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How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport?

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

How to coach with a Balance is Better philosophy

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Balance is Better Principles Poster

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Creating a positive parent culture

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

Unpacking the Balance is Better principles

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Running good trials and selections

Balanced Female Health

Balanced Female Health

What Can We Learn from the Coaching Philosophies of Five Great Coaches?

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 developing athletes and optimising performance on game day. Our own approach to working with athletes and trying to shape their lives should be no different; our coaching style should be underpinned by an ongoing quest to learn and improve. And while we must never blindly imitate another coach or coaching philosophy, we can learn a lot by studying the approaches of others. In the following examples, we will analyse quotes from five of the coaching greats, and see what we can learn from their coaching philosophies.

Sport Coaching Philosophy Examples From the World’s Best Coaches

Steve Kerr

“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 (Head Coach, Golden State Warriors)

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, we might expect him to favour a commanding or instructional coaching approach. But this quote demonstrates a rather different coaching style; Kerr’s coaching philosophy centres upon more open and supportive methods of player development.

Kerr, who is famed for letting his players run team talks, seeks to empower the individuals he works with. His reference to nudging players in the right direction suggests an educational technique akin to guided discovery — the process of developing athletes by giving them challenges and allowing them to find their own solutions, perhaps by 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.

Autonomy is an integral part of player and athlete development in all sports. Athletes learn and develop skills best when they are given the freedom to explore; they need numerous opportunities to encounter problems and discover their own solutions and responses, and chances to practice those responses in a variety of settings and environments.

Furthermore, when we trust athletes to take ownership of their own development, they’re likelier to experience the intrinsic motivation that will ultimately help them to become better learners. While the increased responsibility can provide valuable life lessons and opportunities for personal growth.

Most coaches find this unnatural when they first start out on their coaching journey. Even in youth sports, there can be a great deal of pressure to be perceived to succeed — whether from programme directors, parents, or the young people we coach — and this can make it difficult to relinquish control. But a successful coach must trust their athletes. And this doesn’t simply mean allowing athletes to think and act for themselves when they’re in competitive situations on the sports field, but also creating a culture on empowerment and openness that begins at our training sessions.

Of course, Kerr’s coaching philosophy does not mean he takes an inactive role in the development of his athletes or the way they approach gameday — he will still set expectations, based upon a clear vision and set of core values that he establishes with his team; he simply looks to support his athletes by empowering (rather than commanding) them.

Many expert coaches agree that the best coaching philosophies are centred upon positive human relationships. And, by demonstrating that he trusts and cares for his players, Kerr is likely to increase both their confidence in their own ability, and their motivation to perform for him. This innately compassionate, somewhat paternalistic, coaching philosophy, coupled with the success that Kerr has enjoyed while employing it, is a resounding endorsement of coaching philosophies centred upon athlete empowerment.

Waimarama Taumaunu

“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 (Assistant Coach, Silver Ferns)

Here, former New Zealand Netball captain and coach Waimarama Taumaunu recalls her 1987 World Title win as a player. Interestingly, in outlining the coaching philosophy she believes helped one of her own coaches achieve 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. This, in turn, is reflected in Taumaunu’s own coaching philosophy.

As discussed, for most 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 make us feel a 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. Once again, her own coaching philosophy — just like that of her former coach, Muir — is centred upon the empowerment of individuals, and placing athletes at the centre of the coaching environment.

In youth sports in particular, we should strive to define success not by performance or competition outcomes, but by our ability to help children feel the joy of participating and fall in love with sports while they develop key skills. A coaching philosophy centred upon fun, that ignites passions from an early age and prepares children to learn more complex ideas later on, is key to helping young people stay involved in sports and, ultimately, enjoy active, fulfilling, and happy lives.

From this example, it could be argued that Muir’s personal coaching philosophy is an extension of the ‘just them play’ approach to coaching youth sports, suitably adapted for the needs of performance environments.

