Coaching an Unfamiliar Sport

How to Field Questions and Prepare for Coaching an Unfamiliar Sport

By Brad Leshinske BS CSCS

What do you do when coaching an unfamiliar sport?

As sports performance coaches who are often found coaching an unfamiliar sport, a question we sometimes get is, “Did you play this sport that you’re training my son or daughter in?” If you’re training many athletes, chances are you haven‘t played every sport your athletes are training for. If you are in a special niche, that may be a different story. But for those who coach many sports, this is an important question you may face. How do we answer or recognize that it’s not necessary to have played the sport in order to be an effective trainer or coach?

When a parent or coach asks this question, there are many ways to respond. Take a look at the following scenario:

Coach – I really liked how you trained the basketball team, and I noticed they got great results with your training. I was wondering if we could meet and discuss training our swimming team. I have some concerns about whether you are prepared to train swimmers since you haven’t swum competitively before.

Sports Performance Coach – I would love to sit and speak with you about your program and how we can help. While I was not a competitive swimmer, I know that swimming requires core strength, explosive power, and strong and healthy shoulders.

Coach – That sounds great. Let’s meet.

At this point, you have gotten yourself in the door, which is a great first step when coaching an unfamiliar sport. The next step is to get yourself familiarized with the sport. As sports performance coaches, we have to understand the movements and demands that various sports put on our athletes, especially as they get older and more competitive. For instance, grammar school is about great movement, body awareness, and technique. For high school, you can focus a little more on sport demands, especially in athletes’ junior and senior years. With college athletes, you have to be the most specific in your protocol for training. So in your meeting you need to express a few things:

Coaching an unfamiliar sport is easy, as long as you are at least familiar with the demands of the sport

  1. Know what movements are necessary to help their athletes. For example, swimming is approximately 33% plyometric depending on what race they are involved in, shoulder health is a huge concern, core strength and power are very much needed, and muscle endurance for some swimmers is hugely important.
  2. You have to assure the coach that all sports need strength and conditioning and movement skills. When programming dry-land training with water sports, you have to get the coach to realize that efficiency in movement will help their athletes in the water, and the power you build in their bodies will help them excel in the race they are preparing for.
  3. Conditioning is always a demand of any sport, and a good coach will realize that.
  4. Tell the coach that in-season lifting and maintenance of their strength and movement skills is very important. We know that as the season continues, strength and technique, if not maintained, will degrade. The goal of any sports performance coach is to make sure their athletes not only get better in the off season but also maintain strength and skill during the season.

All this is not to say that you can be completely unfamiliar with a sport and still be an effective coach. Like mentioned previously, you must know the sport and its demands. A coach shouldn’t expect you to have played every sport that you train, but they have every right to expect you know the demands for the sports you do train. If you can come into the meeting with knowledge of their sport, it shows that you care about them, their athletes, and their sport, and it gives them confidence you can train their athletes.

Coaching an unfamiliar sport should not be something you fear or avoid. Instead, you should view it as a challenge to overcome and an opportunity to expand your knowledge and improve your craft as a coach.

About the author: Brad Leshinske BS CSCS is the founder of Athletic Edge Sports Performance in Evergreen Park and Owner of Athletic Revolution in McCook, IL. He has trained over 4000 athletes in 9 years in many sports. He also serves as an adjunct professor at North Park University in the Exercise Science Department.

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