An athlete, any athlete, enters the room for a training session. You greet your athlete emphatically, as customary, laying out a global expectation for a successful session dictated by the standards of chasing greatness.
Because you’re on the pulse of your athletes you immediately notice something is not right with this otherwise energetic, free-spirited and hardworking 13-year-old. So, like any respectful human would, you inquire as to the well-being of your otherwise Rockstar.
Much to your surprise, an emphatic “I’m fine” is uttered as they look away avoiding eye contact in an effort to just get on with today’s workout.
There’s clearly a disturbance in the force. You can feel the energy shift.
For further context, this athlete is female.
Do you respond differently than if it were a male?
Perhaps a more important question to ask yourself is, should I?
Coming from the perspective of a male coach, there is no universal law that binds you to being a hard ass. This, as well, is true when coaching a male or a female athlete. People have bad days.
A 13-year-olds real world problems belong to her and in her young life may be the worst she’s known. In other words, it’s contextual and relative to the individual. Therefore, any fleeting thought of comparison on your part is unnecessary, negligent and a down right waste of her time, and yours.
Your role as coach and mentor is, in part, to be there with your athletes. This is far more impactful than being there for them.
Apart from any desire to make sure your athletes are “getting after it” another consideration is the state of their central nervous system during times of unrest. A coach needs to consistently take all available information about the current state of an athlete to determine factors such as load, time under tension, exertion and rest.
A female athlete who sees a soul crushing comment from a girlfriend on her Instagram post is not trivial. She’s is potentially dealing the most difficult situation she’s faced to this point in her young life. Therefore your immediate perception of the situation does not matter.
An athlete that’s emotionally under the weather doesn’t have the neurological capacity to attempt a PR, adjusted 1-RM or to learn a new skill just because it’s on your well-designed program.
So, what to do?
In the coaching hierarchy of needs take care of the human first, athlete second and player last.
Let her know it’s ok and that whatever she feels she can give today is enough.
Remember that development is long term. One session dedicated to the mental well-being of a young athlete will derail them from athletic success. On the contrary. We must actualize long term development in every sense. Taking the time to connect, empathize with, and meet an athlete where they are on any given day is far more important than what’s written on their chart.
A child’s competitive athletic career will end. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
My best advice is to ask the right questions to determine what SHE wants to do during the course of her training session.
The art of coaching demands you reading your athlete to determine if on this day you are more empathic or more stringent with her. I’ll let a master of the art of coaching young players expound on this. Take it away Erica Suter.
Right off the bat, what I love most about Dave’s portion above is the sentiment, “coming from the perspective as a male coach, there is no universal law that binds you to being a hard ass.”
In my years of experience, I’ve found female athletes need extra empathy, compassion and care, and namely, for coaches to meet them where they are.
If you think their pouting and sad air at your practice is them being a “drama queen”…think again.
If you think they can just let their anger out and move on…think again.
If you think their bad mood due to an Instagram post is trivial…think again.
If you think hormones aren’t serious and they can make them go away with the bat of an eyelash…think again.
If you think the menstrual cycle is them being a “b*tch”…think again.
But also: be empathetic.
There have been numerous occasions my female athletes have told me their team coaches telling them, “crying is a sign of weakness” or “you’re being sensitive” or “you’re too emotional…just play!”
This. Needs. To. Stop.
And we all need to do better – both male and female coaches alike.
In no way am I perfect when dealing with female athletes because I’m a female coach. In fact, I’m still learning. And to contrast what Dave alluded to, coming from the perspective of a female coach, there’s no universal law that binds you to being a total softie either.
Yes, practicing empathy for your female athletes is critical, but it is also your job as a coach to gauge if they can churn out an intense workout on a bad day.
As an example, I had a college female athlete come into my office before her workout with her head in her hands and tears streaming down her face. Right before my eyes, she was beating herself down and calling herself a failure in front of me.
For a half hour, I played the part of the empathetic coach, listened, yet didn’t provide unwanted advice. I simply listened. Intently.
After she finished her vent, instead of assuming she needed a lighter workout that day, I asked, “do you want to work out hard today like I had planned, or do you want to talk to me and hang out?”
She replied, “I want to freaking get after it today.”
This was awesome, to say the least. Of course, not every female athlete will want to take out their anger during a workout, or alleviate their sadness by 1-rep maxing on a deadlift.
So with that said, it’s important to listen first.
Because sometimes, that’s all female athletes need: for you to lend an ear, not speak or interject, nor provide unwanted advice and be a know-it-all, but just to LISTEN.
You’ll find that trust is established, they feel comfortable around you, and they feel they can be vulnerable and spill their guts with no judgement.
Listening is the most underrated soft skill of coaching today, and it’s a skill that you need to hone to better your connection with your female athletes.
One more thing: just because I’m a female coach doesn’t mean I’m not a hardass to my girls.
Sure, I’ll listen and digest their traumas, but it is my responsibility to shell out tough love when needed. If I sense a female athlete can push that day, I push them. If I sense they need a day to calm their nervous systems, I will plop on the turf and have a heart-to-heart with them.
If you’re a coach, keep in mind there is a balancing act between being a hardass and being a teddy bear with your female athletes. There is an in-between character that needs to be played in order to get your female athletes results, while establishing trust and connection.
Be the Coach ALL your athletes deserve. Be a game changer.
Thank you Coach for this well-thought our note. Your words are challenging and yet at the same time continue the ongoing battle against the culture of professionalized sports. Athletes are being reduced daily down to their capital gains, providing them a horrendous experience of sport. In contrast, your message that coaching pedagogy must be governed by a human-centered approach is fantastic and timely. Thank you for your effort to see the coaching pedagogical philosophies in the West through a critical praxis.
Thank you coach and keep up the great work!!