A Lot of Talent

Coaching great, natural athletes is not as easy as it seems. They often need to be challenged and communicated with in unique ways.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. A frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, he can be reached through his Web site at: www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 15.7, October 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1507/talent.htm

When we start our coaching careers, our dream is often to work with great athletes—those gifted individuals who can naturally run, jump, and move better than everyone around them. I know that was my mindset. And, in a sense, I had my dream come true in my first coaching assignment.

I was hired as an assistant coach for a high school track and field team, and the best athlete in the school, in fact one of the best athletes in southern California, was a shot putter in the group that I was coaching. Initially I remember being slightly intimidated, but the head coach told me to just be myself and coach him.

It was a great experience. The athlete was very cooperative and worked to fine tune his technique and improve his strength. He even helped with the younger shot putters. He was everything a coach could hope for. He won the state championship in spite of my coaching.

It is not always like this, however. In fact, in the many years since, I have found that working with a gifted athlete rarely turns out to be an easy endeavor. More typically, exceptional athletes have achieved their success because they have superior ability and have not had to work hard at the strength and conditioning. When you challenge them to pay attention to their foot angles in agility drills or dig down for that last rep, they are not really interested.

They are not worried about losing their starting position. They can get the team-best time in the agility drill without paying attention to their foot angles. Their ability and performance have always been good enough.

Yet it is still our job as strength and conditioning coaches to make them better. How do we do this? We need to understand this athlete—both physically and psychologically. We need to communicate with him or her more. And we need to challenge him or her in different ways.

OWNING THE ASSESSMENT
I believe that every athlete we work with should be involved in a complete self assessment as a starting point to a strength and conditioning program. And this is even more important for the athletically gifted. To get them interested in their off-field work, I’ve found they must take some ownership of it. And having them involved in their athletic assessment is a great place to start.

Most important, the self assessment can show them that there is room for improvement. Because none of their teammates may be able to challenge them in drills, they may not have much motivation to improve their performance in strength and conditioning. But if we ask them to assess themselves against another standard, we introduce a new motivation.

For example, you can ask them to perform a test and show them how their scores compare to those of higher-level or more accomplished athletes. Get a scouting report and let them know how other people objectively view them—this can be a huge wake-up call. Show them a videotape of themselves performing, and point out a deficiency. Or compare the athlete to herself or himself—test a movement from both the dominant and nondominant side, then challenge him or her to improve their nondominant side score.

This challenge should not be public, but a one-on-one contract between you and the athlete that sets the bar higher. Show that there is room for improvement, what it will take to improve, and the benefits of accepting the challenge. Sell the athlete on assuming ownership of their program.

WHO ARE THEY?
Along with testing the athlete physically, it’s important to take the time to assess the athlete psychologically. This does not mean any formal psychological evaluation, but just taking the time to get a sense of where they are coming from, their insecurities, and their hesitations.

To start, find out the role of any past coaches in their lives. Often, the gifted athlete has had a dominant coach at some stage in their development to whom they ascribe much of their success. It is very tough if your ideas about training conflict with the ideas of that coach. It may not have been the best training, but the athlete thinks it is. In this case, you’ll need to take things slowly and find a way to get the athlete to trust your ideas.

Ask about their training background. Many gifted athletes transitioning from high school to college have never taken part in a weight lifting program before and may be embarrassed to see that their new teammates all know how to properly position themselves and lift weights. For this type of athlete, some one-on-one instruction away from teammates may be needed.

Get a sense of whether they like to stand out as the best or not. More often than not the exceptional female athlete prefers to blend in. This type of athlete wants to get along with teammates and not be put on a pedestal. In this situation, group pressure is a good motivator, but asking her to perform in a way that shows up her teammates will not work, and you’ll have to find another strategy, such as one-on-one work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the athlete who has no problem showing proficiency. In fact, he or she thrives on being the best at everything the coaches ask the team to do. This athlete could care less what teammates think and will not be motivated by peer pressure. But they may rise to a challenge that puts them in the spotlight.

It’s also important to understand the psychology of the gifted athlete who appears lazy by your standards. The average athlete who is a little less physically gifted learns the value of work early on. He or she learns perseverance because it was the only way he or she could succeed. The gifted athlete missed this aspect of development. In a sense, he or she was denied this self discovery and character-building process.

Their success exceeds the effort they have exerted, but they don’t know it. In their eyes they may be putting out the effort, but you see an athlete coasting on raw ability while slacking off when it comes to work. I have found this common with the young college athlete who had great success in high school and expects to step into college competition and dominate as they did in high school.

As coaches, we can clearly see the folly of their ways, but for the athlete to admit that they must now work on their deficiencies is a bitter pill to swallow. We must understand where they have come from. Because they were so good no one has confronted them with the reality of being objective about their abilities. You may be the first person to challenge them on this, which can take patience and perseverance from you.

Furthermore, remember that this athlete may have never experienced failure. And they may be scared to face it. This is especially true for the gifted athlete who is a perfectionist. Our job is to get them to understand and accept their limitations without thinking that we expect less from them. Sometimes we need to set up the conditioning program as a time to take the pressure off. It can be a time to take a risk and try new things where there is little or no consequence for not being able to reach their perfectionist standards.

