Coaching Starting Points


Recall the action item from last week: to explore what principles guide your coaching by reflecting on what good coaching means and what it might looks like to you. A convenient segue to today’s topic, guiding principles and deliberate reflection are two concepts at relevant to coaching as a practice and coach development, and they are central to the foundational considerations, or starting points, that coaches need to make for holistic athlete development. These starting points embody the tenets of Both-And Coaching—but, remember that coaching that fosters athlete empowerment and social responsibility may look different depending on our identity as coaches, the student-athletes with whom we work, and the sport/social environment. These suggestions will only become meaningful when coaches customize them in a way that resonates with their athletes and fits their context. Let these starting points nudge you toward developing your authentic practice.

Starting point #1: Consider your perceptions as a coach. 

Coaches can be leaders in youth development if we have an awareness of what we seek to accomplish; whether or not our goals are possible and worthwhile; and whether we are reaching (or failing to connect with) our players. While coaches may set realistic goals and think that they are acting accordingly, coaches’ perceptions of their behaviors do not always correspond with their actual behaviors—or their players’ interpretation of those actions (Longshore, 2015). Research supports these discrepancies: players’ perceptions of coach behaviors corresponded to observed coach conduct more than coach self-reported actions (Smith, 1987).

Building awareness of your assumptions, values, and actions requires consistent, deliberate reflection. Reflection can occur at different times: in-action (i.e., in the moment); on-action (i.e., within a time frame that allows for actionable change such as after a game); and retrospectively (i.e., outside the time frame of actionable change such as after the season) (Ghaye, 2008). Reflection also takes multiple forms (Gilbert, & Trudel, 2001). Coaches can engage in reflection alone or with others (e.g., peer coaches or mentors). Regardless of when/how coaches reflect, when we (and our coaching community) ask ourselves hard questions, challenge assumptions, and imagine alternatives, we can critically evaluate whether our values, intentions, and behaviors align to best serve our athletes’ development—and our own.

 Starting point #2: Consider the perceptions of your players. 

Players’ perceptions are a crucial for coaches to consider in their practice. Research suggests that youth perceptions of significant others’ behaviors—over the actual and self-reported beliefs and actions of others—are most strongly connected to their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors (Horn & Horn, 2007). Given that players’ perceptions are strongly tied to athlete development, coaches who are attuned to their athletes’ perspective can better identify and respond to each athlete’s needs. Player-specific insight also gives coaches an accurate knowledge of whether youth are interpreting coach feedback and behaviors as intended. Consider when you last asked your athletes what they saw on the field, how they interpreted your corrective instruction, or how they’ve been feeling off the pitch. When coaches have an awareness the diverse perspectives of their players, they can develop a practice that supports each athlete.

Starting point #3: Meet athletes where they are as individuals.

Coaches can promote their athlete’s self-empowerment when they embrace each athlete as a unique individual. Appreciating individual differences allows coaches to exercise athlete-directed behaviors. Studies show that a youth-centered approach supports several developmental outcomes. Coaches who have knowledge of an athlete’s physical ability can structure practices or schedule competition that challenge athletes, but maximizes their learning of physical skills (and other competencies). In sport psych lingo, we call these conditions optimal challenges. Personal improvement and markers of success can support an athlete’s motivation and self-concept, especially those who lack confidence (Smith et al., 1979).

An athlete-centered approach also allows coaches to consider variability in youths’ physical maturity (Horn, 2015). Youth who mature earlier relative to their chronological age experience physical changes that advantage (or disadvantage) them given the demands of their sport. Specifically, coaches may overlook late maturing male athletes and offer them fewer opportunities to develop competencies—despite their actual potential. Early physical maturation may have the reverse effect for females: norms for sport proficiency tend to incline coaches to view the physical changes that girls experience during puberty (e.g., the widening of hips and increase in body fat) as detrimental to performance (Horn et al., 2010). As such, coaches may limit early maturing females’ opportunities to develop physical skills and discourage their participation in athletics.

Knowledge of variations in the rate of cognitive maturation also allows coaches to understand the sources of social influence (i.e., coaches, peers, or parents) that youth use to form perceptions of physical ability and social acceptance. For example, while your U-7 or U-8 players primarily draw information about their ability from adults (i.e., parents and coach), your U-14 players are far more preoccupied with peer feedback and comparison. Meeting athletes where they are helps coaches address these key developmental factors.

There are no guarantees in sport—whether it’s the score at the end of the game or the nature of the life lessons learned.  When coaches have a profound awareness of themselves, their athletes, and their context, they can better ensure that sport is positive developmental context. These starting points invite coaches to develop this awareness. When coaches know themselves and their players’ perspectives they can work with, rather than for, their athletes.

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