By now, even Canadians who don’t follow sports have heard that 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu of Mississauga, Ont. dispatched reigning Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 to win the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Sunday. On her way to victory, Andreescu received some inspired coaching from Sylvain Bruneau, who is being celebrated as knowing exactly what his athlete needed to hear as she walked the razor’s edge between victory and defeat. And though runners don’t usually have the option of consulting with their coach in the middle of a race, runners and coaches can also benefit from this free lesson.

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Lucia Mahoney, a certified holistic nutritionist and coach of the Toronto Harriers, agrees. “I definitely subscribe to the notion of a coach being the voice of calm support,” she says. “Many athletes are very driven and tend to be hard on themselves, so the last thing they need is another harsh voice in their heads.”

Here’s what went on between Andreescu and Bruneau during that time-out, from the point at which we can make out their conversation, thanks to CBC Sports:

Bruneau: It becomes a little bit… mind over body.

Andreescu: My feet are burning. I need to change my socks, or… I can hardly move out there.

Bruneau: You know how strong you are. You know how strong you are, mentally and physically, and now, it’s true, you need to push. You’re right. You’re going to need to push through it. You’re going to need to stay strong under adversity, but that’s OK. That’s what you want. You welcome competition. 

Andreescu: I want this so bad.

Bruneau: OK, that’s good. Perfect. I like to hear that. So go out there, and keep competing, every single ball. Every single point. You get your… keep working her. Keep working her arm. [referring to Kerber]

Bruneau didn’t tell Andreescu what to do, or suggest certain tactics. Perhaps most importantly, he didn’t deny how she felt. He just listened and encouraged, when listening and encouragement and support were what he sensed she needed in that moment, as she struggled with pain and discouragement. 

No one would deny that Andreescu’s desire to win was the most important part of her success. But many observers have noted Bruneau’s reaction. As John McEnroe responded to Chris Evert in the broadcast booth, “Her coach did an outstanding job during that changeover, listening to her, acknowledging her, saying ‘yeah, I know you’re tired. You’re gonna have to push through this, like you never have done before.'”

Even Serena Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, tweeted about it.

Andreescu told TSN, referring to Bruneau: “He has incredible words that are very inspirational and that really give me chills… I really needed that moment, and it definitely helped.” 

Here’s how runners can benefit: as Mahoney says, “At mile 20 the negative voices tend to creep in, so if my athletes can remember to embrace the discomfort that peak performance often demands, I’d like them to hear my voice gently yet very firmly reassuring them that yes, they can do this. You can’t ignore those negative thoughts completely, but you can gently push them aside and replace them with positive and empowering ones. That really is the crux of my role as their coach–to help them navigate those tough moments so that they can find their own strength to strive towards their potential.”  

Kevin Smith of Toronto’s Marathon Dynamics, Inc. comments that a top-level tennis player’s coach typically has many fewer athletes in his/her stable than a running coach, and knows that athlete’s psyche, emotions and character considerably better. He also cautions that different athletes are motivated by different approaches. “I change my approach more times than a chameleon changes colour on any given day, since there are so many different triggers and head spaces for different runners,” Smith notes. “So coaches really have to read their athletes well to determine how ‘hard line’ or ‘soft supportive’ they are going to be in trying to incite effort or inspire performance.”

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