In this article rugby coach and researcher, Jonny McMurtry discusses the importance of connection between athlete and coach taking a deep dive into an approach that is needs based and not just athlete-centred.

Firstly, I hope this blog post finds you, your family and friends in good health; this is strange times and new territory for us all and I hope we can follow the advice of health professionals and leaders of our countries to “flatten the curve” and keep our communities safe and well, including all our athletes, coaches and administrators involved in our respective sports.

Taking a look up from my 50 books in 2020 challenge to myself, I wanted to reflect on my recent pieces of writing combined with some posts and podcasts I have listened to this week.

I’ve listened to a couple of great podcasts including, The Talent Equation where Stuart, Mark Bennett and Alan Keane talked of how they’re focusing on the term “need centred” or “needs led coaching” as opposed to “athlete centred”. This was followed by the Flying Coach Podcast where coaching greats Steve Kerr and Pete Carroll, both of whom I have written about before, discuss what’s really important to coaching great teams and how you need to be comfortable in yourself to serve your players in an authoritative manner. So, while I’ve addressed and believe in the importance of how coaching techniques and certainly the importance of coach-athlete relationships have increased with our new age players, alongside how being aware of your athletes should structure and shape your practice design and coaching methodologies, are we able to recognise what athlete centred coaching looks like and are we able to develop connection, understanding and care to offer players what they need throughout their sporting journey?

An article I’d seen and shared earlier last week got me questioning the concept of how coaches can respond to the needs of athletes, combining structure for team cohesion with the freedom and support to explore capabilities and make mistakes to promote learning. Former Arsenal midfielder and now FA Senior Professional Coach Developer, Paul Davies discussed in this article how he believes players need some structure but also want to figure things out themselves and enjoy the game

“From (the formational structure offered), there was some instinctual stuff we did. For me the game is around allowing instincts to come out and players to play what they see. For me a good coach does have a good structure but also allows their players some allowance for creativity and instinctive play. Don’t come down on players that do something that they see at that moment – be brave as a coach to allow your players to make mistakes from your structure.”

I can understand how a couple of the terms used within this statement can work against each other – structure and freedom. However, self-reflecting and after listening to the aforementioned podcasts, it reminded me that we as coaches are servants to our players or athletes, offering ideas and elements of direction and responding to their needs based on their desires and goals within a sport context. As many of you (hopefully) understand, I am a big believer in athlete or player centred coaching. I like the terminology as it gets coaches to consider what the players want or need from sport and adds a individual focused and humanistic element to our coaching methodologies yet the discussion between Stuart, Mark and Alan added some necessary context around the topic.

As discussed, many coaches struggle to ascertain what their role is within an athlete centred coaching style and is why this use of a changed terminology may be useful for coaches as to where they fit or what they should do to allow athletes to drive development. Adopting the ideas of needs centred coaching allows us as coaches to continually reflect and constantly adjust to the players and learning environment. Coaches should design practice and develop learning environments which are reflective to the identified goals of the players and their current capabilities, both as individuals and as a group. This process is not solely playing games and asking questions as this shall not answer to their needs; it is creating an environment where players explore their ideas, test their capabilities and work towards identified goals while the coach creates scenarios and adapted learning situations to ensure players are building towards development and with competitive performance in mind through decision making, being creative and problem solving as individuals and as a group. These discussed ideas are excellent points as are dynamic coaching techniques which are reflective and cyclical in nature, having to constantly review and adjust accordingly, plus puts the athlete’s current needs front and centre for training design.

Interestingly, there was some cross over points between Talent Equation podcast and the Kerr-Carroll discussions; one main area was when does or can the coach take control in an athlete centred environment? Kerr and Carroll both identified the importance of relationships and love within their coaching practices but, similar to as discussed in Armstrong’s podcast, there is still a high level of responsibility for the coach of knowing when to take control as per the needs of the group due to the hierarchical nature and responsibility towards the group but it’s developing a culture where the players feel psychologically safe and offer permission for the coach to take control.

Talking of what they had learned from other great coaches they’ve played for or worked around, they discussed how the “Xs and Os don’t really matter” and knowing who you are, recognising your principles and how these relate to the players you’re currently working with are the important factors. Kerr said:

“You need to be comfortable in yourself to serve your players in an authoritative way….it’s not telling them what to do, it’s building connection, acknowledging what they have done and pushing them on (based on their needs)”

I felt both discussions look at leadership styles and danced around ideas of transformational leadership which is a leadership style where, for these examples, a coach works with teams to identify the needs within the group, creating a vision and executing strategies in tandem with committed members of the playing group. Research identifies leadership as the process whereby an individual influences a group to achieve a common goal (Loughead, 2005) and Bass (1985) recognises this style of transformational leadership as the ability to inspire and motivate followers to exceed performance expectations by shaping follower’s beliefs and attitudes….selling the why as discussed and I shall dig deeper into later. This form of leadership can be developed by inspiration or motivation to team members, through creating a vision of common goals, idealising influence through modelling behaviours or values, individualising consideration, through allowing for other’s needs and feelings and intellectual stimulation through encouraging creativity. Combined with transactional leadership style, which as mentioned combines contingent rewards and corrective actions, the optimal leadership state is recognised as more frequent transformational and transactional leadership adopted styles, combined with laissez-faire attitudes (Price, 2013).

