Clifford Mallett and Sergio Lara-Bercial

The Big Idea

The rub for these researchers is that the empirical basis for the vocation of sports coaching is seriously limited exactly at the time it is most needed.  The burgeoning growth of national and international high performance sports in the last few decades certainly calls for professional coaches.  It is a surprise then that the process of professionalising high performance coaches is still so little understood. 

The Research

What we know already about highly successful coaches?

Surveying the existing research on the practices of highly successful coaches of elite includes such experiential topics as their most valued characteristics, motivations, perceived needs, psychological make-up, skills, and coping strategies.  Some consistent findings conclude that: successful coaches are diligent, typically were players of the sport they coach, and that learn mostly through experience.

But most of what we already know comes to us from only coach or athlete perspectives, and mostly is limited to samples from US, Canada, UK, and Australia.  Also, most of this research focuses on the “what” of coaching practice, such as their behaviours or traits.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that we really know little of the identities of existing highly successful coaches as people; or that we understand the deeper dynamic interplay of biology, traits, motives, and personal stories useful for future research in coach identification, recruitment, and development.

Purpose and method of this study

In 2011 the International Council for Coaching Excellence ( created the Innovation Group of Lead Agencies.  The Agency includes many of the leading coaching organisations from around the world with the goal to advance coach education and development in key priority areas.  One of the areas is High Performance (HP) sport.  Under the HP direction, a “Serial Winning Coaches” (SWC) research project was initiated.  Its aim was to study coaches who have established over a sustained period of time success coaching teams and athletes to gold medals in such competitions as the Olympic Games or World Championships.

Using McAdams’ integrated personality framework (a whole-person person perspective: the self as social actor, motivated agent, and autobiographical author), these researchers examined some of the world’s most successful international coaches.  The aim was to identify some common personality qualities, as well as uncover unique stories to help build an empirical base for policy and practice decisions for coach identification, recruitment, and development.  Their methods included a mix of questionnaires and semi-structured interviews.  Fourteen serial winning coaches (collectively producing 128 gold medals and major trophies) from eleven countries (10 sports, including five team sports and one combat sport) were selected for study.  There 20 athletes were included who were coached by at least one of the coaches in the last five years (minimum of two years).

Results and discussion

Given that this study is a chapter-length publication, the most useful summary is to use an outline format.  Given the choppiness of such an approach, to get a more thorough understanding of the study and its significance the reader is encouraged to read the publication first-hand.  What follows is a brief look at the skeleton framework of the people, vision, and environment of serial winning coaches.

  • The coach as social actor: personality traits
    • SWC self-reports found that these coaches are high on conscientiousness and extraversion and low on neuroticism when compared to other adult men.
    • They are optimists, directed individuals, and go-getters.
    • They handle stress well, generally control their anger and frustration, even suppressing negative emotions.
    • In a socially desirable context they are confident decision makers, aspiring learners, and enjoy creative problem solving.
    • They are also achievement strivers, both for the selfless development of their players or teams, and/or for promotion of their own personal needs and recognition as a coach.
  • The coach as motivated agent: strivings
    • These coaches are motivated agents.
    • On approach versus avoidance, these SWC coaches are approach-oriented, have a strong sense of purpose, and are optimistically striving for achievement.
    • On agency versus communion, there was no clear trait. They appear to be both driven to help others and focused on improving oneself on a daily basis, learning something new every day.  They seek to be the best performers they can be to enhance athlete/team performance outcomes.
    • On motivational themes, these coaches value learning and personal growth; they are achievement oriented; and they value the ability to positively influence others.
  • The coach as autobiographical author: coach (and athlete) narratives from semi-structured interviews were based on responses to three questions:
    • What are serial winning coaches like? (personality traits, values, and benefits)
    • What do serial coaches do? (practices and behaviors)
    • How did serial coaches develop into the coaches they are today?

What are coaches like? 

The comparative analysis of coach and athlete interviews produced consistencies between them.  Three emergent themes were personality traits, values and beliefs (the way the world should be), and key skills required to succeed.

The personality traits described by both coaches and their athletes are: a strong work ethic; confidence; thirst for knowledge; socially competent; and a positive approach to problem solving.

The values and beliefs are: coaching should be athlete-centred and holistic; coaches must uphold high moral standards; and sustained coaching success requires an adequate work-life balance.

