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Athlete-Centered Coaching: A More Conscious Way to Guiding Athletes

In this poignant reflection piece Saurabh Sharma, a former international badminton player, takes us through the inner journey of an athlete retiring from his sport. Now a coach and sports entrepreneur, he highlights how his love for the sport has guided him in his post-athletic career, and shares how HPCP learnings helped him in his new role. 

Mr Sharma was a participant in the 2nd cohort of the High Performance Coach Development Program offered by ELMS Sports Foundation, in association with Abhinav Bindra Foundation and Loughborough Sport, Loughborough University, UK


Playing a sport is already a privilege in a country like India, though the scenario seems to be changing now. And, representing - one’s country at the highest level is an unforgettable experience that marks a defining moment in any athlete's life.

After retiring from the national team from Hyderabad (Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy), I always wanted to try something to help the sports community grow. I consider myself to be an inquisitive person and am always eager to explore new avenues and sail uncharted waters. Transitioning into coaching was not something that I had thought about very consciously, though I knew I always had to be around sports. I tried my hands at many things and that led me to build a new-age startup called Sparring Player.

Sparring Player is a unique e-commerce website that aims to revolutionise the world of badminton training. It connects junior aspiring players with senior experienced athletes. Our company has already assisted renowned athletes like Carolina Marin, the Olympic gold medalist and world champion.

Making the transition from playing-to-coaching 

As a former player, I knew how to play the sport effectively, both technically and tactically. However, when I started coaching, I realised that being a good player does not necessarily make you a good coach. It took me some time to understand that there was a difference between knowing how to play and knowing how to coach. It was important for the player in me to separate both things while coaching. 

Transitioning from player to coach will always be a challenging leap for any athlete at any level. However, I was encouraged by the analogy of letting go of a bar to grab the next one, given to me by one of my coaches. He told me when you realise your future is not any better than your past, you move on to the next best opportunities and try to become the best in it. Acceptance is a difficult pill to swallow for any athlete, and I was no exception. Although there are stagnations and difficulties at every phase of an athlete's career, recognizing the right time to transition from player to coaching field is very crucial, as many athletes struggle to cope with the lows that the latter part brings. 

During the transition phase, I remember sinking into an identity crisis as I did not know who I was other than being an athlete. I still remember I used to cry a lot in that phase but I am lucky that it was short-lived and I feel honored and fortunate to have been allowed to join as a Junior Indian team coach for the doubles department at the National Centre of Excellence in Guwahati. 

To all the athletes who are in the transition phase and reading this - I can just say that transitioning at any point in your career will always be a difficult task. Not confronting the situation might lead one to succumb to paralysis by analysis. Coming from my personal experience, I can say it's not a good place to be in. Playing sports will always be the most loved and cherished phase of your career, and nothing will be equal to the satisfaction that you generate from it. All you have to do for what comes next is to just jump blindly into something that you love the most after playing sports.

My experience of being coached as an athlete 

Growing up, I was mostly exposed to instructional and coach-led coaching approaches, since most coaches adopt their style of coaching based on how their own former coaches coached them. This approach may have been effective in some cases, but not all., I felt you can only educate and instruct an athlete till the basic level. One cannot explain the complex things in a sport like badminton as it’s a very dynamic game and situations keep changing very rapidly in the match. 

The instruction approach or coach-led approach is typically the most traditional approach in use. Though it has its strengths, sometimes too many instructions confused my natural flow, made my hand muscles stiff, and breathing faster. As a result, I was always trying to exert more pressure than normal which derailed me from reaching the ultimate flow state. There were many instances where my coach's constant instructions and my inability to follow them made me feel uncomfortable and unsure of my abilities. I felt like I was constantly being told what to do, and not being able to improve them at the moment made me doubt my natural abilities. There were also situations where I felt too lonely when I was left to figure things out on my own as there were hardly any instructions.  It was only recently after enrolling in the ELMS coach development program that I was introduced to the terminology “guided discovery” which I found to be the perfect balance that was missing in my coaching so far. 

Athlete-centered coaching is not about endless conversation or giving positive feedback; it is about guided discovery.

How does an athlete-centric approach approach benefit athletes, and what distinguishes it from other coaching methods?

In athlete-centered coaching, the coach acts as a facilitator rather than a control freak. Most coaches want to over-coach or dominate a player through a lot of instructions. In athlete-centric coaching, the coach engages the athlete in discussions, analysis, and hypothetical situations by creating match-like scenarios and asking how they will react to certain conditions. The intention is to make them aware and conscious of what might be happening at the moment and guide them in finding their answers rather than giving direct instructions on what they think the athlete should be doing. A good example of this can be by showing match videos to athletes pausing them in the middle and asking the players what they think they should do next in the play - what their first option is, and what their second option would be. When players discover their own mistakes, they are more likely to take ownership of improving on those mistakes. 

Athlete-centered coaching is about helping create an environment where the coach facilitates the mind and body connection on the court. Athlete-centered coaching is not about endless conversation or giving positive feedback. It is about guided discoveryThe level of questions asked can differ according to the age group that one is coaching and keep on increasing as a coach starts coaching more senior elite-level athletes. It’s easy for a coach to just command things and tell players to “Play the stroke in empty spaces.” But if you ask the right questions, you are allowing players to come to that conclusion on their own. Framing the right kind of questions is an important aspect of guided discovery.

How the HPCP helped me change my coaching

For me, a coach is like a scientist who studies athletes to optimise their performance. It's always important to also elevate your coaching as your athlete progresses to the next level. The ELMS HPCP helped me to change my coaching practice. 

The program helped me to understand the different types of coaching methods - the instructional, analytical, and athlete-centric approach - and how to use them effectively. It gave me the necessary tools to choose the best coaching approach for different situations, and helped me to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to create a more athlete-centered coaching environment. 

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