Coaching at the amateur level can be a challenging proposition, made even more difficult depending on the country, experience level, and sport in which you work. Outside of the most elite levels, most athletes will have assembled their own team of specialists to help them prepare, and this team may include a wide variety of experts including, though not limited to:
- The sport-specific coach
- A strength coach
- A doctor
- A therapist (physio, massage and/or chiro)
- A dietitian
- A sport psychologist
It is inevitable that the wide variety of the athlete’s needs will frequently extend outside our own field of instruction. When that happens, it is crucial that we not only recognize it but that we acquiesce to those whose education and experience are better suited to the situation. If, for example, you’re a swim coach, you don’t want a physical therapist or strength and conditioning coach giving your swimmer stroke instruction – likewise, you shouldn’t be offering the athlete rehab protocols or designing their strength program.
Obviously, the depth of this roster will depend entirely on the extent of the athlete’s resources, and each of these specialists may or may not have worked together before. When they have, it is an advantage that is to the benefit of the athlete (assuming nepotism doesn’t overshadow skill and quality) but more often, they are found and engaged separately. For all these diverse specialists to operate in a coherent manner, it is that much more important that each of them recognizes and respects the others’ expertise, as well as their own shortcomings. For those of us that are part of this “greater whole,” this is not to say that we can’t seek to continue our education and understanding of the other spheres, nor that we shouldn’t look to implement some of what we have learned into our training protocols… we should! But when offering suggestions or recommendations on one of these peripheral areas, we need to do so with a) the caveat that we are not experts, so this is essentially just an educated (and potentially biased) opinion, b) the directive that the input of someone who is actually trained and educated in the area be secured, and c) a willingness on our part to defer to said expert on the subject.
As the first step in this process, it can be helpful to first break down the various components of the athlete’s training needs into “buckets”, or categories and then determine which of those apply to your specialty. From there, it’s a lot easier to recognize whether you can (or should) take the lead on decision-making in a particular circumstance – by establishing which bucket the situation falls under and then which specialist(s)’ knowledge best applies.
Some possible categories and expert assignations would be:
- Mental/Emotional – psychologist/counselor (preferably one that specializes in sport)
- Recovery/Repair – doctors, physical therapists, dietitians, chiropractors and massage
- General Athletic Performance – strength and conditioning coaches, exercise physiologists
- Sport-specific Skill – the coach in the athlete’s sport
Now, there may be a situation that encompasses a couple of buckets (the athlete’s peak and taper plan will need to be coordinated between the strength coach, the exercise physiologist, and the sports coach), and there may also be a time when there are multiple experts within a single category (post-injury both the doctor and the physical therapist may be working towards getting the athlete’s training back on track simultaneously). It is just as critical that in these scenarios, the experts work together as a team, deferring to those better suited or trained when the boundaries of expertise are reached. It is when we start blurring these lines – offering advice, direction, or recommendations outside of our own specialty – that we have the potential for decreased effectiveness of the training protocols (such as when the sport-specific coach starts prescribing dietary recommendations contrary to what the dietitian has recommended); or worse, it can create a situation where the athlete’s ability to perform can become inhibited (when a strength and conditioning coach starts diagnosing injury or trying to prescribe rehabilitative protocols).
Being part of the support team for an athlete can be a very rewarding experience – but it can be an extraordinarily frustrating one as well (occasionally at the same time). The best way to navigate this is for each team member to be honest in identifying the scope of their practice, to defer to one another when the scenario falls outside of it, and support the judgment and recommendations of one another – thus setting the athlete on the straightest path to success.