SPORT COACH ON BOARD
With the athlete’s buy-in and your understanding where he or she is coming from, the next step is to get on the same page with the sport coach regarding the athlete. Unfortunately, many times the sport coach’s attitude with the gifted athlete is: Don’t mess them up. The coaches are satisfied to see the athlete stay put.

This attitude backfires time and again. The athlete does not get stronger or faster and is eventually passed by someone with a shade less ability but a superior work ethic. Frankly, I have never met an athlete who could not get better, regardless of their physical gift. I have seen how hard Michael Jordan worked each off-season to keep improving his skills and get stronger even after he was already considered one of the best to ever play the game.

In these cases, talk with the sport coach about how to improve the athlete without compromising anything. Explain how your program will prevent injuries and make them better, not change their athletic prowess. It is truly critical to have the coach on board if you are to motivate the gifted athlete. Without it, the athlete can more easily take the easy route if things get tough. With it, the athlete understands that playing time may be affected by what he or she does in strength and conditioning sessions.

Also, talk to coaches about the challenge of motivating this athlete so you’re in agreement. Discuss the psychological hurdles you both face in working with this athlete and how to use consistent strategies. Agree on what is needed and how to get there, together.

Strength coaches should also explain to the sport coach that even though the gifted athlete is a great performer, he or she may not be the best athlete in the weight room. And the sport coach needs to have patience with this. He or she must be realistic about the athlete’s performance and help them develop the right perspective.

NEW STRATEGIES
Once you have the athlete and sport coach on board, think about what strategies will work with this particular athlete, keeping in mind where they are coming from. The areas I concentrate on are communication, how to challenge them, and how to approach their deficiencies.

As with the athlete at any level, the key to good coaching is communicating your expectations. Also remember that communication is not just telling the athlete what to do, but listening to their feedback. The athlete may have things that he or she feels have contributed directly to their success, and while you may not necessarily agree, it may be best to work that into your program for them.

Communication will also help uncover any fears or reservations exceptional athletes have with your program. They may not be able to admit to anyone fears of failing a certain aspect of the off-field work, or they may not want to tell you they are completely unmotivated by the program because it is too easy. Either way, asking them how things are going will reveal any problems they are encountering.

Of course, many gifted athletes will excel in your strength and conditioning program without much effort and need to be challenged differently than their teammates. This is where you need to look closely at their self assessment and your psychological evaluation of them and determine what will work best.

For example, if the athlete is motivated by making it to the next level, then base his or her program on what athletes at the next level are accomplishing. If the athlete’s weakness is the nondominant side, then challenge him or her with drills to improve that side. If a big ego is part of the athlete’s personality, motivate them by showing the athlete videotape of themselves and pointing out areas ripe for improvement. Show that they aren’t perfect, but that they have potential.

The third area I concentrate on is improving the athlete’s deficiencies. A good idea here is to make them part of a group. They may appreciate not being singled out. If the athlete has a glaring deficiency they may not want to admit it, but if they are put in a group where everyone is working on the same deficiency they will not stand out.

I also give the gifted athlete a lot of positive reinforcement when they are working on a deficiency. This athlete probably has never failed, and now you are asking them to do things they are not good at. To them this is failure, not an opportunity for improvement. So you’ll need to continually remind them of the big picture—how the drill will help them reach new levels on the field or court.

What do you do when none of these strategies work? It is important to not let the star become a distraction to the other athletes and you. If they refuse to comply sometimes the best action is no action. Ignore them. I have seen this be quite effective. Their teammates also ignored them. Pretty soon they figure out that their behavior is not appreciated and they come around to the program.

BIG PICTURE
The gifted athlete usually does not fit into a cookie cutter. Some are going to be bored with your program and tough to motivate. Others may get easily frustrated with your program because they fear failure. And of course some are going to be the best athletes you’ve ever worked with and embrace your program with gusto.

The key is to understand each particular athlete’s strengths, weaknesses, fears, and motivations. Understand what challenges them, and then challenge them to challenge themselves.

Remind them of the big picture to get them through the daily obstacles, whether that is playing at the next level or winning a championship. And remind yourself of the big picture as a coach: to teach them, challenge them, and bring them to a level they didn’t know they could reach.


Sidebar:
Reaching the All-Star
Even at the professional level of sports, working with superstar athletes can be a struggle. I recently worked with a professional baseball player who was coming off of a rehab and getting ready to go back on the field. He was an all-star player and a veteran, and the biggest roadblock were his sport coaches who were intimidated by his natural abilities. They didn’t want to introduce anything new to the athlete for fear he would not be receptive.

In this situation, I tried to work closely with the athlete to figure out what would work for him. First, I asked him what he had done in the past and what he had found successful in the past. I worked hard to relate to him and uncover what his fears might be.

Then, I was honest with him about his deficiencies and gave him specifics on what he could do to improve. I presented my ideas to him, then sought his input on them. From there, we were able to move forward and get him back on the field with success.

I found that with this approach the athlete was very receptive to the program. I treated him as an equal, not a superstar, and he appreciated my honesty and my confidence in my own abilities to help him improve.