Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why I Won't Belittle My Athletes as Motivation

This morning - for the third week in a row - I shared the lap pool with one of the local swim
teams. And for the third week in a row, I watched one of the coaches criticize, belittle and embarrass swimmers in an effort to get them to "do better". Today, a young swimmer who I would estimate was around 8 years old teared up after the encounter with the coach. Now, I am not a team coach, a personal trainer or a fitness class teacher. As a sports dietitian, I am a different type of coach - a food coach.  But, like any other type of coach, it is my job to motivate my athletes to make changes that will improve their performance. You might disagree with me, but one thing I have not done and will never do is belittle or - even worse - swear at my athletes. These practices have unfortunately become expected in some settings. Other coaches and trainers often ignore this type of treatment of athletes, believing that this is what needs to be done to make athletes "the best". Whether the athlete is 6 or 60 years old, I disagree. 

And I'm not alone. When I worked as a sports dietitian at Michigan State University in 2009-2011, I had the pleasure of interacting with a well-known Strength Coach - Tim "Red" Wakeham, who worked with all of the male and female Olympic sports. During one of our conversations, I asked him about using belittling or inappropriate language to motivate his athletes to work harder. I'll never forget his response. Coach Red said that he didn't allow that type of approach in his gym - either from his staff or athletes. In all his years, he never saw one athlete that improved after being cut down. Disrespecting an athlete, he said, is not an effective way to encourage change. These words came from a man who worked with both male and female athletes. 

Perhaps I am so passionate about this because I am now a mom who pictures my own kids going through this. Or perhaps it is because I went through this too. I vividly remember a ballet class during my junior year of high school in which the instructor told me that he would be happy when my cross country season ended because hopefully my thighs wouldn't be so large anymore...Did this motivate me to stop running or to work harder in ballet class? Nope. And what did large thighs have to do with my ballet performance? Believe me, after taking dance classes since the age of 2, I understood that the culture of ballet was thin, thin, thin (which - by the way - I already was!), but had the instructor put this type of comment in the context of how this would improve my performance as a dancer, I may have actually listened. But it is a good thing I didn't, as those "huge thighs" took me to cross country State finals for the 3rd time my senior year where I helped get my team a 3rd place finish overall. And those "huge thighs" helped me set a PR in the 800m open the following track season, leading my team to a regional win. I guess big thighs are good for something.

Reverting from cutting down to lifting up can be done with a simple change of phrasing. Here are some ways I do this during my food and nutrition coaching sessions:
1. Instead of saying, "You made a poor choice for lunch on Tuesday," I might say, "This choice for lunch was poor. Lets talk about how it could have been better." This makes my comment about the action made and not the person. 
2. Instead of saying, "You aren't making good progress with your pre-workout intake," I will say, "I would love to see more pre-workout snacks happening; how can I help?" This makes the conversation into an opportunity for progress and positive change instead of making the athlete feel like a failure.
3. Instead of saying, "You need to lose weight," I will say, "How do you feel you are performing at your current weight? Lets discuss the typical weight range for your sport and gender and why athletes tend to fall into that range." This keeps the discussion of body weight in the context of better performance and invites the athlete to ask questions about why his/her body might (and I stress MIGHT) perform better in a different weight range.

Although I don't belittle, does this mean I never feel frustrated, disappointed or upset with the lack of progress I see in an athlete? Of course not. But I control my emotions before I verbalize them. I remind myself that the journey to becoming a better athlete is theirs - not mine. Athletes know when they are failing. My job is not to berate them for this, but to help them do better...constructively but still effectively.

Be Extraordinary,


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