NSCA’s Coaching Podcast, Episode 98: Dr. Sara Erdner

by Eric McMahon, MEd, CSCS, RSCC*D and Dr. Sara Erdner, CMPC
Coaching Podcast March 2021


Dr. Sara Erdner, author of “Dear Coach: What I Wish I Could Have Told You, Letters from Your Athletes,” talks to the NSCA Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager, Eric McMahon, about the coach-athlete relationship. Topics under discussion include coaching education, giving athletes a platform to be heard, and what truly builds mental toughness and resiliency.

Find Dr. Erdner on Twitter: @doc_serdner | Find Eric on Instagram: @ericmcmahoncscs or Twitter: @ericmcmahoncscs

Show Notes

“So really, what I was hoping with my book, Dear Coach, is to bring all this stuff that I've learned through my seven years of education and then plus some years of just doing our own research, and actually bridge that gap between what some might call the ivory towers-- us in academia-- and the people with boots on the ground.” 2:20

“And so my thing that I advocate for is, before you can even start creating your coaching philosophy, which is very values-based-- identify the values that you have-- we need to understand who we are, culturally, and how the cultural narratives surround these labels that we're made up of.” 14:07

“But if the coach them self is not emotionally healthy, then they're going to have a really hard time not only interacting with athletes' emotional health, emotional maturity, but within that relationship, helping to build it within the athlete.” 23:06

“…the four different C's that go into making a quality coach-athlete relationship-- so, closeness, the commitment of the relationship, the complementarity of the relationship, the co-orientation of it.” 37:05


[00:00:00.64] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast, episode 98.

[00:00:04.84] The four different C's that go into making a quality coach-athlete relationship-- so closeness, the commitment of the relationship, the complementarity of the relationship, the co-orientation of it.

[00:00:16.24] This is the NSCA Coaching Podcast, where we talk to strength and conditioning coaches about what you really need to know but probably didn't learn in school. There's strength and conditioning, and then there's everything else.

[00:00:27.02] Welcome to the NSCA Coaching Podcast. I'm Eric McMahon, and today, we are joined by Dr. Sara Erdner. The author of the new book, Dear Coach: What I Wish I Could Have Told You, Letter From Your Athletes. Sara gave athletes one question. What do you wish you could have told your coach but never did?

[00:00:46.03] This collection of letters and insights provides context for a deeper look into coaching practices, which we in the strength and conditioning profession can apply in our work with athletes, and finetune our abilities as communicators, and ultimately, role models. Sara, thanks for being with us today.

[00:01:04.55] Thanks for having me.

[00:01:06.15] Yeah. I've enjoyed connecting with you over the last few weeks and learning about your book. I just want to kick things off and give you a chance to share your background with us.

[00:01:17.93] Yeah, of course. So I have a PhD in sports psychology and motor behavior from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville-- so the East UT, not the Texas UT. But my background, my undergrad, and my masters are in communication studies with an emphasis in interpersonal relationships. And so I, kind of, merged my understanding of interpersonal relationships in the world of sports psychology.

[00:01:44.84] I'm a certified mental performance consultant through our national governing body, the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. And I'm currently an assistant professor of coaching and the coordinator for our masters of coaching degree, which is fully online here at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado. So professionally, that's me.

[00:02:07.96] Personally, I am a dog mom and artist. I like to paint, play the piano, and write, which is where I took my scholarly ways and decided to write a book rather than a journal article that was just going to get lost in the masters of research journals that nobody was going to read. So really, what I was hoping with my book, Dear Coach, is to bring all this stuff that I've learned through my seven years of education and then plus some years of just doing our own research, and actually bridge that gap between what some might call the ivory towers-- us in academia-- and the people with boots on the ground.

[00:02:49.93] And so I'm really proud of this book for that reason. In academia, we're not encouraged necessarily to disseminate our findings in such a wide way, such as writing a book. So I, kind of, had to go against the grain some to be here, but I do hope that it really benefits your audience.

[00:03:13.82] Awesome. So this idea came from your doctoral dissertation, and collecting data and letters and information from athletes. And you know, how close is your dissertation to what the outcome of this book is right now? And tell us about that journey a little bit.

[00:03:35.33] Oh, yeah. The essence of it is very similar. The format is a lot different. And what I mean by that is, I want to back up just a little bit.

[00:03:44.63] How I got to the topic of my dissertation is pretty powerful in and of itself. So I first started-- I wanted to know more about the coach-athlete relationship, and how the coach influences athlete resilience, specifically. And I started by just interviewing coaches to get their perspective.

[00:04:02.84] And to be just very frank with you, when you're in a PhD program, you just want to finish, and so there's a lot of gatekeeping that goes on, and it's easier to get access to coaches than athletes. So we decided, my mentor and I, to go first with the coach, and then, later on down the road, interview athletes. But as I was interviewing coaches about their perceptions, the most saturated response I got from every single one of them is, they said, you know, Sara, it's all great and well, we think, but we really want to know what the athletes think.

[00:04:34.93] So I called my mentor, Becky, and I was like, we got to completely redo my dissertation topic, because I was going in one direction, which was very much, interview the coaches and sport administrators. So I had to completely redo my IRB to get Institutional Review Board approval for my dissertation, and I changed directions and interviewed athletes. And that's when I realized I had tapped into this oil rig that nobody's tapped into yet.

