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  • ELMS Sports Foundation

6 Blind Men & an Athle-phant Centric Model

In this reflection piece, Goutam Singh Virdi - Taekwondo Coach at the Sports Authority of India and former head coach of the National Taekwondo Team challenges our preconceptions of athlete-centered support systems in action. Though there are dedicated teams of professionals available to respond to an athlete’s needs at elite levels of sports, their effectiveness is hobbled by working in silos. Using examples from experience, he invites us to imagine a more inter- and intra-disciplinary, unified, and responsive support system of members who bring their strength and expertise into play to bring out the best in athletes.

Goutam Singh Virdi was part of the inaugural edition of the High-Performance Coach Development Program conducted by ELMS Sports Foundation from July 2022 to February 2023.

You may have heard the story of six blind men and an elephant several times and must have laughed at their lack of perspective. The story is supposed to be a lesson in adopting an elephant-entered approach where all the blind men should have collectively tried to understand the huge animal standing right in front of them. The story also highlights the limits of an interdisciplinary approach in coaching or the so-called athlete-centric approach which calls on us to develop a different perspective on reality. Unfortunately, in the world of coaching, this story represents a team of people who look at the given task with an absolutely “Straight” vision.

This reminds me of the phrase “Team behind the team” which is generally used for the world-class support staff who support the core performing teams at high-stakes competitions. While it’s agreed that being athlete-centered is integral to high-quality coaching programs, there has been a limited understanding of its practical implementation.

Well-qualified sports scientists are often hired by sports organizations to support their athletes or teams. The support staff tries their best to make the team feel comfortable but they try this without “understanding the athlete” comprehensively, which should be the first step towards building a high-performance support team.

We have a well-equipped set-up of sports science facilities and highly qualified sports science staff to support our athletes. This combination itself calls for well-planned scaffolding by a talented sports architect who can frame new ideas. Unfortunately, support does not reach the athletes the way it should despite all the resources that are available. The problem is not that a support system doesn’t exist, but rather that the problem is in the delivery of this support to the right athletes, at the right place and at the right time.

When trying to understand the whole system I realized that most of the support staff doesn’t know what other staff is doing and how he/she is interpreting the issue. For example, in the normal course of events, an injured athlete is dealt with by the doctor, the depressed athlete is supported by the psychologist, a less fit athlete is trained by the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Expert and weight reduction work is directly handed over to the nutritionist. This is an example of narrow vision as the work is being entrusted to only the staff who is responsible for that particular domain. This practice is not deliberately done but has to be deliberately done, wherein athletes should be supported from various directions with a common goal for the athlete’s benefit.

When an athlete is injured, it is not only the job of the doctor just to treat the athlete but it should set off a chain reaction covering many departments. The doctor shall obviously treat the athlete but at the same time, many other support staff can deliver “Goods” to the athlete. For example - the athlete relationship manager should call the athlete and make him/her feel comfortable by assuring that all the necessary administrative support such as medical insurance, doctor’s appointments, ambulance and so on are available for use. After treatment, the psychologist must speak to the athlete and advise him/her not to hurry into action so as to let the recovery be completed. The nutritionist should immediately modify the diet plan to avoid adding extra kilograms (kgs)of body weight to the athlete. Physiotherapists and S&C Experts are also of utmost importance when it comes to designing a rehabilitation and strengthening program.

If an athlete has to reduce his/her body weight within a given time frame to participate in a competition, this job is not only related to the nutritionist. The coach and S&C Expert can be involved in designing a suitable weight-reduction plan, and the psychologist is equally involved to satisfy the athlete that his restricted diet plan, extra cardio training, and so on are going to give him the best body condition during the match. This confidence will increase their motivation and allow them to lose weight by themselves.

The good news is that it's easy to facilitate the athlete with sports science support in isolation. The bad news is it’s hard to get any collective benefit from sports science individually. The bottom line is to increase inter and intra-disciplinary approaches toward helping an athlete so that they get the full advantage of the “Team behind the team” approach.

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