What skills does a good coach need to have? Is there a universal measure to help us find these? Do we even care?
Just as each sport has vastly different physical challenges, the coaching skills required vary from sport to sport and team to team. Some coaching skills are specific the environment, while other skills transcend sport. In this article shall set out some ideas to help us determine which skills might be transferable. This can either help us improve our own practice, or assist us when it comes to recruiting coaches.
Every coaching environment is different, and each requires unique skills. When we think about what skills a coach needs we often default to skills required of professional coaches. In the profession arena you have a myriad of support coaches, technical, tactical, S&C, physiotherapists (who are also coaches, without the label) and position specialists. Operating within that environment requires a whole different set of interpersonal skills than is required to lead an under-11 team.
Or does it? Watching my son’s football coach over a year, I saw him having to plan sessions, arrange fixtures, deal with welfare issues, parents’ complaining, manage the matches, lay out the pitch markings, take subscriptions, and, something that Eddie Jones doesn’t have to do, tie up players’ shoelaces. All of this had to be done in 60 minutes of training, plus match days, unpaid.
The interpersonal skills required, and shown, were: patience, listening, empathy, assertiveness, organised, observant, and adaptability. He is only 24-years old but I thought that was a decent skill-set and was happy for my son to be in that environment: the technical/ tactical sessions were less important to me at that age/stage of training.
As athletes grow older and more competent, more emphasis might be placed on the ‘what’ of coaching: the technical components, analysis and feedback. Specialists and support coaches might be required, but, as Steve Ingham describes in his book How to support a champion, these support staff need to be able to communicate and explain, rather than just measure or test. With more time available, and more staff, there is a danger of a ‘fill-the-day’ mentality so that everyone is busy. This leave the athletes exhausted. The head coach then has to manage ‘too much time’ rather than the under-11 coach’s ‘too-little.’ Time management means different things to those two coaches.
Frank Dick, at the Global Coaching House in 2012, said that he struggled to coach relay teams because of ‘the large numbers involved.’ He was used to coaching 1:1 and so a squad of 4-6 sprinters was difficult for him.
4-6 people! Some of you will be used to coaching 60 people at a time.
The largest group that I have coached is 48, normally I coach 6-16 people at a time, with some individuals. I find organizing and managing 16 children in gymnastics tough: it is a high risk activity so safety is paramount. Coaching 16 rugby or football players outdoors seems a lot easier, there are so many group tasks and so much more space. Although the numbers are the same, the nature of the sport and the age of the participants make the coaching experience very different.
Being a good technical role model is not a transferable coaching skill. Some sports coach’s ‘do’ a lot of the sessions: tennis coaches hit balls, fencing coaches fence for example. They are having to think about their own movements whilst coaching the athlete in front of them. I doubt if this is always necessary–boxing coaches get sparring partners and watch from ringside–but is a cultural norm in many sports. Other sports, like gymnastics, are dead set against ‘doing’ when coaching: all demonstrations have to be done by other gymnasts. At some point, we hope, the athlete’s skill set surpasses the coach’s and so demonstrations become redundant or even embarrassing. They may be necessary for children as they learn from ‘modeling.’
On every coaching course that I have been on, ‘good communication’ is listed as an essential coaching skill. Everyone nods their head, a box is ticked, and we move on. But what does this mean? A sports scientist might have to produce meaningful graphs or scorecards to help athletes and coaches understand the data. A golf coach might have to explain the biomechanics of the swing using a 3D model. A rugby coach might have to shout to make herself heard across the pitch in a howling gale. A hockey coach might have to draw team formations and plays on a whiteboard. A teacher might have to phone, or email a parent. A discus coach might have to sit down and listen to their athlete talk about abuse at home. All of these are valid forms of communication and it is hard to be good at all of them. A young generation of people who have grown up ‘liking’ images and using emojis and txt abbvns may well struggle in a coaching environment where that is unacceptable.
Learning from new environments
While I have not put together a definite list of transferable coaching skills, I hope I have succeeded in outlining some examples of different coaching scenarios. The skills required to be a good coach change with the environment. Some changes are easier to adapt to than others.
My advice to coaches looking to develop their non-technical/tactical skills, is to spend time in different environments and with different sports, or to spend time with a different gender/age group than you are used to. You will quickly learn what works, and what doesn’t, this can then help you when you get back to your own environment. By having a greater repertoire of skills, you can help more of your athletes: they do not all respond the same way to the same coaching.