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The Blog

The Future of Coaching Must Look Beyond the Past

In this article, PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan reflects on how a history of linear, data-driven approaches are limiting player development. James emphasises the importance of understanding the complexity that comes with human development.

Last month I finally published a scientific paper, Developing Creativity to Enhance Human Potential in Sport: A Wicked Transdisciplinary Challenge. After rejections and reviews, the paper was finally out there. Cue scientific revolution and practical evolution – next step Nobel prize ceremony in December.

Not quite. Even so, I was excited to talk about the paper with anyone who would listen. However, something strange happened, I struggled to talk about it… apparently the precision of scientific writing isn’t great for day-to-day communication.

To set the scene for future conversations, I’ve been trying to bring some key messages to life.

The origins of coaching

In 1830’s Oxford, “coaching” was slang used to describe a private tutor “carrying” a student through an exam. The meaning came from the city’s 16th-century horse-drawn stagecoaches, coaches that literally carried people from A to B.

It’s not a great analogy for the modern-day. Sports coaching isn’t about carrying anyone anywhere, and it’s far more complex than A to B.

Athletes are on non-linear beings on non-linear development journeys.

The role of the modern coach would be better described as Wayfinder. Helping young people traverse rough terrains, navigate changing settings and skillfully negotiate complex environments. As much as we might want to carry our athletes on their voyage, we can’t.

However, the history (or path dependency) of the stagecoach lingers.

The Past: A lineage of reading glasses

Sports science seems anchored to Oxford’s 19th-century analogy of coach, aiming to help us carry, control and predict human development. We see this in the ever-growing battery of applied recommendations. Pre-defined learning outcomes, personality types, A-B-C formulas (rigid game models), measurable strength and conditioning procedures, and technological gadgets to quantify everything.

Sports science sees value these things because it comes from a long lineage of (scientific) lenses designed to zoom in and quantify. Lenses designed to provide measurements, clarity, and focus – like reading glasses.

Important advances were made zooming in. These successes (in engineering and medicine) defined “real science” and made these zoomed-in lenses super popular. So popular that reading glasses have been #trending throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.

Reading glasses are still so #trendy today that most researchers seem focused on developing minor updates and add-ons to these tried and trusted lenses. For example, developing methodologies/technologies that zoom in further and quantify more stuff.

However, like any lens, some glasses are more appropriate for viewing some things and less appropriate for viewing others. No lens is necessarily right or wrong, but certain lenses are better for understanding the mechanics of machines, while other lenses are better comprehending the collaborative development of humans.

Zooming in with our reading glasses is great for seeing what’s directly in front of us. But it comes at a cost, it obscures the bigger picture (our interactions with culture, context, environment, and other people). This means that our reading glasses are wildly inappropriate in some situations.

Driving the rocky road of athlete development

Let’s re-imagine the stagecoach analogy for 21st-century player development. Now I’m driving a car (see the image above), attempting to navigate the changing landscape of non-linear development:

I like to feel comfortable when I drive, so (like most people) I’ve got my tried and trusted reading glasses on.

My reading glasses help me focus on important things.

When I’m driving they help me zoom in on the dashboard; in particular, the fuel tank and the speedometer.

This is useful information.

But while the information from the dashboard is crystal clear, the world beyond the dashboard is foggy.

The road signs are fuzzy, I can’t see the changing conditions and I bearly make out the other cars.

With my zoomed-in reading glasses, I can’t see the world beyond the dashboard.

With this view its almost impossible to navigate the changing environments and unique cultural contexts of athlete development.

Adopting this lens I’ve become a short-sighted (coach) driver.

A vicious cycle of zooming in

We’ve worn our reading glasses for so long that we’ve forgotten that we are wearing them at all. They’ve become so dominant as our default setting that we’ve forgotten that other lenses exist.

This can lead to a vicious cycle of zooming in, making it almost impossible to see past the dashboard – it becomes all we know.

Even if we have a eureka moment (and appreciate that our view of the world is dangerously limited), what do we do? Throw away our comfortable world view and embrace the uncertainty of new paradigms? Or double down on zooming-in?

Many have dug deeper into the world of the dashboard. We build careers and become experts in dashboard data. People specialize in fuel tank efficiency or speedometer analytics. They attempt to find meaning, purpose and practical guidance in the mechanics of the speedometer and the quantitative abilities of the fuel tank.

Specialists dig deeper and deeper convinced that if we can just measure that fuel consumption a little more accurately, or get more specific data on our current velocity, everything will become clear.

There are whispers about the environment beyond the dashboard (a form of life) and fanciful concepts like “other cars, road signs, and changing conditions” (motivational climates and affordance landscapes) but we can’t see those things clearly, let alone measure them, so they can’t be real…right?

Over time we become so used to this limited view that we don’t know any better. We build our programs of practice and create driver – or player – development protocols based on dashboard data.

We become obsessed with the information we get from the speedometer and the fuel tank.

In the Real World of Coaching

This insidious obsession seeps into everyday practice, shaping long-term player development plans and dominating day-to-day training sessions. Measurements of “sprints made” (speedometer) and “kilometers run” (fuel tank) shape coaching approaches and define successful training sessions.

Welcome to sports coaching viewed through the “quantitative, sport science lens”. Welcome to dashboard coaching (short-sighted driving) in association with zoomed-in methodologies and sponsored by reading glasses 2.0.

It’s not that this lens is wrong, or the information bad, but that it is only a limited part of the picture. Only a few pieces of the wider puzzle. Unfortunately, these small, isolated pieces dominate the research that is done and shape the practices that we design.

Leaving the wider picture ignored and unexplored due to our collective obsession with zooming-in.

However, there are other ways to view athlete development and sports coaching.

In our recent paper, my co-authors and I argue that we need to apply multiple lenses that zoom in and out. Glasses that can transcend the bias of zoomed-in disciplines and appreciate the complex world beyond the dashboard.

We argue for a new point of departure when addressing applied coaching challenges, a way of working whereby new practice emerges from true collaboration and unique cultural contexts.