Sports Science Monthly – April 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. This month’s topic lines up with the April site theme on HMMR Media: coaching excellence. We share some research on serial winning coaches, pursuing mastery in coaching, as well as other topics like exercise dependence and genetic testing.

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

Understanding serial winning coaches

Quick Summary – Serial Winning Coaches (SWCs) are a group of coaches from a variety of sports who have had sustained success. Given their success, understanding commonalities between them might be useful in allowing us to better understand some of the skills, abilities, and traits required to become a successful coach. A major project from a couple of years ago did just this, identifying that SWCs were highly curious, lifelong learners who drove success through vision, values, and environment.

Professional sports coaching, at least in track and field, is a relatively new field; it is only in the last 20-30 years that it has become possible to earn a living from being a coach. Prior to this, the vast majority of the coaches of elite athletes were “amateurs”, in as much as they tended to have other, full-time jobs, and worked with their athletes in somewhat of a hobby format. Because of this later move into professionalism, there is generally a lack of understanding as to what makes a successful coach, in terms of shared personality traits and behaviours. That’s why studies in this area have the potential to be hugely useful, as they can guide us in better understanding the type of people who become successful elite coaches, and what behaviours/traits they share—and, if these behaviours/traits are able to be learned, potentially shape the development of coaches towards these norms.

Sergio Lara-Bercial and Cliff Mallett are two researchers who have done extensive, exceptional work in this area. A key area of interest for them is in Serial Winning Coaches (SWC)—those coaches who have repeated and sustained success in their sport—and, in a book chapter published in 2016 (open access), they summarise their key findings. During their research, Lara-Bercial and Mallett recruited a sample of 14 coaches who had coached athletes to 128 gold medals and major trophies. The coaches came from diverse backgrounds; they were from eleven different countries, and coached across 10 different sports. Alongside this coaching cohort, Lara-Bercial and Mallett also interviewed twenty athletes who had won a gold medal or title with one of those coaches within the last five years, and who had worked with that coach for at least a two year period.

All of the coaches were male, which I think is important to consider for two reasons. Firstly, it means that we should perhaps only view the results as being applicable to males; there is the possibility that the personality, traits, and behaviours of successful female coaches would be different. In addition, it potentially points to a gender imbalance in the coaches of elite athletes, which could be due to stereotyping or reduced opportunities—and represents something that coach developers and National Sporting Organisations should be aware of. There is the potential that, with 50% of the population being excluded, people with the potential to become elite coaches are not being optimally developed and given the required opportunities for success. Of the SWC coaches in this study, the average age was 55, with an average coaching career duration of 25 years. All of the coaches were married, and all but one had children. Similarly, the vast majority—thirteen out of the fourteen recruited—were university educated. Eight of the SWCs had competed internationally in their sport, whilst five had competed at the national level. The coaches all underwent questionnaires to measure their personality-types and behavioural preferences, and all were interviewed by the researchers. The results make for very interesting reading.

First, the SWCs scored highly on measures of conscientiousness and extraversion, and low on measures of neuroticism. This generally matched with how the athletes rated their coaches, suggesting that the self-reported survey results matched real-world, lived experiences. As a result, the researchers suggest that SWC are typically optimists, with good levels of impulse control, and typically proactive go-getters. This means that SWCs typically take life in their stride, have a positive, future-focused orientation, and have a clear vision of what needs to be done to drive success; they’re also willing to work hard to achieve this success. I touched on some of these factors in the November 2020 edition of Sport Science Monthly, exploring how SWCs drive the success of their athletes, and, for interested readers, this might be worth refreshing in your memory.

SWCs were also able to deal with stress in an adaptive manner, by focusing on solving their problems, as opposed to ruminating and dwelling on the issue at hand. Whilst they certainly feel anger and frustration, they are able to control this, and, importantly, even suppress it and utilise the negative feelings to drive their own performance. The SWCs also reported enjoying discussions with others, and were attracted to educate both themselves and their peers. They tended to be confident decision makers, and were able to motivate and lead people. A really important aspect, in my opinion at least, is that the SWCs identified as being curious individuals with a thirst for knowledge, and viewed themselves as lifelong learners.

