Intro from Taylor:
I wanted constructive criticism of my interview with Kris Hampton of Power Company Climbing (see the full interview here). So I reached out to an Austrian sport psychologist by the name of Madeleine Eppensteiner who has a masters degree in sport psychology, has represented Austria as both a youth and an adult climbing athlete, and (my most important criterion) also happens to cite her references using synthesis between the research and the subject. Her website can be found at: Climbing Psychology.
It is certainly a little scary to ask someone you respect, but don’t know, to analyze the relationship between you and your athlete, but I’m glad I did. Her remarks are below. From discussing why athletes should take an active part in their own training, to finding a balance between autonomy, flexibility, authority and trust, to an excellent point about focusing on an athlete’s emphasis on their self rather than others, Madeleine’s perspective is insightful reading and eminently practical.
Though Madeleine’s comments about me are positive, on self-reflection I believe I can strive to effect my athletes in a more positive way even as I continue to offer opportunities for their own self-reflection. Thank you, Madeleine, for your insightful (and well referenced!) analysis.
If you don’t have a lot of time, skim through the bold parts below. With the podcast, you can skip around to save time. Here are some highlights – Athlete/coach meshing: 8:25 – 10:15 | Humility: 12:20 – 14:12 | Failure at Worlds: 15:10 – 17:15 | Mutual decisions: 21:00 – 22:05 | Stress: 23:30 – 25:15 | Belle Pushing Back: 29:15 – 30:45 | Outside Climbing: 35:30 – 39:55 | Belle embracing her discomfort. 45:05 – 46:30
I just listened to Taylor and Bella’s interview on the Power Company Climbing, talking about their coach-athlete-relationship and how they became as successful as they are. Taylor is an American coach who just recently started the website www.beta-angel.com – a page where research about climbing from all different fields is shared. Of course I was interested in collaborating! I listened to his and his athlete Bella’s podcast and commented on it from a sport psychological perspective. Here’s my statement:
Bella and Taylor seem to have a healthy athlete-coach relationship. Before I go into more detail on why I think so, ask yourself, how would you describe your athlete-coach-relationship? How would you describe your leadership style?
To be fair, there is no right or wrong, as long as it fits the relationship and both parties. However, there are some important, scientifically proven factors on the part of coaches that enhance a positive, long-term and healthy coach-athlete relationship. Such characteristics of a coach are being empathic, being highly competent in what you’re doing (such as climbing), being trustworthy, giving positive subjective feedback and also offering the possibility of talking about something outside sports – such as school or maybe the first girlfriend/ boyfriend (if the athlete wants to talk about it). The older the athletes become the more they should be supported to become autonomous and e.g. get involved in creating a training plan. Training plans should be more flexible and athletes should be encouraged to listen more to their own body and needs. Trust goes both ways – the athlete has to trust the information given by the coach, and the coach has to trust the athlete’s self-efficacy and ability to know what’s best for them and their body in the moment. Let’s give an example: if e.g. the athlete had an exam at school that was really hard, or if they did badly at the last comp and therefore are emotionally, mentally and maybe even physically not in the state to exactly execute what was planned, they should have the freedom to decide to do something different in a training session. Another classic example – which most of us might have experienced themselves in some way – is giving beta to other people. Don’t get me wrong, it can obviously be really helpful to get advice for how a move can be done. However, it’s always still up to the athlete to execute the move. Even if I was a great coach and I was really good at giving beta and anticipating moves, I’d still not be in my athlete’s mind and body. To use a metaphor “we can only open the door, but the athletes have to go through it themselves“. I have experienced coaches saying to their athlete that “this is the only right way to do a move“, “come on, do it like this” and in turn, athletes not trusting themselves enough or feeling intimidated by the coach “because he/she always knows better/ best; he/she is always right” so they forget to listen to their own body and make a decision based on how this move feels right for them. A good coach-athlete relationship means that coaches allow themselves to not always be right, give their athletes space to e.g. discover moves themselves, and also don’t see it as critique of their coaching abilities if the athlete doesn’t do something exactly the way they had said, e.g. executing a move. So much for autonomy and flexibility. From what I can tell about Taylor’s and Bella’s relationship by listening to the podcast, they seem to have a great balance of autonomy, flexibility, authority and trust. There is no “misuse of power“, both are equal in their relationship (Frester, 1995 – old but still contemporary research!).