[00:05:04.78] Because I thought they were going to be your standard 60-minute to 90-minute interviews, and they ended up being two and 1/2, three-hour-long interviews. Some of them-- the athletes wanted to come back. They had to go to their job or something, and they would say, hey, look, I want to schedule. I have more I need to tell you.

[00:05:21.49] And so I started realizing, wow, coaches are craving to know what athletes think, and athletes are craving to say what they want to say. So when I defended my dissertation, I actually had a lot of support from my committee sending emails, saying, hey, we know the traditional route is to publish in a research journal, but you should write a book on this. And so the formulation of it-- at first, it was just interviews, and then I wrote it in a scholarly way in my dissertation.

[00:05:50.65] But then, I thought, you know what, it would be really powerful to just get letters-- obviously, confidential letters-- written by athletes, asking them one question. That way, they can take it whatever way they want. In the first rendition of the book-- so two and 1/2 years ago when I started this-- it's very interesting. It's taken many different flavors to what the final book is now, which is, to me, such a beautiful-- it was a beautiful process for me, a beautiful learning or an opportunity for me as a, quote unquote, coach, if you will, a consultant.

[00:06:23.03] So at first, I only had 10 letters. And what I did is, I would provide a letter, and then I would provide my two cents at the end-- like, hey, coach, this is what you should get out of this letter, and here's all the research that supports it. And I was in my methods of coaching class, teaching the students, these aspiring coaches. And I was standing up there, giving this motivational speech on how as a coach, you really need to step back more and allow the athlete's voice to really resonate, provide them more space to speak.

[00:06:53.87] And in the middle of me talking, I stopped dead lecture, and they all looked at me crazy. They're like, are you OK? And I just said, y'all, I'm preaching-- I'm telling you all to do something, and I'm actually not doing it in my book. And I basically outed myself in the class, using myself as a teaching opportunity in the class.

[00:07:15.98] And I said, I'm writing this book, perpetuating the same paradigm, which is, I'm the author, I'm giving the reader a letter, and then I'm telling the reader what they should get out of it, which is exactly-- I'm writing the way in which I was coached as an athlete. So I called Amanda, my editor, immediately after class.

[00:07:37.10] And I was like, Amanda-- we were at the finish line, too, about to be done with the book. And I was like, we're not done yet. And so that's when I set out on a search to find more letters.

[00:07:47.86] I realized, I needed to shut up more, and so I took a step back. I went from 10 letters to 30 letters in the book. It's very-- as you know, having read it, it's really reflexive. So it's less of me telling you what to get out of it, and more of me asking the reader open-ended questions, so they can get out of the letters what they need to get out of it.

[00:08:10.01] Because one of my favorite quotes is, a book read by 1,000 different people is 1,000 different books. And so here I was, my ego, unbeknownst to me at the time, because it was very subconscious, was trying to tell you what you should get out of this book, instead of just honoring the expertise of the audience that's listening to this and all the other coaches, and saying, hey, there are things that you can get out of these letters beyond what I'm going to tell you to get out of it. And so don't let me try to impose what I think you should get out of it.

[00:08:41.73] And so I really hope the book-- the way the book stands now, that entire process was very humbling for me. I'm very proud of that process, too. But I think, that way, the book is less calling people out, and it's more about calling everybody into the conversation.

[00:08:59.58] So yes, at the end of the book, I give my two cents, and I do offer my scholarly information, research that I know, and different directions that we could take. But it's less of, like, OK, these are suggestions. Now, let's all come to the table and talk about how to make sport a safer place, not just for athletes-- because the book itself obviously gives athletes a platform to share their voice, because they are the more powerless within the coach-athlete relationship.

[00:09:29.24] But at the end-- and as you know, I advocate for coaches as well, because as I was reading through the lines of these letters-- and having lived with coaches, and been in athletics, and talked to coaches, and gone and gotten drinks with coaches-- you start to realize, wow, who's advocating for the coach? All of our money that we're shelling into is in the athletes. And so then, you think about other strength and conditioning coaches, right?

[00:09:59.87] Everything is about getting the athlete to where they need to be. And maybe a little bit of money has trickled into strength and conditioning coach development, but if we're not investing in the strength and conditioning coach, then it's going to be hard for the strength and conditioning coach to then invest in the athlete. So that's just the book in a nutshell, sharing the process of where we've gotten today.

[00:10:21.72] So really, the main emphasis isn't that I'm trying to out coaches, call them out, or say, you're doing horribly. It's basically saying, hey, I see you. And we, at a macro level, have not done well by you, either.

[00:10:38.78] Yeah. In reading the book, that's what I came away with-- that I had all these ideas and things that I connected to the different stories with, but I also was left thinking, how are these going to be received by other people and other coaches in the field that have different experiences, and people with different athletic backgrounds. You know, you made it, sort of, anonymous-- you know, the sport the athlete played, and all the different factors where we could identify the individual. And so I was playing a guessing game of, oh, is this a college football player, or is this a women's basketball player at the professional level.

[00:11:37.36] I mean, I couldn't quite decode all these different layers, but I was asking a lot of questions of trying to get to a little deeper layer of this. And I think, as coaches, we do that. We try to dive deeper into our athlete's psyche and just where they are at, and that's what we care about.

[00:11:58.84] But you also speak to this disconnect. There's this power dynamic between coaches and athletes, where maybe the communication isn't quite where it needs to be. And so there are a lot of really great takeaways from this, and I think there are a lot of messages, that everyone who reads this book will have a little bit of a different takeaway there.

