Let’s focus on how we’re coaching, not what we’re coaching. In this article, motivational researcher and top rugby coach, Jonny McMurtry shares an article on the value of relationships and connection in coaching.

After an excellent article written around Matt Wilkie, IRFU’s head of coach development coinciding with my own personal development in assisting swimming coaches, a sport where I know very little around the tactical and technical aspects, it pushed me down a rabbit hole looking at how we can adjust our focus to the how and to whom we coach, rather than the specific content or focusing solely on the what aspects such as technical, tactical and strategic aspects.

Matt now works directly with professional coaches around Ireland, as well as overseeing the programmes that guide the development of coaches at grassroots levels. His interview addressed how he is more interested in how coaching is done, rather than the specific content; he talks of how the vast majority of coaches on the IRFU’s books have used him as a resource, mainly focusing on things like leadership, communication, learning outcomes, and educational models.

“The key thing successful coaches have is probably off the field…It’s their ability to connect, the relationships they form with their players, and their ability to man-manage…those interpersonal skills, communication, the emotional intelligence – those seem to be the key attributes of the successful coach
Let’s focus on how we’re coaching, rather than what we’re coaching.”

There is some points of interest which can be introduced into our coaching practices, echoing Wilkie’s comments – focus on communication and connection to create bonds and relationships for long term athlete participation, enjoyment and development. Referencing Co-Founder of Player Development Project, Dave Wright from an article he wrote regarding player individuality:

I believe when it comes to coaching and player development, the player must sit at the centre of the environment; every individual in your group must sit at the centre of the environment. As a coach, a fundamental factor in ensuring a pathway for your players to maximise their potential and engage them in loving (and staying in) the game is to know and understand them; this means focusing and understanding the importance of coach-athlete relationships.

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. 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 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. For example, the role of performance coach for specialising late adolescent athlete I am currently dealing with is highly important. At this stage, coaches shall be “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. Therefore, understanding player personal motivations within sport and an awareness of socio-cultural constraints which impacts and effects the athlete shall have positive impact on the learning and development relationship.

Galinsky and Maddux’s research to sporting context recognises that “taking perspective of (player) produced both greater joint gains and profitable individual outcomes”. In a sports context, this would be seen as close and meaningful coach-athlete relationships, regular player involvement in decision making processes with honest and accurate goal attainment for all involved. 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 physiological 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). 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.

Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognitions, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Jowett’s research recognises the importance of 3+1 C’s (closeness, commitment, complementary and coordination) (Jowett, 2007) being critical for successful coach-athlete relationships. I also believe a coach’s ability to use contrast principle, offering clarity by adding context, honesty and reasoning when offering perspective for dynamic and interactive coaching scenarios experienced and athlete relations shall reap long term gains and reciprocal commitment and closeness from athlete in return. My beliefs are echoed in past research including investigations by Mageau and Vallerand (2003); they believe 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).

Coming back to address the how we’re coaching, rather than what we’re coaching, I believe we as coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions. This allows coaches to act as mentors, supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies. This idea of learning being a series of episodes where players identify and build knowledge is termed scaffolding; the coach’s role within assisting players or athletes to work within Zone of proximal development. These methods positions coaches as mentors and have athletes sitting at the centre of the environment, where coaches shift from knowledge expert for athlete as in early stages of development to learning manager or facilitator (Carnell and Lodge, 2002), offering considerate yet constructive feedback for the player to investigate further. Sports coaches of athletes 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, engaged athletes, capable of performing learned tasks when under pressure and not under direct instructions, I believe this shall require bidirectional transfer of knowledge or total ownership by athletes of their development, with support from the coaches as “more capable other”.

With these ideas and supporting research, what tactics or modifications can you make to your coaching practices?

  • Coach where your feet are: Take time better knowing and understanding your athletes to gain a holistic view of involved players; the art of coaching is knowing how and when to communicate, and how this varies from individual. Work on empathetic relationships and having a better understanding of your athletes or players as this will allow you to modify your environment or approaches for greater impact and understanding. Know your players, know their story, know their context and then put it into practice.

  • Listen first…..then ask, don’t talk: A great way to make a meaningful connection is to get to know them and if possible talk about something other than their sport. Ask questions around family, friends and hobbies so you find areas of common interest. For sports related areas, listen to player’s ideas and opinions before offering advice as they may offer you the answers you were going to offer.

  • Be adaptable and complementary: People, personalities and environments shall change…therefore, so do 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. 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.


Image Credit: Unsplash/Al Quino

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