• Hugh Lawrence

Coaching belief systems (1)

A coaching colleague recently shared some thoughts about coaching philosophy. He was exploring some ideas he’d often used sourced from a famous tennis coach. The ideas were centred on getting the best out of the athlete as early as possible and avoiding ‘wasted time’. This was only part of the conversation, but it got me thinking about how important it is to write down what you believe and why you believe it.

I’m a teacher-coach which has shaped my thinking and so I wrote down what I believe today.

First, coaching is like teaching. Despite over fifty years of serious study for the latter and centuries for the former, both defy precise terminology. A range of conceptual frameworks for both makes it impractical to establish a universal theory to explain effectiveness in terms of expertise. By way of examples:

  • some coaches define their effectiveness by win-loss records

  • some teachers define their effectiveness by success in examination and/or education qualifications

  • some coaches define their success by the ‘quality’ of humanness their athletes display – what the late great John Wooden describes as ‘competitive greatness’

  • some teachers define their success by the life success of their students.

Most thinkers about the art and science of coaching do agree on just that: it’s an art and a science. The question then is, what precisely do you mean by ‘art’ and ‘science’? Just to amplify my point about the lack of agreement, researcher Wade Gilbert pointed out that a 2009 issue of the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching contained five papers on what made up ‘good’ coaching, the theme of that issue. The titles of these articles contained the characteristics of coaching: successful, experienced, elite, expert, and great, and no two studies used the same criteria to identify their participants. So, where to from here for those of us trying to provide a succinct definition or concept to those we wish to mentor?

I start from a rather simple idea that whatever we (coaches) aim to achieve, at the very least we expect a positive change that draws the athlete deeper into an understanding of, confidence to execute and greater expertise in the physical, technical, tactical and mental elements of the sport. This is not dissimilar to my use of the classic definition of education – to draw the student deeper into a body of knowledge.

Both examples are high level, and qualified by saying that we try to achieve both or either in the context of the athlete’s/student’s life. So what gives me confidence in the high level definition? Two main reasons. First, if high level definitions are correct, then other more narrowly focused definitions will cascade from the top at an appropriate level. This is an intervention logic approach that establishes a long term outcome – the done statement, for example ‘competitive greatness’ or ‘a better person’, a ‘champion’. Second, that no matter what we think about an athlete, what judgments we make or opinions we pass, athletes compete for their own reasons.

All we can do as coaches, is help them achieve their goals in life through sport. In many cases, despite success athletes remain in search of their life goals. We should help by putting our work to make them better athletes in the context of them being better people. It’s no accident that John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success continues to have such currency and has influenced the thinking of so many coaches – including this writer.

So far in this rather long introduction, I haven’t mentioned hitting a ball, pulling the oar, breaking the line, shooting the three or lifting a total. Nor have I referenced learning outcomes for chemistry, maths or French. The great privilege of my coaching and teaching careers has been that (a) they overlapped; and (b) my sense of success was only partly achieved by my athletes’/students’ results. It was always more about them being better people. And to that end, my focus on technical and tactical excellence, physical and mental conditioning, meant that the route to athlete/student success was paved with competitive/educational success. I think the term we’re looking for is athlete-centred coaching!

The next issue to address and, I suspect, unwittingly, where much of the debate really centres, is what do we mean by knowledge. Rather than some form of ‘pointy headed’ debate, this is a central matter. For instance, if your whole experience as an athlete is to live your identity to its fullest through sport, then what you need to ‘know’ may be entirely different to what technical skills your coach might be emphasising. So for the athlete, the coaches technical input might be a means to two different ends.

Some coaches distinguish between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Researchers Nash and Collins in 2011 adopted this view as poorly-defined problems in coaching have to line-up with ‘real world’ decision-making. Next post? Coaching knowledge – art and science.

(Photo source: Quotefancy)


International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 2009, 4(1)

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