[00:12:22.81] But one thing I want to ask you-- through this process, your book speaks to the lasting impact that coaches have on athletes. What have you learned about coaching education in the US, and some of the areas where we're doing well, but also maybe some of the areas where we fall short?

[00:12:43.34] Gosh, that's such a loaded question. So by no means, the answer that I'm going to give is going to be all-encompassing. I will say that I have been-- there's a great crowd of people at the United States Center for Coaching Excellence. They have a Committee on the Professionalization of Sport Coaching, so I've been chatting with them about some things.

[00:13:00.78] So there's stuff in the works, but we understand that this is a really, kind of, megaproject. But with that being said, one of the things that I've been, even just-- you know, I teach. I'm an assistant professor of coaching, so I teach methods of coaching, I teach a lot of different classes as it comes to diversity and equity in sport, mental health and sport-- to all these coaches.

[00:13:23.66] And one of the things that's interesting to me is, right now, as it stands in education, the starting point to educate coaches is, OK, we're going to teach you about coaching philosophies. And then, that philosophy is the foundation that you're going to build the rest of your house upon, that house being built by the technical, tactical aspects of the sport, the mental preparation. But interestingly, when I'm reading that, and again, me being a DEI Professor-- of diversity, equity, and inclusion-- and something we had to do as PhD students before we even embarked on our research is, we have to understand our position in the world. So who are we?

[00:14:01.11] And so my thing that I advocate for is, before you can even start creating your coaching philosophy, which is very values-based-- identify the values that you have-- we need to understand who we are, culturally, and how the cultural narratives surround these labels that we're made up of. And what I mean by that is, let's say, you download a demographic questionnaire, and you're going to have all these boxes that you can check. You're either this or that, this or that.

[00:14:31.68] And so I have students in my methods of coaching class. The first thing we do before getting to the coaching philosophy is, we complete the demographic questionnaire. We write-- they check all their different boxes respectively.

[00:14:46.08] And then, we talk about the narratives that go along with those. So for me, I would check, I'm a female. What are the narratives I grew up around?

[00:14:56.80] And this could be intersected with the region of the United States. I grew up in the South. I grew up in Alabama. So I grew up in a southern Baptist church. So there's a lot of those narratives that were told to me on what it means to be a, quote unquote, "good woman," "a good female."

[00:15:12.22] And so I have to understand these narratives that have been told to me on what it means to be this, or maybe even what I was told it meant to be a good man, even though I'm not a man. And understanding those narratives and how those play into my biases and assumptions, which then, subconsciously, covertly influences how I interact with other people. So an example of this would be, if I was taught to be a, quote unquote, "good woman," it meant to be meek and mild and submissive to men. These are all narratives I heard growing up.

[00:15:46.89] And then, I meet a woman, or let's say, I'm a coach and I meet an athlete who's not those things. They're female-- they would identify as a female-- but they're really strong, and they command a room, and they don't submit to men. I'm going to covertly judge that person as, like, oh, well, you're not a good female.

[00:16:06.15] And the reason why it's so important for us to identify these things and to bring it to our consciousness is so that we can be more aware of how we judge other people and understand that that's going to influence the coach-athlete relationship. Because somebody might not-- I think if Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman in the situation. So if you haven't watched The Last Dance, Dennis Rodman is-- I just love his spirit. He is who he is.

[00:16:30.76] And there is a formidable episode where Dennis wants to go out to Las Vegas and gamble and party, and the whole team, obviously, is against it. But Phil is just like, we got to let him breathe and do his thing. It's not about me trying to deduce his body into my way of living my life.

[00:16:49.96] And obviously, Dennis didn't end up coming back after the 48 hours that they allotted to him to come back. They had to send a private jet out to get him. But what I love so much about that story is that Phil understood his positionality, and that he understood that Dennis Rodman's positionality was not like Phil's, but that didn't negate Phil from meeting Dennis where he was at, and really saying, hey, I see you. Right?

[00:17:18.13] And so that's why I think it's so important in coaching education that we have to start with coaching positionality, so that we can then understand that if you're a male coach coaching a female team-- or even a male coach coaching a male team-- that doesn't mean that all those males subscribe or even want to subscribe to what it means to be "a man," quote unquote. So starting there in the understanding that positionality is going to influence the values we choose, that influences the coaching philosophy we have-- that's one step that I advocate for, especially moving forward in these conversations with coaching education, how I educate the aspiring coaches in my classes.

[00:18:01.39] But we also have to think coaching education-- there's classism around that, too. So if we were to just mandate coaching education for all coaches, there's money attached to that, too. There are listeners right now listening to this that are like, I couldn't afford that if that happened.

[00:18:16.69] And so those are a part of conversations as well, thinking about how we can be inclusive of coaching education so that we're not locking away coaching education into these ivory towers, where you have to pay money in order to get it. And then, to me, there's going to end up being a decline in coaches. So there's a lot of-- I mean, where we're at right now in the US with coaching education-- and I'm by no means an expert per se on this, because there are other conversations going on that I haven't been a part of.

[00:18:47.95] But these are factors we need to consider in moving forward and that-- yes, coaching education needs to happen, but we need to make sure that we're being really careful with it and not just having a microwave approach of saying, hey, we need to mandate this. And then, that's actually going to cause a lot more harm than good.

