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Excellence in coaching: the art and skill of elite practitioners

This article is shared by Player Development Project

Charles S. Nash, John Sproule, and Peter Horton

The big idea

Albert Einstein was said to have said this about the nature of research: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called ‘research,’ would it?”  And so, it goes.  Researchers try to figure out creative ways to answer the questions they ask themselves, knowing all along they have no idea what they are doing.  Not knowing in advance provides the go-juice to power the research process.

Sometimes it is best to simplify the research process by asking significant others to answer the question they themselves (the researchers) are asking.  Presumably there are others who are “in the know.”  In this study, the three researchers do just that.  “What is coaching expertise?” is their question.  With the help of ten hands-down “expert” coaches, they investigate the rationale underlying the decision-making process of coaching experts (as represented by these ten).

The training session is the core of any coach’s art and skill.  Hence, it is the practices of elite coaches in the design and conduct of training sessions where we see not only the critical thinking skills, but also the context for practice preparation, execution, monitoring, and evaluation.


  • Interviewing ten high performance, expert coaches from eight different sports revealed significant similarities in their coaching philosophy and practice.
  • Four themes emerged from these semi-structured interviews:
    • the long term approach
    • the authentic coaching environment
    • creating a learning environment
    • the quality and quantity training sessions
  • These coaches are committed to an ingrained patience to prepare and develop athletes over one to four years, not simply preparing them for the next upcoming performance.
  • Integrating elements of actual competition in training sessions is an example of creating an authentic coaching environment.
  • Helping athletes learn to learn how to make more informed decisions and think creatively in training sessions greatly improves their ability to think creatively and make informed decisions in competition.
  • This issue of quality versus quantity is age-old. A few of these coaches emphasize intensity of training practices to blur the lines between quality and quantity.
  • Since principles of deliberate practice are not typically included in coach-education programs, these expert coaches independently gained their coaching prowess either experientially or intuitively.

The research

Design and method of the study

Ten expert coaches were recruited for this study.  They each consented to participating in a semi-structured interview.  The questions asked in the interview were constructed by the lead researcher (Nash).  By way of debate and discussion all three researchers agreed that these questions were appropriate in their potential to elicit responses consistent with the nature and significance of the research topic.  The interview questions were not reported.

The ten expert coaches consisted of eight men and two women.  The sports represented were football (soccer), swimming, basketball, tennis, squash, skiing, kayaking, and hockey.  Four criteria were used on the selection of these coaches: 1) held the highest coaching award from their national body; 2) had a minimum of ten years of continuous coaching experience; 3) were currently coaching at a representative level; and 4) had developed national-level performers over a number of years.  Collectively, these coaches amassed 251 years of coaching experience.

All semi-structured interviews were recorded and transcribed.  The “trustworthiness” of the data was evaluated for credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability.  These “abilities” formed the basis of theme identification and interpretation and categorization of the coaches’ meaning.

Findings and discussion

The semi-structured interviews of these ten expert coaches produced four key themes: 1) the long-term approach; 2) the authentic coaching environment; 3) creating a learning environment; and 4) quality and quantity of training sessions.

The long-term approach

  • These coaches are committed to an ingrained patience—a slow caring—to prepare and develop athletes over one to four years, not simply preparing them for the next upcoming performance.
  • This long-term approach reflects a high degree of individualized focus. A long-term training program can be the basis for measuring short-term goals with individual athletes.
  • They build a strong technical base before asking players to perform tactically.
  • Playing for a purpose—a potential career—demands a practice environment whereby the athlete can see the worthiness of meeting expectations over time.
  • A long-term approach is consistent with progressive development of the athletes even if the outcome is uncertain.
  • These elite coaches also emphasized the importance of providing the athletes with opportunities to process, construct, and make sense of their training practices.

