I know that this article is going to be the hardest to write. It is the sobering article that comes after some reflection on the performances of my athletes and my own coaching behaviours. High performance sport is just that, about achieving performance. The reality is that there are no excuses and there is nowhere to hide on the greatest stage that world sport offers. To say that the standards of competition are high would be an understatement. The level of competition is so incredibly difficult that small, minute errors or under-performances are punished. There is often no reprieve and no return from these lapses in execution. And even if you perform to your best, you better come ready as even some of the best are shown to be holding nothing but a spoon, in what is clearly a knife fight.
To help with our reflection and learning the AIS has scheduled in a series of coaching sessions. The first of which was on the day I arrived into quarantine. Many of the coaches joined the session from their quarantine accommodation and the message was clear in the discussions. There simply had not been enough time to process many of the emotions. We were all given the chance to speak and for many coaches the rawness of their experiences were still very present. One coach spoke of the abruptness of the Olympics and how the moment of particularly a loss or failure to achieve expected performances, is strangely abrupt and silent. There is no fanfare and their is an odd sense of loss. Loss of opportunity mostly. We will all have to wait at least three years to be given the chance to do it again.
Some of you following closely will know the results of the athletes that I coach. Hana Basic, Australia’s 100m representative finished 26th, and failed to advance to the semi finals. She did so running 11.32 seconds, a mere 0.16 off her personal best, and the third fastest time by an Australian female in the history of the Olympic Games. Was her performance poor? No. It may not have been the absolute best should could have produced on the day, but it was not a bad performance. But in the 100m, the depth of talent and ability at world level means that there is no opportunity to sneak through the heats unless you are at your best. In her teary interview Hana put it better than I ever could. She said, “ I gave it everything, but we wanted so much more’.
I have watched that interview a few times and it evokes a lot of emotions for me. But the overriding thought that I get from watching it repeatedly is that I and we as a team need to keep learning and expanding ourselves to be better.
The other athlete that I coached to the games is my wife, Kendra Hubbard. She ran in the 4 x 400m relay. Her involvement in the games was an interesting experience for the both of us. In many ways it was somewhat unexpected. She performed consistently throughout the season, running personal bests and securing a spot in the women’s 4 x 400m squad. Now I wont get into too many details but this squad was probably not expected to progress to the finals from the heats. They gave their all, but this event is increasing in depth at a significant rate, and as a country we just don’t have the depth of talent to be competitive right at this time. There is some developing talent coming through, some of which was in this team, however right at this point we were not overly competitive in this race. This experience for her and myself was different, our level of expectation was realistic and despite it probably not panning out exactly how we would like, the learning that we will take from this provide significant motivation to improve every step of our process.
Hana ran on day 1 of the competition and Kendra on day 7 so it meant that I had a lot of time to observe coaches and athletes on the training and competition track. The overwhelming sense that I got a few days into the competition was that I was not in Kansas anymore. As a coach I am very comfortable with what I understand well, what I am reasonably clear on and where I need to improve. And from the observations that I was making there are no glaring areas of my understanding that made me feel inadequate with my current level of development. The thing that I noticed more than anything was how comfortable the best and most experienced coaches in the world were in that setting. How they carried themselves, interacted with their athletes and the familiarity they had with the processes made me acutely aware of how little big competition experience I had as a coach. This was not to say that I was uncomfortable, in fact as I mentioned in the last blog, the experience was eerily familiar, but the best way I can describe it is similar to a dream where you are speaking with someone, and you know who they are but you can never quite see their face. That is how I felt at these games, I knew what I was supposed to be doing and I feel as though I planned accordingly, our processes were sound and our execution the same, but it just felt as though we were foreigners in our own country.
Now I know that there are probably athletics people that want more detailed information on what the athletes and coaches were doing so I will outline these here. The best in the world seem to follow similar themes and approaches.
- They are calm and relaxed, they never look flustered. I guess this comes back to feeling comfortable, but I observed the 100m men’s gold medalist from Italy laughing and joking with his coach and physio during the warm up for the final. He not once looked outwardly nervous and his performance in the final demonstrated this.
- The execution of warm ups and technical aspects is clinical and focused. The athletes that performed at a consistently high level throughout the competition were very diligent in the way they carried themselves and the execution of their skills. It was a common thread that many of these athletes appeared to be in their own zone, hardly speaking a word to anyone other than brief discussions with their coaches once the warm up had started. They were extremely deliberate in their actions.
- The best in the world consistently rehearse and practice their skills. Whether this be whole or part practice, I enjoyed seeing the repeated behaviours of athltees running through skills in their heads and replicating aspects in their movements with hand gestures, body twists or head tilts. This may seem odd, but it was clear that the best athletes understand that executing their skills at an optimal level takes preparation and repeated mental rehearsal.
- The best athletes appear to overemphasise or exaggerate features of their performance. Again my observation is that athletes and coaches appear to exaggerate the important features, aspects and phases of their performance in their warm ups. They will perform tasks at faster rhythms, with greater forces or with slightly more complexity than they will encounter in the performance. Whether this is in drills or within their runs there was a consistent theme that included expressing the skill in a more difficult or slightly more complex manner to up-regulate their bodies acuity of what was required come competition time.
So what have I learnt from the experiences?
- Bring a gun to a knife fight.
- If you want to be competitive on the most difficult stage you need to be mentally, physically and emotionally prepared for the hardest competition of your life. If you think that you can rest on the standards that you have set previously, someone will likely pass you by in the ever improving world of sport.
- Experience matters
- I hate the fact that I am admitting this, but knowing the processes, the geography and the landscape of large competitions is invaluable in these situations. I would say that if I had my time over I would have had my athletes and myself speak with and spend time with athletes and coaches who have been to these competitions many times. It would have given us more opportunity to prepare for the environment and feel less foreign.
- Executing your skills takes a lot of preparation
- Whether it be mental rehearsal, drills and exaggerated practice, getting your skill execution to the level of automaticity is important. Not only does it allow the athletes to do what they do best, which is compete, it allows for small errors or nerves to be compensated with more advanced execution of the skill. If you can do a harder version of your skill, then executing the less difficult parts in the event become extremely possible under any pressure.
- Create a confident, calm and inviting environment.
- As I have mentioned the athletes and coaches that I observed to have performed at their best were extremely calm, focus and diligent whilst carrying themselves with an air of confidence and enjoyment. They looked delighted to be expressing their talents and were focused on demonstrating these to the world. I guess it is probably easy to express these features when you know you are the best in the world, however I think as a coach it is important to protect this space in the way that you interact with your athlete, the environment and people that you and your athletes engage with and the tone that you set in that environment.
I am sure that these are only the tip of the iceberg in regards to learning, but at this early stage these appear to be the biggest areas that are clearly visible.