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Understanding and influencing the training environment

This is an excerpt from High-Performance Training for Sports-2nd Edition by David Joyce & Dan Lewindon.

By Brett Bartholomew, MS Ed, CSCS*D, RSCC*D
Founder & CEO,

Coaching is part improv, part game theory and part persuasion. This word choice may throw some off, or even be considered distasteful by others, but the truth is that misunderstanding the social and chaotic nature of coaching can significantly impede the creation of true long-term change within the training environment. Sure, we’ve made tremendous progress over the years in regard to our training practices, data analysis and even how org charts have been shaped, but coaches around the world often still find themselves struggling to both recognise and overcome the inherent power dynamics and micropolitical agendas that plague the performance realm.

Despite the obvious need for coaches to demonstrate expertise in understanding and optimising interpersonal dynamics, any improvements in this space are harder for us to quantify than statistics showing an improvement in the rate of force development of a bench throw or a decrease in injuries from year to year. Any intervention has little chance of success if the people involved aren’t on the same page from a communication standpoint.

This chapter gives the reader an introduction to the topic of influence as the nucleus of coaching and leadership. It also explores the consequences of what occurs when aspects of the interpersonal arsenal are ignored. Finally, and most importantly, it provides a framework for understanding how the most complicated skills to master are those that are simple.

Conflict and Micropolitics in the Weight Room

Micropolitics are a feature of all human interactions. Micropolitics refer to the strategies and tactics used by individuals as well as groups in an organisation to further their interests (1). It is critical to note that these interests do not need to be conniving or deceitful in nature to be considered micropolitical; they just need to be focused on moving the needle in one direction or another towards a unified outcome. Does your department need more funding to hire an additional member of staff? If so, some level of micropolitical interaction must assuredly take place for this objective to be met. How about other common examples, such as a difficult athlete causing buy-in–related problems among other teammates? How do you know whether it’s truly the athlete causing the issue, other teammates or you? Certainly, you are not biased enough to think that just because the rest of the team seems to listen that you are truly in control, do you? Be wary of making this mistake. Understand that coaches in performance environments inherently tend to crave predictability, stability, respect and control.

Ironically, the issue is that these are the exact commodities that do not exist in the realm of high-level competition where emotions, egos and other intangibles can often disrupt and dictate the outcome. Don’t believe me? Conversations with coaches in just about every level of sport inevitably involve some level of disclosure regarding social scenarios such as:

  • Poor communication across departments (lack of integration or interpersonal skills)
  • Egotistical coach dictating programmes and punishments
  • Issues of the blame game once a team’s record takes a turn for the worse or a star athlete gets injured
  • Internal staff conflict due to role ambiguity, power dynamics, differences in training philosophy, etc.
  • Issues arising with administration or ownership due to lack of funding or departmental support
  • Athletes losing faith in certain members of the staff or other forms of coach and athlete conflict
  • Overzealous parents of youth athletes attempting to dictate session demands and expectations
  • Lack of job security and pervasive political posturing among stakeholders and powerbrokers

These issues are just some examples of how achievement can be asphyxiated from within and further illustrate why success as a coach requires adaptability in not just what you do but also in how you do it. Sources of conflict occur at many levels, including those that are interpersonal, intrapersonal, and contextual. Coaches must understand that the more they seek control during moments of conflict, the more control will frustrate and elude them. Although a strong understanding of the biomechanical and physiological components of what we do are absolutely necessary, we must now include adeptness in the micropolitical realm as well.

It must simply be seared into the centre of our cerebral cortex that the core of most of our problems not only as human beings but also as coaches are social in nature and involve the navigation of these types of topics.

The Truth About Trust

Despite what countless modern-day, mass-produced leadership books may try to convey, great coaching isn’t always clean since humans and the relationships between them are so incredibly complex. Success is less about to-do lists and cliché motivational tactics and more about the totality of interpersonal communication and social dynamics. Both these domains serve as the epicentre of relationship development and maintenance; coaches often talk of trust, but they rarely understand the territory due to how we have been trained in the past. Trust is not something that can be passively gained or received over time; it is built brick by brick and laid alongside its brethren buy-in and loyalty.

Some abhor the term buy-in, believing it connotes a negative, sales-based approach. Personally, I care less about the minutiae of terms that we feel good about and more about clarity, especially when looking at the big picture of social dynamics. This squabbling is witnessed in many areas of our profession. For example, my work in social dynamics (2) convinces me that coaching is a social science that requires knowledge of self and knowledge of others, and yet we continually choose to fight irrelevant battles, such as the names of exercises. My point here is that our profession continues to ignore what I believe to be the biggest performance-enhancing lever we can pull – social dynamics.

The elusiveness of trust doesn’t stop with angst regarding terminology, however. Ignorance and apathy within the social domains have led to innumerable misunderstandings, wars, betrayals, economic downturns and various other political dilemmas throughout history. Today’s performance landscape is a microcosm of the world around us, and various power brokers and stakeholders constantly operate in a realm of chaos, uncertainty and conflict, affected by ego and personal agendas.

More Excerpts From High Performance Training for Sports 2nd Edition