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What shall we work on first, your strengths or your weaknesses?

By sports coach UK research Consultant Michael Hopkinson

I was recently lucky enough to attend a talk by Dr Ken Hodge at York University. Dr Hodge has worked extensively with the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, studying what is known as motivational climate.

Motivational climate is the environment the coach creates via their interpersonal approach with their players. It’s far too detailed to go into in this blog, but well worth looking into if you have a few minutes spare. They did have an 85% win ratio between 2004 and 2011 after all!

Dr Hodge talked about a key feature of motivational climate called expectation of excellence. This is the idea that players should work hard on their strengths, not only their weaknesses. As Wayne Smith, Assistant Coach of the All Blacks said, “if you want to be the best in the world you have to get better at what you are already good at.”

The All Blacks coaches talked a lot about the players being human and the importance of recognising this in their training methods. So, if they are practicing things they are already good at – their strengths – they are doing things well, which makes them feel good and happy, and people always perform better when they feel good and happy.

You might say this all sounds fairly obvious but I’d often assumed the best players in the world spend the majority of their time focusing on their weaknesses, as their strengths are already so good.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Just a day or so after Dr Hodge’s talk I was reading about Luke Donald. After falling from being the top ranked golfer in the world to current number 37, he decided last month to go back to his original golf coach. He’d changed coach after reaching the top of the rankings as he wanted to work on his weaknesses, most notably his power and accuracy off the tee.

However, he’s now decided to go back to his original coach so he can focus on what got him to the top of the game in the first place, his strengths. Here’s a few quotes from the article I was reading:

Under Goss (original coach), Donald focused on the things he already did well: short game, bunker play, putting. With Cook (new coach), he turned his attention to the opposite, employing his big muscles and using less wrist and more turn in his swing.

“I lost sight of what made me successful. I focused too much on what I perceived as my weakness and forgot about my strength” (Donald)

You could say he’s reverted to the expectation of excellence in an attempt to get back to being the best in the world.

So is focusing on your strengths the way forward? Well everyone is different, but if it’s good enough for the All Blacks and Luke Donald then it’s good enough for me. I just need to analyse my game a bit more to find out what my strengths are!

Finally, on the subject of being human, I’ll also leave you with the following thought. If you don’t think elite athletes need to feel good about themselves to perform well then consider this. Russell Henley, a young PGA tour golfer you may not have heard of yet (but you will in time) recently said he has a reminder on his phone which sounds at noon every day with the words – you are the best putter in the world.