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Establishing an Athlete-Centered Coaching Model to Develop Self-Driven and Autonomous Elite Athletes

“Athlete-Centered” coaching is a buzzword in the industry. The Athlete-centered coaching model has been implemented by sports programs across the world due to the increased focus on athletes’ well-being and development. The traditional Coach-Centered style has led to power struggles between coaches and athletes. The future of coaching is shifting towards an equal coach-to-athlete relationship as an increase in sports programs claim to be athlete-centered.

Athletes are recognizing their influential abilities and taking back their roles as the center of sports. Many are choosing to use their influence for good, pushing for major changes in the industry that will impact their peers and future generations of elite athletes. Major movements are becoming the norm, including the fight for equal pay for women in the NWSL, removal of abusive coaches, the creation of athlete representative organizations such as Global Athletes, and the increase of athlete representation in NGBs and universities. Athletes are also developing advocacy organizations to stand up for unfair policies and make a difference.

While an athlete-centered coaching program is a clear opportunity to be more mindful of athletes’ well-being and development, there is a lack of knowledge on how to implement these practices. Many coaches do not understand what it means to be athlete-centered or how to implement it into their daily programming.

Life and the pursuit of athletic potential

Sports coaching was created to provide opportunities for athletes to build on their personal growth and development during a crucial time in their lives when they are still learning about themselves and pursuing their goals to reach their full athletic potential.

Athlete-centered coaching offers a set of guiding principles and behaviors for coaches to follow. If a program is truly athlete-centered, the coach becomes a guide and facilitator, rather than an all-knowing authority figure. The outcome of proper athlete-centered coaching is less of a power imbalance between the coach and the athlete. The coach’s responsibility as the facilitator is to uncover the athletes’ goals and help them reach those goals.

By creating more of a collaborative, democratic, empathetic, and interactive experience, athletes become empowered to be involved in their individual growth. Since every athlete is different, programs should be individualized to each athlete’s needs, goals, and trial and error in their pursuit of self-exploration. Making mistakes as an athlete should be welcomed because their development is more important than winning.

Athletes should emerge from these programs with the ability to make decisions for themselves, making them more autonomous and self-driven as they enter the next phase of their careers.

The future of athlete-centered coaching

Athletic-centered coaching programs were built on the premise that athletes should be the center of sports. Athletes pursue this path because they have goals and dreams and achieving those goals should be at the forefront. The benefits are endless. They include helping highly talented athletes develop a lifelong interest in fitness. The environment of the team, and the culture, will also see improvement when programs shift towards emphasizing the holistic development of athletes and their long-term well-being.

The principles of athlete-centered coaching were created to benefit the athlete as a whole, but the results have also proven to reduce the power imbalance between coaches and athletes and minimize the risk of manipulation and abuse.

Implementing these principles into the real world

The steps to implementing an athlete-centered program are simple, and the results are immediate.

1. Teach athletes about their sport, training, and performance

Athletes must fully understand their sport to make educated decisions for themselves, and therefore they must understand why and how they are training. To avoid injuries or risky decisions the athletes should also understand their bodies and how they work. For athletes to be in the driver's seat of their performance and their careers, they must be held responsible for their actions and behaviors, especially in a competition setting.

2. Measure the athlete’s progression

Set up short and long-term goals with the athletes and monitor their progression regularly and collaboratively. In an athlete-centered program, there should be both individual and group goals to embrace a team environment. Athletes should know and understand their goals, their teams' goals and should be aware of their progress.

3. Promote a growth mindset

Create a safe and positive environment where the athletes are encouraged to try things and make mistakes. Failures should be seen as opportunities for growth by coaches and teammates. Risk taking, problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking should also be encouraged.

4. Introduce self-awareness by asking questions

Coaches can use feedback as a tool to ask their athletes questions consistently. This will encourage the athletes think for themselves and come up with solutions. Improved self-awareness will reinforce self-worth, confidence, and independence.

5. Utilize partner work and games

Creative learning is most successful in an environment that encourages games and partner work. This environment makes practice more interesting, varied, and intuitive. In youth sports, this adds more fun and engagement. It also helps prepare athletes for a wide variety of sports, games, and competition scenarios.

6. Holistic development of athletes

In an athlete-centered program, the coach should be dedicated to the holistic development and well-being of their athletes. By considering the personal, emotional, cultural, and social identity of each athlete, coaches can better understand how this identity influences their individual development and performance.

All Sports Coaches may not instinctively have the emotional intelligence and understanding of holistic well-being techniques. Some coaches may benefit from being supported by a leadership coach for themselves. To set a good example for their athletes, coaches should also focus on their personal development and ensure they show up for their athletes to their true potential every day.

About the Author

Myriam Glez is a former synchronized swimmer who competed for France for 10 years. After her sport career, she attended business school and worked in marketing and sponsorships in the hospitality industry in Paris, Bangkok and Sydney. She took Australian citizenship in 2007 and competed for the Australian team in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In 2010, Myriam moved to England and became a consultant for British Swimming, assisting the Olympic Team for GB Synchronized Swimming. After relocating to the US in 2012, she became the High-Performance Director of USA Synchro and eventually the CEO. In 2018, Myriam left USA Synchro and founded Athletes Soul, a non-profit organization which supports athletes’ transition away from sports. Now, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

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