Seeking, accumulating, and connecting knowledge in coaching

Coaching is a dynamic, complex, and often chaotic process. Coaches often get caught in the continuous cycle of planning, delivering, and reviewing. At times it is essential for the coach to step back and hit pause to question this process. One question that the coach might have after a succession of those cycles is: “How do we getter better as a team?” This question might evolve into “How do I get better as a coach?” or “How do I get better as a person”? As we will explore in this article, the learning process of a coach is not only based on acquiring new knowledge and habits but also changing them.

What is an effective coach?

Before we can look at becoming a better coach, it helps to take a step back and define what a good coach actually is. Too often, coaches are judged by their win-loss record, or how many of their athletes were able to make it to the pros or bring home gold medals. But is this how we should evaluate the quality of a coach?

The definition of effective coaching by Jean Côté and Wade Gilbert is an excellent starting point. In this seminal paper, they defined quality or effective coaching as comprising three types of knowledge:

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

Professional knowledge relates to the two main functions of coaching, which are (a) to design quality training sessions and (b) to guide the athletes to optimal performance. Professional knowledge is the foundation for “what to coach” but alone, it is not sufficient to become an effective coach.

Interpersonal knowledge relates to the quality of individual and group interactions. It is the coach’s role to manage the various parts of the performance puzzle to improve sport performance in an athlete or team and to be successful, the coach needs to be considered as an orchestrator. The coach must have awareness of each unique athlete and how to work with others in a sport environment.

Intrapersonal knowledge is all about self-awareness, reflection and striving for continuous improvement. This capacity to reflect and to learn from experience or an event is deemed central to coaching effectiveness.  

Together, these three types of knowledge make up the essential knowledge needed for coaches to become experts in their field but there is no guarantee they will ever reach this level. However, most coaches are not be satisfied with the status quo and are continually searching for additional learning opportunities.

Coaches are knowledge seekers, but where can they find it?

We know from the scientific literature on coaches education that serial winning coaches are committed to learning, are curious, have insatiable thirst for knowledge, and have desire to be better and to know more. For all coaches alike, there are three types of learning opportunities for self-development or what Gilbert and Pierre Trudel refer to as learning situations:

  1. Mediated learning situations;
  2. Unmediated learning situations; and
  3. Internal learning situations.

» Related content: the April 2021 Sports Science Monthly dives into some research on serial winning coaches.

In mediated learning situations, the learning context and material is regulated or chosen by others and serves as a springboard for coach education. Examples include seminars, clinics, university degrees and certifications programs overseen by National Governing Bodies (NGBs).

In unmediated learning situations, the coach will decide the type of information he/she wants to learn. Examples include reading various articles and books on various topics, which can relate to coaching or not, surfing the internet or discussing with peers. These unmediated learning situations may arise when a coach identifies an area in which he/she lacks knowledge or understanding.

With internal learning situations, the coach re-organizes his/her knowledge with the help of a mentor, a coach or through reflective practice. In this case, reflective practice facilitates the examination of the coach’s experience through questioning of his/her whole self within the context of practice to better understand or improve his/her practice.

Historically, learning was mainly viewed as the accumulation of knowledge. A useful analogy is that of building a brick wall. In mediated learning situations for example, the course instructor provides the coach with the information so that he/she can construct his/her ‘bricks of knowledge’. It is assumed at this point that the instructor knows how these “bricks” will fit the pattern of the wall and that the accumulation of enough “bricks of knowledge” can help the coach build a building.

It is however just recently that a shift started to take place where learning is now described as a “network of knowledge, feelings and emotions.” The idea is thus to view learning as a process of changing conceptions, as creating links between the current knowledge, ideas, theories, and feelings. These links are shaped by the coach’s experience, his/her coaching context, values, etc. With this paradigm shift, we will hopefully see changes in how coach education programs and other teaching initiatives better support coaches in their role as lifelong learners.

Conclusion

Over the years, coaching has evolved to become more pedagogical, more technical, and certainly more demanding of multi-tasking competencies. Being a coach is not an easy task and surely requires more than just the knowledge of method and content, or the X’s and O’s if you want. Coaches need to demonstrate interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge as well as the capacity to learn from their own experience as part of their own coaching. Only then can we evaluate their coaching effectiveness.