Coach as Teacher, Teacher as Learner: Rethinking the Coaching Process  

The Gist: Coaching is a relational process through which coaches and athletes learn from one another and develop together. Coaching does not simply constitute actions that coaches do to athletes for desired outcomes. When we understand coaching in this way, coaches can better ensure that our actions best fit our athletes and context. In doing so, we support our effectiveness and development.  

            Preseason is wrapping up. As coaches, we’ve spent the last few weeks using every minute, and making every effort, to teach the fundamentals of our sport to new players and hone the skills of our returners. We’ve spent a ton of time teaching. Renowned UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, is known for likening coaching to teaching. I’d agree with Coach Wooden: coaches are teachers. I’d expand on this notion of coach as teacher though (and I don’t think Coach Wooden would disagree), careful to define what a teacher is and does. Teaching, like coaching, is not a static act. The role of teacher or coach, and designation as, more or less, “expert” (or at least experienced) does not make us all-knowing or infallible. Teachers and coaches are also learners; and coaching, like teaching, is a relational process. The following quotation from Bell Hooks, an American scholar, quite beautifully sums up this perspective:

 “Any classroom [sport context] that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers [coaches] grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable when encouraging students [athletes] to take risks.”[1]

Coaching (or teaching as Hooks states) does not just consist of actions that coaches do to athletes to impact their experience and development. This view misconstrues the coaching process as one directional and coach as sole change agent. Doing so is problematic because we reduce athletes to passive recipients of outcomes, and ignore how athletes are active agents. How athletes act and interact can not only impact a coach’s future actions, but contribute to their own development, our coach development, and coach-athlete relationship.[2]

A current study of mine offers initial support for coaching as a reciprocally influential process in which both athlete and coach are learners. This project consists of interviews with coaches who have been nationally recognized (through joint nominations from players, parents, and administrators within their sport community) for their ability to develop young athletes not just as players but people. My aim is to examine the unique developmental pathways of these coaches, but also identify what shared experiences they designate as important to their growth. Conversation with these exemplar coaches center on one overarching question:

What experiences/events do you view as most significant to your coach development?

I’d like to share a few powerful anecdotes and insights from coaches that highlight common themes that cut across their stories. Note that findings are preliminary (and based on 15 interviews, or about half of the coaches I plan to sample). One of my frustrations with academia is the glacial pace at which research is published—and, in my opinion, subpar efforts to translate knowledge for public use. This is my attempt to more expeditiously bridge the research-practice gap, but take these findings with this caveat in mind!

While we might often think that our role as coaches is to instruct, when asked to speak about a meaningful change, or “tipping point”, in their coaching practice, most  exemplar coaches spoke of instances in which they developed because of their athletes. That is, athletes were instrumental to their coach development. Below is one memorable moment that a head coach of a high school football team offered:

“So I came in. I was laid back and loose to begin with because that is just how I am as a person. Anyone coming through this arena in their first year who has been around coaches your whole life, though, they are going to be a bit of a disciplinarian. You are going to be a little bit tougher. So, I was a little tougher at the start of my career. We went to our third game of the year and it was pouring rain. Our kids were getting off the bus, and taking their warm-up jog around the field. There was a puddle that ran the entire length of the 30-yard line—sideline to sideline of the grass field. The guys came around the corner, three of them, in a full sprint, and dove like slip-n-slide style right through the puddle. I had already been fired up because I didn’t think we got off the bus ready to play. I didn’t think we were focused. I lost my mind a little bit at that moment—but then we went out and played the best game we had played up to that point. That was a kind of ‘tipping point’ in my coaching; it was a big moment. It taught me that sometimes, I need to let go and let these kids be who they are.”

This is just one notable, everyday example of what I might consider a “coachable moment” flipped—one in which athletes help guide a coach’s process and growth. That athletes are instrumental to coach development, however, is a common thread running through many of these interviews. Here are a few practical insights and illustrative narratives from other coaches regarding how they deliberately give themselves room to grow—to learn from, and with, their athletes.

Coaching Insight 1: Encourage players to ask “why”.

“My biggest challenge [as an athletic director] is working with coaches who are not used to giving kids input, dialoguing, and having discussions with players. For example, we had a coach here and he had all these specific rules. The kids used to ask him every day why they had all those rules. He came to me and said, ‘the kids are being a pain in the butt’. I told him, ‘They aren’t being a pain; that is how they are taught in our classrooms. They are not being sarcastic; they genuinely what to know why. If you tell them that they are wearing two pairs of socks because it prevents blisters, they are going to be fine. They are never going to ask about it again. If you are just telling them that you want them to do those things because you are saying to do it, then you are going to lose them. It was hard to get that coach to understand this perspective because he’d never done it—given kids a say or explained ‘why.’ But, when you are giving kids input, they’ll buy in and you’re going to get more out of them.

Coaching Insight 2: Invite players to give feedback.

“One practice that I integrated into my coaching a few years ago is— I meet with graduating players at the end of the year as an exit conversation. I ask for feedback from players, questions like, ‘Am I too nice at times? How do you respond when I yell versus when you’ve had a coach who screams all the time? What could I have done to be a better coach for you?’. This really helps me learn from my players—to learn what I can do better for next season.

These coaching narratives point to crucial moments when players in obvious, and subtle, ways push coaches to critically reflect on “the way they do things”. Some coaches might interpret these interactions as challenges to their practice. On the contrary, our development, and that of our athletes, depends on how willing we are to embrace the discomfort that we may feel in these instances. Athlete are active contributors. If we are open to dialogue with players, and embrace that our athletes have just as much (if not more) to teach us as we do them, that’s not only a better recipe for player buy-in,but such an approach allows our practice to evolve and adapt to best fit our athletes and context. I am not suggesting that a coaching philosophy or arsenal of “best” practices rooted in our practical knowledge and experience are inherently problematic. I am suggesting that coaches consistently, intentionally examine, rather than blindly adopt (or maintain) certain behavior patterns. What can undermine our coaching process (and effectiveness) is failing to question why these practices are in place and whether they fit with our player-context-time situation.

What do these interviews mean for my coaching?

These conversations have guided me to take a BIG reflective step back and reexamine my coaching. One reflective cue I’ve started using in my practice is to examine the “why” (i.e., purpose) anytime I catch myself thinking/talking through a coaching tactic using “it’s just how I’ve (or we’ve) always done it”. Whether it’s a training activity, game strategy, or team tradition, that phrase has become my “red flag”—a signal for me to further question what I’m doing. Again, I don’t want to entirely knock tradition. I’m actually sucker for it—for how longstanding rituals, big and small, can connect individuals to a shared experience and collective purpose. Some coaching practices, like meaningful traditions, may endure across space and time because they are effective. As coaches, though, let’s not use tradition as reason to let our way of coaching go unquestioned.  Careless conformity to coaching norms within our prevailing coach community poses a similar danger. Instead, we should use enduring traditions or established “best” practices within our coaching circles as opportunities for us to interrogate if, and how, they’ll really work for us—for each athlete, in our specific context, right now. Critically questioning our coaching is a challenging, but necessary task. Doing so can offer us more compelling evidence to support our approach—and coaching process.

[1]This passage was taken from Teaching to Transgress: Education As The Practice Of Freedom. I highly recommend taking a deeper dive into her work on engaged pedagogy. Her writing has made an indelible impact on my approach coaching and teaching.

[2]Horn, Lox, and Labrador (2011) offer some insight into the reciprocal nature of the coach-athlete relationship, though sport psychology research has largely adopted a unidirectional perspective of the coaching process and coach-athlete dynamic (Horn, 2008; Poczwardowski et al., 2002).

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