[00:19:07.66] So you know, the curriculum of coaching development-- and I see this as, we're still in this awareness stage of it, you know. It's-- OK, as a young coach, I need a coaching philosophy. I need coaching cues. I need to focus on relationships.

[00:19:24.18] These are being communicated out there in a lot of different places in the field, but it's more of just the awareness. The methods of how to adopt these skills and how to learn these skills are largely unwritten. They're more intuitively gained just through experience, and that's why, as strength conditioning coaches, the traditional-- oh, I need to be a GA, I need to intern, I need to work for free-- it goes back to how we connect with our athletes and how we basically take the essentials text or any of our research-driven content, and then bring it to the athlete.

[00:20:07.89] But the message also connects to the idea of emotional maturity, and you speak to this in your book a lot. And that's a question I have for you-- what do coaches need to consider about the emotional maturity of athletes they work with? I think when we look to mentors or our coaches as mentors, a lot of times, we assume that they're beyond many of the challenges and issues we face as athletes.

[00:20:38.43] And that's not always the case. It's, sort of, a dual process of gaining emotional maturity that's going on, especially when you're a young coach getting into the field. But that dynamic changes as you're aging as a coach and getting more experience, and life occurrences and life changes are happening, and big events are happening, and your perspective changes. So speak to the role of emotional maturity for athletes, and also how that dynamic impacts coaches.

[00:21:13.86] Yeah. That's such a great question. When you asked that, it made me think of Carl Rogers' work, and this is within the counseling field-- very clinical in nature. But he talks about the therapeutic nature of the relationship itself. We so often, in sport, like to talk about this very-- like, 1 plus 1 equals 2.

[00:21:35.37] And the 2 is there, and that's not going to change, and all we care about is the 2. And there are byproducts of a healthy relationship that can come-- they're therapeutic in nature, is the term he uses-- that we might not be able to anticipate happening. And what I mean by that is, the therapeutic nature of the relationship actually being a vessel that helps an athlete create emotional maturity.

[00:22:04.41] But if we have emotionally immature coaches, then that's really going to hurt in helping develop athletes to be emotionally mature. And looking at this from a neurological standpoint, a neuroscience standpoint, we have mirror neurons in our brain, and what they are is the neurons that mimic behavior that we're around. So if we have coaches that are not mentally healthy and emotionally healthy-- obviously, I feel like in strength and conditioning, usually, there are physically healthy coaches.

[00:22:36.67] You know, I have seen some walking around that aren't necessarily the most physically fit or representative of the field, but athletes are going to mimic that nature. There's nothing you can do. Right? The mirror neurons are going to fire, and they're going to mimic that.

[00:22:52.59] And so I think oftentimes, we like to go straight to the athlete and how coaches can influence that emotional maturity of the athlete. And really, at the most foundational, everything else I could tell you would just be Band-Aid approaches. . But if the coach themself is not emotionally healthy, then they're going to have a really hard time not only interacting with athletes' emotional health, emotional maturity, but within that relationship, helping to build it within the athlete.

[00:23:21.44] And so that's a lot of where we need-- where I'm wanting to intercept-- we need to put more attention on coaches and developing them as human beings. Right now, as it stands, we have a lot of-- especially as an example, NCAA, mental health initiatives for athletes. But how many coaches do we see around that are just mentally unhealthy and emotionally unhealthy, as much as so many other people are? There's no shame in that.

[00:23:50.36] But knowing about mirror neurons, if we're putting all this money at the bottom of the top-down hierarchy, where we're giving athletes everything, and we're not helping the coaches or sport administrators to be emotionally healthy, then we're really just putting all of our-- we're flushing all the money down the toilet. Because it's a trickle-down effect. The coaches are going to influence the athletes. The sport administrators are going to influence the coaches that then influence the athletes.

[00:24:19.14] So I think that's where we really need to start-- is having more coaches go inward into themselves, to calling themselves in, and really facing those hard questions, instead of just constantly giving information on what you can do better for the athlete. Well, no, what can you do better for yourself? And how can we, at a macro level, help that?

[00:24:43.16] As coaches, there's organizational stress. We have to win. We have to recruit. We have to build a program, accolades, awards-- all these different things.

[00:24:56.45] How much of the perceptions in your book were attached to the concept of winning? Or were they independent of winning? What are your thoughts on that?

[00:25:09.24] Well, the book is, as you know-- but for the readers, the book is sectioned off into-- there's part one, which are the good letters. So there are thank-you letters in the book. And what was very interesting to me when I received those thank you letters is that my bias was, I would only get bad letters.

[00:25:25.76] But it really speaks to this barrier of communication, whether it's good or bad. Like, athletes, even if it's a thank-you letter, they might just tell their coach, like, hey, thanks, you really mean a lot to me. Like, see you later.

[00:25:36.86] But they're not really going to go into detail and tell the coach what they appreciate. So these letters are very informative thank-you letters. They not-so-great letters talk a lot about-- and that's part two-- many of them, as you probably ran across, are very much-- you only saw us as robots.

[00:25:53.57] You only cared about winning, that you forgot about us as a human. Like, we have a soul, we have a mind, we have all these things. We have a heart.

