The Art of Strengths Coaching

S is for The Strengths Approach To Shaping The Score In Sports  

There are many ways to do fine work. One approach is to learn from the strengths approach to shaping the score in sports.

This approach was strongly influenced by John Wooden, the great basketball coach, and also by Tim Galwey’s work on the Inner Game. It was also reaffirmed by coaches such as Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to victory in three Super Bowls. He said that:

Providing you deliver the required standard of performance, the score takes care of itself.

The approach encourages people to become the best they can be rather than worrying about winning. It adopts this measure to sports – and to life – rather individuals measuring themselves against other people. Paradoxically, it can also result in them actually getting more wins.

Such an approach enables athletes to recapture the joy of playing rather than feeling paralysed. It helps them to relax and go into their equivalent of the zone. They are then more able to flow, focus and finish.

Different people apply this approach in different ways in their chosen sports or other activities. They do, however, often focus on the following themes.

Strengths 

They build on their strengths. These are the specific activities in which they have the ability to deliver As rather than Bs or Cs. They also find ways to compensate for their weaknesses. 

Strategies

They clarify the real results to achieve and translate these into a clear picture of success. They also clarify the key strategies they can follow to give themselves the greatest chance of success.

Superb Work

They keep following their chosen strategies and do superb work. They keep doing the right things in the right way every day. They also encourage themselves and other people on the journey.

Solutions

They look ahead to anticipate and manage any potential difficulties. They also, when necessary, buy time to make good decisions and find creative solutions to challenges.

Shaping The Score

They embody the ethic of continuous improvement. They keep doing their best to shape the score and work towards achieving their picture of success.

Looking back, can you think of a situation when you adopted some aspects of this approach to your version of shaping the score? This could have been in your personal or professional life.

What did you do then to build on your strengths, pursue your chosen strategies and perform superb work? What did you do to keep doing your best and aim to shape the score?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you did your best to shape the score. 

Describe the specific things then you did then to do your best to shape the score. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

This is an approach I became more familiar with when running courses at sports universities in Scandinavia during the 1970s. The sessions focused on how coaches could encourage people to build on their strengths and, when appropriate, build successful teams.

These ideas overlapped with the mental training programmes that were being run at the sports universities. Those who attended wanted practical tools they could use to encourage people:

To do their personal best; 

To deliver consistently good performances; 

To go into their equivalent of the zone and deliver peak performances.

At the time sports psychologists made an interesting discovery. They found that some athletes seized up because they were striving too hard to win prizes. How to tackle this challenge?

One approach was for them to rediscover the sense of play and passion that took them into the sport. They would then be more likely to flow rather than be fearful. This laid the groundwork for them being able:

To have a positive attitude; 

To follow certain principles; 

To do their personal best rather than become fixated on winning prizes. 

Sports psychologists often encourage people to control the controllables. An athlete, for example, can focus on what they can control – such as their attitude and professionalism.

They can also find ways to manage what they can’t control – such as the officials’ decisions and other outside factors. They can do their best to shape the score but they cannot guarantee the final outcome.

The strengths approach offers sports people a framework they can use to build on these principles. They focus on their strengths, strategies, superb work and solutions. They can then do their best to shape the score. Let’s explore these themes.

Strengths

Great sports people build on their strengths. They focus on the specific activities in which they have the right spirit, skills and strategic ability to perform superb work and deliver success.

When working at the sports universities, I found that much work was done helping students to clarify the events in which they could perform at their best. This could result in them majoring in track and field, cycling, golf, orienteering or doing other activities.

Some runners might start out as sprinters, for example, but then move up to longer distances. Some might be good all-round athletes and find they got more success by focusing on the decathlon.

Some sports people were more suited to doing individual sports – such as tennis or golf. Some were more suited to doing team sports. Some were better in sports that required both strong individual and team contributions – such as baseball, cricket or participating in the Ryder Cup.

Some footballers had the basic skills but performed better in certain positions on the field. When I was coaching youth teams, for example, during the training sessions I moved players around the field until they found their niche.

One midfield player I worked with suddenly went into another dimension when I moved him to playing as a central defender. He became calmer, saw how the play was developing in front of him and moved to snub out danger.

