Reflections on a year in Switzerland

Not many “offices” have one of these!

In January 2016 I moved to Switzerland and into a full time coaching position as the Track Coach at the World Cycling Centre (WCC).

I had spent just over two years previously setting up FitInNoTime, coaching athletes and educating and mentoring coaches. I had been lucky enough to have opportunities to run coaching courses in Barbados, Albania, Australia and South Africa among other places for the WCC as well as across the UK for British Cycling; I had the opportunity to write Coach Education materials for the revamped British Cycling Coaching Courses; I had toured Korea for over 5 weeks working with BMX coaches and riders to kick-start their BMX development programme and made some great friendships; and importantly I had loved every minute of it! However, the opportunity to live in a beautiful part of the World, coach at the WCC full-time, to work with riders from all over the world aiming for the very highest level in the sport and the opportunity to really make a difference to people who, without the centre, wouldn’t have the chance to succeed outweighed all of that……..then there was the biggest opportunity of all – to put myself in a position to learn a lot from a lot of extraordinary people.

So one year on (a little more by the time I finally finish this) and it seems like a good time to reflect. It’s fair to say that the year has flown by in a blur of races, training camps, settling in to a new country, talking French (badly mostly) and a whole host of other experiences. I have had a fair few new experiences this year, had some success and made a lot of mistakes along the way. I couldn’t possibly write about all of the things that I have learnt along the way but here are a few of my key reflections-as always, feel free to e-mail me with comments or questions and I’ll do my best to answer.

Moving to a foreign country isn’t as easy as you might think! One of the things that I was told as I accepted the job was that the first year in Switzerland wouldn’t be easy-it would need a lot of energy. It wasn’t that I ignored the advice or that I didn’t believe the warnings but I wasn’t prepared for how much more difficult simple things (like finding an apartment for example) would be in a different culture and with a language barrier.

Learning Point One: Don’t under-estimate the challenge.

With riders from all over the World, communication is not always simple.

 

Talking of language barriers, the centre welcomes riders from all over the world each year and that can often mean that I don’t speak their first, or sometimes even second, language. English, French, Italian, German and Spanish are relatively easy as there are staff within the organisation who can help translate if necessary but Japanese, Thai, Mongolian and others are a little more difficult. As we all know good communication is crucial to good coaching and I always put a lot of thought into exactly how I say the things that I say and in particular how I ask questions but this year has reinforced to that communication isn’t just verbal – it’s amazing what you can do with hand signals, drawings and demonstrations!

Learning Point Two: It is very easy to rely on verbal communication in many situations but maybe there is a more effective way.

In a group of athletes it’s great when everyone gets on well but….. the reality is that it can’t be that way all of the time. When two (or more) riders have a personality clash it’s a great learning opportunity for them but also a delicate balance for the coach. I believe that you have to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations with athletes sometimes but how much to leave them to sort it out themselves and how much to get involved is a difficult question and every situation is different!

Learning Point Three: Don’t ignore issues…….but we don’t always need to solve them fully ourselves.

A big part of the reason that every situation is different is because every individual is different. To illustrate this I had an interesting conversation with a coach recently when he realised that I updated the training plans for the athletes’ gym sessions between every session. This was new to him because he had previously been involved in a system where the training programme was published 6 weeks at a time and nobody ever deviated from the plan. My burning question was “How does the coach know what suits the individual 6 weeks in advance?” Every one of us has had a different journey to get to where we are today, a different day, a different week, a different year and so on. The important thing from a coach’s point of view is that those different experiences mean different needs, motivations and approaches-what works for one athlete might not work for another and to make it more complicated what works for one athlete one day might not work for them the next. Also with different cultures and backgrounds we can’t assume that our standards and norms are the same as those of others-sometimes we have to spell out what we expect, even if it seems perfectly reasonable to us to not have to.

Learning Point Four: Treat everyone the same by treating everyone differently (Note: this doesn’t mean that we always do what the athlete wants!).

In fact, we can’t assume anything! To illustrate this one of the riders came to the centre and had a few “moments” in the bunch races. This rider also didn’t have a lot of experience on the track so I assumed that this was the reason, worked hard on technique, challenged them with more experiences and situations and gradually they improved. However, I had a breakthrough and everything changed when, by chance, I discovered the real reason for the erratic riding. I normally wear glasses and one day had my contact lenses in instead. The rider was intrigued and it became obvious that they hadn’t seen contact lenses before let alone worn them. Something clicked in my head, I tried on the glasses that the rider used all the time off the bike and realised that without them (which is how they rode in training and in races) they wouldn’t have been able to see much at all. The rider subsequently got some prescription glasses for riding and the problem went away…..I had assumed that the riders would tell me if they couldn’t see very well!

Learning Point Five: Cultural norms and expectations don’t necessarily transfer between different cultures-beware that the obvious solution may not be the actual solution.

One of many efforts for the Track Group in the last year

Lastly, one thing has been reinforced again and again this year and that is the importance of the relationships that you form as a coach, not only with your athletes but also with everyone around you from your support team to race organisers, commissaires (try saying hello and asking how they are when you arrive at the competition), colleagues within your club or organisation and even those friendly experts on Twitter who might be able to help you if you ask them in the right way. With the athletes this of course links in to the point about individuals-the better the relationship that you have the better you will be able to notice that someone isn’t quite right today and the more likely you are to be able to adapt training, get the most out of them or to say the right thing to help them get their head back to where it needs to be.

Learning Point Six: Time invested in building relationships is never wasted.

So, as I head into year two, I feel like I have almost settled in to the role now. I certainly don’t mean that it is time to sit back and relax but things are easier now that I have processes in place. I have changed a lot of what I started doing just over a year ago (in fact almost everything has been changed in some way at some point, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much) and I continue to make changes when I feel like I have found a better or more effective way to do something. For me this is key – as a meddling friend of mine always says, “the only sustainable competitive advantage that we have is the ability to learn faster than the others!” Importantly, it’s not a case of changing things for the sake of changing or jumping on the latest bandwagon but of having a well thought out rationale for everything that you do and not being afraid to admit that there might be a better way.

Even if you are the best coach in the world today if you don’t keep learning you won’t be in that same position tomorrow. In short, if we want to be great coaches we need to strive to get better at something every day so here’s to the next 365 days of trying to be better!

Aerodynamic Testing for one of the Sprint athletes