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Developing Your Coaching Identity

Every coach has a coaching identity — some just don’t know it. The coaches that reflect on “what is their coaching identity?”, tend to benefit from this reflection by being able to identify the qualities that either help or hinder them to be an effective coach. Exploring the concept of coaching identity a little further, we know that coaching identity:

  • forms the basis of our coaching culture and enables us to uphold the standards we set for our players;
  • impacts how we help young athletes develop their own character strengths;
  • lays the foundation for creating and developing team culture.

But what is a coaching identity? And how can we forge our own identity while remaining authentic and consistent in our approach? 

Below, we examine the components of character and identity, demonstrate why they’re important in sport (and beyond), and explain how coaches can develop their own, unique identity in order to maximise their effectiveness when working with people.

What Is a Coaching Identity?

Our identity is an important part of who we are as a coach. It underpins our coaching culture, determines the example we set for our players, and even impacts the way we teach and interact with them. But without proper understanding, ‘identity’ can equally be little more than a buzzword. To create a positive, productive coaching identity, we must first understand the meaning behind the term.

In short, our identity is how we perceive ourselves. Our coaching identity is how we perceive ourselves as a coach. Identity is dynamic — changing over time and in different contexts.

It would be fair to say how identity has been defined so far is a little abstract. To make thinking more practical, let’s draw on Dr. Ralph Pim’s work in this space. Dr. Pim, a global expert in character and leader development through sport, defines a person’s identity as the sum of their beliefs and visible behaviours. “Creating and developing an identity,” he writes, “is the process of identifying qualities (also known as character strengths) that you want yourself to exemplify.” 

Pim asks coaches to consider the qualities they notice when observing peers in training sessions or games and reframe those qualities as character strengths. Then, once we understand the different types of character strengths and recognise what they look like in practical terms, we can establish the ones we wish to exhibit ourselves, and form our own coaching identity.

Understanding Character Strengths

Understanding the components of character not only helps us to refine our coaching identity but enables us to help young athletes develop positive character traits through sport. Pim aims to simplify this process, defining ‘character’ as multiple character strengths, often expressed at the same time, each falling into one of two categories: Performance Character Strengths and Relational Character Strengths.

Performance Character Strengths relate to mastery and success in a specific environment.

Relational Character Strengths promote ethical conduct and harmony.

Common examples of these character strengths include:

Performance Character Strengths

  • Confidence
  • Competitiveness
  • Discipline
  • Resilience
  • Being hardworking
  • Having a strong sense of commitment
  • Possessing high levels of focus

Rational Character Strengths

  • Empathy
  • Humility
  • Honesty
  • Respectfulness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Caring about others
  • Valuing teamwork
  • Kindness
  • Acting with fairness and integrity

All character strengths are associated with positive outcomes, and will often be visible in many aspects of our lives, not just on the sports field. For example, if a coach’s biggest strength is social intelligence, they will likely use it when coaching players, but also when interacting with employers or spending time with their family.

Reflecting on, forming, and developing our own character strengths is one way to build a positive personal identity. As Pim summarises, “character strengths are critically important to social and emotional wellbeing, to physical health, to improved relationships, and to achievement. They’re the key to helping people unlock and fulfil their potential.”

How to Develop a Coaching Identity

So how can coaches realise their existing qualities, seek to build additional character strengths, and forge a positive identity that will drive their overall coaching culture?

According to Pim, the first step is often reflection: “Think about a coach who really impacted your life, and contemplate what made them so impactful,” he advises. “And also consider how you want to be remembered by your players. This really ties in with the concept of coaching identity.”

Having thought about the type of coach that we want to be, we should assess which Performance and Relational Character Strengths correspond with that overall character type, and then pick roughly four strengths from each category. It is upon these strengths that we can construct our own coaching identity. Finally, once we’ve selected the character strengths we wish to exemplify, we can turn them into observable behaviours — traits that we exhibit constantly and consistently in training sessions and on game day. 

Here, constant self-reflection is important. We may occasionally falter, but that’s okay; the act of regularly assessing our own actions and remembering the standards we have set ourselves will help us to transform these character strengths from simple words into ingrained behaviours.

“We often talk about coaches not spending enough time self-reflecting,” says Andy Rogers, Coaching Lead at Sport New Zealand. “But this is a great way to self-reflect and identify what’s important to you and why you’re doing it. It’s a tough exercise, and, as you develop and mould your coaching identity, some character strengths may change. But it’s vital for coaches to identify who they are, how they want to behave, and how they want to be seen in action.”

Why Is Our Identity Important?

As mentioned, our identity — the product of our beliefs and character strengths — impacts all aspects of our lives, and understanding it is fundamental to our personal development. Pim writes that our inner thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about ourselves as coaches “drive behaviours that produce productive (or non-productive) results.” From a coaching perspective, our identity can also have a huge influence on the character development of our players.

As coaches, we are role models to the athletes we work with; our observable behaviours (the visible manifestation of our identity) set examples and standards for our players that will, in turn, over time, shape the individual character strengths that they develop. This gives us a great responsibility to identify and consistently exhibit positive behaviours.

“I always ask coaches if they’re exemplifying the same qualities that they want their players to demonstrate,” explains Pim. “I think that’s really important.” In essence, Pim says, we must embrace our responsibility as role models and strive to always demonstrate the behaviour we ask from our players. And this becomes easier when behaviour is the product of a clear, well-formed identity. 

Developing a Team Culture

Another benefit of having a clear coaching identity is the positive impact it can have on team culture. We can consider team culture to be an embodiment of the values, beliefs, attitudes, and purposes that belong to the individuals within our group, and, thus, something that ties in neatly with identity. “It’s the sum of all of your people and their behaviours,” says Pim, “so developing a team culture goes hand-in-hand with creating an identity.”

As he does when defining ‘character’, Pim breaks ‘team culture’ down into distinct, unambiguous components: Purpose, Vision, Core Values, Standards, and Results. The key, he says, is to transform these words into productive and visible behaviours that will consequently forge a team identity. And investing the time to develop a strong team identity, Pim writes, “could be the most important thing that you do in a season — establishing a culture that builds life skills, improves relationships, increases performance, and boosts wellbeing.”

Ultimately, our identity and coaching culture will be recognised by our players, influence the development of their own character strengths, impact both their individual and collective senses of identity, and help to drive the culture within our team. As such, developing a positive coaching identity is key to creating effective learning environments in which young athletes can enjoy their sport, develop, and thrive.

In Summary

  • Our coaching identity is how we perceive ourselves as a coach, defined by Dr. Ralph Pim as the sum of our beliefs and visible behaviours.
  • In turn, our character can be defined as the product of our various character strengths. Pim breaks these strengths down into two categories: Performance Character Strengths and Relational Character Strengths.
  • While Performance Character Strengths relate to mastery and success, Relational Character Strengths promote team harmony and ethical conduct. Everyone needs to possess a combination of both types of character strength.
  • To develop our own coaching identity, we must first self-reflect, considering both our existing strengths and how we’d like to be perceived by others. Then, we can select the Performance and Relational Character Strengths that underpin that identity, and seek to demonstrate them through our behaviours.
  • As coaches, we are role models; it’s crucial that our behaviours constantly match those we expect from our players. Consistently exhibiting positive behaviour is easier when those behaviours form part of a clearly-defined, well-established coaching identity.
  • Having a clear coaching identity is essential to helping our group develop a productive team culture, and creating an effective learning environment in which players can enjoy playing sport and thrive.
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