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SPORT PSYCHOLOGY

Spanish businesses discover coaching

Methods used to train Olympic athletes based on teamwork are proving a hit Companies are looking to move away from traditional leadership styles

Maribel Martínez de Murguía during a coaching session at the firm Cafosa, a part of the Mars group.
Maribel Martínez de Murguía during a coaching session at the firm Cafosa, a part of the Mars group.GIANLUCA BATTISTA (EL PAÍS)

On the night of August 7, 1992, the Spanish women's Olympic grass hockey team won gold in Barcelona, becoming national heroes in the process. It was a moment to savor: the climax of six years of hard work that began when coach José Manuel Brasa outlined his plan on a blackboard before the team and then left them in the classroom at the Blume training center in Madrid to decide which of the three columns divided into nine cost and benefits compartments they would base their training on.

"The coach's vision inspired us; his conviction that ordinary athletes could achieve something extraordinary, a third-rate team, fifteenth in the world ranking, and in a country with barely 400 players," says Maribel Martínez de Murguía, one of the goalkeepers in the side, who is now a training consultant, coach and founder of Entrenadores de Talento (Talent Trainers), which applies sports coaching methods to businesses.

On that blackboard in the Blume training center classroom back in 1986, three concepts had been written out: 1. Participate. Cost: play for fun. Benefit: take part in inauguration ceremony, compete in three games and watch the others from the stands after being eliminated. 2. Fifth or sixth place. Cost: Intensify efforts, more and tougher training. Benefit: a decent performance. 3. Compete for a medal. Cost: maximum effort, dedication and commitment with no guarantee of a place on the podium. Benefits: make history and maximum personal and team satisfaction.

"When our myths fall, so do our dreams"

J. L. / R. Á.

When second-placed runner Iván Fernández slowed in the final stages of a cross-country race in Navarre last December to help leader Abel Mutai - who had mistakenly pulled up about 10 meters before the finish - cross the line, he made headlines around the world.

Despite the entreaty we are taught as children that it is taking part, not winning, that counts, such sportsmanship is rare. Little wonder the story caught the global media's attention.

Fernández played down the gesture, saying that he had been brought up to play fair. "When I saw him slow down, I had no hesitation. Taking advantage of somebody else's mistake didn't seem right. He had been winning throughout the race."

The 24-year-old is also keen to avoid being seen as an example: "We all have our good and our bad sides. I wouldn't like to think that if one day I disappoint somebody I am going to be sacrificed."

But the truth is that society is always on the lookout for examples like Fernández, as sports psychologist Julieta Paris explains.

"Sport reveals our true character. Somebody who throws the towel in during a match or a competition isn't going to do well in life. Sport creates myths. And myths are there to provide us with an example. We may not want to be our heroes, but we do want to follow their example."

Paris says that for this reason, the recent spate of doping scandals has been so harmful. "Doping has hit sport hard, robbing it of its credibility. When our myths fall, with them go our hopes and dreams."

"Brasa looked us in the eyes and said: 'You are going to be the ones who will decide your destiny.' And with that he left the room. We talked about it and decided on the third option. That was the one he wanted us to choose, but he played it like a coach and made us take part in the decision-making process, turning us into the protagonists of our own story. It wasn't about giving orders. And that was how he got the girls on board. It was a clear example of what is now called coaching; the influence of somebody able to convince, to inspire and to influence. In that case, the athletes," says Martínez de Murguía.

As a result, she says, team spirit was able to overcome even the most complicated situations. Two of the center forwards were from the Basque Country. "They were essential for the team and for our game. One was pro-ETA, and the other's father had been killed by ETA. But there was no clash. The issue was there, and we knew what was going on, but it never stopped the team from moving toward its objective. The common goal was so important that the individual was put on a secondary level."

Xesco Espar, a former member and coach of the Barcelona handball team and author of Jugar con el Corazón (Play with the heart), says that team sports like grass hockey teach us to be generous. "Sport is like life on a smaller scale. The values are pretty much the same as we encounter and use in everyday life. The difference is that sport gives you immediate feedback. A game is won or lost. That's it. But when you do sport, when you are under pressure, you get to know people. Wearing a suit allows you to hide behind it." But individual sports also have their benefits, he says: "Belief in oneself, commitment, character, and sacrifice. An athlete who is well-prepared psychologically can increase his or her technical and tactical value. If not, then he or she can divide it. If you are not motivated that value is worth nothing."

