Athletic coaches play a critical role in developing their athletes in terms of physical abilities and mental and emotional well-being. Executive function is a set of cognitive skills essential for goal-directed behavior, such as planning, organizing, and problem-solving. These skills are vital for success in athletics and life, and coaches who understand the importance of executive function can help their athletes develop these skills and reach their full potential in addition to developing into better coaches themselves. Psychological skills in themselves don’t achieve peak performance, but when they are coupled with other forms of effective training they do help athletes and coaches reach their true potential.
There are eight aspects of Executive Function (see graphic above) I am planning to discuss over a series of four articles. My goal is to weave stories and experience from my twenty-five years of serving as an educator and coach as I review these topics. I have also linked to other resources where appropriate to provide more value and insight to the points I make in each section.
Rowers need impulse control to maintain focus and discipline during long, grueling practice and racing sessions. Rowing is a sport that requires a high level of physical and mental endurance, and impulse control is essential for managing physical and emotional impulses that can disrupt performance.
Impulse control allows rowers to resist the urge to give up during tough training sessions and races and to stay focused on their goals. For example, if a rower feels an impulse to stop rowing when tired, impulse control allows them to push through and keep going.
This perseverance is very important during winter training months. Rowers love being in boats, therefore long ergometer sessions with weight lifting interspersed can be challenging for some athletes. There are occasions when performance is not where an athlete wants to be. I have come to understand that competitive rowing is like saving for retirement. You put a little away each week in service to a long-term goal. This takes discipline. There will inevitably be moments when you are questioning what you are doing. The key is to acknowledge those thoughts and reframe them as “I am having a thought about quitting this training session” rather than actually quitting a training session.
Similarly, if a rower feels an impulse to become angry or frustrated with their teammates, impulse control allows them to remain composed and maintain good team dynamics.
Impulse control also allows rowers to stay disciplined in their training and to avoid distractions that could negatively impact their performance. For example, if a rower feels an impulse to skip a workout or to eat unhealthy foods, impulse control allows them to make the right choices and stay on track.
I think this is also important when considering training protocols. Many of the clients I work with come from very competitive training environments. The issue with this is that steady-state training sessions often become competitive, and the focus is moved away from heart rate zones which should be the main aim. Rowers should be able to control their impulse to go too hard on steady-state pieces. Generally, most poorly trained rowers think more is more regarding their steady-state training volume and intensity.
However, it is important to put the ego on the shelf and track improvement over time. For example, take a rower who can hold a 200-watt average for 60 minutes at a certain average heart rate. With 6-8 weeks of disciplined training monitoring training intensity in the UT1 and UT2 zone should see improvements in average watts for the same average heart rate. There is no need to do numerous test days if training data is tracked over time and can be compared.
The concept of monitoring and evaluating progress over time will be discussed in a future section of this series of articles. For more information on heart rate zones, check out my article Are You Training In The Correct Zone?
But What About Coaches?
The same goes for coaches. First, impulse control allows coaches to stay focused on their goals and to make thoughtful, well-considered decisions. This is important because coaches are responsible for their athletes’ development and performance, and their decisions can significantly impact their athletes’ success.
Impulse control helps coaches manage their emotions and to avoid becoming too high or too low emotionally. Coaches are typically under a lot of pressure, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of the job. Impulse control allows coaches to stay composed and to make rational decisions even in challenging situations.
I can think of a couple of situations during my coaching career where I could have handled my emotions better. These situations usually occurred during periods of high stress or the end of the season or semester. Typically, I don’t sleep well in hotels and that fact coupled with a long drive with a trailer or on the team bus while managing athletes during a two day regatta can put you in a tough spot. Ultimately, our athletes and students look and observe how we handle challenges. If we model good behavior when challenges occur we can expect to see that behavior in those that we serve.
You might like my article The First Thing To Say After “Locking Horns” With An Athlete for a look at how I manage crucial conversations with my athletes.
Another core component of executive function for rowers is needing emotional control to maintain a positive mental state during long and grueling practice and racing sessions. Rowing is a sport that requires a high level of physical and mental endurance, and emotional control is essential for managing the demands of the sport.
Emotional control allows rowers to stay calm and composed under pressure and avoid emotionally getting too high or too low. For example, if a rower feels nervous before a race, emotional control allows them to manage their nerves and focus on the task. Similarly, if a rower feels elated after a good performance, emotional control allows them to stay level-headed and maintain a sense of perspective. You might like to have a look at my worksheet Identifying Stressors which allows analysis of the triggers that cause stress and provides structure to identify strategies to handle these types of situations better.
Emotional control also allows rowers to maintain good team dynamics and avoid conflicts with teammates. For example, if a rower feels angry or frustrated with a teammate, emotional control allows them to manage those feelings and communicate effectively with the team.
I can think of several situations in my coaching career when I acted in ways that let my emotions get the better of me. I learned over time to keep a level head and model that for the student-athletes who look up to me.
Athletes are very perceptive. It’s often not what you say, but your body language communicating your feelings. I looked for online courses that allowed me to understand how I communicated with my body language. This professional development has enabled me to project more confidence when I teach/coach, or speak during presentations. Additionally, I now communicate more effectively and better with people both in the classroom and at the boathouse.
Disciplinary Issues And Communicating With Parents
Emotional control is particularly important when disciplining athletes. I found this one of the most stressful things during my tenure as a coach. It’s often challenging to navigate these situations, gather the facts, and make good decisions in the team’s best interest. If you add to this the challenge of communicating expectations to parents, particularly when they don’t agree with your decision, keeping emotions under control is a must.
I remember a season during my early years of coaching where I had to make a series of tough disciplinary decisions. Luckily, I had a mentor at the club where I was coaching and could discuss these type of challenges with. I remember one conversation where my mentor said “Some parents think you are being too easy, some parents think you are being too hard, to me that tells me that you are handling disciplinary decisions probably about right”.
Remember that parents can pushy. However, the words of my father where always helpful with conversations with parents, he said that my best response was “I have the best interests of your child at heart, and you understand from the rules at your own home that what goes up must come down.” Provided you are, in fact, keeping the athlete’s best interest at heart, most parents will see where you are coming from.
Coaches typically don’t get much professional development on how to handle disciplinary decisions, and I know of a few coaches who stopped coaching because of the pressures of dealing with parents on this issues. These are highly charged issues at times, so being able to take a deep breath and perform some mindfulness exercises could help you remain centered, logical and make this process go smoother.
The "Soft Skills" are the "Hard Skills"
To conclude this article I would summarize my thoughts on impulse control and emotional control as core components to successful teaching and coaching.
You can see how these concepts can be applied universally. The so-called “soft skills” are actually the “hard skills”. These are concepts that are not often covered in coaching manuals where the focus is on the reps, lifts, drills, and technical coaching skills. I believe that these interpersonal skills are essential for many aspects of coaching, such as building a vision, establishing trust with stakeholders and most importantly getting the most our of student-athletes both in and out of the classroom.
If you enjoyed this article on Executive Function, it would mean the world if you would share it with others that might benefit.
In part two of this series, I take a look at the components of Flexible Thinking and Working Memory and what these concepts mean for coaches and athletes.
I am considering running a professional development seminar this summer (’23) for younger less experienced coaches covering topics such as the ones I have just discussed.
If you have any interest in this, please contact me using the link below. I’d love to gauge interest and demand for this professional development.
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