As coaches, we should always be learning. The best coaches — even at the elite level — are avid learners, constantly seeking new ideas and information that might help them to be better at what they do. Our own approach to working with athletes and trying to shape their lives should be no different. And while we must never blindly imitate another coach, we can learn a lot by studying the approaches of others. Below, we’ll analyse quotes from five of the coaching greats, and see what we can learn from their coaching philosophies.
“As coaches, our job is to nudge them in the right direction. But we don’t control them. They determine their own fate.” Steve Kerr
Steve Kerr, former professional basketball player and Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors, has won the NBA eight times as a player and a coach. Given his knowledge and experience in the sport, we might expect him to take a commanding or instructional approach to coaching and educating his players. But this quote shows that his mentality is quite the opposite.
Kerr, who is famed for letting his players run team talks, seeks to empower the athletes he works with. His reference to nudging players in the right direction suggests an educational technique akin to guided discovery — the process of giving athletes challenges and allowing them to find their own solutions, perhaps manipulating the task or its constraints in order to help them form answers on their own.
By giving athletes ownership of their own learning, we help them to become independent thinkers and decision-makers. This, in turn, makes it easier for them to apply their learning to competitive scenarios, and approach those scenarios with greater confidence and competence.
Finally, by empowering his players, Kerr demonstrates that he trusts them. This is likely to increase both their confidence in their own ability, and their motivation to perform for their coach.
“We were very focused in 1987… The senior players took on a lot of responsibility and Lois [Muir, the Head Coach,] was wise enough to let them go with it… The key was that we had some of the best in the world in their positions. If you have the best players and they play well, you’re going to be hard to beat.”Waimarama Taumaunu
Here, former New Zealand Netball captain and Head Coach Waimarama Taumaunu recalls her 1987 World Title win as a player. Interestingly, in explaining why she believes one of her own coaches achieved success, Taumaunu demonstrates a similar set of beliefs to Kerr; Lois Muir, she says, was successful because she empowered her players and allowed them to take responsibility for their own outcomes.
For coaches, it can be daunting to take a step back and give athletes more control over their own learning and preparation — perhaps even more so in youth sports, where the scrutiny of parents and other stakeholders can leave us feeling that we need to be seen, and to justify our roles. But, as Taumaunu attests, putting our egos aside and empowering our athletes can be incredibly rewarding, both for us as coaches, and for the individuals we work with.
The second part of this quote — “If you have the best players and they play well, you’re going to be hard to beat” — points to a belief that we increase our likelihood of achieving positive outcomes by giving the individuals within our team the best chances to succeed. This may, for example, mean working with individuals in training to develop key strengths, having one-on-one conversations with athletes to help motivate and prepare them, or striving to select them in their best positions. It could be seen as an endorsement of the player-centred approach to coaching.
The inference? However we do it, if we get the best out of the individuals on our team, we’re likelier to enjoy success.
“The kind of people who stop three steps short; I wouldn’t call them losers, but they’re never winners either. They always fall short.”Wayne Bennett
Wayne Bennett is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NRL. He holds the record as the longest serving coach in the league, has one of the highest winning percentages of all elite-level Rugby League coaches, and boasts seven NRL Premiership titles.
This quote signifies the extent to which Bennet attributes his success, and that of his players, to hard work, determination, and other vital character strengths. It refers to the seven-minute runs, ending at a concrete slab, that he regularly assigns his players; the individuals who end their run just before the slab are the people who stop ‘three steps short’.
“Three steps won’t make any difference fitness-wise,” Bennet explains, “but they make all the difference to the psyche. If you know you haven’t taken a shortcut when you’re tired, you’ve found something. A lot of times, other people don’t notice that [the person stopped short], but they do. These people exist in all forms of life; great talent, great ability… But they just won’t make those last three steps.”
So, in Bennet, we see a coach who values character strengths above all else (including talent). Character strengths like resilience, commitment, and coachability can influence all aspects of a person; they form a significant portion of our character and identity, influence our ability and willingness to learn and develop, and have a huge impact on our capacity to cope with adversity.
As coaches, we have a unique opportunity to help young people build character strengths that will benefit them both in sport and beyond. It’s our responsibility to value these strengths and strive to help athletes develop them.
Dame Noeline Taurua
“It’s something we’ve been talking about with the Silver Ferns; we remain humble, we remain grateful, but we slaughter them when we’re out there on the netball court; we put our foot down.”Dame Noeline Taurua
Dame Noeline Taurua is a former New Zealand Netball international, Commonwealth Games medalist, and current Head Coach of the Silver Ferns. Like Bennett, she also demonstrates an acute appreciation of character strengths, and the importance of character and identity to a winning team.
But, unlike Bennett’s quote, Taurua’s references both types of character strength; Performance Character Strengths and Relational Character Strengths. Relational Character Strengths promote ethical conduct and harmony, and can include traits such as humility and respectfulness. In saying “we remain humble, we remain grateful,” Taurua alludes to this aspect of character first.
Performance Character Strengths, which relate to mastery and success in a specific environment, and include qualities like competitiveness and confidence, are amply displayed in the second part of the quote: “we slaughter them when we’re out there on the netball court; we put our foot down.”
All people require a balance of Performance and Relational Character Strengths — as do all successful teams. As coaches, we should help our players develop both types of strength, and facilitate a team culture that values both.
The key message here is that a harmonious team atmosphere is important, and doesn’t undermine our team’s competitiveness. It’s possible to have both, and both are essential to winning.
Sir Alex Ferguson
“Perhaps the most important element of each activity is to inspire a group of people to perform at their very best. The best teachers are the unsung heroes and heroines of any society.”Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson is the most successful British football manager of all time, having led Manchester United to 38 trophies in his 26-year reign as Manager of the club. Many regard him among the best managers ever to have lived.
Yet this quote is an acknowledgement, from a manager synonymous with success (and whom the media often portrayed as holding an iron grip over his players), that the best coaches play a facilitative role — not a commanding one.
The best coaches, according to Ferguson, don’t control their players; they prepare and inspire them to go out and perform to the best of their abilities. This is perhaps the starkest acknowledgement on our list that, to be successful — especially in the field of developing athletes — we must first put our egos aside.
As coaches, our job is to support our players, help them to develop, inspire them, and then trust them “to perform at their very best.”
The Key Points
- We should empower athletes and give them ownership of their learning. This will help them to become independent decision-makers.
- By working with athletes individually and creating the conditions for them to enjoy success, we maximise our team’s chances of achieving positive outcomes.
- Performance Character Strengths like determination, commitment, and resilience, are key to achieving success in competitive environments.
- Relational Character Strengths such as humility and gratitude are equally essential. In fact, both athletes and teams must possess a balance of both Performance and Relational Character Strengths.
- As coaches, we must put our egos aside; our job is to support our players, help them to develop, and allow them to perform.
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