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Inspire Your Athletes

Some tips for cultivating athlete inspiration.

In a previous post, I considered some of the benefits of inspiring athletes, opposed to cultivating desperation. Whilst at the elite level of sport, a degree of desperation may serve to enhance performance through increased training effort and commitment, inspiring athletes would seem a more positive way to elicit desired behaviors and, ultimately, achieve a mindset more conducive to optimal performance. I have not come across an athlete yet who has achieved a flow state and then reported that they were desperate.

There is a general consensus that the social environment plays an essential role in determining athlete outcomes and there is, perhaps, no social element more influential than that of the coach. It is important to then consider how to support and develop inspiration with athletes.

Optimism

When speaking with athletes (at all levels) regarding what they look for from a coach, without fail they identify positivity. Just to be clear, I'm not referring here to a pseudo confidence or that everything should always be rainbows and butterflies; however, research suggests that a fundamental belief that things will go well is an important aspect of performance. It appears that when athletes function in a positive environment, they become more optimistic about future performances. Opposed to becoming preoccupied with avoiding failure (an all too common pitfall), when part of a positive environment, athletes are to a greater degree focused on what is possible and pushing boundaries. From a coach, athletes want, amongst other things, enthusiasm, open body language, positive/constructive feedback, and, perhaps above all else, a sense that things are going to work out.

Care

Competitive sport is a charged environment that, generally, encompasses high expectations, distractions, and, for some, an inner dialogue that becomes quite noisy. When athletes believe that their coaches have a genuine care for them as individuals, it can act as somewhat of a buffer to external pressure. Therefore, slowly developing strong and positive coach-athlete relationships will be meaningful. It also serves to reduce the likelihood of thoughts surfacing regarding ‘letting the coach down’. Believe me, there is enough for athletes to worry about without that becoming a major concern.

Performance Focus

Now… I am in no way attempting to discredit objective success (i.e., winning); it is an important part of competitive sport. However, when athletes perform optimally, they generally do not describe an outcome focus. Working with athletes so that they have a clear image of what their performance should look like concerning only elements within their control will enhance the likelihood of them performing closer to the Flow end of the continuum. Ask your athletes to reflect on previous best performances – What led to it? What did it feel like? Then encourage them to chase those feelings, as when you strip everything back, I think that is all anyone really wants.

If we can create environments for our athletes that (i) are positive and cultivate optimism for the future, (ii) encompass genuine positive relationships and (iii) inspire performance (opposed to outcome), we should see a significant increase in both the performance and well-being of our athletes.

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