Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness
Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness

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Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness

1 Coaching child athletes

In the following video, you will interpret communication in a particular environment: ice skating. This illustrates the challenges of working with child athletes, with a view towards possible selection to a national squad.

A close up of ice skates on an ice rink.
Figure 1 Child athletes, coaches and communication in ice dance

Activity 1 Child athletes, coaches and the high performance manager

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

This video features excerpts from a BBC documentary that follows young child athletes Lily, 11, and Genevieve, 12, as they pursued their dreams of becoming competitive figure skaters, and provides some of the background context alongside short coaching interactions. The first excerpt features Lily and the second features Genevieve. In the third excerpt, Robin Cousins, GB Ice Skating High Performance Manager, observes and talks to Genevieve.

While watching the three clips make notes on examples of effective communication in relation to the following:

  • how feedback is delivered including use of any non-verbal communication
  • evidence of communication that supports the coach-athlete relationship.
Download this video clip.Video player: e119_2018j_vid002-640x360.mp4
Skip transcript


She makes all the decisions. She kind of dictates how much she wants to train. Everything's driven by her, and I don't know where it comes from, just something within her. It's not genetic. It is just Lily.
Let's try it one more time. Yeah. I really like the fact that when you did the Mohawk, there was a really strong push, there, before you went into it. OK? As you step forward--
The reason Lily and her mum decided to come to the ice rink in Blackburn is so she can be trained by former Olympic competitor Kathryn Hudson.
She's super talented. You ask her to jump, she wants to do it twice. Tell her that it's time to get off, she wants to stay on longer. Ah, she's brilliant.
Kathryn has been training Lily now for two years.
Many of the girls she's competing with have literally grown up on skates. You know, they've kind of started as toddlers and gone through or even started at five and six. So she's got a lot of years of just trying to catch up.
The more you train everything for speed, the more confidence you're going to have, come the competition, to do it, because it's more normal, isn't it? Yeah?
She's only been skating two years, so at the minute we're very much focusing on really getting her to have a little bit of competition practice.
OK? So, as you finish that spin, OK, finish it, and grow. And then come round. That's it.
There are very few that actually do make it to the very top. But one of the main things you need is motivation and drive. And she's got in bucketloads.
12-year-old Genevieve Somerville, already number 1 in the under-15s Advanced Novice category.
And the turn needs to be with speed. So do it again.
Driven by her mother, Genevieve's been training since she was three.
So I want to see tight knees, heels coming off the floor first. This is the painful bit.
Giving Genevieve another advantage is that she's trained three times a week in this gym by a national gymnast champion from Bulgaria, her mum, Madeleine.
Genevieve, shoulders back. If you're going to be sitting, sit up. Higher, higher, higher!
I've been coming to gym since I was three, because I remember being in one of them baby carriers, on the bench. And I come three times a week.
It is difficult, being a coach and a mum at the same time. Because I know when we go to the rink, she wants me to praise a lot more. I tend to focus a lot more on her mistakes and wanting to be improving. And I know she wants a lot more of the, me to be a mum, a lot more to say "Well done" and "You did well", which I try to. But we've got an understanding that, when there's something that needs correcting, I've got to tell her, as well.
Genevieve, faster! Knee, and in tighter. It's too slow.
We fall out sometimes, if I don't do what I'm told.
Nope, you didn't go up.
The fact that she gets more time to practise her off-ice jumps gives her an added advantage. I'd just like her to fully rotate it and not fall. [LAUGH]
Hold. OK, now, do the axel again. So think about that quality on the skating.
On the ice, Genevieve's mum is just as determined to maximise her daughter's chances.
She spends 600 pounds a month to have her trained at 30 pounds an hour, by former British champion and elite coach David Hartley.
So, the British championships are in 13 weeks. So what I'd like to do to start off with is, let's look at how we skate across the ice. Let's look at the speed. Let's look at the power. Hold, hold, hold, and step and present. OK that was, awful!
OK, from the landing position, here, let's look at your mum, for example. So, from this position, we step. Give her a little smile.
Former Olympic and world champion Robin Cousins is one of the British squad selectors for Beijing in 2022. He's identified a rising star.
She's a nice snap. I like that a lot. Even, timing, even, timing, even, timing. Down. What are your hands doing?
Do you know that you land, and you do that? Feel that tension. Is your hand supposed to be like that, when you land jumps?
Put my hand where it's supposed to be. See how tight that is. That's what yours looked like. Fix it?
No claws. No claws. Go.
You're now looking at the talent pathway to start at around 8, 9, 10. So it's not a question of, oh, she's sweet, or oh, he's cute. They could, they really, no. Are they any good? Do they have what it takes?
Great little body. Perfect skater body. She can rotate. She has a good feeling for the skating.
Basic skills need a lot of work, but that can be fixed. Again, it's a question of, how badly do you want it, versus how badly do they actually want it, and how hard are they willing to work, to do it?
OK. So I'm watching you, and I can see that you have the ability, and I can see you do it. But I'm seeing tentative, not really sure if I should just do it all or do nothing.
So, when you compete, you need to stop being little mousey girl, and sweet and lovely, and start going, I've got it! Does that make sense? Yes. No, no, no, no, no. No nodding. No smiling.
You have to be the one that people go, sometimes we, you can't help who you watch. And it's not because they're the best, it's because they have the passion. And they're using that passion to perform. That's their gift.
You have to figure out how to make that work for you. Do you believe you can do it? Yes. I shall be watching, at the championships.
So you better make sure it's a performance you want to talk about. Because we'll be talking about you. All right? Good girl.
End transcript
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In excerpt 1, Lily’s coach Catherine Hudson uses positive language to frame her feedback; for example. ‘I really liked how you … ’. She also tried to explain why they were doing a practice at speed, which perhaps affects how the message is received. It was noticeable how she made use of positive visual modelling to show a movement: ‘Finish it and grow [arms aloft demonstration] … that’s it’. In the limited glimpses we see of them together, there is some evidence of a trusting and respectful relationship between them.

In excerpt 2, Genevieve’s mother has a direct approach to communication, which both mother and daughter admit to being complicated by the dual coach/mother relationship. Her mother shows some sympathy at the difficulties this can cause. You might have noticed the possible influence of cultural differences in the strict training approach between expectations of British parenting and her mother’s heritage in Bulgarian gymnastics.

In excerpt 3, we see Robin Cousins with Genevieve. He uses visual demonstration of her hand position that is then corrected. At one point when he is talking to her, his crossed arms and straight posture explicitly convey his authority as head of the Olympic programme. In his feedback to her, he encourages her to be less tentative and perform to the crowd. It is unclear how this message is received by Genevieve. He shows his high expectations for her by standing above her and saying with pointing gestures, ‘… you better make sure it’s a performance you want to talk about since we’ll be talking about you’. He ends this with a high five and then looks away. To us as an onlooker, this appears to be signalling that there is additional pressure for Genevieve at her forthcoming championship and that the conversation is finished.

This is a high performance environment in which isolated conversations, when removed from the coaching context, can seem harsh and out of place. However, in this situation the fact that 10 and 11 year olds are involved makes the balance between instruction, challenge and supportive communication even more delicate. After all, children often find it difficult to offer their opinions to adults, due to the age gap and resultant power imbalance.


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