How To Flex Your Professional Style

Whether you are a practitioner working in a high performance sports institute or federation, or you’re a freelance consultant with your own business, your ability to flex your working style to adapt to your clients is almost certainly going to be the most relevant and important skill to have…or to develop (fast!). Because if we aren’t able to match our style to that of the coach to effectively meet their needs, then our careers are as good as over…probably quicker than they started.

With this message, I could probably end right here, it’s that simple. But I am going to dive deeper into this topic because I think it is important, and one of the critical factors in my work as a sport science practitioner so far. I’m certainly not saying I haven’t made my fair share of mistakes over the years; on the contrary, it’s perhaps because of these mistakes that I am sharing my thoughts with you on how to develop professional flexibility.

I ponder this topic now as I contemplate my recent career move from an “institute sport scientist” to a sport science consultant. One of the first things that came to my mind, amongst the worries of being responsible for my own employment, is that it’s much more important for me to be able to work with different coaches (and athletes), across a range of sports, from various backgrounds and levels of performance. Basically, I need to expand my range and be able to flex my professional style – really, really well, if I am to find clients and make any money.

Everyone we work with provides an opportunity to flex our professional style, and the more we practice flexing, the better we get at it. And I term this flexing, because I want to distinguish this from changing our style – that is not what this is about. For us to be effective practitioners we must of course stay true to our own methods and philosophies, in order to operate authentically and honestly with our clients. The skill is finding the way to flex our methods so that they merge cohesively with the philosophy and methods of the coach. How we behave and operate as practitioners inevitably becomes our reputation, and personally, I’d rather have the skill of flexing than be known as the practitioner unable to work well with coaches!

I enjoy talking with different coaches from various sports, learning about their philosophy and observing their style, and understanding their needs well enough to adapt, develop and deliver an effective service. It’s a great challenge. However, I have also witnessed examples of practitioners who were too rigid in their ways and weren’t able to flex their style enough to meet the coach’s needs; the relationship ended and ironically, they deemed the coach “too difficult to work with”. I went on to work with that same coach for nearly 4 years, sharing many successes together, while working as partners, confidantes, advisors, and for him, as a mentor to me, to this day.

I can sit here and speculate all I want on the big-name clients I’d love to work with, from the sports I’m interested in, from the highest level of performance; but in the end, whether they’re a producer of Olympic champions or the coach of the under 13s regional champion, my success as a practitioner still hinges on my ability to adapt my style and meet that particular coach’s needs. Because if I can’t do that, then I have no business. The same holds true for practitioners in sports institutes and federations; more emphasis is now placed on the coach-practitioner relationship in order to meet the ever-increasing performance demands of the sport.

So, how well do you flex your style? Can you bend enough to adapt to the clients you work with, or do you require some flexibility training? Do you have killer strategies that guarantee strong relationships are built with your coaches and clients? To get you started, I’m going to break down my methods with the intention that they also help you develop successful working relationships with the coaches in your care. It’s also important to remember that like most skills, this one will develop over time, and the more coaches you work with and the more lessons you learn from them, the more adept you will become at flexing your style.

5 Steps For Flexing Your Professional Style:

  1. Start with yourself first. Know who you are as a practitioner, what your philosophy is, how you like to operate, and your overall purpose. If you aren’t already clear on these points, it is worthwhile to take the time now to clarify them; believe me, it will be an advantage further on in your career!
  2. Get to know the coach. Preferably before you dive in with any grandiose plans for the next 3 season’s service delivery. To borrow a quote from a fellow practitioner, “no one cares what you know, until they know you care”. Spending time speaking with the coach, getting to know them personally and professionally, will make huge leaps in establishing your working relationship. Listen to what they say, observe their methods, and understand their philosophy. Only when you know what their goals are can you begin supporting them to achieve it.
  3. Spend time in their environment. Go to the training centre, or the competition venue, and see firsthand what the sport entails. Even if you are familiar with the sport, every training environment is different, so get to know yours. When the coach and athletes see you spending time in their domain, you begin to build credibility and trust begins to form. It’s also an excellent opportunity to witness the coach-athlete interactions.
  4. Evaluate the situation. Now that you have finished your data collection mission, take time to reflect on what you learnt about the coach’s style, their philosophy and the overall team culture. If there are differences in professional styles between yourself and the coach, acknowledge this. Identify what the differences are, and brainstorm some methods you can use to handle them effectively. Don’t forget, during this process the coach has also spent a lot of time with you, and if they are also committed to developing a strong professional relationship, then they are probably going through a similar process.
  5. Start flexing. It’s now time to begin working with the coach, and it’s your opportunity to strengthen the initial relationship. Start by confidently operating according to your methods, whilst flexing enough to accommodate the coach’s style, and monitor how the relationship progresses. Again, all relationships evolve over time including professional ones, and the more time you spend with the coach the better you will both get at flexing your styles, in order to establish a cohesive and successful relationship.


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