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Planning For Presence


By Jessica Gust M.Ed., CSCS, USAW1, Pn1, RYT-200

Introduction: Maximizing Coaching Efficiency Through Environmental Design

We all know that running a program and coaching endless numbers of workouts a week can pull our attention in a myriad of different directions. In this presentation, we will discuss how the concepts behind environmental design can help you create systems that minimize the noise and maximize the time you can spend coaching and building relationships with your athletes.

The Intersection of Anatomy and Coaching

Let’s begin with a lesson in anatomy, and an analogy of sorts. Where muscle meets tendon, we have something known as the myotendinous junction. This area is responsible for transferring forces between muscle and tendon and like all of anatomy, the structure is specifically evolved to suit its function. In order for forces to transfer properly, the unique structures of the muscle and tendon must be deeply interwoven. In this co-mingling of tissues, the surface area where forces are transferred is increased. It is believed that the health of this structure provides a protective factor against muscle strains during sport and exercise. We can view the long-held notion that coaching is both an art and a science with the same lens. It is the interweaving of art and science that creates strength and resilience in our coaching practice.

Implementing Environmental Design in Your Coaching Practice

Environmental design stems from a multidisciplinary branch of science that helps us understand how we can manipulate physical, mental and emotional spaces to provide an environment that is best suited to achieve the outcomes we seek. This is the principle I believe we need to understand and apply in order to weave the science and art of our practice into a meaningful experience for our athletes, coaches and ourselves. And like the musculotendon junction, if we are not adequately addressing the health of the entire system, we will most certainly feel strain.

From the outside, our jobs as performance coaches may seem straightforward, like the common wildflower the Plains Coreopsis. A simple yellow and red flower that is able to grow in a wide variety of environments. And in truth, there are performance coaches who operate as such. But for most of us, there is another layer of understanding that isn’t seen by most. A complex system that is designed to specifically address the myriad of different needs of athletes we work with, just like when our Plains Coreopsis is viewed under ultraviolet light. In order to make the most of our time with athletes, we need to be conducting a silent symphony behind the scenes.

Sometime around the 5th century BC, the ancient Greeks popularized the saying ‘know thyself.’ To begin applying the principles of environmental design, we must first embrace this lesson to determine where our natural inclinations lead us. Are you naturally drawn to the science side of coaching…sets, reps, driving adaptation, scheduling, monitoring, tracking? Or, are you naturally drawn to the art side of coaching…relationship-building with athletes and coaches, adapting on the fly, problem-solving, delivering cues to your athletes, building team culture? Once you have developed an honest sense of where you’re at, you can begin working your way back toward the center of the continuum by specifically targeting your energy toward the areas you are less inclined to naturally. But whatever you do, don’t stop doing the stuff you’re already good at! Kids can smell disingenuous a mile away!

Strategies for Enhancing Your Coaching Environment

Drawing from several different environmental models, here is an abbreviated but developmentally relevant list of areas to consider for your athletes:

  • Personal development
  • Inclusiveness
  • Flexibility (not the sports kind)
  • Instructor support
  • Optimal challenge
  • Positive culture
  • Wholeness in body, mind, spirit
  • Efficiency
  • Independence
  • Commitment and desire to improve
  • Thinking and decision making
  • Knowledge, skills and understanding
  • Confidence
  • Teamwork & cooperation

Once you’ve made some decisions around what areas you’re most excited to incorporate, here are my recommendations for how to do so:

  1. Identify your limitations and respect them. At the same time, put some energy into a long-term plan for changing them if needed.

Example: In my previous space, I had mismatched equipment…6 benches, 3 trap bars, 8 racks, 1.5 sets of dumbbells. I had to learn to program around those limitations, while developing a long-term plan for a new weight room. When we were finally able to build a new space, my first priority was a full set of equipment at each workstation. 10 sets of everything!

 2. Automate everything that takes time away from you actively coaching your athletes. If you’re managing everything, you’re gonna run out of time to coach!

Example: All my athletes learn our workout system and how it’s incorporated with our timer system, and that it is consistent between in-season and off-season. Once they learn the format and how the timer works, I don’t have to spend any time managing where kids are and what they’re doing. The timer and workout design manages it for me. Also, students are responsible for marking their attendance and entering their data into TeamBuildr. Bonus: This places some of the cognitive load on the athletes.

 3. Recognize your athletes for doing the things you believe to be the most important for their success and the success of the program.

Example: One of the systems we use to emphasize positive recognition is for completing what I believe to be the most important thing…showing up! Athletes receive weekly stickers for perfect attendance in both in-and off-season. In-season athletes also receive an award at their sport banquet for attending 80% or more of their scheduled in-season lifts. We also award any athlete who makes it to 100 workouts or more in a given year. I find that most kids do a pretty great job once they get in the room, so I want to recognize that they’ve done the hard work of showing up!

Conclusion: Embracing Continuous Improvement in Coaching

Regardless of the areas you’ve decided to focus on, remember that you are responsible for engineering the space to achieve the goals you’ve set for your athletes, coaches and yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by taking any of these steps, please remember that habit change is easily summed up by the Japanese business model kaizen. Kaizen is based on continuous improvement over a long period of time stemming from many, small, positive changes. 

Take your time, take your coaches and athletes along for the ride, and enjoy the process!

About the Author

Jessica Gust M. Ed., BS, BA, CSCS is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at St. Louis Park Public Schools in Minneapolis. She has served as Executive Director of the NHSSCA Minnesota State Association, and has presented at several association events.

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