How do you know if you’re a good coach?

Coaching is a crucial part of taking athletes on their journey towards reaching their potential. But while it’s easy to measure how “good” an athlete is—usually via their absolute or relative performance—understanding how “good” a coach is can be much more challenging.

A coach of an athlete who has success may not be a good coach; they might just have a talented athlete. Conversely, the coach of an athlete who does not have elite success might be an exceptional coach, but would remain relatively unknown due to not being exposed to athletes with the potential to perform at the highest level.

Similarly, athlete “success” is not always as easy to quantify as we think; not all athletes want to be world class, some just want to enjoy training and competition, and so would measure how good their coach is differently. As such, understanding just how effective a coach is represents a challenge across all sports.

Defining the good coach

Sports coaching researchers have been aware of this issue for a while, with perhaps the seminal paper in this field published in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching back in 2009. The authors of this paper, Jean Cote and Wade Gilbert, are bastions of coaching science, and so their insights are always very useful. In their paper, Cote & Gilbert aim to develop an integrated definition of coaching effectiveness and expertise, that draws from a variety of underlying disciplines, including teaching, psychology, and athlete development. In building their definition, Cote & Gilbert note that there are three core components of effective coaching:

  1. Coaching knowledge
  2. Athlete outcomes
  3. Coaching contexts

Core Component #1 – Coaching Knowledge

Expert and effective coaches have a broad knowledge base, built around professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge. From a professional standpoint, expert coaches have strong knowledge across a variety of “ologies”—including pedagogy, psychology, physiology, etc.—along with sport-specific and procedural knowledge.

Whilst the majority of coach education courses seek to develop this professional knowledge, it is becoming increasing clear that this type of knowledge alone is not enough for a coach to be described as expert. Additionally, coaches need to develop their interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge base. Interpersonal knowledge relates to being able to work with others effectively, and deals with aspects such as communication ability and modifying practice to suit different contexts. Intrapersonal knowledge can be thought of as knowledge of self, and refers to the ability of the coach to reflect and evaluate themselves and their practice. Developing inter- and intra-personal knowledge, whilst often neglected at the expense of professional knowledge, is no less important, and indeed the three are linked together.

Core Component #2 – Athlete Outcomes

Whilst tempting to view this in terms of athlete performance—win/loss, or a specific time/distance—and certainly this is the most obvious measure of effectiveness, it’s actually much broader than that. In his previous work, Cote developed the “4 C’s model” of competence, confidence, connection, and character/caring as a means of understanding athlete outcomes.

Sport can be a way of personal development for athletes, allowing them to develop confidence and character, and experience meaningful connections with others. Certainly, sport played this role for me, allowing me to develop confidence as a person and in my abilities, making me (I think) resilient and good under pressure; sport also gave me meaningful relationships that I cherish today. The motivational climate the athlete finds themselves in is largely dictated by the coach, demonstrating the influence of the coach in developing each of the 4 Cs.

Core Component #3 – Coaching Contexts

Coaches work with athletes across a variety of settings, with a variety of different athlete needs and constraints. An appreciation of these settings, and an ability to operate across them, underpins successful coaching. For example, previous research has recognized that coaching for participation (where the key outcomes are often enjoyment and improved health) and coaching for performance (where commitment is often higher, and improved performance is the end goal) are two different contexts, and so should be approached as such. Similarly, coaching youngsters requires a different approach to coaching adults, which in turn may require a different approach to coaching masters athletes. A coach that fails to understand the context in which they are currently operating, and hence fails to adjust their approach, is setting themselves up for failure—or at least ineffectiveness.

Coaching effectiveness

Based on the above, it’s clear that an effective coach needs to have extensive professional, interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge, along with the ability to support and drive athlete outcomes, and being able to understand different contexts in which they find themselves and modifying their behavior to suit. As a result, Cote & Gilbert define effective coaching as:

The consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection, and character is specific coaching contexts.”

Building on this, we can see that an expert coach (i.e. one with strong knowledge) may not be an effective coach if they neglect to take into account their context and athlete outcomes. With so often a focus on developing coaching knowledge and supporting athlete performance, we can see that the needs of a coach are broader than this, as are measures of athlete success. As coaches, we neglect these aspects at our peril.