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Olympic Edition, Sports Coping in the performance environment at the Olympic Games

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By: Bob Crudgington •  4 years ago •  

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IT IS WELL KNOWN THAT THE OLYMPIC GAMES PRESENT A CHALLENGING ENVIRONMENT FOR ATHLETES, COACHES AND OFFICIALS. ALTHOUGH MOST SPORTS CONDUCT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS AND MANY PARTICIPATING TEAMS UNDERSTAND THE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ENVIRONMENT AND, IMPORTANTLY, THE CULTURE ASSOCIATED WITH THEIR SPORT, THE OLYMPIC GAMES REPRESENT THE NEXT LEVEL OF COMPLEXITY.

E

ach event is located in a different part of the world and only held every 4 years where a large number of sporting disciplines are thrown together for the “greatest sporting show on earth”. Nevertheless, the opportunity to participate in such an event is a unique setting that can provide novel learning experiences which can shape their craft. For the coach, creating a performance climate is a real challenge; and it’s no wonder predicting gold medal winners can be problematic at times.

Coaching at any level is a complex process. Managing a team at an Olympic Games can challenge the best of coaches. Apart from the organisation of the games themselves, there is also their location to take into consideration. Each cycle, the games are hosted in a different country and this brings great variations in climate, facilities and culture (language, ways of doing things). Often coaches will try to have their athletes participate in test events at the venue in order to get a handle on the competition environment and to provide some familiarisation. However, this doesn’t cover the experience of living and preparing in the Olympic Village, where the conditions can be extremely difficult to replicate. Even experienced Olympic coaches have to quickly adapt their methods to ensure they maximise the performance environment of their athletes. In a disruptive and contested environment, it is often the athlete or team who adapts best to the conditions (on and off the field) who succeeds.

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For Australians, consider the differences between performing at the 2012 Olympic Games in London as opposed to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. London is a cosmopolitan city with English-speaking residents, high-class facilities and a temperate climate. In Rio, apart from worrying reports around the completion of competition facilities, there are also concerns around health in the presence of super-bacteria in the waterways and the Zika virus. For the coach, they need to work on the “controllables” and prepare their athletes for the conditions they are likely to encounter. In terms of health and security, the Australian Olympic Team management will have protocols in place in order to minimise any risks, so the coaching staff should focus on other factors.

The 4-year cycle also implies a long term commitment from coaches and athletes, and often it can take more than one cycle for a coach to appreciate and learn from their Olympic experience. If the coach is the architect of the performance environment, then they need to account for a number of other variables in terms of preparing for competition and particularly managing distractions, which could impact on their athletes or, more importantly, themselves.

Here are some of the environmental factors that can deviate from typical practice and have the potential to impact on performance:

1. ACCOMMODATION

Most athletes and teams are used to staying in hotels when at competition events. Accommodation arrangements at the Olympic Village can be very different with often 3 or 4 athletes sharing one room, and shared bathroom facilities with other rooms or athletes from other disciplines. In Atlanta, the Olympic village was composed of a number of college dormitories whereas the Sydney village was comprised of new housing modified to cater for athletes, coaches and officials. The “communal” living arrangements can be a source of distraction for athletes who are used to more private facilities, that in turn can affect sleep patterns and detract from performance. Different athletes react in various ways and a coach has to be vigilant in terms of making sure their charges are coping with the housing conditions.

The “communal” living arrangements can be a source of distraction for athletes who are used to more private facilities, that in turn can affect sleep patterns and detract from performance.

2. LOGISTICS

The Olympic Games have a high security factor and so access to ground transport and facilities means preparation activities, including training and warming up for events, have to be well-planned as they are often inflexible in terms of scheduling. Another logistic issue is around access to facilities for staff. In many cases, assistant coaches and consultants may have limited accreditation such as access to competition venues only and not access to other sections like the village accommodation. These personnel are often housed in other areas outside the Olympic Village and so access to them for meetings can also present a challenge. This can be more challenging for the head coach or manager as they may be required to select staff for full accreditation whilst others may only receive partial accreditation and potentially miss out on some of the Olympic experience. These often tough decisions have the potential to impact on team dynamics.

3. COMMUNICATION

In terms of the day-to-day operation in the Olympic setting, other factors emerge including communication, assimilating into the AOC culture, and managing events including the opening ceremony. During a normal international competition, teams and squads can work through their own structures, including conducting team meetings or preparation activities for competition or gymnasium or even scouting of opponents. It is often a flexible arrangement with the coach making adjustments from day to day in response to progress within a competition, injury management or changes in tactics. At the Olympic Games, the Australian Olympic team management have structured communication and management protocols in order to manage a large and diverse team numbering well into the hundreds. Indeed, there is an “Olympic culture” running where the Chef de Mission, section managers and the athletes themselves take greater precedence than coaching and other support staff. The coaches used to calling the shots need to be able to adapt to subtle power shifts in communication and decision-making, and in some cases be prepared to have less input. These shifts in operation can lead to some personnel feeling more or less valued, which again has the potential to impact team dynamics.

4. THE OPENING CEREMONY

Another impact the coach may well deal with is the decision to participate in the Opening Ceremony. Usually this decision is made before entering the Games and is often based on the competition schedule and the proximity to events. Participants should not underestimate the cost in terms of time, energy and emotions around this special event. In most cases, athletes and teams are required to spend hours in secure holding areas and are often exposed to the weather and have limited access to facilities, including toilets. Finally, there is always a quota in terms of who can march, and again, similar to accreditation, choices may have to be made around which staff can and can’t participate and thus there may be a further potential impact on team dynamics.

There is a great emphasis on managing the athletes and where possible normalising as much as possible their preparation for competition. It’s important that players are able to manage their own expectations and cope with many the distractions around including the Olympic village, dealing with higher social and media scrutiny (mainstream and social media) as well as coping with the expectation of high performance. It is often the case, ensuring the coach or coaching staff also manage the pressures of the Olympic cauldron in terms of their own performance can be neglected.

Like the athlete, the coach also has to perform, ensuring they continue to contribute to the performance of their charges. The pressure of winning along with the complexities associated with the Olympic Games can impact on a coach’s typical behaviours and routines that can then impact on the performance of the athletes. It’s therefore important for the coach to be self-aware and to monitor their own behaviour as well as control their own emotions. Athletes are highly attuned to shifts on coaches’ behaviours and especially in their emotions.

The Olympics provide a complex and at times unpredictable environmental and like their athletes, coaches need to manage their own distractions. This can be achieved by appropriate self-awareness and collegial support when colleagues are observed as experiencing some unusual distress. Mindfulness techniques and daily exercise can be most effective for coaches and support staff in this highly charged emotional climate. Furthermore, thorough (contingency) planning fosters a setting in which coaches can control the “controllables” and accepting that there are some constraints that have to be accepted. In other words, they need to be able to adapt and provide the calm leadership needed to succeed in such a contested environment. As Darwin says:

“It’s not the fittest that survive, but those able to adapt to change”.

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