[00:26:02.54] And so Viktor Frankl has such a beautiful quote that I give in part 3 of the book, which is that when you make winning the target, you're never going to make it. But when you place the target as something collectively bigger than yourself, then a byproduct of that will be winning. And so I think what we've done in sports so much-- and understanding this comes from such a top-down-- you know, coaches are hired, retained, and fired, based on win-loss records, so I'm very understanding of that.

[00:26:33.86] Again, I'm calling coaches into this conversation, and not calling them out, per se, because I understand that coaches' hands are tied behind their backs, too, with this win-loss outcome. So I'm speaking to sport administrators here as well-- people that are in positions to change this cultural narrative. The more that we make winning, the win-loss, the main measure-- so I'm not saying we need to get rid of win-loss outcome at all in sport. By no means am I saying that.

[00:27:00.95] But when we're making it the number-one numero-uno thing, it is actually hurting what you're trying to get at. So how can we flip this? How can we make it to where winning and losing isn't necessarily the foundational narrative that builds that culture, the main measure that determines hiring, retaining and firing? But making it something that's bigger than yourself-- it's collectively trying to help maybe a social justice reform, if you will.

[00:27:31.13] I've seen a lot of really powerful stories coming out of coaches, and there was one-- I forget the name, but there's a soccer team where they had a player on the team that identifies as gay. They all collectively decided that if there was any gay slander on the field, that they were just going to forfeit the game altogether. And it was a very powerful message, and I saw on Twitter, where the coach-- a lot of people were like, oh, this doesn't matter.

[00:27:55.88] It really created a pretty big protest against why they were outing the game. But I love that they were planning for something so much bigger than just the win. And so to me, that they were able to-- that message was heard across Twitter more than if they were to just win.

[00:28:13.46] And so realizing that the bodies that are playing the sport in order to get the win are human bodies. They have emotions. They have feelings and thoughts.

[00:28:24.00] And so if we're not advocating for them at the foundational level-- you know, right now, Black lives matter-- black bodies, marginalized bodies. If we're not advocating for them, and very transparently advocating for them, then it's really going to-- the subtext you're writing within the coach-athlete relationship is that it's superficial, at best. And so setting a standard that's a lot higher than winning-- again, not saying that we don't need to care about win-loss. I understand this is sport.

[00:28:58.17] I was an athlete myself, so I understand that kind of competitive vibe. But I think that these athletes are really shedding light on how when we do make winning the target, it's actually hindering their overall mental health, and then actually, hurting the coach-athlete relationship, and really not getting you the results that everybody would want.

[00:29:21.33] So this may go a little beyond the scope of the book, but you know, what you said really makes me think of how as coaches, we are creating environments for athletes to thrive and succeed. And in your book, you talk about the uncertainty reduction theory, as a driving principle that maybe got some of these ideas going for you. How does that apply towards athletes and the role that coaches have in creating a welcoming environment in their weight rooms, on the field, and just within the team setting?

[00:30:03.54] Gosh, that's a great question. So uncertainty reduction theory was a 1975 article, so there have been some advancements since then. And one of the advancements has been from uncertainty reduction, which basically says, uncertainty is uncomfortable, as we probably all know. Uncertainty creates anxiety.

[00:30:21.79] So what do we want to do? We want to reduce it. Then, a scholar named Brashers, in 2001, came in, and he was like, hey, maybe it's not always about trying to reduce uncertainty. The more that we actually are so influenced on trying to reduce it, we're actually taking away from the benefits that uncertainty can build things for us. Like, uncertainty can build resilience.

[00:30:45.30] And so he created an advanced uncertainty reduction theory into uncertainty management theory-- so, how can we manage it. But in a nutshell, uncertainty reduction theory, and then even just managing it, is, how can we help to manage and also reduce harmful dysfunctional uncertainty to essentially increase the strength of the relationship? And so if you put this in terms of-- you meet somebody for the first time, and you don't really know them.

[00:31:17.04] So what do you do? You start seeking information to get to know them, trying to find similarities and dissimilarities. And then, the more information you gather, the more you start understanding them. You get more comfortable. And then, your uncertainty is reduced about that person, and you're able to manage that uncertainty a little bit more.

[00:31:33.63] So an example of this, to really thread in a lot of topics I've talked about up to this point-- so this past summer, summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd happened, whether-- obviously, Black bodies are affected by that. But we also need to realize that white bodies and other racial bodies are impacted, too. You know, that really influenced me as well as, I'm sure, a lot of other people.

[00:31:59.17] So that's going to cause a lot of uncertainty for athletes walking into a place when something that's so traumatic happens. So you walk into a room-- so, a weight room, in this sense, right? And you're walking in, and you're starting to view the world a little bit differently, because you're starting to see a lot of this-- maybe doing more education on your own, and watching things on racial injustice so that you can educate yourself more.

[00:32:24.55] And you walk into a space, and all of a sudden, you look at your coach, and you're like, do they advocate for me? Do they advocate for Black-- do they care about people's bodies, or do they just see me as a number on an Excel spreadsheet? Are they only looking at my max squats?

[00:32:42.38] So in that sense, from a social justice perspective, is for a coach to walk in and-- I grew up in an era-- you know, I'm a millennial, myself, where we were, kind of, taught that when you walk into a space, everybody's the same person. Like, here at Adams, say, it was a Grizzly. So it might look like something like, OK, in this space, we're all Grizzlies. Nothing else matters.

