Ideal Athletic Development
What is the most important goal for the successful Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coach? A strong argument can be made to create the best possible results in strength, speed, and stamina for the athlete. But an equally compelling argument would be to condition athletes to promote the greatest amount of transfer to in-sport performance and long-term development. At first glance these points may sound similar, but with a deeper look, they are not. Extending beyond the simple physical training that occurs in the gym, the leadership, coaching, and mentorship of the S&C coach can play a significant role in the psychological development of the athlete. Talent development research has defined and encompassed a range of psychological factors that reinforce the ability of the athlete to translate potential into elite performance.8 Termed Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence (PCDE), these are skills and characteristics that allow athletes to cope with the non-linear path of development, manage failure and setbacks, and learn resilience. Super champion athletes (multiple medalists or multi-capped, team sport athletes) have been shown to exhibit PCDEs on their path to excellence.2 Super Champions apply high levels of girt and persistence to sport-specific trauma that derail less psychological hardy “almost” champions (no senior medals or caps). It may be of benefit for the S&C coach to be aware of the importance and necessity of PCDEs and make a conscious choice to create an environment where they are nurtured and reinforced.
The Importance of Adversity
Research into talent development (TD) programs has uncovered little emphasis on the structured teaching and monitoring of PCDEs.1 Many TD programs focus only on physical development, pushing the athlete toward elite level physical and anthropometric norms. Often, on the TD pathway, struggle and trauma are purposely minimized for aspiring athletes, in an attempt to keep them from being derailed. But the act of removing struggle, conflict, failure, and trauma from the physical and psychological development of an athlete appears to be flawed. A loss of these development opportunities does not prepare the athlete to face these, and greater struggles, as they progress to higher levels of competition. And for many young athletes, because of their high early ability, they do not face significant challenges until later in their career and may be ill prepared for these challenges. It has been hypothesized that the development of psychological hardiness is the reason the relative age effect is reversed at more elite levels of rugby,7 and NHL hockey.6 These athletes were behind from the start and must overcome the odds to achieve greatness. Grit, resilience, and mental toughness were cultivated because of that struggle. Clearly, there is a place for the teaching of PCDEs, and the importance of structured trauma and challenge in the development of the athlete.1 But be aware the TD pathway is not always a comfortable place to be.
When athletes experience a high degree of sports trauma (de-selection, selection, injury, poor performance, failure, falling behind, change of coach) this experience can create a turning point in their career. For athletes with a strong PCDE skillset, this turning point can result in a deeper sense of purpose, resilience, and perseverance. Greater levels of effort, focus, and concentration can follow. Super champions have used this type of trauma as a form of fuel to their fire.2 They would meet these challenges with extreme levels of perseverance. They would pledge to greater levels of commitment, work harder, work smarter, and push themselves to greater levels. They would view it as a lesson to be learned, to keep moving toward their goals and never allow it to derail them. For athletes with a poor PCDE skillset this turning point can create a downward spiral of self-belief, confidence, and purpose. Almost champion athletes recount moments of sports trauma with feelings of “being lost”, “not knowing where to turn”, and “loss of enthusiasm”.2 When times get tough these athletes did not have a mindset to deal with stress in a positive manner. Cultivating a hardy psychological mindset should be a pre-determined objective in the well-rounded growth and development of elite athletes.
In her book Mindset: The new psychology of success, psychologist Carol Dweck defines mindset as a series of thoughts and beliefs about learning and development that lead to specific, predictable behaviour traits.5 She defines two separate mindsets, a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset. People with a Fixed Mindset have the believe we are given a predetermined ability that cannot change to a large degree. Failure is viewed as a reflection of how they are as a person. People with a Fixed Mindset avoid challenges and are quick to give up when they fail. The Fixed Mindset stands in the way of development and change. On the other hand, people with a Growth Mindset believe traits can be cultivated, learned, and changed though effort. They are persistent, tenacious, and view criticism constructively. Failure is simply viewed as a learning opportunity, an additional pathway to advance, for people with the Growth Mindset. Ultimately, Dweck feels the adoption of either mindset is a choice people make, be it conscious or unconscious. Learning to change one’s mindset can be a powerful step to becoming grittier.
The definition of Grit encompasses a blend of both passion and persistence.4 Passion for doing what we love, driving toward long-term goals, and persistence to practice the stamina to achieve them. Success in elite level groups, including West Point Academy and the national spelling bee, have been attributed to grit. Super champions appear to approach adversity with an established attitude of grit, persistence, or similar PCDEs, while almost champions seemed to have an entirely reactive response.2 These psychological coping skills can, and should, be taught to athletes. Skills such as self-control,3 resilience,9 grit,4 and cultivating a Growth Mindset5 are all trainable and can all be improved to a large degree. Through training, athletes can develop pre-selected and learned responses to trauma as their preferred behavior. These behaviors support excellence on the developmental path to an elite level.
If the S&C coach desires to create the greatest impact and long-term development of the athlete they should consider the influence their leadership, feedback, and practice structure is having on their athletes. Now, it is obvious that the S&C coach is not a therapist and should not venture out of their scope of practice. In an ideal set-up, the S&C coach would work with the head technical coach and the team therapist to (1) create the individualized and customized TD pathway for their program and (2) refer athletes who need further development of PCDEs to the team therapist. But there are several beneficial actions the proactive S&C coach can perform with their athletes including:
- Building awareness of the importance of PCDEs
- Supporting athletes with implementation and learning of PCDEs
- Creation of an environment with structured sports “trauma” to prepare athletes for the bumpy road ahead
Recommendations for the S&C Coach:
- Make athletes aware of the importance of PCDE…post informative signage, share stories of positive role models, provide articles to read, invite guest lecturers, and/or create workshops with therapists.
- Coaching feedback and praise should be given to optimize development of a Growth Mindset. Recognize traits such as effort, strategy, focus/concentration, grit, and improvement, rather than simply performance or talent.
- Failures and setbacks must be seen as stepping stones (lessons) for further improvement and development. An opportunity to learn, try a different strategy, try harder, practice perseverance, and fuel the fire.
- Book one-on-one meetings with athletes to have conversations surrounding reflection.
- Create training sessions that include mild amounts of sports trauma: (1) High levels of competition within S&C sessions – weight room, speed training, agility training, endurance sessions, (2) High pressure testing situations, (3) Competition against more talented peers, and (3) inclusion or exclusion from elite training groups.
- Collins, D., & MacNamara, Á. (2012). The rocky road to the top. Sports medicine, 42(11), 907-914.
- Collins, D., MacNamara, Á., & McCarthy, N. (2016). Super champions, champions, and almosts: important differences and commonalities on the rocky road. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 2009.
- Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self‐regulation strategies improve self‐discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31(1), 17-26.
- Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Simon and Schuster.
- Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Incorporated.
- Gibbs, B. G., Jarvis, J. A., & Dufur, M. J. (2012). The rise of the underdog? The relative age effect reversal among Canadian-born NHL hockey players: A reply to Nolan and Howell. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 47(5), 644-649.
- McCarthy, N., & Collins, D. (2014). Initial identification & selection bias versus the eventual confirmation of talent: evidence for the benefits of a rocky road?. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(17), 1604-1610.
- MacNamara, Á., Button, A., & Collins, D. (2010). The role of psychological characteristics in facilitating the pathway to elite performance part 1: Identifying mental skills and behaviors. The Sport Psychologist, 24(1), 52-73.
- Seligman, M. E. (2011). Building resilience. Harvard business review, 89(4), 100-6.