What does good coaching mean to you?

This week I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Wade Gilbert of Fresno State University deliver the Kristen Marie Gould Endowed Lecture on Sport for Children and Youth at Michigan State University. Here are my two take-home messages from his presentation, “Become The Coach You Always Wanted to Play for”:

TAKE-HOME 1: Use principles instead of best practices to guide your coaching.

The interaction between coach, athlete, and context makes coaching a complex science and dynamic craft. What works for one coach with a particular athlete in a given situation may not hold true in another coach-athlete-context scenario. (This reality smacks me in the face every time I go from soccer practice with my U-14 girls to my U-8 boys.) As coaches—especially those just starting out—we often coach the way we’ve been coached or try to emulate the exemplar in our profession. We rely on these models, because we assume that we can distill quality coaching to one best style or set of practices. While drawing from the example of other coaches can be useful, we need to give ourselves room to discover our own authentic approach—one that corresponds with our individual strengths, the demands of the context, and the needs of our athletes. Instead of a one-size-fits-all style or rigid prescription of best practices, general principles can give coaches space for self-discovery. Principles can guide coaches to customize their own practices: to unpack what good coaching looks like for them given their athletes and context.

TAKE-HOME 2: Good coaching requires deliberate reflection.

One way for coaches to actively engage in their process of self-discovery is through deliberate reflection. To more firm grasp our identity and objectives as coaches, we need to ask questions, challenge assumption, and imagine alternatives. Coaches can start by reflecting on who we are and the notions we hold about quality coaching. Consider these two prompts:

  1. Describe “good” coaching in one word.
  2. What does “good” coaching look like to you (given your athletes and context)?

These prompts are simple, but thought-provoking. For some choosing one word might be frustrating; for others, one word might readily come to mind. (Once you come up with your word, feel free to list your descriptor in the response section of this post!) Regardless, this exercise helps you concretely define—at least in part—your coaching philosophy. With a word to characterize your approach, question #2 pushes you to identify specific behaviors that embody good coaching. Along with considering what your one-word descriptor looks like in your practice, I’d also challenge you to imagine what it might look like for other coaches.

Time spent reflecting what good coaching means to you and what it looks like to you (and others) enables critical engagement in your own coach development process; conveniently, this exercise also sets the stage for next week’s post! Stay tuned for coaching starting points (i.e., foundational considerations) to help guide coaches to support their athletes’ holistic development.

4 thoughts on “What does good coaching mean to you?

  1. Great prompts, Jill! Thanks for sharing. I think that reflection is something we as coaches often as our players for, but don’t always hold ourselves to the same standards. I have found that exercises or situations in which we must articulate what we do as coaches everyday and, more importantly, why we do it, are more challenging than I anticipated. I mean, it’s my life and my passion…shouldn’t it be easy to explain it to others?

    My word for good coaching is “cultivating”. Good coaches create a platform for their players that facilitates a process of both individual and collective growth. When I am at my best, I am not giving the players the answers or performing the wanted task for them, but rather planting the seeds for them to grow with their own efforts and applications.

    I work mostly at the collegiate level, but also with a couple of youth teams, and regardless of the age, I find it of the utmost importance to allow my players to learn through lessons of the sport. If I am constantly shifting their gears for them, putting my own foot on the pedal, and directing their every movement, how will they learn to thrive on their own? Good coaching, looks like someone who will provide their players with the resources to succeed and the mindset to grow, but will allow them to pull the trigger. Letting go of some of that control, especially as a young coach, is difficult, but especially rewarding when you can see an athlete transform under your guidance.

    Just a few thoughts!

    Thanks again Jill!


  2. Leigh— Thanks so much for sharing your coaching insights. I love your eloquent message, “When I am at my best, I am not giving the players the answers…, but rather planting the seeds for them to grow with their own efforts and applications.” A related complexity that I grapple with (given that you coach different ages/contexts), is how coaches can plant these seeds and, to borrow your word, cultivate that responsibility/agency in a developmentally appropriate way. That is, what does athlete problem-solving, decision-making, and choice LOOK like for a U-7 player different from a U-17 player? Again, appreciate the insight—more food for thought.


  3. Jill, it was a delight meeting you tonight. Came home and dove into your blog. I’m looking forward to enjoying more of it. Randy


    1. Randy – It was a pleasure to meet you! I look forward to our future conversations on coaching. I was inspired by your passion and selfless commitment to helping young people grow through sport!


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