Positive coaching for gymnastics, education and life

Positive coaching for gymnastics, education and life

As a gymnastics coach I was lucky to be provided with positive coaching training through British Gymnastics (BG). This is a very pertinent topic in gymnastics due to the fact that we are often coaching children and this is a sport, especially at the elite level, which has a history of using negative approaches to “make champions”. I am pleased to say that the tide is turning.

The first thing that I thought when I had completed this training was how relevant it is to all walks of life that involve working with other people. I wish I’d had it a long time ago, there is a place for it for anyone in a position of authority, from managers in business to teachers in school. It is especially applicable to the business coaching activity that I do.

The BG training touches on positive behaviour, seemingly obvious things about our attitude as coaches, such as not shouting at children and ensuring that we are not the source of emotional danger for the children through our words or techniques.

I was very interested to see that the majority of the positive coaching training focuses on goal orientation, as I use in my leadership and executive coaching, recognising the positive, motivational feedback loop of setting a goal and celebrating success when it is achieved. BG recognises two orientation types in the training:

  1. Task-driven goals
  2. Ego-driven goals

Ego-driven goals are goals that are somewhat out of your control but that boost your ego when achieved e.g. winning a medal, or making national squad. Only focusing on ego-driven goals can impact negatively on mental health by heightening anxiety and putting strain on the coach/athlete relationship. Task-driven goals are driven by the completion of tasks, which allows us to target both skills development and the development of a good attitude.

The BG training also breaks down the difference between performance mode and preparation/recreational mode. Arguing that in performance mode a hybrid approach (ego/task driven) might be appropriate, e.g. a high-level athlete might need to win a medal to move through to the next phase of competition, however this shouldn’t be the only goal type set for the performance. In preparation or recreational mode it is suggested that only task-driven goals are used.

One mistake that I have made as an entrepreneur and as a gymnast is to always be in performance mode, I have learnt that this can quickly lead to burnout and it is something that I flag with entrepreneurial clients. It is important that, whether it be with children that we coach or teach or with my coaching clients, we distinguish between performance and preparation and set goals appropriately.

I think that, on the whole, the systems that exist in society need to work harder to promote good mental health. Our education system is largely built on ego-driven goals for students and teachers (e.g. getting a grade, getting into university), which are demotivating if they feel out of reach and hollow for those who do achieve them without developing the relevant transferable skills. Good teachers utilise positive coaching skills to motivate, engage and inspire students.

Our media and social media highlight the positives and demonise the negatives, perpetuating negative thought patterns such as black-and-white thinking or catastrophising and we aren’t taught the tools and techniques to recognise or deal with such things until we end up in therapy (and that is only for those privileged enough to be able to access mental health care).

I think that social-emotional education needs to take a much higher priority on the school curriculum in order to help to protect the mental health of students whilst they are in school and to prepare them once they leave. Initiatives such as learning passports and recognition for specific skills development are a way that positive coaching techniques are making the way into the classroom.

Communication is another major topic in the BG training. Communication around goal setting ensures that a coach/athlete goal orientation is aligned and reduce the likelihood of a negative relationship. This is where I think we often fall short in looking after the mental health of young people, creating shared goals and communicating the process. There is a lot more I could say about developing meta-cognition – whereby a student understands and engages with the learning journey that they are going through. Communication and collaboration in goal setting, monitoring and celebrating success is a way to make this happen.

Another positive psychology method that I try to include in all my gymnastics coaching sessions is gratitude within a short reflective practice. I do it in a very simple way, as the children are young, by asking the participants to reflect on one thing that they are proud of at the end of the session. This promotes the feeling of gratitude towards gymnastics and themselves and helps to build a trusted relationship between them and me.

What are the positive techniques that you use with the people you coach, teach or manage? How do you make sure you are transparent with your participants so that they understand the process? What behaviours have you had to adapt to ensure you are a positive force in the lives of the people that you have responsibility for?


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