[00:33:04.04] So it's a very identity-blind culture of, leave everything at the door. But you can't do that. We can't leave our identities at the door. I can't all of a sudden take off my female outfit, and just unzip, and like, leave it on a hanger, and walk in, and all of a sudden, I'm a Grizzly. Same thing for Black bodies-- they can't unzip their Black bodies and hang it on a hanger outside the door to make you comfortable or to make other people comfortable.

[00:33:36.16] And so to reduce uncertainty as the coach, it's about, let's talk about the elephant in the room. Maybe let's take time out of today's lift session, if you will, which-- I can hear people cringing right now, as I say that. Because I know time constraints is a huge thing already, and then you're also working with a sport coach that's giving you that.

[00:33:58.60] But don't underestimate, though, doing that. Because if you can sit down with a group of people, and you can say, hey, your body matters more, and your soul matters more to me than these numbers on a sheet, and just give that space to chat about, hey, what's going on, and then at the end, say, I want everybody to know that we care about all bodies in this space and that we will advocate for all bodies, and then to check in, hey, how are you doing-- really showing them that you care, creating that warm environment-- I would put money on that you're going to get-- I mean, they are going to want to put their bodies on the line for you at that point. Because they know that you care about their body as more than just somebody that's going to produce for you.

[00:34:45.96] And so never underestimate connecting with people culturally. But I want to make one point, though, too. If we-- talking about the coaching positionality, understanding that before coaching philosophy, we have to be comfortable with ourselves first as cultural beings. You know, I had to come to really hard terms that I am a white cisgender heterosexual female who has a PhD. I'm highly educated and grew up in a middle-class family that's not divorced-- very privileged, very privileged.

[00:35:22.58] And I had to really understand where I was positioned, and how maybe I have exacerbated particular issues in the world by being colorblind, identity-blind. For me to now get to a place where I'm not just an ally, but I am a co-conspirator-- and what do I mean by that? I really want to unpack conspirator here.

[00:35:44.32] There is a story, and to be very, very quick on this-- so there was a story of a woman that was going to take down a flag that was a very racist flag. So it was a Black woman that was going to climb up this flagpole to take down this racist flag. And there was a white man that was down near the pole, obviously, there to be an ally, to support her as she did it.

[00:36:06.23] The cops come. The people, they arrive, and they say, oh, how can we get her down? Oh, we can zap this pole with our tasers, which would have killed her.

[00:36:17.14] And a co-conspirator-- so this is where this man, this white man, went from being an ally to a co-conspirator. He put his hand on the pole and looked at them, and said, if you do that, you're going to have to kill me, too, and cashed in his whiteness, basically knowing that they wouldn't have done that. They would have understood, well, there are other ways we can handle this.

[00:36:40.16] And so getting to a space where we're so comfortable with ourselves as cultural beings, that we would be in a place to be a co-conspirator to metaphorically put our hand on that pole for our athletes, and save their bodies when needed, and they would feel that they would know we would do that. That's where that-- looking at-- and I want to bring in the coach-athlete relationship again here. Jowett's work on this-- Sophia Jowett, based out of the UK-- she has the three C's plus 1 model, which talks about having the four different C's that go into making a quality coach-athlete relationship-- so, closeness, the commitment of the relationship, the complementarity of the relationship, the co-orientation of it.

[00:37:23.34] And so metaphorically-- and again, speaking to the privileged people, putting our hand metaphorically on that pole is building that closeness in the relationship. It is increasing the commitment of both parties to that relationship-- the complementarity, the reciprocal nature of saying, hey, I'm going to show up for you. And so we're in our age now, where I think people may be uncomfortable to hear it or even talk about it, but we need to start talking about it more.

[00:37:55.68] Because that's such a vital part of the relationship-- is the cultural aspect of it. And so again, I want to call coaches into this conversation and even say, here, I know this is something that's hard to digest, and so I'm available even beyond this podcast to consult with people on this matter. Strength and conditioning coaches or just coaches in general that want to know more-- they really want to have a conversation.

[00:38:23.73] How can we start implementing this? What can I do? And I'm here for that.

[00:38:29.63] Taking a step back from who we are and our own experiences, working towards a deeper level with our athletes-- and I think those themes come through in the book. I want to ask you about mental toughness and resilience. You mentioned them a couple of times in there.

[00:38:46.94] And there is this thought process or just this ingrained mentality in coaching that the athletes should buy in when they walk in, and they need to pay their dues. And you know what? It's about sacrifice-- sacrifice for being a Grizzly or whatever team you represent.

[00:39:14.90] And how do we create these very accepting but productive athletic-focused environments, and still incorporate these ideas of mental toughness and grit and resilience? I think those are some challenges when you think about it. So I just want to get your perspective there.

[00:39:40.87] Yeah. Buy-in is so huge. And I know, just from a strength and conditioning standpoint, too. It's easy for an athlete to buy in, depending upon the level, to the sport itself, but then buying into-- like, why should I care about strength and conditioning?

[00:39:52.99] And then, that also matters per the position. Right? And then, that also we have to-- again, I'm gonna bring culture into this. When we're thinking about the demographics of somebody-- so as a female, I grew up in the South.

[00:40:04.72] And so I was a strong woman athlete for a while, which is funny, because the narrative I grew up with is that, oh, women don't want to live, because you don't want to get bulky. You know? Like, that whole-- which is just funny, because you actually lean out and don't get bulky. You just look awesome, I think.

