We are all experiencing a surreal situation caused by COVID-19. Our lives have been turned upside down and we’re surrounded by tons of uncertainty. This has greatly impacted our coaching businesses and as a result, our athletes as well. The sports world has come to a screeching halt, events are being postponed or canceled around the world; leaving athletes asking, ‘Coach, what now?’
And as a coach, this will not be the last time you need to assist your athletes through uncharted waters. Whether it’s something as simple as lightning closing the local pool, and your athlete asking, ‘Coach, I can’t get in my swim workout; what should I do?’, or their race being canceled due to weather, or the severity of a global pandemic. As a coach, you must step up and lead. When we chose to coach, we chose to be a leader. And it is times like this when we realize that coaching is not simply writing a training plan.
By no means does this mean we play ostrich, put our head in the sand, and pretend to see everything with the proverbial, rose-colored glasses. Rather, just the opposite. We should follow a simple three-step process: address the situation, empathize, (not sympathize; we are not here to coddle athletes, we are here to coach and lead them,) and come up with a solution.
Scenario 1: “Coach, I’m done, I broke my collarbone!”
An athlete called me and immediately, it was apparent that something was wrong. On the verge of tears, he said he just got back home from the hospital. Earlier that day while cycling, he crashed and broke his collarbone. He had big race plans that season and sadly expressed, “Coach, I’m done, I broke my collarbone.” I just listened for a few minutes as he described what happened. He was under the impression that he was not able to train for weeks.
I started by addressing the situation: “Joe, I completely understand; injuries like this can be very challenging and painful. And yes, we are going to have to put some workouts on the shelf, like swimming and upper strength training.”
Then moved on to empathizing. “I realize you’ve put a ton of work into your recent training and this is very disheartening.”
Lastly, I challenged him to work through a solution together: “But, here’s the great news, there is plenty of work we can do. So, we are going to focus on that and not give any attention or energy to what we cannot do. Tomorrow, you are going to go to the gym and try a lower bodyweight workout.”
You would have thought I handed Joe a pot of gold. His spirits lifted as he realized he could still get in some good workouts during the healing process. This is all the athlete is looking for. They want to be coached and they want to be led.
Scenario 2: “Coach, my race is postponed/canceled; I’m going to stop my coaching plan.”
This is very relevant in the current global pandemic. An athlete reaches out to you and says, “Coach, all of my races have been postponed. What if these races are never rescheduled? What if I put all of this work in and I cannot race until later in the year? I think I am just going to stop my coaching.” Notice how the athlete asked, ‘what if?’ twice.
According to Forbes, “what if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Calm people know that asking “what if?” will only take them to a place they don’t want—or need—to go.
At this point, the coach’s calm in chaos becomes invaluable. We have to understand that these knee-jerk reactions are very common.
So, our response is addressing the situation & empathizing by saying: “I completely understand, as these are extremely challenging times for all of us. And as an athlete myself, that would be my first reaction as well.”
Then challenge them with a solution by saying: “So, let’s do this, we are going to keep this ‘race’ on the schedule. I will make some changes to a workout so that you’ll achieve race-effort intensity. And then, we are going to keep moving forward with the training. Then once the race schedule resumes, we are going to take this fitness you’ve built and crush it. Plus, by staying consistent with your workouts, you will remain sharp, both physically and mentally. We are going to build some big fitness over the next few weeks and months which you can then showcase in the near future!”
These three simple steps are applicable in a multitude of scenarios besides these two presented. Their functionality even extends outside of sport and can be equally valuable in daily life. Consider taking a breath and working through each step with your athlete before they start panicking when life throws them a curveball.
Coaches, I wish you all good health and safety as we are all in this together as we feel the effects of this global pandemic. Let’s take our coaching and our leadership to new heights and let’s continue to help assist our athletes in achieving goals they never thought possible!