Reality Challenged Individuals

There is a great old adage that I have modified for my own use over the years…

"You can lead a horse to water, you can even tie a brick around it's neck…but sometimes it just won't drink".

This is an expression of my frustration at the effort that as an S&C coach you put into some athletes, that despite their talent and potential, steadfastly refuse to comply with the behaviors that would see them succeed at the level they desire. 

Ultimately the ability of the individual athlete to assimilate information delivered by the coach defines their coach-ability.  How open is the individual to learning?  Obviously, as coaches we need to be cognizant of individual differences in learning and communication styles, adept in the language of non-verbal communication and fluent in the art of reading body language.  However, despite my best efforts and my regular diligence toward the aforementioned skills of communication there are some athletes that just don't get it.  In fact they choose their own path based purely on the assumption that the know best.  While I acknowledge and promote an environment in which the athlete is engaged in decisions and directions being pursued regarding their career, after 20 years of what I think is fair to call "elite professional practice" (see Overview to draw your own conclusions) I find it very difficult to tolerate the apparently "gifted" 18yr old telling me how things are going to "go down" in MY environment.  Hence, my frustration.

Unfortunately, over the years have had occasion to come across a number of athletes, who while gifted in many areas, often at an elite level (see blog on Talent Equation), they refuse to open themselves to learning.  Often times they work extraordinarily hard trying to convince you that they have an absolutely concrete grasp of what you are about, your program and what you are trying to help them achieve.  The unfortunate reality is that these individuals are so wound up in information that they have received from misinformed and mostly well meaning associates (managers, parents etc) that their perception of reality is skewed.  Most often this pertains to the disparity between the individual's perception of their ability and the fact based assessment of how good they actually are.  Individuals of this nature I define as "reality challenged".


Australian sport, with its age based elite systems (AIS, SIS/SAS network) has served in many ways to engender a genre of "reality challenged" athletes (particularly football code athletes) that have been told they are good for so long that they believe it…to their detriment when they hit the professional environment.  Don't get me wrong, the Australian Sport academy / institute network et. al. do a fantastic technical job within often limited scope of operations, however the downside of the system is there is the odd "elite kid" that gets through with a genuine belief they are the second coming of Jesus Christ himself.

I should clarify that these observations have been primarily made with respect to team sports where physical performance capacity / work ethic may be hidden to an extent by skill.

It is intriguing to watch the "reality challenged" athlete when they are confronted with solid facts about their performance.  There is an indignant stare followed abruptly by an over intellectualized rationale i.e. excuse, for the way they are performing, combined with a florid combination of body language cues that scream "leave me alone".

The challenge for the coach is managing this type of athlete.  After having dealt with a handful of very special "reality challenged" athletes over the years, I think the best approach is direct honesty, supported strongly by facts, which incidentally is always best delivered in conjunction with the team's senior coach / manager as it is important to have witnesses to the discussion and avoid the  accusations noted below. 

I have on occasion been accused of being "too hard" on individuals.  Once I was even accused of "seeking retribution" for an athlete's wayward training tendencies.  I don't subscribe to any of this diatribe because I am confident I always treat athletes fairly and only with a view to helping them achieve their best.  

A few years ago I tried to modify my approach in an effort to achieve a different result with a "reality challenged" individual.  I made the mistake of trying to "soften" my approach in an attempt to engage the individual, which I can tell you categorically was a futile error.  

Indulging the "reality challenged" individual for even a moment weakens your position with them and only feeds their delusion.  

My momentary alteration in strategy effectively disproved the hypothesis that I might achieve an improved rate of engagement by altering strategy.  I confirmed to myself that there is only one way to go with the "reality challenged" athlete...

Go straight, go hard and stick to the facts.  


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