Like many people who play to their strengths, he seemed to have more time and space to use his skills. He seemed to combine doing things slowly yet also swiftly.

When moving into defence, he quickly saw patterns. He immediately began orchestrating the players around them and ensured the team kept its shape. After two matches I promoted him to captain, which resulted in both him and the team achieving success.

There are many models for exploring whether a person has the right attributes to reach their goals. One approach is to start by exploring the following themes.

Strengths

What are the person’s strengths? What are the specific activities in which they have the ability to deliver As rather than Bs or Cs? What is the evidence that they have this ability?

Looking back, when has the person done superb work performing this activity? What did they do right then? How can they follow these principles – plus maybe add other elements – to perform superb work in the future?

Bearing in mind their strengths, what is the specific activity the person wants to pursue? Providing they do the work required, what is the level they can reach doing this activity? What are the specific things they can do – and how they can be helped – to increase the chances of success?

Spirit

What is the spirit – the attitude – required to achieve success in the specific activity? What is the required drive and discipline? What is the required resilience?

If the person is playing an individual sport, do they have the required personal qualities? If the person is playing a team sport, do they have the required qualities – such as being positive, professional and encouraging other people?  

On a scale 0-10, to what extent does the person have the right spirit required to succeed in their chosen activity? What are the specific things they can do to maintain or improve the rating?  

Skills

What are the skills required to achieve success in the specific activity? What are the required physical skills? What are the required practical skills? What are the required psychological skills?

Looking back, when have they demonstrated some of these skills? What did they do right then? How can they follow these principles – plus add other elements – in the future? 

Do they have the desire and discipline to keep practicing and improving their skills? Do they keep translating these skills into action: a) When things are going well; b) When they are under pressure?  

If appropriate, what are the physical skills they need to develop? What are the practical skills they need to develop? What are the psychological skills they need to develop? How can they continue to develop in these areas? 

Looking back, when have they demonstrated some of these skills? What did they do right then? How can they follow these principles – plus add other elements – in the future? 

On a scale 0-10, to what extent does the person have the right skills required to succeed in their chosen activity? What are the specific things they can do to maintain or improve the rating?

Strategic Ability

What are the strategic abilities required to achieve success in the specific activity? What is required to be proactive, plan ahead and prepare properly?  

What is the required to make good decisions? What is required to focus on the real results to achieve? What is required to clarify the options for going forwards and the consequences of each option? What is required to choose the strategy most likely to achieve success?

What is required to see the big picture whilst also translating the strategy into action? What is required to see patterns? What is required to keep reading reality and seeing what is actually happening? What is required to then make the necessary adjustments and work to achieve success? 

Looking back, when have they demonstrated some of these strategic abilities? What did they do right then? How can they follow these principles – plus add other elements – in the future? 

On a scale 0-10, to what extent does the person have the right strategic ability required to succeed in their chosen activity? What are the specific things they can do to maintain or improve the rating?

Imagine that a person has chosen to focus on a specific activity. As a coach, it can then be useful to explore the following themes. The answers to these questions can then be used to help the person to improve their performance and deliver success.

Strategies 

Imagine that a sports person has clarified their strengths. The next step is for them to clarify their specific goals and strategies.

Great athletes focus on what they can control when setting goals. They can aim to perform at their best on the day and do everything possible to shape the score. They cannot control whether they win, however, because there may be outside factors that influence the result.

Steve Peters, who wrote The Chimp Paradox, has helped many sports people to take these steps. He believes it is vital for people to differentiate between a goal and a dream. Steve gives the following explanation.

A dream is something that you want to happen but it is not fully under your control. The dream has outside influences and therefore cannot guarantee that it will happen; it is just a wish.

Goals are something that you can set and achieve because you have full control of them. Goals increase the chances of dreams happening.

Different people use different models for setting goals and clarifying their strategy. One approach is to focus on the What, How and When.

The What 

They clarify the real results they want to achieve and translate these into a clear picture of success.

The How 

They clarify the key strategies they can follow to give themselves the greatest chance of success. 

The When

They clarify what they want to do and when on the road towards achieving the picture of success.

Great workers clarify the pluses and minuses involved in working towards the goals. Bearing these in mind, they clarify whether they are prepared to accept the whole package. If so, they then commit themselves fully to achieving the picture of success.

