WoMenUnited – How TEAM Can Empower Athletes To Perform Better

by Nikola Milinkovic
10th Dec 2018

TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) is probably one of my favorite acronyms. It goes above and beyond the common sense of importance of teamwork and how we need to stay united if we wish to achieve high performing results. Athletes that showcase teamwork and unity understand that team success is about each of them being a part of something great, which is why when we see them perform not only with each other, but for each other, we are witnessing true magic.

‘‘They say ‘It takes a village to raise a child' and this really is true in sports’’

Developing athletes into cohesive units can be very challenging and coaching is essential here. Having someone with a well-rounded knowledge knowledge of strength and conditioning, game analytics, nutrition, physical recovery, and psychology on hand is key; someone who can incorporate all these pieces into an athlete’s tactical and technical development. However, that’s a lot to ask. Human performance is far too complex, making it extra challenging for any one person to wear all the 'hats' and teach the game from all the different angles. This is where senior management and team owners come into play as the ones with initial vision, culture, standards and core values they wish to create. Depending on these elements, they can bring a coach on board along with appropriate support staff, allowing those experts specialized in their own areas to help the team. As they say 'it takes a village to raise a child' and this really is true in sports too. 

‘‘Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned are ‘do no harm’ and ‘know how much you don’t know.’’

One dynamic that is crucial for team performance is the communication and the relationship between support staff and coaches. I have worked with numerous tennis, basketball and, lately, football coaches, some of whom were very open for collaboration and some who were not. As I myself wear two ‘hats’ (that of a coach and of a mental performance consultant) in working with tennis players, some of the most important lessons I learned are ‘do no harm’ and ‘know how much you don’t know’. This is very important as it impacts athletes’ performance and signifies my own openness to providing necessary care to my athlete. Try this…

Think about the mental skills used in performance, such as awareness development, visualization and self-talk. How much advice are you happy / able to offer?  How much advice are you open to hearing / willing to take?

Teaching these skills is a sensitive craft. Words have the power to cause pain and at the same time to heal it, so we need to be careful how we communicate to our athletes, what feedback we give and what messages we send. If those messages are conflicting and confusing, it can cause more harm than good.

'Managers have a high level of responsibility to set standards that can trickle all the way down, and to manage players' stress and performance levels.'

Just recently, a coach of one of the youth football teams I worked with previously invited me to run a workshop on re-building team confidence due to a losing streak they’d gone through. This tells me that he cares a lot about his team because he knew that I would bring a different perspective and expertise he may not have. When collaborations like this happen, athletes tend to feel more encouraged and their voices heard, and overall team performance starts to move in the right direction again. However, for this to happen and for us as staff to start to hold athletes accountable for certain behaviors, we need to lead by example. In youth sports, coaches play a major role of caring adults by teaching certain sporting values. As athletes transition into young adulthood, they may not ‘care how much we know, until they know how much we care.’ I found this to be particularly true in working with teenage tennis players. They will test you, question you, push you, but most of all, they will watch how you behave and act. Once they transition into professional sports and form certain habits and behaviours, they will have already developed a level of identity, belief systems and a level of professionalism. This does not mean that their growth and development has stopped because every new environment carries with it new specific dynamics such as getting familiar with new coaching staff, management, culture and goals of the team. Athletes will keep observing and listening for support, encouragement and praise, especially as they need to manage the pressures and distress that professional sports can bring with them. We, again, come back to the notion of ‘do no harm’ and ‘know how much you don’t know.’ This is where, from the very top, vision, culture, standards and core values are of critical importance in enhancing the teamwork of not only the athletes but staff as well. 

Looking at the success of football teams, and how certain managers are open to receiving psychological input to support players and the team as a whole, whereas others are not; and also by looking at how well those teams perform in the leagues; and how players act off the pitch, as well as on it, to deal with the pressures – Arsenal’s Mezut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Aubameyang who were recently photographed openly taking ‘hippy crack’ being a prime example – and how that impacts on their own playing performance, how the other players respond (joining in, rebelling, shunning them etc.) and the fans demonstrating just how important this is. Can it be avoided with some help? Probably. Will they accept the help? That’s the question. 




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