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  • Ryan Vigneau

Your Coaching Weakness Is Your Athletes’ Problem

Can we as coaches change the way we view strengths and weaknesses and call them something else? What about efficiencies and inefficiencies?

Sounds like a mouthful sure, but the reality is that the power of words actually changes the context of how they are applied. Some coaches say train your weaknesses a little more, so they become stronger. We fail to realize that youth athletes’ egos are still in their infancy. They are still working on navigating the world, and throwing a powerful word at them, telling them that they have a weakness will instantly become a crutch to not enjoy doing the necessary work to make the benefitting change. Not all athletes, especially not youth athletes, will have the time, the focus, or the confidence to train those “weaknesses.”

At the Professional level an athlete has developed strategies to utilize their “strengths” or efficiencies in more situations. Their repertoire for understanding their game or sport is much higher, which is what allows them to succeed. Young athletes will often use a “weakness” as a crutch. In their mind they think “I can’t do that” and simply try to avoid it.

Simple word framing can change the opinion of how an athlete may attack such an inefficiency within their play. Take for example the words “can’t” and “won’t”. I use this reference quite often to be able to communicate what it is we are trying to achieve with the athlete and how they will use words to avoid an outcome they know is not to their liking.

Can’t Scenario

Mom: Tom do the dishes.

Tom: Mom, I can’t do the dishes

Mom: Why not?

Won’t Scenario

Mom: Tom do the dishes.

Tom: Mom, I won’t do the dishes

Mom: SFF$%#$T

The simple answer is Tom wants to negotiate a different response. “Can’t” will allow Tom to negotiate his reasoning even if it’s not a strong reason. Tom is simply hoping to get out of the task. Insert the framing word “won’t”; we all know how a parent would respond if Tom said he won’t do it. We can reflect on the instances that we say “can’t”, the response to “can’t”, and the response to “won’t” and quite predictably understand the outcome. The word “can’t” provides hope for a negotiation.

To truly apply and understand the effect of the words “can’t” and “won’t,” take them to work with you. When your boss says, “I need this task done,” you’re negotiating word “can’t” is hoping to open the dialogue to explain that you have dinner plans, family plans, a yoga class or whatever it is you would prefer to do.

Now let’s put a youth athlete in the same scenario. Coach says “do this” athlete says they can’t for whatever reason, insert won’t and the athlete will automatically know what a coaches reaction to I won’t would be.

The words strength and weakness are quite the same to the athlete. Weakness is a can’t word. As professional athletes, they have learned to use their strengths in more scenarios and less and less of those weaknesses are apparent. Elite athletes no longer process the information in terms of can’t and won’t, but begin to take the “can” and put it into situations where they may be inefficient.

Let’s look at a hockey player. I’ve had pro coaches and amateur coaches say things like “this player needs better cardio.” Once I have brought the athlete in and have spent some time with the athlete, we begin to notice this athlete is a power house. Straight power. Right now he thinks he has a weakness and it’s his cardio, so he’s been outside running 5km a day to improve his cardio. The resulting effect, his efficiency - his strength, begins to suffer. As his endurance makes a slight shift towards a better aerobic capacity, the athletes sprint speed, power and first step or explosive power begin to decline. The return on all that work and investment in running will actually serve to reduce the performance of the hockey player. Now the athlete isn’t as powerful as they were, and they still haven’t made a big enough difference in their endurance to benefit their play.

Was training a weakness the right plan? Would it not have made more sense to explain to the athlete “you are inefficient at cardio; now how can we maximize the areas in which you are successful?”

Three simple processing points come to mind:

1. “Inefficient” has a different effect on the athlete’s ego than telling an athlete they have a “weakness.”

2. They are willing to work to perform better.

3. Your game plan has to make sense at improving the athlete with the most return on their investment of time.

Let’s talk about a new game plan for the athlete. We know that he is straight power so let’s try to maximize his most efficient energy system, which is he body’s ability to be powerful. Let’s train it’s ability to be able to repeat power and recover so he can do it again and again, because that’s what the coach was really asking. This sounds simple and we all know it’s not, but the athlete is confident in their ability to be powerful. This confidence that the athlete has will return effort and generate buy-in. The coach sees the athlete the following season and WOW they have great cardio! What the coach really wanted was to see the athlete perform better. The athlete is now able to repeat sprints more frequently, because the strategy was how to employ their efficient anaerobic system into more situations. They bought in. They worked hard. They are more confident. They are better performers. Their “weakness” was simply an inefficiency in how they used their body and systems to compete.

When we think words are power, we often think they are for protesting or self-motivation quotes on Instagram, and more often than not they appear in written forms. When we speak, the content is up to the listeners’ discretion and interpretation. When you think of the word “strength” you feel good. When you think of the term “weakness” you feel poor or unable. Think of the word efficient, what comes to mind? We will associate “efficient” with positivity and being on the right path. Now think about inefficient, what do you think? To me, when I hear inefficient, I think I have to fix the process to make a change.

When I tell an athlete, they are inefficient at a drill or task, I always immediately get the question “How do I make it better?”. Tell them they are weak… crickets. Ask your youth athlete what those words mean to them, then you’ll understand.

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