Successful People Take Responsibility
Coaches and parents regularly ask me how to help young athletes start taking more responsibility. I continually see athletes of all ages (seniors too) who do not have any ownership of their own development. They rely on coaches, parents and other supporting individuals to get them where they want to be. It might be from as little as making up drinks and snacks to competition entry, membership fees or packing bags for a trip.
Coaches become involved in sport to help develop athletes and pass on their knowledge, whilst all parents want to support their children in the best possible way. Sometimes, doing these little helpful jobs here and there can actually result in that athlete not learning how to be responsible and independent.
Taking control of your career
Successful athletes at the highest level have a number of skills that set them apart from everyone else. In Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential’, she talks about ownership as being one of these skills required for success. Other research* has also shown that this ability to take responsibility for one’s own development is vital in elite sport, along with skills including planning, realistic goal setting, organisation and ability to change the plan.
These may seem like fairly obvious skills for a developing athlete to have, but there are still a staggeringly large number of athletes I meet who have not recognised that their lack of independence is what is potentially holding them back from progressing.
Practice what you preach
Now, I’m certainly not implying that I have all these skills as an athlete, but I do believe in practising what you preach. Since researching, learning and understanding much of the behaviours required for successful performance over the last five or six years through my job, I have adopted this approach in every aspect of my training. At the end of every season, I review my year and start thinking about long term goals for the following season. I devise a rough six month plan with potential races and a more specific twelve week plan with mileage targets and key training phases. Everything is then discussed with my coach, who helps me then put the specific session together. I continually review and adapt the plan with a detailed training log to help me understand what areas need to be worked on.
Taking responsibility for travel
When it comes to races, I enter them all myself. Even the overseas ones. On occasion, I have used a race agent to help me get into races abroad (mainly because the system is in another language and it’s unclear how to enter) but I have always been very stubborn about arranging my own travel and accommodation. Time and again I have witnessed athletes stranded in airports with the wrong travel information, missing flights, having to pay additional baggage fees, turning up to hotels with no beds available, not entered for races, no kit to race in and so many other problems that have simply arisen because of giving that responsibility to someone else that they might not know particularly well.
Who knows you better than anyone else?
I appreciate these things take time and effort and that level of responsibility may not work for every athlete, but I am certain that for many developing athletes, improving some of these ownership skills will not only reduce a great deal of stress, but it will also result in an improvement in performance. I strongly believe that the person who knows you best is you. Athletes need to learn about themselves. They need to learn to understand their bodies and what key areas need to be worked on. They need to understand what areas are being developed in certain sessions and get to a stage where they can provide meaningful feedback to coaches about where more or less effort needs to be focussed.
Athletes need to learn that coaches, parents and supporting individuals are not going to get them anywhere. They are going to HELP get them there. These people are vital in an athlete’s development but it really is up to the athlete to build a partnership and acquire that knowledge from their coach as well as recognise parents as a support (and not a taxi company, catering company, hotel, travel agent, laundrette and PA amongst many others!). I once heard Toni Minichiello describe his coaching relationship with Jessica Ennis-Hill, saying “at first I taught her, then I coached her, now it’s a partnership”.
Learning comes from making mistakes
For parents, an example might be to encourage them to prepare for training sessions themselves. It’s not the end of the world if they forget shoes or a towel and it will certainly teach them not to forget again. Praise them for independent and responsible behaviours. As they get older, hand over more and more responsibility for their sport. For coaches, you could start to get them to think about certain competitions to help develop a plan and perhaps get them to enter themselves. If they forget, they’ll quickly learn not to do it again. Make sure you explain aspects of training and why you are working on them. Help them understand areas they need to work on in their own time. Athletes with ownership will make your life a lot easier!
It may seem like a risky approach, particularly if there’s a concern the athlete will drop out if they have to do things for themselves. In fact, the athlete is far more likely to drop out if they don’t develop these skills. The changes need to be small and increased gradually over time in situations where it’s not a big deal if they mess up (even though it might, at times, be a little embarrassing for them!). Performance can seem really important in young athletes, but try to see age group sport as the practice ground for senior level. This is the best time to make and learn from mistakes. Every athlete at elite senior level will tell you about a time they did something silly as a young athlete and never ever did it again.
My example? Not reading the competition rules for the U17 East District Championships which stated that registration closed at 2pm. I turned up at 3pm, an hour before my race and was turned away and not allowed to race. I have read every competition letter TEN times over since!!