Coaches Kerr and Carroll echoed some of Armstrong’s points of selling the why – understanding their needs and facilitating ways for them to find inherent reasons to drive their development. I’ve previously discussed the books of Dan Pink and how Pink’s work addresses attunement, buoyancy and clarity as key factors for moving people or “selling” people through engagement of your ideas or goals as the case may be in sports coaching. Pink also addresses enabling and assisting people to find the internal drive or intrinsic motivation through offering autonomy in their actions, purpose in what they do and target mastery of their positions or roles should assist increasing creativity, eliminate narrow focus or unethical behaviour whilst improving performance.

Coaches acting with honesty, intimacy, purpose and being personal (many of the attributes Coaches Kerr and Carroll discussed) can create positive learning atmospheres where they can afford to offer bigger picture and allow players to take more control.

As previously mentioned, I believe for engagement and continuously improved performance, coaches need to offer players opportunity for choice, acknowledge player feelings and perspective, limit controlling behaviours while valuing initiative, problem-solving and involvement in decision making (Mageau, 2003).

So, let’s try and answer the question posed: Are we able to recognise what athlete centred coaching looks like, and are we able to develop connection, understanding and care to offer players what they need throughout their sporting journey?

The main aspects of influential and successful coach-athlete relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship. Both performance enhancement and psychological well-being is deeply engrained within the coach-athlete relationship; for example, studies have shown that athlete satisfaction is related to the degree to which athletes understand their role and responsibilities within interactive sports teams. (Eys, 2007). Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognition, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Therefore, a coach’s ability to acknowledge and develop positive interpersonal connections, driven by interpersonal skills and united sense of purpose and achievement, can offer solid base for positive relationships and learning atmospheres. Developing these relationships and understanding what you athletes need from you in a timely manner ticks the boxes discussed by Alan Keane and Mark Bennett while offers the love and care that Coach Carroll and Kerr discuss.

The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. These ideas and challenges were discussed by Armstrong, Bennett and Keane and all coaches should recognise that 1. its difficult; 2. it’s always changing and evolving so needs to be reflected and reviewed on; and 3. it’s easier by understanding your athletes and having them involved in the steps and processes. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”.

Coaching should be recognised as an educational dynamic relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals (or needs) and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships.

The role of performance coaches for professional, High Performance athletes is highly important; coaches are “preparing athletes for consistent high-level competitive performance” (Côté, 2009a) through effective tactics such as integration of professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and developing player’s specific competence, confidence, connection, and character needs on regular basis.

Sports coaches of athletes should act as pedagogues and adopt comprehensive and holistic roles in the moral development of their athletes through their adopted and shared practices, languages and beliefs. If coaches are to develop knowledgeable athletes whom are willing and able to make decisions, capable of performing learned tasks when under pressure and not under direct instructions, I believe this shall require collaborative transfer of knowledge or greater ownership by athletes of their development, with support from the coaches as “more capable other” in an involved yet scaffolding style approach to their athlete’s development.

Research by Kidman (2001) addressed ideas such as coaches developing player’s complex skills and tactical knowledge through encouraging abstract thought processes by asking high order questions, which require athletes to apply, analyse and synthesize information. This style of leadership has the coach steering as opposed to controlling decisions and actions, encouraging player discovery through evolutionary planning and organising of tasks whilst keeping sight of overall objectives and showing empathy to get the best from the athletes, something Keane identified as adopting with time and experience yet admitted is better in certain times or circumstances.

Coaches acting as orchestrators whilst attempting to create a successful pedagogic setting requires coordination of activities to scan or investigate, monitor and respond with honesty to players. This may require some transparency from coaches to offer rationale for processes. It may also require negotiation of processes with players to meet individual and collective performance measures of those being coached whilst matching evolving circumstances for learning and development against attempting keeping sight of overall objectives. Therefore, use this time away from face to face coaching to reflect and review your coaching methodologies.

Asking questions and understanding the answers and whom they’re coming from will give you a snapshot for today yet this needs to be continually addressed and worked on, understanding people, personalities and environments shall change; no one would have imagined or expected the pandemic we find ourselves in currently. Be willing to change ideas or structures to match what your athletes or players need today and be reflective and flexible to change to what they need tomorrow or when we see them next.

Image Source: Mahmur Marganti on Unsplash


Talents Equation podcast

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