Go For the Gold

Originally published in More Magazine, Summer 2008

She was the first-ever winner of the women’s world sabre championships in 1998, but when Canadian fencer Donna Saworski seriously injured her knee just six months later, it was a personal trainer’s words that helped keep her going. “She said sports-related injuries can make you stronger, and that belief gave me such a boost,” says Saworski, 47, who was so inspired by the personal trainers she worked with after her injury that she became one herself. (Oh, and she also went on to win a career total of seven national championships, a Commonwealth Games bronze medal and a Pan-Am Championships silver medal.) Not that Saworski has much time for training clients right now: At press time, she was in the final stages of trying to qualify for a berth on the Canadian Olympic fencing team.

Still, along the way, Saworski says she’s learned lessons from all of her coaches and trainers that she uses in both her current work life (as a project manager for an environmental assessment company) and as she pursues her passion for helping others get fit. And like Saworski, you can put the best of sports coaching strategies to work in your job as well, whether you lead a team of 100 or are simply managing your own career path.

Betting on balance

When 17-year-old gymnast Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs dismounted from the balance beam at the world championships in 2006, coach Carol-Angela Orchard knew her dream of watching one of her athletes take the podium had finally come true. By winning the bronze in the beam competition, Hopfner-Hibbs became the first Canadian female gymnast to win a world championship medal. And for Orchard, 48, that win — and Hopfner-Hibbs subsequent additional four World Cup medals in 2007 and 2008 — vindicated her unusual coaching approach based on cultivating well-rounded, balanced (so to speak) athletes. Her program is unique: Athletes must do well academically in order to participate, train only on weekdays, take time off in the summer and are encouraged to pursue non-gymnastic interests and hobbies. It’s a stark contrast to many elite programs, where gymnasts’ lives shrink as they focus exclusively on their sport, with weekend training the norm and academics often ignored.

“Our view is that if they can handle the demands of life in addition to gymnastics, they’ll be more confident in handling it when the pressure hits them on the competition floor,” she says. Orchard, who has spent three decades as a coach, leads the Seneca-Claude Watson Sports Program at Toronto’s Seneca College, where she and coaching partner Brian McVey work with girls aged eight to 18 as they train for world-class competition. She’s participated in three Olympics and hopes to have one of her athletes make this year’s Canadian team.

Still, she admits with a laugh that to teach balance, she sometimes sacrifices her own: Orchard puts in 12-hour days at the gym, though takes weekends off “if we don’t have a competition or a camp.” But she doesn’t begrudge the effort. “Everyone teases me about being passionate,” she says.

Her coaching secrets

  • Know why you’re in the game When Canadian junior Peng Peng Lee competed late last year, she was in first place after three events. Next up was her balance beam routine, one she and Orchard were working on in preparation for the 2009 world championships. The routine featured two big tricks that Lee still hadn’t completely mastered. Their choices? Take out the tricks and play it safe, and Lee stood a good chance of winning gold. Leave them in and she might fall, spoiling her chances of holding on to first place. “We left them in,” says Orchard. Lee fell twice. “But she wasn’t there to win gold: she was there to prepare for 2009, and if she doesn’t practise those tricks in competition now, she won’t be ready.” Lee placed second. But to Orchard, that was a big win.
  • Bet on passion “I’ve had super-talented athletes who don’t make it and less talented ones who achieve incredible things because they are passionate,” says Orchard. Not sure how passionate someone is about what she’s doing? “Ask them what risks they’ve taken in pursuit of their goals,” says Orchard. “Passionate people don’t stay in their comfort zones.”
  • Lead according to need To get the best from her athletes, Orchard adjusts her coaching style to each individual’s needs. “Some need you to be sharper, tougher, and others need you to be softer and more encouraging. The bottom line is that you have to respect and care about each, but tailor your support to their style.”

Sink or swim

For Calgary’s Debbie Muir, winning a world championship silver medal as part of Canada’s synchronized swimming team in 1973 was a moment of truth. It made her realize how much she loved international competition — and that her true path was to compete as a coach, not an athlete. “In synchro, you do a lot of pairing off to coach each other and I was always much more able to coach other athletes to do what I wanted than to get myself to do it,” she says. “I realized that I wasn’t as natural an athlete as I am a coach.”

Since then, Muir, 54, has been national team coach to the Canadian and Australian synchro teams, and coached three Olympic and four world championship teams that have racked up an impressive nine gold and four silver medals. Last year, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame and named as a coach mentor to the Canadian Olympic teams in Beijing. “As a mentor, I’m a sounding board for coaches. My job isn’t to tell them what to do, it’s to ask them the right questions to help them discover their own answers because in the end, every coach has to find her own way.”

And she’s taking her insights beyond the realm of athletics. Muir also works with corporate leaders on creating great business teams, and has penned a book with Olympic medallist Mark Tewksbury on what they’ve learned about the traits of great leaders as they’ve worked together over the past 15 years. Ultimately, she says, leaders still need to work through their challenges themselves, “but good mentoring can help shorten the learning curve.”

Her coaching secrets

  • Critique yourself first “It’s easy to say you were a big part of your team’s successes but harder to point to yourself when it’s not successful. When my team failed, often my first instinct was to blame the judges or other people, but eventually I knew that I had failed to deliver something that my athletes needed to succeed. It’s not about being unrealistically hard on yourself, but it is about being objective and looking at the facts. What could you, as team leader, have done better?”
  • Stretch for success, but… “It’s always good to have ambitious goals, but your ambitions have to be within reach of your true capacity.” When Muir took over coaching the Australian team in 1995, she thought she could take the last-ranked team into the top four by the 2000 Olympics. It wasn’t a realistic goal: It takes much longer than that to get the right mix on a team. “You need to define what your team’s win is going to be within the realm of your resources and capacity.”
  • Watch your body language “When I observe coaches coaching, I can see the influence of body language on performance, see when an athlete turns off to what a coach is saying — and it makes me realize how aware all leaders have to be about the unspoken messages they’re transmitting to their teams,” says Muir. “A leader’s positive mood is contagious — and a negative one can be toxic.”
  • Change it up It’s a scenario Muir sees repeated with athletes and employees: teams that get stuck doing something over and over again, even when it’s not delivering the desired results, simply because “that’s the way we do things.” If your solution isn’t working, back up and look at the situation objectively. Is there a better way to do things than the way you’ve always done them? Usually, the answer is yes.”