Behind the Scenes

Performers rely on support and coaching. Those trainers also need support.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

Athlete with Trainer/wikimedia commons
Source: Athlete with Trainer/wikimedia commons

To paraphrase a once-popular ad, you never outgrow your need for support, coaching, and training. We know that’s true for top-level athletes—they not only practice daily, they’ve got coaches. Vocal musicians turn to teachers and coaches, especially as they near performance. Ballet dancers “take class” daily.

Want a detailed description from a skilled surgeon about his experience of being coached? Check out a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, MD (who is also an awesome and engaging writer).

But what about those teachers, coaches, mentors themselves? Do they need support and coaching as well? And if so, for how long?

My answer: Yes, throughout their professional lives.

Let me share with you an example of this kind of support, learning, and community that can occur, behind the scenes.

For more than 10 years, I’ve facilitated a number of sport and performance psychology consultation groups, conducted long-distance via telephone. I call them TCGs (shorthand for Tele-Consultation Groups). They’re small group meetings, conducted on a regular basis throughout the year. Members are professionals in sports psychology or mental performance consulting. They’re practitioners who work on the mental aspects of performance, whether with athletes, performing artists, business professionals, or professionals in high-risk occupations. Case Consultation TCGs focus on specific issues and challenging situations. Yes, even my colleagues with 10, 20, 30 years of experience in the field want to do it better. In Carol Dweck’s language, they have a “growth mindset.”

Knowing that I wanted to write about this kind of interaction, I took lots of notes at a recent meeting. (As usual, and even though I don’t know any of the clients we discussed, I’ll mask anything that could be identifying information.)

There were seven of us, calling a central phone line from the Northeast, deep South, far West (and me, in Toronto). Some work in university settings, whether athletic departments or university counseling centers (or both), some in medical institutions, some in private practice. The amount of experience in this particular niche area of practice? Lots.

Two group members discussed two different teen athletes they were working with. All of us had familiarity with kids this age and their typical issues. These weren’t difficult kids; they weren’t in trouble, and their families were supportive. In fact, if anything, it was the kids who were working too hard at their particular sport, putting too much pressure on themselves.

These student-athletes were willing to work with these consultants. The consultants described various standard mental performance techniques they’d already helped the kids learn, things like how to manage tension through breathing techniques, engaging in internal positive self-talk, and productive goal development.

So why talk with peers about these situations? And why is it important and useful for someone who’s been doing this kind of work for years?

I asked these colleagues for their thoughts.

One responded: It’s parallel to the process we experience with our clients. Just as their work is never done and perfection is never achieved, such is our work as well. There's always room for improvement. It's about the good to great, and once great is achieved, it's about maintaining what is great and developing new skills. That's where the peers (not to mention trusted mentor) are so helpful: reinforcing what is already good, helping push toward great, and exposing to new ideas/ways of practicing.

Another commented: Discussing cases and getting input from other group members who come from both similar and very different backgrounds professionally and personally provides really rich perspectives. Sometimes this can really shift my perspective in what I focus on with the client; sometimes it more provides useful support in the direction or relational aspect to my work with this client. The variety of perspectives and awareness of resources from the group is simply invaluable.

Whether one is presenting or participating, comparisons, reflections—both personal and professional—abound both during and after these meetings.

Here’s a brief glimpse—after all, this is a blog, not an essay or a report—of some of what we covered in just over an hour:

  • Clients may come to us with sport-specific concerns; our work may appear on the surface as if it’s technique-driven. Yet having an underlying knowledge of deeper issues and more “clinical” complexity informs the practitioner’s actions and interactions;
  • Speaking of complexity—and speaking of “behind the scenes”—we also addressed some questions of context, that is, the performer within their milieu: relationships, expectations, and attitudes within the family, among coaches and teammates, the school atmosphere, and the community at large.
  • We touched on more theoretical frameworks, concepts, and issues, too. Among them:  “radical acceptance” (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), perfectionism, adaptive and maladaptive beliefs, overtraining and recovery, fear of failure, confidence development, the roles of nutrition and sleep—with some reading suggestions thrown in for good measure.
  • Some wonderful phrases were shared:

If you were a superhero, what would your superpowers be?

Get out of your head and into your senses.

To be outstanding, you need to stand out.

  • The importance and value of reflection: Sometimes it happens during writing in preparation for presenting a situation. One group member commented that the preparation means getting to the heart of the matter: Where am I stuck? What do I want assistance with? Another group member recognized, In the midst of discussing shared experiences, I reflect on my own philosophy and approach.
  • In this discussion, there were our personal and professional parallels as well. One participant commented on another’s personal situation. Later, someone else picked up on that reflection, applying it in a new way to the student-athlete under discussion. As we know, the performance world gives us lessons for life in general—and vice versa.

And then there are the intangibles, the implied, unspoken but viscerally experienced elements of this kind of behind-the-scenes connection: We typically do our coaching and consulting as individuals, isolated in some ways. We often don’t get direct feedback nor tangible information about the utility of our work. The sense of a collaborative community, with respected and trusted peers, fosters a sense of competence—and openness to growth and change.