The key skills required to succeed are: effective communication; teaching, planning, managing, decision-making, and relationship building.

What do serial coaches do? 

There are three distinct and key themes about what these coaches do: vision, people, and environment.

By vision, the coaches and athletes focused on sub-themes: developing a clear philosophy; willingness to look into the future; capacity to simplify complexity; thorough action planning; and constant reviewing and adjusting.

Regarding people, the sub-theme priorities were: people selection (athletes and staff); to believe in me (the coach); to believe in you(the athlete); to believe in us (the team and organisation); and managing the high performance entourage.

Finally, regarding the environment the sub-themes were: building the organisation; creating the culture; and providing stability and dependability.

In the discussion following these themes and sub-themes, the emphasis was on the relational nature of high performance coaching.  The need for emotional intelligence was highlighted in particular to facilitate congruence between coach and athlete. What creates success is the extent to which these coaches are self-aware.  Listening to athletes, for example, who bring constructive criticism for the sake of the entire enterprise can protect a coach from his or her own behaviour.  Just staying healthy in these high-pressure coaching environments is a challenge; high performance coaching is not for the faint-of-heart.

Of special significance is that these coaches do rely on successful coach-athlete collaborations far more commonly than previously suspected.  When coaches respect their players as people first, that’s when coach-athlete performance relationships thrive.

How do serial winning coaches develop their craft?

Two paths of craft development were pursued: 1) educational pathways; and 2) significant events and milestones pathways.

  • Coach education pathways and opportunities
    • They strongly value education, whether academic or sport education.
    • Discovering “thinking tools” by way of these educational experiences are frequently mentioned.
    • Informal learning opportunities are especially appreciated, whether by way of clinics or seminars or by way of dialogue with other coaches, athletes, significant others, and frequent self-reflection.
    • To be better at their vocational craft is paramount.
    • Some coaches are almost obsessional in their desire to learn both their sport inside and out, and to learn from their sport outside and in.
    • Eight of the 14 coaches were international athletes themselves, five national level, and only one had not played high performance sport.
  • Coach critical life and milestones
    • Parental influences are powerful influences
      • For experiencing strong work ethic
      • For practice in lifelong learning
      • For reinforcing a passion for coaching
    • Early desire to coach
      • From a very early age
      • Recognition by a significant other that they wanted to pursue coaching as a vocation
      • Recognition that there was a “special disposition” or talent for coaching
    • Serial insecurity
      • On the one hand a strong, grounded belief in themselves
      • On the other hand, reasonable doubt that they were not good enough
      • Carrying a sense of “unfinished business” as athletes and trying to put it right as coaches
    • Entry into coaching as serendipitous and opportunistic
      • Lucky accidents, being in the right place at the right time
      • Risk-taking by paying one’s dues in the profession without giving up
      • Both calculated risks and leaps-of-faith

In closing, the authors discuss the implications and suggest recommendations for high performance recruitment; and they do the same for coach education and development.

  • Recruitment
    • The essential component of sustained high performance is to carefully design succession plans
    • Must design talent identification and development programs
    • Persist in a deeper understanding of the coach as a person
    • Creating a profiling system by specially trained psychologists
    • The profiling would identify potential coaches who are:
      • Driven to succeed
      • Athlete-centered
      • Able to create a vision and communicate that vision
      • Capable of leading large groups of people
      • Lifelong learners who are able to maintain an appropriate work-life balance
      • Highly resilient and prepared to take risks
  • Education and development
    • Starting point and foundation must be to encourage, facilitate, and support a process of formal education. Not “token coach education” but formal and informal educational development opportunities.
    • Coaching education opportunities must support acquisition of new knowledge, provided with time for self-reflection, and to find ways to translate new knowledge into practice.
    • Coach development needs to be embedded in the actual reality of the position, and supported by a mentor, a more experienced assistant, peer groups, and social networks.
    • Inexperienced but potential high performance coaches might be “loaned out” to other appropriate countries where less pressure could help the younger coaches learn on the job; after apprenticing they would return to their home country.
    • Future HP coaches must have development opportunities to learn to manage large operations capably.
    • Coaches need high levels of emotional intelligence, as this study found. Such techniques as mindfulness training as a form of self-awareness could improve emotional control, reduce stress, and improve relationships between coach and athletes and coach and staff.
    • Finally, coaches must learn the value of life-work balance and to be given educational opportunities to develop it.
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