[00:40:19.54] But we have to understand those narratives to then understand how to better relate to somebody to create buy-in. So let's say you're a coach that's working with a male athlete that's having a hard time taking on muscle or even looking shredded. Maybe they do pack on a lot of weight, as far as good muscle that moves mass, but they're not looking cut.

[00:40:48.24] They want to look like those Instagram people, and have the arms that are super cut, and they're not. And so how might that be influencing their buy-in when they're walking into a strength and conditioning-- into a gym? Because they might be like, oh, this isn't working.

[00:41:06.82] And so again, talking about this elephant in the room-- not just being like, hey, today, this is what-- we're working for us to get stronger, so that we can move this mass, whatever that mass is-- if it's a softball or baseball-- putting more power behind the barrel of the bat, the physics of it, to be able to move that ball in the direction at the speed it needs to go to hit a home run. Maybe a football player-- whatever it is. So we have to understand that there are cultural narratives that are, either before they ever walk into a room or even when they're in a weight room, influencing their buy-in of even being there.

[00:41:46.13] And I think, from a resilience standpoint, as we can-- and so Fletcher and Sarkar-- also based out of the UK-- are some of the leading researchers on bringing resilience into sport. And so in 2012, they actually did a pretty foundational study that helped us see, what are the tenets of a resilient athlete? We know all these tenets of a resilient human, in general, but they might be different in sport.

[00:42:15.58] And so they came up with five, and the first one is positive personality. So a resilient athlete-- they're optimistic, and they have hope in things. They also have intrinsic motivation, meaning, they're very process-focused, values-driven, and motivated by their why.

[00:42:36.10] High confidence in themselves-- their ability to be able to complete a particular task-- they're able to focus on the task at hand, and are very present. We can bring mindfulness into this as well-- a very mindful, present, focused on the task at hand. But one of the other factors is social support, so this brings in the coach-athlete relationship.

[00:42:59.20] So since 2012, there's been a lot of research on how coaches can enhance athlete resilience. And so a lot of them have basically supported Fletcher and Sarkar's work in saying, oh, well, then the coach can just increase an athlete's motivation and help them focus on this. But my argument and the gap I see is that if we are also creating resilient coaches that also feel safe in an environment-- I remember you and I spoke previously about this.

[00:43:31.70] Like, there's that process when you come in as a strength and conditioning. You've got to put your dues in. It's maybe not the most welcoming environment for you at times.

[00:43:42.29] I've seen this myself, just being a part of organizations, and how maybe they treat an incoming intern, if you will. There's a little bit of a hazing process that we might not want to call hazing, but that's what it is. And if we're not creating that warm, safe environment from the beginning, what we're actually doing is, we're teaching people how to then treat people later.

[00:44:04.97] And so you coach how you were coached, and so then you become a coach, and you're like, well, I put my dues in. Like, this is just how it is. But in reality, we're just literally stripping somebody of the very essence of who they are, and it's hurting their motivation, it's hurting their focus, and they're having to use their energy, for example, on trying to combat the injustice that's happening on them for being hazed or picked on-- whatever it is.

[00:44:31.25] They're having to use that energy to refocus on what they have to focus on, when instead, if they were in a warmer, more welcoming and empowering environment, then they could use all that energy to focus on what they need to focus on from the beginning. And so we'd actually be getting a higher-level optimum performance, not just out of coaches but athletes, too.

[00:44:49.65] I really like the message that-- because I agree, both on the coaching side and the athletes side. What are we doing to make our weight rooms a welcoming environment for incoming athletes, interns, and coaches to thrive in what they do? As coaches, college strength and conditioning coaches are part of the recruiting process.

[00:45:14.82] We're tasked from our institutions to promote the positive qualities that our universities, colleges, and universities, or our organizations represent. But are we doing that in our everyday actions? And with our perceptions and our biases that come through, I think those are interesting layers to peel back that maybe we don't think about all the time.

[00:45:43.39] And so it's healthy to do that. And I like that we've been able to go into some of these academic theories and maybe dive into your academic journey, and relate that to some applied coaching practices here. But for all of our listeners, I just want to assure you that this book is extremely practical, and these are letters from athletes.

[00:46:07.83] And I think, as a strength coach, I connected really closely with some of the messages that athletes were communicating. And what was really interesting is, these were after the fact. And I actually had a conversation recently, since we had started talking, with one of my old coaches.

[00:46:31.38] And just a story to share-- we had connected, and we were going back on a LinkedIn message. And the next thing you know, he's like, what are we doing? Send me a Zoom invite.

[00:46:42.36] And we're just, kind of, catching up one morning, and this was last week. And you know, it was a long-time catch-up-- 20-something years here. And so it's like, we're going through all these things, but it went back to the meeting room in college football.

[00:46:59.28] And in thinking about just some of-- when I was a freshman and sophomore in college, we would do evaluations of our coaches at the end of the semester. And we were just reflecting on some of those times. And one of the things he said-- and you know, he's a phenomenal coach with a huge impact for me. Maybe he wouldn't have realized that at the time.

[00:47:26.25] But he was reflecting on feedback that he got. And you know what? Our head coach said to him at the time, some of this is on you, some of this is on them, and some of this is somewhere in the middle. And as coaches, as professionals, we can control that middle space, and we can have an impact on that middle space.

