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Future-proofing Coaches Lies in Embracing their Role as Mentors

At a recent meetup for our mentor liaisons (our team of supervisors for the mentors on our Global Athlete Mentoring Programme) the subject came up about how the programme has impacted those in the group that work as coaches.


Our mentors are all current or former elite athletes – Olympians, Paralympians and others who have reached the upper echelons of their sport – and so naturally a good number of them are also now coaches in their sport. Among our mentor liaisons for example, we have two Olympians turned coaches - Mark Hawkins, who coaches national handball teams, and Mark Hatton, a national level luge coach. Aside from being part of the core mentoring team, they are both multiple year mentors with us, each having taken on multiple young athlete mentees from different sports, and spent a year building a close relationship with each of them. Alongside their 1-1 mentoring sessions, they also take part in workshops to learn about TAP’s uniquely holistic curriculum, including modules on performance, identity & values, mindfulness and even nature and community responsibility. The experience for both mentors and mentees is often transformational, as both gain a huge amount of self-awareness, personal growth, and get introduced to new ideas, techniques and perspectives. All this we know for sure from our impact measurement of the programme over the last 7 years.


Mark Hatton with his mentee, Boccia player, Louis Saunders


At TAP we have long talked about the ripple effect of our programmes, spreading out beyond just those participating in them, such as the direct impact on those who are taking their learning and development from the programme back into the sporting environments where they are coaching. And these are no small effects we are talking about here. Around 45% of our recent mentor graduates are currently coaching either part- or full-time, many at national and international level.


Something that has perhaps been hiding in plain sight all this time, though, is how mentoring could be purposefully put to use as a vehicle for coach development.


Mark Hatton (the luge Mark) believes that becoming a mentor has certainly improved him as a coach.


"I have become less prescriptive in my approach, and it has become a more collaborative process. I find myself looking for more subtle cues that are perhaps not directly linked to performance but still positively impact the sporting experience. it has definitely changed my coaching and I find myself naturally using a much more holistic approach."


On a call recently with UK Sport CEO, Sally Munday, she talked about some of the challenges that are facing performance sport and how we are going to have to be ready to change the way we do things to respond appropriately to this new generation of athletes and to ensure the continued relevance that sport holds in society. I couldn’t agree more that much of our approach to sport will need an overhaul in order to preserve and grow the many wonderful effects that a life dedicated to sport can offer.


There are many practicalities that will need to be adapted to these changing times, but we also desperately need to update our underlying philosophy of performance sport. This fantastic article by Danish sport psychologist and professor, Kristoffer Henriksen, sums up the landscape that we are seeing emerge around working with Gen Z athletes. This new world makes important demands on our coaches and sport leaders, and we avoid those demands at the peril of sport itself. Although many are still trying to cling to the old ways, we are now well past the time of strict hierarchies, with the coach or performance director being the person in control, with all the answers, directing everyone to align with their vision of what is right and good. Instead, we need to include and involve the athletes far more in the process than we have done in the past. They want to have a say over how their life, and their sporting career, plays out. They want to know that what they are doing has purpose to it – and a single-minded striving for a medal is not considered enough of a purpose on its own. Instead, the journey has to be exciting and have intrinsic meaning, aside from the results. Many young athletes realise that the chances of turning their passion for sport into a sustainable career are slim, and therefore are not willing to put all their eggs in one basket. They want to build out the other parts of their identity, pursuing other interests, even while in the midst of their sporting career. I lead the pioneering Powered by Purpose programme on behalf of UK Sport, training world class athletes to become responsible, effective social changemakers. Research conducted by UK Sport showed that 84% of their athletes want to use their platform for the good of society while they are still active within their sport.

For coaches this poses a conundrum. They want 100% commitment from their athletes but know that those athletes have competing priorities that might draw away some of their focus. Ultimatums simply won’t work anymore, because the athletes are far more likely now to just walk away. So, there must instead be an acceptance on the part of coaches that this is the new status quo. The good news is that it is precisely this new dynamic that could bring about even better results for all concerned! We’ve all heard that ‘better people make better athletes’, and this really holds water, in my opinion.


