Are You An Athlete Centered Coach?

teaching methods

UK Athletics now teach in their coaching manual that coaches should adopt an ‘athlete-centered approach’ in which the needs of the athlete are placed before the interests of and pressures imposed by, the club, school, parents, or coach’.


But what does this mean and does everyone in your club understand the policy?


1. Okay, let’s start with an easy one. What do you as a coach say to the team manager who has asked a sprinter to compete for points in the Triple Jump which they have not trained for? The team manager stresses how important it is that everyone does their bit for the team and that if they don’t do well this weekend then promotion is unlikely this year. He assures you that the triple jump will be over at least 20 minutes before the start of the 200m.

2. The team manager informs you that it is club policy to prevent an athlete from competing on two consecutive days over a weekend. They claim this is done to protect the athlete from over-competition as they suspect this has been an issue in previous seasons.

3. So this next one could be a bit more tricky. What do you say to the father of a 12-year-old girl who has shown promise in the 600m race when he encourages her to accompany him on some training runs he does as a road runner? He assures you he knows what he is doing as he has been running on the road for three years now and the maximum distance they cover is 3 to 4 miles a couple of times a week.

4. Okay, one last one if the two above are obvious. What do you say to the team manager who has decided that for the two leagues he is responsible for he will prioritise weaker athletes in the less competitive league and expect the stronger athletes to be selected for the more competitive league?

It all sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

My answers:

1. All of us who have competed will likely have done an event for a point at some time or other. Especially if you are a member of a small club which would struggle to survive without filling in as many events as possible. However, as an athlete-centered coach, you would know that the ‘needs’ of the athlete come before the team. The athlete above doesn’t need to do the triple jump. In fact’ if they have not trained then their injury risk is higher. If the event is before their main event they have trained three times a week for the last 20 weeks then they are likely being put at a significant disadvantage.

2. At first glance, this seems to be a sensible approach. However, unless the team manager is a qualified sports physiotherapist who knows the athlete well and an experienced and qualified coach then it is not for them to make the decision. There is so much that needs to be taken into consideration including:

  • The type and number of events involved – is it any worse doing 4 tough events on one day as opposed to doing a less demanding event on each day?
  • Traveling time – are both meetings 200+ miles away or is one just up the road?
  • The athlete – what are the ‘needs’ (there’s that word again) of the athlete? Are they a multi-eventer? Are they having trouble with the Long Jump run-up and need just that little extra run-up practice in a competition situation that they couldn’t get on the first day as they were not selected?
  • The time of the season –  is it the first or second weekend or is it the 17th competition of the year in mid-July?

The policy states that the ‘needs’ of the athlete should come first. Some will understandably confuse this with the ‘welfare’ of the athlete. This should be a given, but the team manager is probably not best laced to be the judge of what the needs of the athlete are, especially if they do not know the athlete, their training, or competition plan.

3. This is probably the easiest to answer but most difficult to deal with. Obviously, a 12-year-old girl should not be doing the same training as her road-running father. Their bodies are different and the training loads they can cope with are different. There will be 12-year-olds who can run 4 miles no problem but repetitive overloading of growing bones can lead to both short-term and long-term injury. More importantly in my view’ if they are a promising 600 / 800m runner then as important as an aerobic base is, speed is just as important. Long term you are unlikely to break 2 minutes for 800m if you cannot run 100m in 12.5s.

4. By now it should be obvious…. the ‘needs’ of the athlete come first. Ahh, I hear you say… which athletes? The stronger ones or the weaker ones? Well, the answer is both and it can be done. Firstly it is not always possible to distinguish between weaker and stronger. Children especially are inconsistent and have improvement spurts at different times. But even if it was possible to separate them this policy does not put the needs of all athletes first and here is why:

  • It is wrong for a team manager to dictate the competition schedule of an athlete they often know little about, to do it before the fixtures are known is bizarre. Let’s take the so-called stronger athlete’s perspective first. They are more than likely to be aiming to medal at championship meetings and their competition plan will reflect that. If they need a run-out two weeks before the most important meeting of their season and it happens to be the lower league then so be it. If they need a rest the week before and that weekend is the higher league then tough!
  • Now let’s look at the perspective of the weaker athlete. Either competition is good for them as they are not worried about trying to medal at the championships. In most competitions, especially the lower leagues it is common to allow non-scoring athletes. So they get to compete and their needs are also met.
  • To discriminate against an athlete for any reason including ability is wrong. Athletics is an individual competitive sport whilst it should be up to the team manager to determine who they feel is the strongest athletes to select, it should not be up to them to dictate the competition schedule of any athlete, especially those they know little or nothing about.

To sum up then, if the needs of the athlete are placed before the interests of and pressures imposed by, the club, school, parents, or coach’ then there shouldn’t be a problem. Personally, I would like to see officials added to the list of people who should put athletes’ needs first but that is for another day.

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