The Hallmarks of a World Class Coach

By Simon Hartley, Be World Class

Did I mention that I’m embarking on a rather insane endurance challenge for charity? In August 2013, Andy McMenemy and I will set off from London and kayak almost 800 miles up the east coast of Great Britain to John O’Groats (the north-eastern most tip of Scotland). When we get there, we’re going to cycle almost 1000 miles to Land’s End (the south-western most tip of England), before running over 300 miles back to London. The entire challenge will take between 35 and 40 days.

The big challenge is that Andy and I are novices on a bike and complete novices in a kayak!

So, as part of our training, Andy and I spent last Wednesday on a fast flowing river, in the company of kayak coach, Claire O’Hara. I’ll be honest, referring to Claire simply as a kayak coach does her a disservice. She is also a 4x world champion in freestyle kayaking and squirt boating. However, as you will no doubt know, world class athletes don’t always make world class coaches. Often it is harder for an exceptional athlete to become a great coach because they are not fully (consciously) aware of what made them exceptional. As many sports coaches know, when we execute skills, we primarily employ our ‘non-thinking’ brain. Therefore, the vast majority of the control is not conscious control; it is outside of our conscious awareness. Our ‘thinking brain’ is simply not equipped to manage the very subtle control of our movement. As a result, many athletes find it really hard to explain how they perform their skills or teach them to others.

As well as being a multiple world champion athlete, Claire O’Hara is an extra-ordinarily good coach. She knows that the skills that Andy and I require are primarily sub-conscious, so she doesn’t try to teach them consciously. Andy and I need to learn how to read moving water; the rate of flow, directions of flow, eddy lines and how to find slack water. We also need to know how to manoeuvre the boat effectively and how the boat responds to wind and moving water. Many of these skills are based on sight, sound and feel, not ‘thinking’. We need to feel the moment of the water and the effect it has on the boat.

Claire also explained that the environment is constantly changing. The direction and power of the flow can alter in moments and areas of slack water can disappear. Therefore, Claire says that we need to think in terms of “tools, not rules”. She also knows that there is no one ‘best’ solution for any given challenge. There are a variety of solutions that might work. Some will be more efficient than others. However, everyone is different. We all have different levels of strength and skill. One person may have a greater ability to control the boat with their paddle strokes. Someone else may be better at controlling the boat with their body position, their core and the way they use their legs. Therefore the ‘best’ solution for me, may not be the ‘best’ for Andy.

So how does Claire coach us to develop the skills we need?

Claire uses a very simple principle. She helps us to explore, experience and discover for ourselves. She guides our experience and helps us to focus our attention. Claire would start by setting us a challenge. In order to understand how our paddle strokes affect the moment of the boat she asked us to take 4 paddle strokes and then notice what the boat did. We tried it a few times. Often the boat turned sharply almost straight away; sometimes to the left, sometimes right. Occasionally, the boat would glide for a while without turning and then slowly turn one way or the other. After a while we noticed the patterns and began to understand how our paddle strokes moved the boat and how the boat responded to what we were doing. Claire also suggested that we experiment, by using the paddles at different angles, keeping the strokes straight, bringing some in an arc shape and changing the power through the stroke. Again, she asked us to notice what happened. Have you noticed that I’ve highlighted the word ‘notice’? It is such a powerful word in coaching.

Before too long I was aware that I had a number of tools that I could use to help control the boat. I began to feel how the water was moving the boat and what I could do in response. The vast majority of this happened without ‘thinking about it’.

Like many great coaches, Claire knows that often we learn without being ‘taught’. Perhaps one of the real skills in coaching is not to ‘teach’ but simply to give our students the opportunity to learn.

These principles are not just relevant for kayaking, obviously.

So, how can you use these ideas in your own coaching?

For more thoughts and ideas, check out

Habits of World Class Coaches – Webinar