The psychological attributes of elite coaches

When we think about sports psychology, we typically think about how we can best prepare athletes to perform at their best in competition, and to be in a state of mental wellbeing across their careers. However, in doing so, we miss out a crucial person in the athlete development process: the coach. Coaches spend a lot of time with their athletes, and so can be a massive influence; they are also, in their own right, “performers” who can (and do) strive to be elite, just like their athletes.

As a result, we need to consider coaches as “performers in their own right”, who, like athletes, have to perform under pressure in an uncertain environment, regularly deal with disappointment and adversity, and are subject to high expectations—from themselves, their athletes, and their employers.

An important paper in this area, published in 2017, explores the psychological attributes underpinning elite sports coaching. To do this, the authors conducted interviews with 12 elite coaches across a variety of sports; the coaches were a mixture of male and female, who regularly worked with national squad members. All the coaches had at least 10 years of coaching experience, and had coached athletes to a medal at major sporting competitions. After analyzing the outcomes of these interviews, the authors were able to identify two general dimensions, which were comprised of twelve higher order and twenty-nine lower order themes—and are which are well worth looking at in a bit more detail.

Key psychological attributes of coaching

The first overarching dimension explored the psychological attributes, with the authors identifying a key set of attributes common amongst the elite coaches:

  • Confidence – the surveyed coaches typically had high levels of confidence, which was illustrated by behaviors such as confident communication, confidence in knowledge and ability, and acting confidently. With regards to communication, a key concept was the ability to communicate clearly with athletes, and not being afraid to make difficult decisions.
  • Attitude – like elite athletes, the coaches typically displayed both a tough attitude (defined as being able to make tough decisions), and an ability to focus on the positives.
  • Resilience – the coaches identified that they had to be able to handle both setbacks and criticism, with coaches identifying the need to develop a thick skin and broad shoulders—again, similar to research in elite athletes.
  • Focus – to be an effective coach, the interviewees identified the importance of being able to focus on the process as well as the future—described by one participant as “just getting on with the job at hand and focusing on what I need to do.”
  • Drive for personal development – These elite coaches demonstrated a clear desire to learn and develop, which was illustrated through their open-mindedness and their appetite for learning. One participant commented that they were “..not a finished article” and couldn’t be “stuck in their ways.” This hunger for knowledge could be very broad, and coaches would learn from a variety of sources and domains, including business, other sports, other roles (e.g. performance directors), aiming to take what was relevant to their own domain.
  • Being athlete-centered – The coaches interviewed identified the need to develop self-sufficient athletes, which required them to encourage independence through asking open questions and encouraging discussion. They also stressed the need to understand individual differences in their athletes, which required them to take an adaptable approach in their coaching.
  • Emotional awareness and understanding – this theme was dictated by the coaches ability to have awareness of both their emotions, and the emotions of others, which included being aware of non-verbal communication.
  • Emotional management – this theme was discussed by all coaches, and was clearly an important aspect of their coaching. Inherent within this was the ability for coaches to control their emotions, the emotions of others (primarily the athletes they were working with), and emotional expression. The coaches identified the need to stay calm under pressure and interpret situations logically as opposed to emotionally, as well as having good knowledge of how to emotionally support athletes.

Developing psychological skills

The coaches also discussed and identified how they developed the psychological skills and attributes identified above. Primarily, these were from three key sources: education, experience, and conscious self-improvement. From an education perspective, this typically occurred through either coaching development courses, or through mentors. Coaching courses that assisted the coaches in understanding how to direct and take ownership of their own personal development—once they possessed sufficient technical knowledge—were viewed as particularly beneficial, as were regular meetings with a mentor.

The coaches also viewed life experience as a positive way to develop their psychological abilities; similar to athletes, these could be developed through both competition and the response to critical incidents. As such, an important part of coach development may be exposure to various competitions, and an understanding that adverse experience may stimulate further growth and development. Finally, the coaches identified the role that reflective practice and self-identification of areas for development played in taking them towards the elite level. This included viewing other coaches in action, and analyzing what was effective and what wasn’t.

Redefining coaching

If we take a holistic look at these themes, it’s clear that elite sports coaches have an exceptional knowledge of themselves and how to both get the best out of themselves and how to drive their own improvement. Furthermore, elite coaches recognize the importance of working with others, be that the athletes they coach, assistant coaches, or team staff. As a result, whilst we might tend to focus on developing the technical skills of coaches, it is also crucial that coaches and coach developers focus on developing inter- and intra-personal knowledge and abilities. Being able to develop the skills and abilities to self-reflect and analyze, along with self-identifying areas for improvement, appear to be hugely important in allowing coaches to develop towards the elite level. Whilst, to many, this might not feel like “coaching”, the results of this study, amongst others, demonstrate just how important it is.