little bit. Moving on to TW. TW refers to tactical wisdom, and tactical wisdom is basically all about on-field decision-making. I’m not going to go into any detail in terms of tactical wisdom, except to mention a couple of things.

One is we are referring to the decisions that get made in sporting contests. So we are not referring to life decisions, for example. That is going to be better contained in the MB WB section. Of course, the second thing to acknowledge, as is the case with all of these engines, is that sports, of course, do vary significantly in terms of the amount that is going on. So for example, a tennis player and a squash player, of course, have to make hundreds and hundreds of decisions almost instantly as part of a tennis match or a squash match. Whereas, for example, a 100-meter sprinter does not have nearly the same amount of decisions to make in their competitive environment.

Okay. So those are the four engines, and we won’t be finished until we have worked out what the MB and the WB is referring to. So I’d be interested to know how many of you worked out, but that stands for mental health and wellbeing. That’s right. The main part of the aircraft is mental health and wellbeing, and I’m going to go back to why this analogy, that the competitive athlete is like a four-engined airplane is so useful. So I want to emphasise that there is not a lot of point in having amazing physical capabilities, amazing technical abilities, really good sporting mental toughness, and amazing on-field decision-making if your overall mental health and wellbeing is suffering.

In other words, there’s no point in having four amazing engines attached to an airplane that is falling into disrepair. So you can imagine if there was an airplane where the main fuselage is all rusty and full of holes, and yet attached to that airplane were four engines that were straight out of the factory floor, brand new, ready to go. That aircraft is going to struggle because although the engines are doing their best to basically propel the aircraft towards its destination, the fact that they’re attached to an aircraft that’s falling into disrepair is a potential disaster waiting to happen.

So logic would suggest that in those circumstances, it would be a more logical, more sensible to improve the actual main part of the aircraft first or at least at the same time as looking at the engines. If it is an area of concern to you, then it’s probably worth you prioritising your energy into improving that area either first or alongside areas such as physical, technical, mental, and tactical. What we are trying to avoid is for you to ignore your mental health and wellbeing completely, and just focus on those four sporting engines. If you would like some assistance on mental health and wellbeing, then the best way of going about that is for you to speak to someone, a family member, your family doctor. For example, just say that you are concerned about your mental health and that you would like to do some kind of assessment. That is always the best way to start.

This Metuf program will not directly help you with your mental health and wellbeing as you can appreciate. The program has been created in order to improve sporting mental toughness. So that M, E, T, U, and F that you’ll find out about in a minute. So we are not going to talk specifically about mental health and wellbeing as part of this program, but that’s not to say that we are diminishing its importance. In many ways, we’re doing the exact opposite.

Okay. To finish up this very brief introductory video, what I want to do is set up the rest of the video presentations that are about to follow. So you may recall that we broke down physical capabilities into five different sub-areas. So speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance, for example. So now, we want to do the same for mental toughness, and let’s see how many you managed to work out. So basically, the M stands for motivation. The E stands for emotions. The T stands for thoughts, U for unity, and F for focus.

So when we talk about mental toughness, we’re actually talking about a combination of these five different areas, and it is important to emphasise that it is much more useful to talk about it at the subcategory level. As you can appreciate, it’s quite possible for an athlete to be highly motivated, but to really struggle with their focus, for example. You can have those two things happening at the same time, and so it would be counterproductive for us to describe either ourselves, an athlete, or even a sporting team as mentally tough because in doing so, we lose out on the ability for us to hone in on these five separate aspects of mental toughness.

So the second thing to mention is that if I was to ask you to come up with ideas on how to improve the five aspects of physical capabilities, I’m guessing that you’re going to have a whole bunch of ideas that will come to mind pretty quickly. So for example, for speed, we might do some sprint training. To improve fitness, we might do some endurance training, resistance for strength, stretching for flexibility, and then of course, balancing if we want to improve our balance or our proprioception.

If I was to put you on the spot, however, and ask you to do the same for mental toughness, can you list five different ideas, activities, tasks, processes that are designed to improve motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity, and focus, what would you come up with? What would come to mind? If you’re like most people, not a lot comes to mind. You might basically think about maybe a little bit of goal setting for motivation, and that’s often when you might run out of suggestions. So we are here to address that issue, and we’re going to do it in a very simple way, a very intentionally simple way. That’s through the introduction of mental methods.

So as you can see there, what we are basically going to do in the upcoming video presentations is introduce you to five mental methods. At the moment, we can call them mental methods A, B, C, D, and E. Each one of them designed to address the five different aspects of mental toughness in the same way that sprint training, endurance, resistance, stretching, and balancing address speed, fitness, strength, flexibility, and balance respectively. So I look forward to seeing you at the beginning of the video presentation, which is all about motivation and how to either improve or maintain it. See you then.