The authentic coaching environment

  • Integrating elements of actual competition in training sessions is an example of creating an authentic coaching environment.
  • Players need to become accustomed to the threats and anxieties of competition.
  • Such training sessions have the potential to create opportunities for the freedom to experiment in a secure learning environment.
  • This approach is the contextualization of practice. Situated learning of this sort helps the athletes deal with the stress of competition.
  • If training is a realistic as possible, then competition becomes much less stressful and upsetting.
  • Confidence-building is essential, as is helping the athletes realize ownership of tactics and strategies.
  • The authentic training session is more likely to create mutual respect between the athlete and coach, as well as nurture relaxed but focused athletes.
  • These elite coaches to a one endorse the vital necessity of using realistic competitive elements and situations in training sessions.

Creating a learning environment

  • While these coaches emphasize training sessions for on-going athlete needs assessment, they also emphasize the importance of athletes contributing to their own learning.
  • Many of these coaches see themselves as facilitators of learning rather than directors of what needs to be learned.
  • Helping athletes learn to learn how to make more informed decisions and think creatively in training sessions greatly improves their ability to think creatively and make informed decisions in competition.
  • There is agreement that learning tactics is difficult. One coach (football) will conduct a tactics training session and then end practice with a 30-minute training game.  He stops the game as much as ten times to reinforce particular points from the training practice.
  • As the athletes become more and more comfortable taking ownership of their own learning, the athletes become more intrinsically motivated.
  • Athletes taking responsibility for their own learning and development transfers to more ownership of the production of their competitive sport performance.

Quality versus quantity

  • This issue of quality versus quantity is age-old. A few of these coaches emphasize intensity of training practices to blur the lines between quality and quantity.  Focus on intensity and you can integrate quality and quantity.
  • These coaches emphasize that training practices are always relevant to performance, always effortful, even if not always inherently enjoyable.
  • Yet, as deliberate practice evolves it is more likely that players have knowledge, understanding, and an appreciation of their coach’s expectations.
  • When these experiences occur, then clear learning opportunities
  • While these learning opportunities could create bad as well as good habits, it is only the good habits that contribute to positive learning.
  • Cultivating good practice habits early in one’s development almost naturally finds the athlete comfortable with quality practice sessions throughout their careers.


So, what do 251 years of collective coaching experiences tell us about the art and skill of elite practice?  For starters, in their literature review, these researchers pointed out that many coaches had decided that “formal qualifications (coach education programs) offered little value and played no role in the development of their knowledge as elite coaches.”  Instead, far more useful and productive development is to develop pathways enabling interactions with senior coaches and mentors. 

In other words, younger or less experienced coaches hanging out with proven coaches and mentors goes much further toward developing a coach than coaching certification programs do.

In this qualitative study, and despite the radical differences in the sports coached, these ten coaches have remarkably similar coaching philosophies.  They believed:

. . . that developing elite performers is a long-term process marked over time by inevitable changes in coaches, clubs, administrative organizations, and sometimes even nationalities.

. . . that a long-term developing process requires long-term planning process in all aspects of their practices.

. . . that a quality coach must attend to developing the positive qualities of their individual athletes both in and outside of the sporting world.

. . . that coaching development is a process unto itself that cultivates a creative learning theory which in turn helps the players themselves accept responsibility for their own learning.

. . . that coach-as-facilitator will produce a shared learning experience which in turn creates inductively-developing practice sessions.

. . . that practice sessions epitomize the skill and art of the coach.

. . . that it is imperative that to enhance athlete performances in competition, training sessions must include situated authentic playing experiences.

. . . that the key to orchestrating the large number of variables when planning and executing training sessions depends on the extent to which the coach can contextualize their sport knowledge and understanding to suit their own unique practice situations.

Finally, and curiously, the researchers said this about coaches contextualizing their knowledge:

. . . that “As with all professionals, this largely stems from their own development and ‘education,’ but in regard to this cohort of elite coaches this process was unclear.”

Which brings us back to the wisdom of Albert Einstein?  Paraphrasing him, could it be that if elite coaches have no idea what it is they are doing, it wouldn’t be called “coaching,” would it?  And my oh my, don’t they do it well?

Image Source: Deposit Photos

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