Lara-Bercial and Mallett then attempted to understand what motivated the SWCs to do what they do. The SWCs were generally approach-orientated; they tended to have a positive outlook and a strong sense of purpose, whilst striving for achievement. This correlates with what was discussed above, and was associated with reporting being energized, having fun, helping athletes, and being enthusiastic towards their job. The SWCs were generally highly motivated by self-mastery and development (e.g., wanting to be challenged in their thinking, or learning something new every day – this consistent reporting of permanent on-going education was ever present), as well as being committed to the service of others for a clear purpose. The coaches were also motivated by success, but this wasn’t necessarily extrinsic; for example, helping an athlete be the best they could be, regardless of achievement level, was viewed as an important part of their work. This required a strong task focus with a clarity of purpose, evidenced through clear daily goals. Finally, the SWCs reported a desire for holistic development of athletes, viewed through statements such as “have the athletes move one step closer to their performance”, and “build athletes’ confidence daily”.

Overall, from a personality perspective, the SWCs described themselves as having a strong work ethic, being confident, curious and thirsty for knowledge, socially competent, and having a positive approach to problem solving. These traits were also identified by the athletes coached by the SWCs, suggesting a matching of personal beliefs and behaviours. The SWCs also believed that coaching needed to be athlete-centred and holistic, that coaches required high moral standards, and that sustained success required an adequate work-life balance; again, the athletes of these coaches agreed that the coaches exhibited these behaviours. Finally, the SWCs identified their key skills as being effective communication, teaching, planning, managing, decision making, and relationship building.

The researchers then examined what it is that SWCs actually do on a day-to-day basis. Again, I wrote about this in-depth in the November 2020 Sport Science Monthly article referenced earlier, but in brief this is comprised of three key areas:

  1. Vision – SWCs develop and enact a clear philosophy, can simplify complexity, have thorough action planning, and are constantly reviewing and adjusting.
  2. People – SWCs select the right athletes and staff, and build shared beliefs and buy-in.
  3. Environment – Finally, SWCs influence upwards, to their managers or organisation, create their group culture, and provide stability and dependability to their athletes and staff.

So what does all this research tell us? Lara-Bercial and Mallett identify that high performance coaching is highly relational, with the coach spending time managing the performance team. Emotional intelligence is a crucial aspect of this management, as it supports interpersonal communication, but also drives knowledge of self—a crucial part of driving the SWCs towards what they need to learn next. This emotional intelligence also allows coaches to adapt their behaviour towards each individual, and what they need at a given time. SWCs tended to possess a transformational leadership style; success at the highest level was viewed as being able to transform athletes into self-driven, self-regulated, and self-reliant actors, making the athlete-coach relationship more of a partnership as opposed to hierarchical. Finally, SWCs are highly self-aware; again, this enables them to understand areas for their own development, as well as preventing behaviours that may harm the performance of their athletes. As a result, being able to have periods of self-reflection and introspection are crucial for coaches in their development towards being world class.

As a final part of the study, Lara-Bercial and Mallett explored how SWCs developed their craft as elite coaches. The SWCs strongly valued their formal education—both academic and sports-specific—as the initial platform on which their subsequent knowledge could be built upon. All but one were educated to university level. One key benefit to come out of this formal education was that the SWCs reported it allowed them to develop their own thinking tools, enabling them to better understand and interpret events that occurred. Alongside this formal education, SWCs also emphasised the importance of non-formal (such as clinics) and informal (such as conversations with other coaches) learning opportunities. All of this harks back to a key trait of SWCs—their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Alongside this, the SWCs reported that conversations with athletes were crucial in allowing them to obtain “insider information” on how they were developing, and the needs of their sport. Again, a reminder that self-development, along with the identification of appropriate learning opportunities, is an important part of your development as a coach.

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