I have spent quite some time recently exploring the concept of professional identity and what it actually means. During this process I came across some really interesting concepts during the countless hours I spent poring over seminars, leadership summits, self-development readings and the rest, that made me take a closer look at myself and my philosophies. For starters, what were they?? How do I actually work as a scientist? I should know – I do it every day! Although they may seem simple and obvious questions, actually pinning them down was quite a challenging – yet hugely rewarding – exercise. Thus, my intention for the start of 2016 is to focus on my purpose and philosophy as a scientist in order to interact more effectively and make greater contributions to the sport science community. To me, it seems only fair that we as practitioners develop our own purpose and philosophy to work by, considering that our coaches are actually expected to have a coaching philosophy to be credible and recognised (and successful) in their profession. Furthermore, with each party (coach and practitioner) knowing how the other operates – what they believe in and what they stand for – provides the basis for establishing a very open, honest and productive working relationship. Most high performance coaches I have come in contact with are already very clear on their philosophy, but for those who may be starting out and need to establish yourself, the beginning of a new year may be a prime time to dig a little deeper and get a clearer vision of who you are and what you represent. At the very least, it’s quite an insightful exercise!
I recently came across this article on internationally renowned swimming coach Guennadi Touretski (originally published in New Scientist magazine in 1998), which I think is a prime example of a coach with a strong philosophy. After almost 10 years working in swimming (and other amateur sports) I have met, worked and interacted with a very diverse bunch of coaches of all levels, and although they were all unique in their approach, they had this one factor in common – a philosophy. Like Guennadi, these coaches built their reputations on their unwavering beliefs and philosophies, and they ran successful programs that were famous for something in particular – technical focus, distance programs, sprint programs, strength and power programs, that attracted athletes, staff and federations to them, to work with and learn from them.
What really struck me about this article, which describes the training method Guennadi used for sprint swimming legends Alexander Popov (RUS) and Michael Klim (AUS), is that it is exactly the same coaching method that Guennadi is currently using today to train Alex’s 18 year old son Vladimir. The coaching philosophy is identical. Guennadi’s methods were described then as unorthodox, and having worked with him for the past 3.5 years I can agree that Guennadi certainly thinks and teaches his athletes in a very different manner to what would be considered ‘normal’. Yes, he still draws velocity curves and physics equations on the whiteboard during training (which is wonderful at 8am!) and explains the biochemical principles and physiological adaptations of the training session to his athletes before warm-up. But that is his method. I learnt all about the fish theory, and was completely ecstatic when I attended the Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming Conference in 2014 and a biologist presented a comparison of human and fish swimming, stating the same technical theories that Guennadi has used in his coaching for decades. This is an example of a coach who has chosen a unique method of swimming coaching, who was not afraid to be different in his thoughts and his teachings and who believed in every word that he said to his athletes. It is a prime example of an iron-clad philosophy that has been successful over the span of generations. Not all coaches coach in the same manner, and there are a hundred ways to skin a cat, but what I learnt from Guennadi’s article is that if your philosophy is sound and you believe in it 100%, then commit to it, implement it and create the platform for success. Guennadi’s specific methods and strategies likely changed and evolved over time as he learnt from his athletes, but the main thing is that they remained within the grounds of his overall philosophy. So if you have decided that 2016 is the time for you to define your own philosophies then I am excited for you! Take that risk, dare to be different, and it might well pay off – both for you and for your athletes.