Sports Science Monthly – June 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this month’s edition we look at research on transitioning from athlete to coach, developing psychological resilience, creating a safe learning environment, pacing, and much more.

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

Transitioning from athlete to coach

Quick Summary – Moving from an elite athlete into coaching can be a difficult journey; this paper explores some of the key challenges, and provides examples of how successful athlete to coach transition schemes have managed these difficulties.

In high performance sport, many elite coaches were, at one time in their lives, athletes. Their level of their achievement as athletes may have been quite varied, but the contextual knowledge and understanding they gained through their athletic experiences appear to set them up well for a later career in coaching. As many athletes go through the process of moving into coaching, there has been increased interest in the last couple of years in better understanding the athlete-to-coach transition processes. There are a couple of areas of focus which make understanding this process important; firstly, moving from an athlete to a coach often comes against the backdrop of a major upheaval in the athlete’s life, as they deal with retirement from sport, and all of its associated potential issues. Secondly, this transition can often happen very quickly—typically in far shorter periods of time than where elite coaches build their craft over a number of years—and often with minimal levels of official support.

Why might athletes make good coaches? As I wrote in a previous article for HMMRMedia, effective coaching is comprised of contextual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and skills. Athletes, throughout their career, certainly go about developing their knowledge in these areas, in a variety of different ways. If I look back at my own career—and I’m definitely not a coach—I had coaches who had unbelievable amounts of knowledge and experience. One of my coaches had a World Record holder and Olympic Champion twenty years before I was born; another had developed their knowledge and experience in different countries and settings. As such, I was exposed to a variety of different experiences and aspects of knowledge. In addition, throughout my career I worked closely with high level sports medicine and sports science personnel, all of whom passed on something to me, allowing me to build my multi-disciplinary understanding. I also travelled extensively, was exposed to different athletes and coaches ways of doing things, and even competed at elite level in a different sport, which further enhanced my knowledge and understanding. It’s hard to think that, spending a minimum of five hours per day, pretty much every day, being exposed to people at this level wouldn’t provide you with a high level of contextual understanding and knowledge.

However, this knowledge and contextual understanding is just one aspect of being a coach, and, quite rightly, people are weary of the old “was a player, now a coach” mentality. Whilst being an athlete can prepare you for coaching through knowledge accumulation and experience, it perhaps doesn’t always give you some of the other skills of effective coaching; matching your knowledge to the context in which you find yourself, self-reflection and development (although I’d argue that many athletes are good at this), and pedagogical skills. The challenge, for myself and others involved in sport, is how to best prepare and support athletes who want to become coaches for their transition into coaching, with previous studies identifying issues such as a lack of motivation, lack of coaching-specific education, and accepting that not everyone is motivated to be a champion as common issues for those on the athlete-to-coach transitional pathway. Speaking from experience, I know that last point can be very impactful; in periods where I have coached, I struggled when athletic success wasn’t a priority for the people I was working with.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Sports Psychology in Action, explored the athlete-to-coach transition process in Norwegian Winter Sports. In 2020, researchers developed a model to guide the athlete-to-coach transition journey within these sports, which had three distinct phases:

  • Career shift – in this phase, the athlete is exiting their athletics career, and determining why and how to start their coaching journey. This involves letting go of the athlete life structure, dreams, and mindset, and shifting from a position of relative safety and comfort into a new, challenging environment.
  • Re-identification – here, the person shifts their self-identity from athlete to coach, which can be an emotionally challenging experience as they settle into their new role and identity. Challenges here include finding it difficult to leave their former life as an athlete behind, along with having unresolved feelings about their career—such as bitterness towards their governing body or selectors. There is also often some self-doubt, as the individual is uncertain as to how their athletic skills may transfer to coaching.
  • Professional development – here, the individual grows their coaching knowledge and ability, and has to learn to separate their experience from the experience of others. This involves understanding the needs of the athletes they are working with, which again may be challenging as they might struggle to relate.

So what does this mean from a sports psychology perspective, in order to best support athletes in their transition to becoming a coach? The authors identify the importance of starting the process prior to retirement where possible, exploring whether coaching is a desired pathway for the particular athlete, and what steps are required as part of their development. Following retirement, support can be given to help athletes better understand how their own sporting experiences, and relationships with their coaches, may have shaped their worldview, and question some of the biases they may have developed on their journey. In addition, retiring athletes should focus on the skills and resources they can transfer to their new “life” as a coach, especially in terms of their new role and responsibilities. Often, athletes don’t adequately develop their leadership skills during their sporting career; as being a coach is often associated with being a leader, developing these skills post-retirement is likely to be an important early step. Athletes moving into coaching roles may also need assistance and support in navigating the change in relationship dynamics they are likely to experience with other athletes, coaches, and sport leaders.

A further area potentially requiring support is that of developing the contextual skills and understanding seen in experienced coaches. The requires the retiring athlete to develop the ability to make challenging decisions, engage in the appropriate and required professional development, and be able to utilise the tacit knowledge they have accumulated as an athlete into coaching behaviours and tools. A key thing to remember is that moving from athlete to coach is not something that happens overnight; it is a long journey, and the person likely needs support on this journey, especially around any key challenges that may occur. It’s a massive shift in role, responsibility, and mindset—but, if we get it right, the rewards can be huge.

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