[00:47:45.51] So it really-- I think, beyond just our immediate actions, there is a layer of deep thought that needs to go into how we are when we walk into the room, and how we relate beyond the words we're saying, beyond the clothes we're wearing, and how we present ourselves just superficially. There is a deeper layer to it. So I connected with your book really personally, and so I just want to thank you for that.


[00:48:19.02] I think it'll be a really great message to coaches on the sports side as well as strength and conditioning. And just for our listeners today-- when does the book actually release?

[00:48:31.14] So you can go on Amazon and order it, and it won't come out until June 26, 2021, this year. You can go on my social media accounts on Twitter @Doc_SErdner. D-O-C, underscore, S-E-R-D-N-E-R. And I have an order form there, where you can order advanced reader copies, which are signed author copies, so I'll sign them for you.

[00:48:57.20] So that way, you can get them quicker than having to wait until June 22. So I have my own copies that I can ship out, and I do bulk orders as well. I've had a couple of teams-- coaching development organizations-- that have bought in bulk, and so I ship that way as well. And then, that's been there.

[00:49:14.07] They're doing a Book of the Month, if you will. They'll go through that book, and I've been hearing a lot of positive feedback on that, on them, as a team, going through a collection of letters as they go, and talking about what they got from it. And it's really creating a space where they're able to start the conversation within their team.

[00:49:32.13] And that's what I wanted this book to do. It's been very emotional for me to see the outcome. The biggest thing I'm seeing is, there's this barrier of communication. People just aren't talking.

[00:49:42.93] And so for my book to be something that facilitates increased communication-- I feel like my undergrad and my master's thesis advisors would be very proud of that, since I was a communication major. And so I do encourage that. If you want to get your hands on it sooner, fill out that Google Form.

[00:50:00.94] That's awesome. I want to ask you. You know, you just finished a big project, and it's about to hit the market here.

[00:50:08.20] And you also finished your PhD. What do you see in your future? Do you intend on doing more writing, or what's next?

[00:50:16.15] Yeah. Great question. I actually just started writing my second book project. And I always laugh, because I tell myself, I'm going to take some time off, and it's just not in my nature.

[00:50:25.18] I'm an artist. I'm creative. I crave it, and writing is a way for me to create as much as painting is.

[00:50:32.05] And so my next book project tentatively is titled, Dear Sport Parent: What I Wish I Could Have Told You-- very similar flavor to Dear Coach, where athletes are writing letters to their parents on what they wish they could have told them but never did. And again-- getting the good and the not-so-good in those letters. So I'm actually in the data collection process for that, so if there are any listeners that would be interested-- and maybe you're a former athlete, and you're like, I have some things I wish I could tell my parents, but I never did.

[00:51:03.58] And the letters are all confidential. I take that very seriously, making sure it doesn't out the athlete. And the reason why this book is so important-- there are still gaps in the research with coaching education, but there is very minimal information to parents on how to be a quality, productive sport parent.

[00:51:22.94] And so a lot of these parents out here-- and if you're a parent listening to this, I see you. I hear you. You're trying your best to be the best sport parent you can.

[00:51:32.68] But there's really nothing out there that educates them on what their athlete needs. And even the coach-parent relationship-- you know, I think that could really provide coaches with a lot of education on how to navigate those coach-parent conversations. So that's my next book project.

[00:51:49.42] There's no release date or anything. We're just in the process of gathering letters and writing, so that's the next step. You know, and then, 10, 20 years down the line, really looking at better education to just advocate for coaches and help them like, hey, here's some stuff that I hope makes your job-- you wear a lot of hats, and I hope this makes your job a little bit easier for you.

[00:52:11.08] That's awesome. I look forward to that second book as well. I think coaching education is an area that impacts strength and conditioning, but the entire environment that we work in-- I think it's something that is a very admirable goal that I think we're all pushing for. And I'm really excited to see how things progress for you. Appreciate you being with us today.

[00:52:36.53] Yeah. Thanks, Eric.

[00:52:38.29] For our listeners, thanks for tuning in. We'd also like to thank Sorinex Exercise Equipment. We appreciate their support.

[00:52:44.74] From the NSCA, thank you for listening to the NSCA Coaching Podcast. We serve you, the coaching community. So follow, subscribe, and download for future episodes.

[00:52:55.15] We look forward to connecting with you again soon, and hope you'll join us at an upcoming NSCA event or in one of our special interest groups. For more information, go to NSCA.com.

[00:53:07.26] This was the NSCA's Coaching Podcast. The National Strength and Conditioning Association was founded in 1978 by strength and conditioning coaches to share information, resources, and help advance the profession. Serving coaches for over 40 years, the NSCA is the trusted source for strength and conditioning professionals. Be sure to join us next time.

Reporting Errors: To report errors in a podcast episode requiring correction or clarification, email the editor at publications@nsca.com or write to NSCA, attn: Publications Dept., 1885 Bob Johnson Dr., Colorado Springs, CO 80906. Your letter should be clearly marked as a letter of complaint. Please (a) identify in writing the precise factual errors in the published podcast episode (every false, factual assertion allegedly contained therein), (b) explain with specificity what the true facts are, and (c) include your full name and contact information.

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Eric L. McMahon, MEd, CSCS,*D, TSAC-F,*D, RSCC*E

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Eric McMahon is the Coaching and Sport Science Program Manager at the NSCA Headquarters in Colorado Springs. He joined the NSCA Staff in 2020 with ove ...

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