Different people obviously set different goals. Sports people, for example, often focus on how they can perform at their personal best and achieve certain aims. Sometimes this also involves clarifying how they can leave a positive legacy.

James Kerr, the author of Legacy, describes how this latter approach was followed by The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. He explains how the team that was used to winning faced a crisis after falling short in several World Cups.

The All Blacks responded by pursuing a compelling purpose. Honouring the past, they also aimed to set an inspiring example for future generations.

There was an agreement that better people make better All Blacks. This meant players following the core values of humility, excellence and respect. They were encouraged to focus on a higher sense of purpose:

To be good ancestors and create the legacy.

James explains that each of the players where expected to follow certain principles when they became an All Black. They were encouraged:

To leave the jersey in a better place … To add to the legacy … To represent all the players that have come before and all the players that will come afterwards.

James describes how the All Blacks implemented the right strategy with the right people in the right way. They selected for character, involved people in co-writing the purpose and nurtured leaders across the group.

People translated the strategy into action and practiced performing under pressure. They also developed the habit of constant improvement. This enabled them to deliver the goods when it mattered. Here is an introduction to the approach.

Looking at sports, different coaches use different ways to help people to set goals. They also make clear contracts with them about the various responsibilities in working to achieve the aims.

One approach is to make a coaching contract. Let’s look at how this works in action.

Establishing A
Coaching Contract

Clear contracting is vital in any relationship. This is especially so between the coach and the coachee. Setting specific targets also increases the likelihood of success.

Bearing this in mind, some coaches invite the coachee to do some pre-work before meeting to make clear working contracts. The pre-work invites the coachee to describe the following things.

The specific goals they want to achieve;

The specific things they see as their responsibilities in achieving the goals;

The specific kinds of help they want from the coach;

The specific things that will be happening that will show they have reached the goals.

The coachee and coach meet to explore these topics. They then make clear contracts about how they will work together. Here is the framework for the coaching contract.

Great workers clarify the What, How and When. If they are working in a team, they also clarify the Who. This is who will do what on the way towards achieving the picture of success. They are then ready to move on to the next stage.

Superb Work

Great workers keep following their chosen strategies and do superb work. They keep doing the right things in the right way every day. They also encourage themselves and other people on the journey.

Such workers maintain good habits. They demonstrate elements of OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Discipline. They aim to maintain high professional standards and then add something special when it matters.

Great sports teams keep focusing on these standards. Looking back at my own work with teams, we often took the following approach during pre-season.

The coach outlined the team’s purpose, principles and picture of success. They also explained the reasoning behind this approach and answered any questions from the team members.

The coach was crystal clear on the principles – the Dos and Don’ts – involved in working towards the goals. Many of these were mandatory, but the coach also wanted to give the team members some input into implementing these principles.

Bearing this in mind, during the training camp we set aside time to do the following exercise. The team members were invited to get into groups and do the following things:

To clarify the professional standards – the Dos and Don’ts – they believed it was important to follow both on and off the field to reach the goals.

The groups presented these suggestions back to the whole team. Then, after some discussion, the team agreed on the Dos and Don’ts. Here is the exercise.

 

Solutions 

Great workers look ahead to anticipate and manage potential difficulties. Superb footballers, for example, are constantly scanning situations to see the big picture and identify patterns.

Some have what is called personal radar – they seem to know what will happen before it happens. Below is an excerpt from an article on this theme from the website Training Ground Guru. You can discover more via the following link.

Training Ground Guru

Arsene Wenger: Top players
have radars in their heads

Arsene Wengers says a top player has a “head like a radar” and that more work needs to be done on perception and decision making at young ages.

“I came to the conclusion that it is about getting as much information as possible before (getting) the ball. I call that scanning.

“I try to see what happens to a player in the 10 seconds before he gets the ball, how many times he takes information and the quality of information he takes. It depends on the position.

“What is interesting is that very good players scan six to eight times in the 10 seconds before getting the ball and normal ones three to four times. That is a major step for improvement.

“However, more important – you have to analyse the quality of perception and decision making.

“My challenge is to get my players to know which the best choice is and make the optimal decision every time they get the ball.

“The player has to scan and decide. When he has decided he has to make the best possible solution. This means a compromise between risk and the progress of the ball.”