Another important factor in a healthy coach-athlete relationship, particularly for female athletes is an increased emotional and empathic attention. One great example is the Youth Worlds in Innsbruck last year, when Bella was really devastated after not having achieved her goals. If we are in such a vulnerable state of mind because we are overwhelmed by negative emotions caused in this case by a bad competition, we might not be open to feedback right away. There are different ways of dealing with negative emotions – may that be breathing exercises to control our emotions and calm down, taking your time to calm, walking away from the setting, music, talking with friends, etc. (again, classic psychological answer: there’s no right or wrong). It’s important for athletes to develop their own strategies and not suppress their feelings. And in turn, it’s important for coaches to learn their athlete’s need in these moments. In Bella’s situation that would have been: no constructive feedback directly after the competition. By Taylor starting to talk about his own failures, he shows his own vulnerability and trust which in turn helps Bella to open up as well and talk about mistakes and what she can learn out of it. Again, other athletes might need some space and time, or positive feedback and care. Do you know what your athletes need? How can you support them in the best possible way? What do they positively react to?
Generally, I like the approach of both Taylor and Bella trying to learn the most of every competition. In sport psychology, you call what Taylor’s trying to create a “mastery-based climate”. Coaches are responsible for the creation of an “atmosphere” or a training climate in a training group. We distinguish between ego-based climate and mastery-based climate. In an ego-based climate the coach focuses on an inter-individual comparison. Athletes get attention and recognition based on their results and achievements compared to other athletes. Instead of seeing individual progress, progress is always put in comparison with other athletes. A mastery-based climate promotes evaluation of competence based on effort, learning, and self-referenced improvement and therefore focuses on intra-individual progress – what has the athlete improved on? What can the athlete still learn? You wonder what climate might be more effective, particularly in competitive sports group and individual sports? Isn’t it good to always compare your athletes to everyone else? Well, by coaches focusing on the individual progress of their athletes, they foster development of intrinsic motivation, enjoyment of activity, they minimize fear of failure, they put emphasis on effort, persistence, improvement, hard work which in turn can increase self-esteem in athletes (Erickson & Côté, 2016).
All of a sudden, effort becomes the key of success – and effort, we know, opens up a whole room of action. Effort is something that is totally in our control (which in turn, leads – as said – to increased self-esteem and motivation and…). And the long-term effect: a mastery-based climate leads to faster and better skill development, as well as a higher performance. You might say now it’s not always possible to not create an ego-based climate. Yes, you’re right – there will be times when we are directly compared to others (such as in competitions), and to sometimes create such a climate in training in order to prepare your athletes for a competition might be a good thing. But in the long run, a mastery-based climate is proven to have a greater positive impact and influence than an ego-based climate (e.g. Adie & Jowett, 2010; Allen & Hodge, 2006; Erickson & Côté, 2016).
To come back to the podcast, instead of going “well, that was a complete failure”, critiquing each other for who did what wrong or what everyone else did better, they focused on the learning experience – what’s their lessons learnt? What is their take-home message? What can they do differently next time?
This is a really healthy approach and should be supported by coaches for athletes from a very young age onwards. It helps athletes to develop a progressive attitude – something proven to not only be important for being a professional but also in our everyday life, at work or at school. To add to the list of “what characteristics trainers/ coaches should have” – giving (and receiving) constructive feedback is another essential one (Frester, 1995).
Losing or not achieving set goals is part of the game if you’re competing. Like Chris Sharma said: “The reality is, we spend 99.9% of the time not succeeding….” We often forget that results are influenced by many different (also external) factors, some of which we can’t control. Climbing in particular – compared to e.g. athletics or swimming – is defined by its randomness, such as route setting in general, highly coordinative moves, grip on holds, etc. If we have a close look at very successful athletes, we see that they have a very positive approach towards failure or losing, such as Michael Jordan, the best and most successful basketball player of all times, who says he has missed more than 9,000 shots in his career. He has lost almost 300 games. 26 times, he has been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. He has failed over and over and over again in his life. And that, he’s saying, is why he succeeds. – Again, learning from failures, gaining new experience, making the most of a situation. Or let’s take some climbers as a positive example: Sachi Amma once said in an interview “disappointment is something that I experienced very strongly. It hits me really deep inside. I can only deal with it if I find the cause and a solution. It eventually becomes possible to avoid the situation that caused the disappointment in the first place.” It’s natural – and therefore absolutely ok – to be disappointed or feel other negative emotions when we lose, fall in a route or fail in a competition. However, we have to learn to accept the situation – we can’t change it any more right now (normally, the more successful and the mentally stronger the athletes are, the quicker they can accept and “tick” a negative experience). In a second step, we can start searching for reasons and what we can improve in the future. Another example by Sean McColl is: “If you don’t like training and you only like to win at competitions, then you are probably not going to have a good time. Usually the people that win love training. If I don’t do well at a competition, I try to figure out why that was.” There are obviously many more examples of highly successful athletes and how they deal with failures, these are just a few.
