Sports Science Quarterly – Q2 2022

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we look at coaching coaches, hamstring injuries, 100-meter race profiling, leadership, sports psychology, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly 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 Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Coaching the coaches

Quick Summary – Coaching requires the delivery of feedback to athletes; however, who delivers developmental feedback to coaches? This study found that, the more experienced and elite the coach, the more likely they were to receive feedback from other elite coaches; comparatively, novice coaches often had to rely on slightly more unreliable sources of feedback, such as from parents and players. Receiving quality feedback is an important driver of coach development, and developing a system of being able to receive such feedback is, therefore, crucial.

A fundamental aspect of sports coaching is being able to develop athletes, and, typically, this involves providing feedback as means of enhancing performance. Effective coaching requires effective communication skills to deliver this feedback in an appropriate manner for the athlete, and there is a fair bit of research around how coaches should optimally go about this. Where there is less research, however, is on how coaches may receive feedback as a means of supporting their own development. Some research, for example, highlights that highly experienced and successful coaches may only have limited experience—and therefore skill—in receiving feedback themselves. The potential sources of feedback are also varied; coaches could receive feedback from courses, mentors, athletes, and self-reflection.

Receiving feedback in a positive way is important for development. A further component is being able to either develop new knowledge, or transform previous knowledge to become applicable to new contexts. Research suggests that this knowledge development and/or transformation process is enhanced when people interact with their peers. This is the theory underpinning coach development tools such as mentorship, with the idea being that coaches learn, and receive feedback, from a more experienced coach. However, not all feedback leads to an enhanced performance; research from the field of education has demonstrated that three areas are crucial in linking feedback to enhanced performance:

  • The nature of the feedback – in sports coaching, this means that it must be sufficiently detailed and individualised to support the learner.
  • The timing of the feedback – immediate feedback is often considered best, but with sports coaches this might not always be possible, leading to coaches sometimes receiving isolated and unstructured feedback that may not be helpful.
  • The person providing the feedback – in coaching, this is often a more senior coach that the developing coach can interact with; there are obviously some constraints that occur here, such as the learner coach not being able to interact with anyone more senior, possibly due to a lack of opportunity.

All of this serves as background for a 2016 study, authored by researchers from the UK and Australia, which explored how coaches gained feedback about their coaching processes and practices. To do this, the authors recruited 21 participants (5 female) who were actively coaching in the UK across a variety of different sports, including both team and individual. All coaches held a coaching qualification, and spanned the spectrum from novice to elite coach. Each coach was individually interviewed for an average of 80 minutes.

These interviews highlighted 730 raw data themes, which could be split into four distinct dimensions of feedback mechanisms for coaches:

  • Networks – coaches identified that they often received useful feedback from other coaches in their network. These networks could be structural in nature—e.g., someone they worked with—or a network developed over time with peers, other coaches, and significant others. Novice coaches typically had less well-developed networks, which meant that they often received feedback from players or other novice coaches. Conversely, and perhaps as expected, the elite coaches had larger networks, comprised of more experienced individuals; they also felt more confident in utilizing their network in support of their own development.
  • Players/Participants – the coaches all identified that feedback from the players they coached was an important aspect of reviewing their own professional practice. In novice coaches, there was a feeling that this type of feedback was crucial; in part, this was because they felt there was no one else available to provide feedback. The danger here, as highlighted by the authors, is that feedback from players may not be entirely honest or constructive, and can be unsophisticated and lack the required information to make it useful. As such, feedback from players runs the risk of being superficial in nature. For coaches dealing with adults and/or more experienced players, feedback of this type may prove more useful given their deeper background to provide enhanced sophistication—although even then it is important to consider that the feedback may be biased.  
  • Critical Thinking Skills – defined as the ability to think clearly and logically, critical thinking skills also encapsulates being able to self-reflect, problem solve, and reason. This can include the use of reflective practice on the part of the coach; observing whether the drills they’ve designed are effective, for example, or considering what does and doesn’t work.
  • Support Systems – this factor related to assistance the coach could call on within their coaching environment—for example from a club, national governing body, and performance support team members. Coaches recognized the need to be around their peers as a means of gaining useful feedback. Interestingly, many of the coaches had the assumption that, if the athletes they were working with improved, it meant that their coaching was effective; i.e., they used athlete success as a means of feedback. This is obviously complicated; having an athlete improve does not necessarily mean the coaching was effective, which highlights the need for applying critical thinking skills to consider such facets more deeply.

In drawing together conclusions for this paper, the authors noted that there were minimal differences between novice and expert coaches in their feedback mechanisms. An advantage for expert coaches was that they tended to have a broader network of people to call on; conversely, novice coaches tended to receive feedback from unreliable sources (e.g., parents, youth players). Given the importance of feedback in driving improvements, these findings are highly relevant. As coaches, it’s clearly crucial to develop a network, and think critically about both your own practice (via self-reflection) and the feedback you’re receiving (e.g., is it credible?). For novice coaches, having a coaching mentor may assist in developing an effective network (by leveraging their connections) and through receiving more effective feedback (given the mentor’s increased experience). Coaches should also regularly review their practice to determine how effective they’re being, and feedback provides an important window into better understanding this effectiveness—as such, knowing where, when, and how to get effective feedback is important to us all.

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