Some people also follow rituals for refocusing when blown off-course. They buy time to reflect, consider the possible ways forward and then commit to their chosen route. Different people do this in different ways.

Great athletes often need to perform when under pressure. James Kerr describes how the All Blacks’ players developed an approach to making good decisions at such times. They switched to a state called Blue Head rather than Red Head.

The Blue Head state called for being calm, clear and making good decisions. This involved feeling loose and expressive rather than tight. It then meant focusing fully on the moment and being accurate when carrying out their tasks.

The Red State was one where panic took over and the players were anxious. This led to them being tight, inhibited and worried about the result. The players then became desperate and made poor decisions.

Here is their overview of the two states they called Blue Head and Red Head.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, summarised this approach in one of his blogs. Below are excerpts from the piece that you can find via the following link.

The Talent Code

Quick background: a few years ago, the team was going through a period of uncharacteristic struggle. Some players were having trouble controlling their emotions in matches.  

So, with the help of a former Rhodes Scholar named Ceri Evans, they devised a tool to fix that, built on a simple two-part frame that describes the mental state you want to avoid, and the one you want to be in. They call it Red Head/Blue Head. 

Red Head is the negative state, when you are heated, overwhelmed, and tense (H.O.T., in the parlance). Your emotional engine is smoking, your perceptions are slow, the game feels too fast, and your decision making is rushed. 

Blue Head, on the other hand, is the precise opposite: the cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state, when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power, when you stay flexible and deliver top performance. The key is doing three things: 

1) Seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting. 

2) Sense cues when you are entering Red Head mode 

3) Use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head. 

On the All Blacks, each player is encouraged to devise personal triggers to make the transition. One player stamps his feet into the grass, to ground himself. Another uses mental imagery, picturing himself from the highest seat in the stadium, to help put the moment in perspective.  

Whatever tool you use doesn’t matter – what matters is realizing you’re in the wrong emotional zone, and finding ways to cool yourself off and get back in a high-performing head space.

A person who puts on their Blue Head is more likely to think clearly under pressure. They can then follow their chosen model for making good decisions and perform at their best.

Different people use different approaches to finding solutions to challenges. Whatever approach they use, they will aim to take the next step.

Shaping The Score

Great workers keep delivering high professional standards and sometimes add something special to produce peak performances. They aim to do their best to shape the score.

Different people pursue different approaches towards making this happen. Here is one approach from the world of gymnastics.

Getting A Perfect 10

Peter Vidmar, an Olympic Gold winner, describes how the old model for scoring a gymnast’s performance was on a scale 0-10. The best way to increase the chances of getting an Olympic Gold was to get a perfect 10. This was first achieved by Nadia Comaneci in the Montreal Olympics.

After winning the Gold Medal in Los Angeles Peter went on to become a keynote speaker. During his sessions he explained what an athlete must to do achieve the top score. He then invited the audience members to consider how they could apply a similar approach in their own profession.

How to achieve a perfect 10? Firstly, they must achieve the Olympic standard of technical competence. This often took years of dedication and would give them the 9.4.

They could then add 0.2 by taking a risk, 0.2 by demonstrating originality – something that had never been done before – and 0.2 by showing virtuosity and flair.

Such a brilliant performance would produce the perfect 10. This would increase their chances of winning the Olympic Gold.

People who attended Peter’s sessions often felt inspired. Some understood his message and applied it in their work. Others sometimes overlooked one of his key points. They said: 

We now know how to do great work. What we need to do is to be original, take risks and demonstrate virtuosity.

They only forgot one thing. Peter’s most important message is that people must first achieve the 9.4. That is the first step towards winning an Olympic Gold.

Looking at your own work, what is your equivalent of the 9.4? How can you do the basics and then, when appropriate, add the brilliance? What can you do to achieve your version of the perfect 10?

Looking ahead, can you think of a specific situation when you may want to do your best to shape the score? This could be in your personal or professional life.

Looking at the situation, how can you build on your strengths, pursue your chosen strategies and perform superb work? How can you find solutions to challenges? How can you do your best to shape the score?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may aim to do your best to shape the score. 

Describe the specific things then you can do then to do your best to shape the score. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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