The Blog

Latest Research: Key Characteristics of The World’s Best Coaches

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.

  1. Excellent article James! Love the emphasis on values and coaches ‘knowing who they are’.

    1. James says:

      Thanks Jack, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Yes knowing our values and then knowing how to act on them is so important.

  2. Gene Molina says:

    Thanks for such a great article! Just like a good coach you simplified the key points here. This is great to measure yourself and also to find holes in your methods. The best coaches don’t over analyze, they simplify.

  3. Markus Dayton says:

    Excellent article!! Really hits it on the nail!

  4. Love this James – can’t believe I haven’t seen your work (or Cliff’s, aside from his collab with Gucciardi) until now… Looks like Ive got a big weekend of reading coming up!

    1. James says:

      Hi Paddy, happy to share work with you. Feel free to contact me via twitter @JimiVaughan

  5. Dino Zoff says:

    Brilliant! Taking complex things and making them simple! Great article and to the point.


  6. AndyLP says:

    Hey – really enjoyed reading through this, great article.
    I like the ability to engage in comments section!

  7. Sam says:

    Do you have a link to the study? I’d like to read it. Great article.

  8. Boris says:

    Really enjoyed reading this article James well done.

  9. Paul says:


    Just wondering if there is a link to the article or work at all? Very interesting. Thanks!


  10. Ron Smith says:

    I can relate to a lot of things in the article after 40 years of full time coaching in a variety of roles. The funny thing is that a player I had at the AIS ( where I coached for 14 years) recently told me that the things he valued most were the times he spent with me and my family and other players away from the training and matches.

  11. James Vaughan says:

    Hi all. The research hasn’t been published yet but I’m talking to Cliff and UQ about sharing more in the meantime. Once the research is available I’ll be sure to share a link. Amazing to here from the legendary Dino Zoff, Ron thank you for sharing – I think we do a lot more coaching off the pitch than we realise, and thanks to all for your kind words. James

  12. Brian says:

    I have recently joined Hutchison Vale Community Sports FC in Edinburgh. Established in 1940, this club have produced 111 professional male football players and currently have 14 ex-players managing professional teams in the UK. There are two values they have both of which help me understand why they are so successful in player development:
    1. They put player development first
    2. They teach ‘total football’. They call it, playing the game ‘the way the game should be played’. Discipline, high standards, good communication, creating an environment where players thrive and develop; where they enjoy themselves and where they learn things they can use in games. Simple you may think, but important.
    I am delighted to be with them and I hope to continue to learn how to be a better coach / manager. Thank you for your article. I agree with all you say. Kindest regards, Brian

  13. Paul says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. I have to admit that I sometimes struggle with the “reading bit” but if more pieces were written as clear and simple as this one I would have more success in that department….. Grabbed and kept my attention right from the off….. Just like a good coach should!

  14. Jude says:

    Hi James,
    Great piece, so relevant.
    Keep it coming !

  15. mohamed sabri says:

    football coaching is an art. to me,a great coach is not all about what you teach!it is all about how you teach….watch my son youtube- messi next gen dubai 7 yrs old boy. ready for try out. a noble both feet natural football talent. best regards mohamed sabri

  16. George says:

    Remarkable article. I have studies social sciences, social work, psychology and sociology. I currently study law. I have been involved in sport for 25 years and had some great coaches. They took me on holiday, got my hair cut and bought me a warm drink. They were nurtures. I have researched extensively via open university on coaches attributes and values.

    Your article is spot on with regards to introduction and self discovery. Well done on highlighting what a coach is all about. (Learned behaviour is so powerful) c


    1. James Vaughan says:

      Thanks George, pleased that it resonated with you given your extensive background.

  17. Ora Kohe says:

    As a coach I look for the following in a player.

    1. Attitude ( Never Give Up)
    2. Commitment (Always Available)
    3. Willing To Learn
    When a sports person has these qualities that become TEACHABLE

  18. Anthony G says:

    Can feel the passion in reading this article! Brilliant!

  19. Matti Dwyer says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing.

Comments are closed.