What characteristics do the world’s best coaches have in common? PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan shares insight from a study at the University of Queensland on the key attributes required to be the most effective coach.

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Associate professor Cliff Mallett at the University of Queensland. Cliff is actually my academic supervisor, and a bit of a gun.

On UQ’s website they describe Cliffs work saying: “This staff member is a UQ Expert in the following fields: high performance coaching, psychology – sport, sport – motivation, sport psychology, sports coaching, motivation – in sport, coaching high performance sports, sport – professional, athletes – professional, mind – sport, performance – sport.”

Anyway, this Friday Cliff was presenting some pretty incredible research looking into ‘what it takes to be a high performance coach’. In Cliff’s words the study was commissioned to better understand “serial winners”. Fourteen coaches from multiple fields – team and individual sports based around the world – where chosen for their abilities to develop Olympians and title winning dynasties.

The study – founded by multinational sporting bodies (including the Australian Institute of Sport) – was to say the least, comprehensive, combining qualitative surveys (to understand coach traits) and in-depth (3 hour-ish) interviews to capture coaches’ life-stories and key values. I have no chance of explaining the in’s and out’s of the methodologies so what you’ll get in this post is the findings, based on my notes.

First, contrary to common belief (or perhaps what most academics believe), these coaches read a lot and when I say read I don’t mean 4-4-2, The Telegraph, or The Guardian – as entertaining and informative as they may be – they read academic papers, they have an insatiable thirst for (evidence based, peer reviewed) knowledge. They are looking, searching and hunting down the next big thing, the next 5%. This search – according to the data – is driven by a deep dark doubt, driving the obsession to ‘stay ahead’. These coaches are “always striving, driven by the fear of not being good enough”. Something supported in a broader context by the research of Brené Brown.

These elite high performance coaches are visionary leaders, described within the data as ‘benevolent dictators’ – they are future orientated with excellent communication up and down the line: they have the capacity to simplify complexity when they communicate to their athletes. This is not disregarding complexity; they embrace and understand it, but are able to communicate in simple terms.

Most have also undergone a shift in leadership styles, moving towards a leader-follower approach, in which care and empathy are critically important. In data from the athletes it became evident that they (the athletes) truly believed their coaches cared for them as individuals. Interestingly many of these coaches had parents from what are described as ‘helping professions’, they score high on emotional intelligence and they are married and have not divorced.

Which leads us to, in my opinion, the most important findings that may contribute to all of the above, as well as their phenomenal ability as coaches: these coaches know themselves – they know their core values and what it means to embody them, or how to demonstrate those values to themselves and their athletes.

This is key, because under pressure people default back to their key values and habits based upon them – this may explain the historical tendency of British football player’s to default towards ‘playing it safe’, often interpreted as ‘choking’, under pressure at World Cups, while South Americans default to flamboyance, trickery and ‘bending the rules’. In both scenarios these players revert back to core values, in the case of players these are often culturally inscribed core values and in the case of these high performance coaches these are values unearthed though their own self-discovery, that transcend cultural scripts.

As an example, after successfully coaching Ice Hockey for over 15 years, Erkka Westerland went on a 7-year hiatus, his very own journey of self-discovery before returning to the sport. His return saw Finland medal in three of their next four tournaments. He dramatically changed his approach, proving that no matter how old you are you can change.

Following on from this point when asked ‘what would have improved their coaching the most’, a theme emerged from all the coaches interviewed: “they said they wished they knew the athletes better”.

So if you want to be a better coach the study suggests:

  • READ a lot – if you got this far you’re off to a good start, if you didn’t get this far, forget it you are never going to make it – the best academics are trying to write in more accessible language. Personally I quite like the challenge of coming across words I don’t understand – it happens a lot – I’m always learning. Also check out videos and webinars and take any opportunity to talk about this stuff.
  • Devote some time to getting to know ‘you’ and be open to change – this can be painstaking, confronting and time-consuming but it’s probably the single most important area of personal development and absolutely essentially to coaching. Check out books by Steven Covey and Brené Brown as good starting points.
  • Finally, the aim should always be to get to know your athletes better. This requires real care, empathy and time. It’s not about statistics, it’s being open to research from psychology, sociology, pedagogy, motivation and human development, among many other areas of study. It’s about being open minded and open to change.

Cover Image
Pep Guardiola during a training session with Bayern Munich, 2013.  Photo: Peter P.

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