Sports psychologist Julieta Paris says that sport has a role to play in our overall formation, both physical and psychological, but warns that in the case of elite athletes, there is a danger of "deformation, of creating somebody narcissistic, histrionic."

She says that athletes put so much into their sport because they do not find the values they need in the wider world: c

Martínez de Murguía says that these strategies can be applied to businesses: "They can become an inspirational tool that can make the workforce try harder. When we talk about the coach leader, the final goal is to be expendable. It should be somebody able to generate a leadership that is shared, so that in the end it doesn't matter who is in charge." Many bosses reject or are afraid of this kind of strategy. "They are afraid of being expendable. They try to make everybody feel dependent. And that doesn't help an organization grow because the full potential and talent of people is not being developed. A lot of the time we come across leaders in sales or in terms of knowledge and experience, but they have no idea how to manage groups."

Martínez de Murguía says that when she was 30 she joined a Dutch club. She could barely speak English and had to adapt to a country and a way of doing things very different from her own. "I felt lost, an outsider. But the coach helped me to understand that I had many more resources than I had imagined. Through conversations and questions, he made me see how I could improve. It was a very different approach to just giving orders. Instead of being seen simply as a pair of hands and legs that stopped goals, I began to realize that the side saw me as a person, not just an athlete: there was a personal side to things. I didn't feel judged. A coach should never judge. The idea is to help you understand why you have done well, or badly. The goal is to convince you that you have the answers inside you."

Setting others a sporting example

- The Olympic spirit still occasionally shines through, setting an example to us all. At the 2008 Beijing Games sprinter Shawn Crawford, who had won gold four years earlier in Athens, came fourth in the 200 meters. But he was awarded silver after Churandy Martina and Wallace Spearmon were disqualified. A couple of days later, Martina received a packet at his home containing the medal and a note that read: "I don't feel right with that medal. I didn't deserve it."

- Following the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Spanish athletes provided a lesson in team spirit. The handball team won bronze. After returning home, team member Mateo Garralda carefully cut his medal in half through the edge, keeping the head for himself, and giving the tail to his friend Enric Masip, who after training with the side for eight years, suffered an injury just before the Games and was unable to attend.

Words can have positive or negative connotations that can influence our behavior. The paradox is that an hour with a psychologist can cost between 50 and 70 euros, while the cost of 60 minutes of coaching typically starts at 80 euros and can go up to 200 euros. Joan Vives, a sports psychologist, and author of Entrenar al entrenador (Training the trainer), explains: "Coaching is now seen as something modern, positive, valid and forward-thinking, whereas psychology is associated exclusively with problems and personal issues, focused on the negative and oriented on the past. So it is obvious that using a coach is seen by society as more positive than seeing a psychologist."

Chema Buceta, a psychology lecturer and head of the UNED distance learning university's Master in Coaching, says: "Coaching, in essence, is simply a way of helping leaders. This has since developed to include many people who need to manage their personal life better. The idea is to help somebody find their own answers."

Buceta, who has worked with the Spanish national basketball team and Real Madrid, as well as with senior executives in the business arena, adds: "A coach works behind the scenes. He helps people with leadership responsibilities to improve their abilities through training and advice. It is somebody who listens and through key questions helps you take the right perspective to take decisions. Because sometimes, we cannot see the wood for the trees. A coach works with somebody to help them optimize their resources, helping them remember, order, relate, question, decide, plan, and act, but without judging, or applying their own solutions." Companies see coaches from the world of sport as bringing added value.

"Five leading board members from one of the country's biggest banks were required to work on a project together, but barely knew each other," says Martínez de Murguía. "When they hired me they said: 'You know what high performance is, stressful situations. This is what we need to get these kinds of projects off the ground.' Having performed at the highest levels is highly prized and admired in business, above and beyond one's other skills."

Needless to say, the crisis has prompted many companies to cut back on coaching. "There have been times when things were booming, and there was probably misuse of these kinds of methods," says Buceta. "But this has also helped create a much purer form of coaching. What's more, new avenues are opening up toward personal coaching, as well as in health coaching, education, and even in dealing with personal relationships."

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