Another way of dealing with negative experiences at competitions – particularly, when we realize that it might have affected the athlete’s self-confidence – is the following: When we experience failures or competitions that didn’t go the way we expected, we often tend to only focus on the negatives or “get stuck” with everything that didn’t work. We rarely focus on (little) improvements or personal little achievements. We take one mistake that possibly influences our result as a summary for the whole competition or as a negative reflection of training, often – as said – forgetting that results are influenced by many different (also external) factors, some of which we can’t even control. This focus on the negative puts our “inner scale” into an imbalance – negative thoughts, feelings, feedback always weigh heavier than positive experiences. To become more open to progress and learning from the experience, it can also help to put the focus on positive parts of the experience. Even if we had a horrible competition, there still might have been some positive parts. So start asking yourself the questions:
What did you improve compared to last year’s competition/ Youth Worlds? What did you enjoy about this competition? What were/ are your strengths – as an athlete, as a person, in a competition, etc.? What did you like about the competition – and what didn’t you like? Was it the whole competition or only parts of it? Which parts need to change so you’d like it again? How could you enjoy these parts nonetheless?
Trainers and coaches can do their bit by confirming positive development and improvements and not only focusing on the negatives. At this point we have to distinguish between grown-up athletes and young athletes. Adults normally have a more stable self-confidence and self-efficacy. They therefore might not need that much external positive feedback. However, positive confirmation plays a big role for the youth athlete. Since the self-confidence of young athletes (kids and adolescence) is not as stable compared to grown up athletes due to their psychological development, they need a lot more external positive feedback and confirmation to build up their confidence. Negative comments/ feedbacks by coaches/ parents, etc. can have a long-term negative impact on the development and self-confidence of young athletes. Also note that young athletes who develop self-confidence and good mental strategies to deal with pressure at a young age are more likely to become professional athletes as adults (e.g. Erickson & Côté, 2016; Omli & Wiese-Bjornstal, 2011).
In another part of the interview Taylor and Bella talk about Bella only focusing on climbing before the Youth Worlds and therefore having a break of going to school. This in turn, caused a lot of pressure for Bella and she found herself doing better, preparing for the PanAmerican Championships when she also went to school. What happened? Having a “back up” instead of putting a focus solely on one project can take away a lot of pressure. When I work with athletes, I try to anticipate different scenarios before a competition, the so-called “what if’s”: “What if this happens? What do you do?” The better we are prepared for any situation, the less stressed we will feel – we already know what to expect and what to do; if something happens. It’s hard to be or work as a professional athlete. Sponsors and fans expect results of you and you have to perform. What if you don’t deliver? Having a back-up (may that be school or outdoor projects if you don’t perform well in competitions for a season) can help a lot to relativize a single competition (such as e.g. the Youth Worlds). Jernej Kruder, who regularly was on the podium in the Bouldering World Cups this year, is a great example for this. Last year at the popular outdoor climbing festival, Melloblocco, in Italy, he said to me that he realized that bouldering results aren’t everything – he can also do really hard routes outdoors, on lead, deep water soloing and the more he enjoys all of it, the better he also performs in competitions. Sponsors support him for not only having good results in bouldering comps, but also for other projects which take away pressure compared to if he was solely focusing on bouldering comps.
As a coach, you can help your athletes find out what causes their pressure. Do they have a plan B? What happens if different scenarios take place – at a comp, in training or in general? How are the athletes prepared? Do they need support? And if yes, how can you as a coach support them?
Again, the answers to these questions might vary between athletes. Every athlete is different and therefore need to be supported differently. Also, their “plan B’s” might look completely different.
I have to admit that I don’t know Taylor in person. However, there were many incidents during the interview where I thought “Well, this guy must be really self-confident“. I’ll give you some examples of why I thought so and secondly, why I think this is an essential trait to have as a coach. At one point they mention that Taylor supports Bella to see other coaches down in Atlanta and train with them, he talks about his own mistakes after a bungled comp first before Bella does, etc. To do that takes a lot of guts – and from my experience is unfortunately rather rare. Only if we have confidence, we will help develop confidence in those around us. Only if we feel worthy as a person, we will recognize worth in others. Only, if we care about ourselves, we will more likely care about others. Our success as a coach is strongly related to our self-esteem and to how we value ourselves. This is a really sensitive topic because very often, coaches are judged by their athlete’s results – but as we also all know, we are not in control of our athlete’s results, well not even what they do, whether they solve a problem or top a boulder or route, and this lack of control influences our stress level. Coaches who therefore build up their self-confidence on their athlete’s success and results, build up their self-confidence on a really unstable base which in a long term can have negative effects on both their athlete’s and their own health and self-confidence (Martens, 2011). If you are a coach you can ask yourself: What are your strengths, competencies and worth? What distinguishes you from others? What do you contribute to your success?
Madeleine Eppensteiner | Climbing Psychology