The Pschology of Coaching

Are you a scientist or more of an artist? Is coaching an art or science? These were questions asked of UQ’s coaching and sports psychology research group last week and this post explores the possibility that science and accounting are hijacking football and slowly killing the art of coaching.

The simple answer to the art vs. science question is that coaching is an ever-changing mixture of both, but after a little digging some additional and pretty fundamental questions emerge. Precisely, what is the art of coaching and what is the science?

Without going all ‘existential’ on the topic, I will attempt a brief interpretation of each and most importantly explore the type of thinking they promote and the consequences for our coaching and, crucially, our players’ development.

The Science of Coaching

The science of coaching is, in my mind, the use of methods, tools and technologies in an attempt to predict and control sports training and performance, for instance GPS, video analysis, notational analysis, stats, physical testing, bio-feedback etc. These are the tools we use to simplify sports, the methods designed to reduce the complexity of human movement and the technologies that turn complex decisions into key performance indicators.

The take home message is that the ‘science of coaching’ more often than not deals in numbers, stats and tangible measures. In fact, the ‘science of coaching’ has done a great job of turning athletes into well-oiled, optimal performance machines.

However, understanding humans like machines, simplifying sporting performance and aiming for order, prediction and control are the goals of ‘old school’ Newtonian science. I’ve used this quote before but it’s super relevant here:

“The Newtonian/Cartesian worldview, central to the industrial age and at the heart of modernity, saw the Universe, society, and human beings, as machines and mechanical processes” (Montuori, 2012 p.65).

Unfortunately, the scientific method, applied in this way, can decontextualise sport, suggesting black and white answers to the multi-coloured spectrum of sporting performance. The Newtonian interpretation of ‘science’, in over zealous hands, can lead to ‘swimming on the side of the pool’. We loose sight of the context, we disregard the creativity of people, in short – we forget that players and coaches are human.

A classic example of over-simplification and an extremist reliance on numbers is the emergence of the long ball game in the UK. A statistical study suggested that most goals are scored in under x number of passes. This led the UK to simplify the game and adopt the long ball, while other areas of the world pioneered the beautiful game.

I’m not saying that Newtonian science is bad, far from it – what I’m hoping to point out is that its success created a mindset that revolves around order, prediction and control. This mindset has led to the disregard of coach’s and players creativity among many other crucial intangibles. As Bocchi et al. (2014) put it:

 “With the Enlightenment, creativity did not fit into the orderly, predictable, controllable world scientists were studying so successfully” (p.348).

The Art of Coaching

The art of coaching is not about order, prediction or control. It recognises the complexity of sport and the need for creativity. The art of coaching interprets people as imaginative, evolving, living organisms – not machines. Therefore, the focus is placed on players – relationships and group dynamics – and constructing a deep, sincere understanding of each individual.

The art of coaching embraces the intangibles that Newtonian science struggles to explain. It recognises the importance of:

  • Relationships
  • Feedback at key moments
  • Cultural upbringing and varied meanings
  • Complex contexts
  • Team culture and shared understandings
  • Learning environments
  • Motivational climates

In summary, the art of coaching is more about co-constructing a team’s story, and less about their stats. This being said, I believe the art can integrate the science, aiming to create better learning environments by providing a greater variety and clarity of feedback. The use of video analysis, applied in the right way with learning as the goal, may be a great example.

A Newtonian hangover – A World Hijacked by Numbers

While the art of coaching is suppressed by the need for tangibles, the science of coaching is continually hijacked by the need for numbers. The development of language and numbers were milestones in human evolution, however they have literally changed the way we think. In his book Sapiens – A brief history of humankind (a must read), author Yuval Noah Harari explains:

“The most important impact of script (writing & numbers) on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy…”

As everybody from ancient times till today knows, clerks and accountants think in a non-human fashion. They think like filing cabinets. This is not their fault. If they don’t think that way their draws will get all mixed up and they wont be able to provide the services their government, company or organisation requires.” (p.146)

This is the problem with modern sport, the people who ‘hold the purse strings’ – chairmen, CEOs, managing directors, accountants – often control the hiring and firing and therefore define success.

These are people whose minds either:

a) Cannot comprehend the intangibles associated with the art of coaching,


b) Do not value these intangibles as much as they value numbers, tangibles and stats.

This point was illustrated by Graeme Rose, a former high performance manager for multiple sports (both team and individual) and the very person who posed the question to UQ’s coaching group – is coaching an art or a science? Talking about his career as a high performance manager, Graeme suggested that his ‘point of difference’ and what – in his words – has allowed him to undertake countless high-performance management roles is a master’s degree in accounting.

The Hypothesis / Conspiracy Theory

Is it strange then, that the managing directors and CEOs in charge of the purse strings would want to employ a high performance manager with an intimate knowledge of holding the purse strings? And that these High Performance managers, hired for their accounting knowledge, would want to employ coaches who can account for their budget and utilise stats to demonstrate their effectiveness as a coach?

Equally so, is it strange that the people counting the money would loosen the purse strings to invest in methods, tools and technologies that can predict, control and reduce sporting performance and coach effectiveness to numbers?

Considering all this focus on numbers and the willingness to invest in them, is it in turn strange that, in a desperate attempt to satisfy funding requirements and be evaluated on something more than the score line or tournament placing (which is still the key criteria in high performance sport down under), coaches look to statistics?

Taken together, it’s not surprising that the ‘science of coaching’ – more valued and therefore funded by the accountants – is becoming a multi-billion dollar industry while the ‘art of coaching’ is often undervalued – which in our world means underfunded.

The majority of football development programs are reliant on ‘the budget’ and as such they often become controlled by the bureaucratic and reductionist thinking it inspires. This thinking can infiltrate the whole system and permeate the player development environment, creating a controlling motivational climate and stifling the more holistic and creative thinking that characterises the art of coaching.

In programs/systems infiltrated by compartmentalised bureaucratic thinking, success is more likely to be tied to numbers and tangible stats, creating a vicious cycle in which the art of coaching and creativity are continually marginalised.

Our goal must be to coach up, re-defining success first for ourselves, then our players and finally our clubs and governing bodies. We do this by focusing on the development of people, and not the colour of the bottom line.

The aim of this post is to generate discussion in the hope of creating better conditions for us to coach. Please get in touch and spread the word. Find me on Twitter @JimiVaughan and via @PlayerDP.

Key Intangibles

  • The use of art and science in our coaching should be like yin and yang, but with the world’s emphasis on numbers and stats we need to shift our focus towards the intangibles of our art.
  • The art of coaching is developed though mentorship and inspiration, we need to look for these in our coach development.
  • Just as we aim to create development environments for our players, we must coach up and demand that the people in charge of our clubs and governing bodies do the same for us – if they don’t, we must be brave enough to walk away with our integrity intact.

Photo Credits: Asia Joanna

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