Sports Science Monthly – November 2020

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In the November edition we start off looking at elite coaches. Player development pathways are often discussed, but what are the pathways and processes of elite coaches? After that topic, we dive into some analysis of talent identification in jumping events, within-sport specialization, putting ecological dynamics in practice, the Cirque du Soleil, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

The processes and pathways of elite coaches

» Quick summary: Elite coaches were interviewed to better understand their day to day processes and developmental pathways. The coaches identified the need for a strong coaching philosophy, a clear vision of where to go, knowledge of how to get there, the ability to utilize and work with good people, and maintain an appropriate developmental environment—allowing for the development of a clear framework to inform elite coaching behaviors.

Whilst much is often written about athlete development pathways, often far less attention is given as to elite coach’s development, and what their own developmental pathways look like. This is potentially a major limitation; whilst athletes win medals, coaches develop those athletes, and coaches can develop more than one athlete at any given time, as well as across generations—suggesting that adequate coach development can drive efficiencies within any given system. As such, ensuring that the coaches within a given sporting system are optimally developed is massively important for continued success. Similarly, what coaches do on a day to day basis as a means of supporting successes is often not well understood. A 2016 paper from the International Sport Coaching Journal provides some crucial insight to elite coach daily practices and development pathways, and makes for important reading. Here, the authors interviewed 17 serial winning coaches—defined at those having coached athletes to multiple Olympic and/or World Championship medals, or having won elite professional leagues—to better understand their development. The majority of coaches were male (only two were female), and came from a variety of sports and countries. Together, they had won 160 medals/championships between them.

» Learn more: study co-author Sergio Lara-Bercial was a guest on GAINcast 50.

Based on the responses of the coaches, the authors we able to develop a day-to-day practice framework of elite coaches, comprised of:

  1. Coach Philosophy – The coaches all reported having a very clear philosophical standpoint, which provided purpose and direction. Some major themes that emerged included having an athlete-centered approach, optimizing work-life balance, and having a high moral stance. This included an understanding that you coach a human being, and not just an athlete.
  2. Vision – The elite coaches reported having a clear vision of what is necessary to win, and being able to articulate this, as being central to success. Understanding what it takes to win, and how to achieve those aspects, was determined to be crucial. This process also included the ability to simplify complexity, seeing into the future, having a long-term approach, being able to monitor and review performance, and use this information to lead planning. Elite coaches have to be able to identify the constituent parts of success, and fit them together in priority order to “solve the puzzle of success”. Furthermore, the elite coaches identified being able to have clarity around “where the biggest returns in investment” were as an important part of this process. This links to an ability to strategically plan the training process, which I wrote about previously for HMMRMedia here.
  3. People – The selection of athletes and support staff, in line with the desired culture and values of the coach and program, was deemed as crucial for success. Once these people were in place, the development of a shared belief, ongoing management of high performance, and athlete and staff individual management formed important parts of the coach’s daily tasks. From a leadership standpoint, coaches could harness social capital through their past experiences as an athlete or coach, along with their ability to develop a positive bond with their athletes. This positive bond could be cultivated through the ability to hold open and honest communication, empathize with their athletes, being emotionally stable themselves (including being calm under the pressure of performance), and bringing an holistic approach to athlete development. Many of the athletes who worked with these coaches—who were themselves interviewed—reported that these elite coaches tended to work with the athletes as part of an on-going, stable, and collaborative relationship, as opposed to with an authoritarian approach. They also noted that these coaches had developed a flexible approach in their coaching delivery, as opposed to being excessively rigid.
  4. Environment – The elite coaches were able to develop a culture and climate that was a driver of athlete success; this included developing a challenging training environment with high expectations and demands, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of high performance, providing influence to the athletes, and developing stability and dependability of both athlete performance and environment. Part of this included being really clear on the behaviors expected of all during training, and enforcing these behaviors in an on-going manner. This included developing a sense of personal responsibility and accountability in all involved.

The researchers also asked athletes coached by the identified serial winning coaches as to what, in their opinion, differentiated these coaches from other, less successful coaches they had worked with. Whilst recognizing that these elite coaches tended to have higher levels of knowledge, the athletes also highlighted the personal skills of the coaches, identifying their ability to understand the athlete as a person as one of the main differentiators.

From a developmental pathway perspective, the authors again had some really interesting findings. In general, the coaches had strong academic backgrounds; just over half had a sport-related degree, with the majority having attended university in some form. Almost all coaches had the highest level of coaching qualification available within their country. The coaches viewed their academic and coaching qualifications as crucial early on in their coaching journey, giving them the required level of knowledge to support their future success. Many of the coaches were able to identify a mentor-like figure who played a key role in their development process, though typically this was in an informal, organic manner—in which the coach found themselves close to another coach they admired, and tried to learn as much as possible from them.

Similar to elite athletes, the career pathways of elite coaches were diverse, with each finding their own route to the top. Nevertheless, when examining their developmental biographies, some important themes emerge; these included the important role of others (e.g. parents, family, teachers) in shaping them as humans; the developmental environment in which they grew up; and some adversity during their development, such as non-selection for events as an athlete, serious injuries, being from a lower socio-economic standing, or mocked by other coaches. Only one of the coaches had not been an athlete in the sport in which they were coaching; ten had been internationals/professionals, with the others competing at national level. The coaches identified their own sporting “careers” as having had an important influence on their development as a coach, allowing them to develop empathy for the athletes they were currently working with by allowing them to understand what it was like to be in their shoes. In general, the coaches felt they did not reach their potential during their athletic career, and so wanted to “make amends as a coach”.

As a result of this research, the authors identified four key areas of significance for elite coaches:

  1. A well-developed personal philosophy;
  2. A compelling and clear vision of success;
  3. The need to pull together the right people and manage them effectively;
  4. The creation of an environment in which everyone can thrive and realize the vision of success.

These elite coaches also had an unrelenting pursuit of development, in terms of both themselves and their athlete’s. The authors referred to this as a form of “driven benevolence”, which they defined as “the purposeful and determined pursuit of excellence based on an enduring and balanced desire to considerately support oneself and others”. A key driver of driven benevolence is the coach’s personal philosophy and values, which, for coaching effectiveness, must include genuine care for others whilst maximizing their development. This key driver can then provide the grounding for decision making, in line with the coach’s own philosophy and values—providing “cognitive and emotional elasticity” need to make tough, but considerate, decisions that benefit the overall outcome.

Personally, I think this paper should be mandatory reading for all who aspire to be high performance coaches. It outlines the key skills and traits present in a cohort of serial winning coaches, which can act as targets for us all to work towards. It also, via driven benevolence, demonstrates how this can be done ethically and with a person-first approach. I strongly recommend that everyone takes the time to read through the article and digest its findings, the implications of which coaches can harness to drive their own development.

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