Hold The Mirror Gently: Reflections on Athlete Centered Coaching
Updated: Jan 16
The 2018 race season is coming into its most intense heat-up. As a coach, an athlete, and a referee, the pace of my schedule and commitments has grown exponentially.
One of the central components of coaching is the coach's task of “holding the mirror” for the athlete they coach. What I mean by this is that one of our roles is to inject a realistic assessment of where the athlete is in their potential, their training, their commitment to the training plan, and much more. Holding the mirror can be uncomfortable and sometimes even painful for both the coach and the athlete. But it doesn't have to be. The key for the coach is to understand the concept that above all else we work for the athlete. Athletes are not simply our clients or customers. A true athlete/coach relationship is so much more than a business arrangement: it is a partnership. When I say we work for the athletes we coach I also mean that we work with them to create the greatest probability of helping the athlete achieve his or her goals.
Understanding that the coach works for the athlete is central to properly executing a holding the mirror moment. Because, while that interaction can sometimes be less than pleasant for both the athlete and the coach, it should never take the form of scolding. Instead the coach should practice holding the mirror gently! Remember that you work for the athlete. This doesn't mean that occasionally you may have to have a tough conversation in order to properly do your job as a coach. It simply means that you should approach the athlete as more than a client and more than an athlete. Your athlete is a person first. It sounds obvious, but sometimes that simple fact can be too easily overlooked.
Holding the mirror gently simply means that the coach should frame even tough conversations in an atmosphere of encouragement. When we hold the mirror gently we help the athlete manage their expectations based on realities without crushing dreams. When we hold the mirror gently we help the athlete focus on the process and reasonable expectations balanced against the life they are actually living at the time. Life happens and when it does it can get in the way of even the most dedicated athlete. For the average age group athlete, if training takes precedent over the enjoyment of those often fleeting moments of life that will not soon pass this way again then training is a misplaced priority. A friend of mine once told me that his is no dress rehearsal, it is a one shot deal. Live it. Does that mean that it is o.k. to blow off all workouts and training whenever the mood suits us? No. It just means that when a coach is going to hold the mirror they need to really think about who they are holding the mirror for. In other words the person looking in the mirror, just like the coach, is a person. Treat them like one.
Coaches have many roles. We have the opportunity to impact the lives of the athletes we work for far beyond simply developing training plans and the details of improving performance. We are often the person that is there when the athlete's life hits the rocky shoals of setback and loss. Developing the practice of holding the mirror gently will help us be guided more clearly when we find ourselves in “that” conversation with the athlete. Our athletes are, or should be, more than just our employers. They are our friends and our responsibility. A good coach gets this and treats the athletes we work for as humans first and athletes second. So hold that mirror. It is our job. But hold it gently. You know … like if you had to look into the mirror yourself.