The emotions of being a coach at your first Olympic Games…
I recently read an journal in the International Sports Coaching Journal called ‘Let Them Get on With It’: Coaches’ Perceptions of Their Roles and Coaching Practices During Olympic and Paralympic Games”. It’s a great research paper about the ‘performance’ of coaches at an Olympic Games, something which has never really been addressed before. It got me thinking…how do first time Olympic coaches deal with the pressures of the Olympic Games and why is this never touched upon in coach education?
For me, being a part of an Olympic Games was the ultimate, better than winning the lottery, better than any dream holiday…it was everything to me. As a child, it was all I could dream of and when it was Olympic year, I would give up all commitments to watch my hero’s on the TV. Unfortunately, God did not bless me with Olympian genetics, so I never made it as an athlete, however, I soon realised that my ticket to being a part of an Olympic Games was as a Coach. And I did EVERYTHING I could do to get there. I was a young female with no international experience as an athlete, but somehow wanted to coach an athlete to an Olympic Games, it was my passion and my absolute goal. And, I am very happy to say, I did it!
When you invest your life, your soul and all your energy to coaching a young person from beginner to an Olympic Games, I can tell you it is absolutely mind blowing…worth every sacrifice, every doubt, every bit of fear and every heart ache. Everyone focusses on how the athlete must feel having qualified for an Olympic Games, but I am telling you that from a coaches point of view, it is possibly the greatest feeling in the World…little old me, a coach to an Olympian!
Then reality kicks in….holy crap…I’m going to the Olympics and…holy crap…how am I going to support my athlete through this when I am just as new and as nervous as they are?!
There is a quote from the journal I mentioned above… “little is known about coaches’ psychological preparation and how their performance can affect athletes.” And this is the worrying part…everyone just expects the coach knows what they are doing!
As a Coach, you are deemed to be the one in control, the one who gets unfazed, the one with all the answers. You need to stay cool & calm under pressure and to the outside world, you need to portray that you know exactly what your doing…and because of that, you can’t go and ask for help from other coaches, or admit to your athletes that you don’t really know what your doing! Now of course, the Olympics is just like any other competition really, the rules of your sport are the same and the objectives are the same, so on competition day the job of a coach has already been done, the athlete is prepared. But the bit I was unprepared for was the emotions involved and the unbelievable pressure that is on you as a coach.
I lost sleep, almost every night in the lead up and during the Games. Excitement mixed with fear mixed with pressure and I had no one to talk it through with! All you want is for your athlete to be happy and to execute everything you have coached them for the last 10 years perfectly so they walk off the track knowing they did their best…that’s all you want, the rest is of course a bonus! But, the Olympics aren’t just any old competition, its the Olympic Games, the thing you and your athlete have dreamt about since a child…and now it’s all on you. The athlete gets the praise when it all goes well, but the coach gets the stick and the guilt (and possibly the sack) if it all goes wrong! How many athletes do you know have folded under the pressure of an Olympics, under performed, never reached their potential?
Interestingly, this journal addressed this issue by looking at how athletes coaches affect their performance at an Olympics. The journal goes on to mention that athletes perceive both negative and positive influences from coaches – all of which depend on how the coach deal with an Olympic Games
“Coaching related factors that had a positive influence on athletes’ performance were contact, trust, friendship, a good plan, well established performance routines and treating the Olympic Games like any other competition.”
We have all practiced the former over the years as a coach and ‘perfected’ it, but how do you practice the latter? What happens if as a coach you struggle to treat the Olympics like any other competition and even if you try to hide your nerves, you fail miserably.
Whilst some of you reading this may think, ‘oh come on, your a professional coach, you must have been to thousands of international competitions, get a grip’…yes your right, I had been to my fair share of internationals (including World Championships), but for my first Olympics, I really struggled with my emotions. As mentioned, I lost sleep and a few times I had to take myself to a quiet corner and have a cry, in fact, when race day arrived I threw up! I was just so worried that I was going to let my athlete down, give them the wrong advice and that this may be their (and mine) only ever chance at an Olympic Games. I had never felt so much pressure in my life – and I’m not ashamed to say that dealing with pressure doesn’t come easy to me (probably a good thing I wasn’t an athlete!), so add that into the arena of the Olympics and at times it was too much to handle.
My next worry was the self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘but what if being nervous makes me a crap coach?’…the journal explained it this way:
“coaches felt their effectiveness was hindered by marked changes in their coaching behaviours, an inability to establish trust with the athletes, and poor handling of crisis situations. “
I started to worry I wouldn’t be able to deal with a crisis at an Olympics…what if my athlete was late, what if they forgot kit, what if she got sick, what if….
After the first couple of days of sheer panic (before the races had started), I sat down in my room and tried to get a grip of myself. I had managed to hide my nerves from everyone. My athlete was happy and excited and as competition had not started yet, they seemed quite calm. I sat and went through my coaching journal from the last year and watched training videos of my athlete running. I spent an hour going through in my head the journey we had been on, the goals she had set, the PB’s she had achieved, the medals she had won…and then I remembered what a fantastic young woman she had grown into. By focussing on all the positives, I remembered to put my trust back into my athlete and to trust the process we had been through to get to this Olympic Games. My role at the Olympics was simply to support and reiterate everything we had already practiced.
“Overall, the coaching process during major events was athlete-led with the coaches adopting a supportive and facilitative role including managing the wider perfor- mance environment. Through detailed preparation and planning most of the coaches’ work had been completed before the event and the coaches expressed a desire to let athletes get on with their performances. However, they closely observed and monitored the athletes’ preparation and performances, assisting when asked by the athlete or if they felt some input was needed. Facilitating the psy- chological preparation of the athletes was an important part of their coaching practice on the day of competition.”
I still suffered with nerves, but because I had spent so many years teaching my athlete to be self-sufficient and to develop as a person not just an athlete, I knew that she had all the tools to perform at her best even under the pressure of an Olympics…and you know what…she did just that 😉
Don’t ever feel ashamed of being nervous as a coach – nerves are a positive sign that all the hard work you have put in is worth it. All I would urge is that if you are ever in the incredible position of going to an Olympic Games as a coach, find a mentor, speak to someone who has been their before and learn to trust in your athletes.