Over recent months the athlete-coach relationship has come under a great deal of scrutiny, with questions raised over culture crisis, the win-at-all-costs approach and more. Hamish Ferguson has 28 years coaching experience and we put our questions around this particular relationship to him.
RC: First of all it appears that there are a growing number of instances within the wider sporting context of athletes and coaches coming to grief at the highest level; and sadly cycling in New Zealand has not been immune from that. Do you think that there’s a pattern in society that plays a part in this or that this is something that’s not really been seen in the past so much?
Hamish: I think it comes at three levels.
At the High Performance level it is reflected in the pursuit of Olympic Gold. We possibly need to look closer at what this Gold Medal means to the person, the sport and the wider community. Look at how much good Sarah Ulmer’s win did for cycling, women and the nation. Other Olympic Champions like Valerie Adams, Lisa Carrington and Sophie Pascoe are all widely respected as athletes, but more more importantly as people. Clearly some things have gone right in the process here.
But, other athletes in that space have at times succeeded, fallen short, or totally missed the mark for a variety of reasons. Recently, a part of this has been the coach-athlete relationship. It’s a tough challenge as the coach’s job is dependent on results which can often be out of the coach’s or athlete’s control. Also there is the HPSNZ focus on Olympic Medals. Support is only given to those athletes tracking towards medals in Tokyo and Paris. New Zealand is not the only country that is questioning this single minded approach. But, then where do nations draw the line in terms of providing support to athletes? Would a more free market approach benefit a minority sport like cycling?
We constantly hear the calls, here and in Australia, to share the resources more widely than just both nations’ highly performing track programmes. With our velodrome warriors tracking well towards Olympic podiums and the more quantifiable nature of Track Cycling the current structure provides support for those with high world rankings. If a wider group of athletes were targeted the resources would be spread thinly, and we may not see the success we currently enjoy on Track. Then we would not get any funding at all. And, if the format of sports funding changed, where would the line be drawn in terms of the different branches of sport, ages and genders, and if we did not value success at the highest levels in any sport why should any athletes expect to receive any support?
The current high performance sport structure is a pressure environment where World Rankings earn more support and allow athletes to stay involved, especially in sports and events, where there is little commercial interest or professional opportunities. It also creates opportunities for coaches to make a livelihood from their passion for the sport. But, as we have seen this pressure can come at a cost if the athlete or the coach lose sight of the ultimate Olympic ideals such as human potential and creating leaders that inspire people in more ways than just sporting success.
At the next step down the challenge for the coach-athlete relationship is progressing towards higher levels of performance where barriers of finance, access to competition and large numbers of high performing cyclist serve to squash ambitions. Here is where it is essential for the coach and athlete to mutually agree on performance targets over results and to have a long-term focus. At times the shooting stars of the sport only have short careers as they find the long term process too demanding and the need to achieve immediate success predominates.
Most concerning is the junior athlete, where despite the cries that “there is no such thing as junior high performance” we see an ever greater push by riders, coaches and parents towards results and outcomes and celebrating personal success over the development of the athlete and the growth of the sport. The early warning signs are a rider who is only happy when winning and in tears when they don’t. This shows a lack of emotional flexibility and at young ages is a sure sign of a rider who will not progress far in the sport.
RC: How can athletes and coaches better pick up on the warning signs that something in the athlete-coach relationship is not quite right before matters escalate to a destructive point?
Hamish: From either side an obsession with results over the growth and learning in the rider, and the development of the sport is a massive problem. Even for the most talented of rider they should never lose sight that without good competition and people with a passion for the sport they will never have a vehicle to showcase their talents. This is why the start of the coaching and athlete development process starts with purpose. The ideals of human potential, leadership and following one’s strengths are all good starting points. The world needs more leaders than we need riders capable of a sub-60 second Kilos or Kiwi riders starting the Tour de France.
However if we explore the process of what it takes in terms of commitment to either be that powerful to ride a sub 60s Kilo or many years it takes to going from performance as a junior, to U23, to ProConti and eventually the World Tour and the individual team dynamics to make the start of the Tour de France we start to see why human potential, leadership and strengths based coaching should be the start of the process for any athlete.
RC: Some athletes respond better to a more sensitive approach, while others appreciate the hard line method. How have you approached your riders in regard to how to enable them to best reach their goals? Do you have a stance you lean more towards in your coaching?
Hamish: With my own journey as a coach I have always felt I started the wrong way. The 3rd rider I coached way back in 1993 was one of New Zealand’s best Road Cyclists and the 4th went on to win the New Zealand Elite Road Title the next year. That attracted a lot of top senior riders and drove an initial focus on results. Then as I progressed into academia I added a more scientific approach initially studying human behaviour and then adding physiology and biomechanics. It was only after a break from the sport and a return in 2005 that I committed to starting with Junior athletes and committing to a long term process of development as a coach. While I don’t regret starting coaching at the top and am grateful to have been coaching NZ teams at age 23 I wonder if things would have had a better impact had I started coaching at a junior level first and progressed towards High Performance.
I am learning to ignore the trap of focusing on results and riders who would succeed on physiology alone but ultimately fall short due to a lack of human skills. It’s the ultimate test of the coaching, and I am now seeing this occur in riders I coached who have gone on to become wonderful people and make a real impact in their own areas which is the real win.
RC: Tell us about some of the key attributes that go into making an athlete-coach relationship function well.
Hamish: My general email signature has the quote: Live with Purpose, Have Passion for the Process, and Perform with Pride!!!
So I challenge the riders who work with me (there is a hint in that sentence as well) to be motivated and inspired. To be passionately engaged in the process of learning, developing and growing as a person and as a cyclist, and most importantly to be testing their performance at their individual level regularly. As I look at the riders I have had the most success with, they are the ones who fully commit to this and appreciate that it is a huge challenge filled with ups and downs and accept that for every win there will be far, far more setbacks, crashes, knock-backs and humbling experiences.
Hamish Ferguson is a Partner at Roulston Coaching who loves working with riders on Road and Track at all levels. As well as constantly learning and challenging himself as a Coach he is starting a PhD in Bioengineering focusing on Cycling Biomechanics. In what spare time he has, he enjoys riding on the Port Hills in Christchurch and has become a D grade Zwift Warrior!
If you’re keen to talk about your cycling performance and growth as a cyclist check out www.roulston.co.nz