Ash Barty and the Independent Athlete Myth...



Watching Ash Barty's journey to becoming Wimbledon champion was an amazing example of the crucial nature of having the incredible support and guidance from a fantastic team and family.

The trend of the very best players in the world building bigger, more long term, support teams contradicts the theme in player development involving the goal of creating independent players.

Unfortunately, the goal of player independence and complete responsibility underestimates the importance of the support teams' relationship with developing players, and is sometimes designed to absolve those not suitably skilled to build effective relationships from responsibility in player development.

And brain research has shown that it’s not possible to create an independent player anyway....

Since most players are not in a position to have a support team, let's focus here on the coach-player relationship.

So how can we balance players’ best interests by simultaneously encouraging the coach-player relationship while also supporting their developing autonomy?

Let’s take a look.


The Independence Myth...

It’s important for coaches to incorporate non-directive coaching methods that encourage players’ ability to problem solve, make sound decisions, take responsibility for actions, and behave in a more self-determined manner.

But these goals must be balanced with the recognition of the importance of strong coach-player relationships.

It is, I believe, a trap to emphasize player independence to a point that we ignore what research has revealed about the social nature of our development.

And this lack of respect for the central importance of skilled long-term coach-player relationships during the developmental years has been THE major oversight of several National Governing Bodies' developmental models in recent years.

The Importance of the Relationship...

One place we can look to inform coaching behavior is research in psychology.

Extensive longitudinal studies have been conducted in psychology to assess what helps in therapy. To most peoples’ surprise the actual techniques psychologists use are not very important to success.

The one factor consistently revealed as most important to positive change is the quality of the relationship that the therapist forms with the client.

We might think of this as skills of the therapist in applying the techniques and all the personal interactions in between.

Our Social Brain...

This research starts to make a lot of sense when we consider the remarkable advances in what we now know about the social nature of our brain.

Our brain is constantly being influenced and altered by our interactions with others, so the way we come to see ourselves and the world is largely a result of the interactions we’ve had with others throughout our lives.

This means that how players perceive themselves within competitive situations grows out of the history of the most important relationships relevant to this context, namely parents and coaches.

From a brain perspective, an independent athlete is not possible because our brains do not operate outside of relationships with others.

To a degree, we are both regulated by interactions with others at the same time as we regulate and influence others.

For example, you reading this article will alter your brain’s neural firing patterns in some small way, just like you’ve altered my brain by inspiring me to reflect on this topic.

Balancing Close Relationships…

So both neuroscience and longitudinal research from a similar field to coaching indicate that we all develop within the context of relationships with others.

I believe that it’s vital that we place the importance of trusting long-term coach-player relationships at the center of all player development models.

This in no way means creating players who are dependent on coaches.

It simply reflects the position that the best developmental outcomes occur when we focus on balancing autonomy within the context of appropriately supportive and collaborative relationships.

The key is to develop coach-player relationships that allow athletes to feel safe enough to challenge themselves in a way that they couldn’t independently.

The best outcomes occur when players develop enough trust in their coach to do things that they wouldn’t on their own, or within relationships that are not as strong.

This can only occur when coach-player relationships are given time to be nurtured by a coach with adequate personal skills. These skills allow the coach to develop the relationship by appropriately balancing support and challenge over several years of experience working with the player.

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