The mentoring programme that we run at The True Athlete Project where older elite athletes sign up to mentor a younger athlete for a full year, represents a significant commitment of time and attention on behalf of the mentors, alongside all their other sporting and life commitments. At the end of last year’s programme, 100% of those mentors who are still competing either agreed or strongly agreed that their performance had improved because of their year on the programme.


Which brings us nicely back round to the power of developing coaches into the mentoring role.


Mark Hawkins (the handball Mark) says of his time mentoring young athletes from different sports:

It has totally shifted my philosophy of coaching and given me a better sense of being part of something bigger than just the sport itself. I find myself asking the questions – why is this athlete here, why am I here? – and getting to the bottom of those has all sorts of positive impacts on how I approach my role.”


  • Why is my athlete here?

  • Why am I here?


These two questions neatly sum up the profound impact that a mentoring experience can have on a coach. It brings an awareness of what your athletes are hoping to get out of their time with you and each other, providing a compass for how you can get the best of them and keep them engaged and motivated over the long term. It opens your own eyes to why you really love coaching in the first place – more often than not this has far more to do with helping people achieve their potential as opposed to providing the strategies and tactics to make them win.


Mentor, para table tennis player, Aaron McKibbin, with his archer mentee, Max Oakley


And the beauty and power of the model I am proposing is that by having a coach mentor an athlete from a different sport, it removes all the tactics and techniques from the equation and focuses laser-like on the human aspects of being a performer. This is the stuff that is truly transferrable across sports and even across industries, and this is what the two Marks are pointing to, that has helped them reconnect with what is most important to them about being coaches. They find they can take this newfound understanding and have it inform how they treat their own athletes when they are struggling, how they engage with them off the court or track, and in their ability to access a raised perspective that incorporates so much more than the performances their athletes give. In short it makes them far more the coach that they want to be.


In talking to Tom Hartley, Coaching Lead at UK Coaching, we agreed that neither of us had ever heard of an initiative that brings a coach and an athlete from a different sport together in meaningful collaboration. The potential benefits are so evident as to be wild that this has never been done before.


Among the 8 mentoring competencies proposed by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, you will find a few that are already integral to the role and development of a sports coach:


·       Outcome and action orientation

·       Enabling insight and learning

·       Use of models and techniques


And then there are a few that point to areas of ever-increasing importance to coaches, but are not yet as fully integrated as the three above.


·       Understanding self

·       Commitment to self-development

·       Building the relationship


Taking the long view, it is precisely this second list of competencies that will align our coaches with the demands of the changing sports landscape. Not only will it give them greater insight into the needs and motivations of their athletes and themselves, and help them connect with each human in front  of them, but it will begin to reposition the role of the coach more as the facilitator of others (athletes and staff) achieving their goals and potential than as the director of the minutiae of those same people’s lives.


You could align the competencies listed here to modules in traditional coach development programmes, but the experience of mentoring is absolutely second to none in terms of creating connection and shifting mindsets and perspectives – the stuff of true human growth and development.


That powerful dynamic is wonderfully highlighted by another TAP mentor, Olympian and swimming coach, Annemarie Munk.


”Having concluded my second year as an athlete mentor with TAP, I reflect on a journey that's been both enlightening and profoundly rewarding. My ongoing role in TAP continues to shape my practice and perspective, highlighting the invaluable intersection between sports, personal growth, and mutual respect. I'm grateful for the opportunity to grow alongside my mentee in this unique and empowering environment.”


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The response from our coach-mentors has persuaded us to put this idea into practice. We will be recruiting coaches for a 9-12 month mentoring programme, where they will mentor an athlete from a different sport and receive training along the way. If you or someone you know could be interested in taking part, then write to me at laurence@thetrueathleteproject.org

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