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 mean, for example, having one-on-one coaching conversations with athletes to help motivate and prepare them; collaborating to identify key areas of individual development; subsequently working with individuals in training to develop key strengths; striving to select athletes in their best positions; or creating a culture of trust and openness, where athletes feel able to ask questions, practice skills, try new things, and even fail, safe in the knowledge that it will not negatively impact them or their chances of selection.

This coaching philosophy ties in neatly with the athlete-centred approach to coaching and player development.

It could also be argued that one of the biggest successes of Muir’s approach — going beyond her team’s achievements on the netball court — is that the core values which underpinned it were so evidently shared by her players. That, years later, Taumaunu’s own values and coaching philosophy are so closely aligned to those of her former coach is testament to the impact they had on her. The primary aim of any coach, at all levels of participation, should be to positively affect the people they work with. Here, it is clear that Muir succeeded.

And, as the sporting achievements of both Muir and Taumaunu demonstrate: if we focus on the individuals we coach, and strive to get the best out of them, our team is also likelier to enjoy success.

Wayne Bennet

“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 (former Head Coach, multiple NRL teams)

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 Bennett attributes his success, and that of his athletes, to hard work, determination, and other vital character strengths. It refers to the seven-minute runs, ending at a concrete slab, that he regularly assigned his players in training; the individuals who ended their run just before the slab are the people who stopped ‘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 Bennett, we see a coach who values character strengths — such as motivation, work ethic, and commitment — above all else (including talent). His seven-minute practice doesn’t simply focus on fitness, but builds character strengths, and emphasises the importance of commitment within his team.

Character strengths like resilience, motivation, a desire to be a team player, and coachability can influence all aspects of a person; they form a significant portion of our identity, affect our ability and willingness to learn and develop, and have a huge impact on our capacity to cope with adversity. 

Bennett’s personal coaching philosophy reflects an appreciation of the value of character strengths, and their long-term impact on learning, development, and overall team performance. His approach to developing his athletes shows that, even at the elite level, playing sports provides unique opportunities for personal growth.

As coaches, we have an opportunity to help every athlete we work with build character strengths that will benefit them, both in the world of sport and in their life beyond. It is our responsibility to appreciate the value of 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 (Head Coach, Silver Ferns)

Dame Noeline Taurua is a former New Zealand Netball international, Commonwealth Games medallist, and current 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 statement 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. The cultivation of Relational Character strengths can also be integral to the development of a growth mindset, which can, in turn, underpin a healthier attitude to learning, thereby facilitating greater improvement in the long-term. 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 focus on 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, in all walks of life — as do all successful teams. We can also practice or develop both types of character strength.

Consequently, like many other successful sports coaches, Taurua makes the appreciation and development of these strengths central to her overarching coaching philosophy. And it is through developing these strengths with her athletes that she endeavours to form a winning team.

As coaches (at any level), we should always help our players develop both types of character strength, and facilitate a team culture that values both equally. It is often easy to inadvertently focus on Performance Character Strengths, though many children will benefit more from the life skills and Relational Character Strengths they get to practice while playing sports. After all, the job of a coach is not just to help athletes improve, but to develop people.

Taurua’s example shows that we can create successful teams while still prioritising the human component of coaching; a harmonious team atmosphere is vitally important, and won’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 (former Manchester United Manager)

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 and coach synonymous with success (a firm believer in discipline, 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.  Contrary to public perceptions, Ferguson’s coaching values and coaching philosophy were also centred upon empowerment and an appreciation of how athletes learn.

Ferguson’s example is a helpful reminder that, no matter how much knowledge we have, the process of effectively coaching and developing athletes means trusting the individuals in front of us and giving them the best tools to succeed — not attempting to be the fount of all wisdom.

A solid coaching philosophy, according to Ferguson, does not elevate the manager or coach — it focuses on helping athletes get the best out of themselves. Great coaches, he says, don’t control their players; they prepare and inspire them to go out and perform to the full extent of their abilities. This is perhaps the starkest acknowledgement on our list that, to be successful — especially in the field of coaching and developing athletes — we must first put our egos aside.

When developing your coaching philosophy, remember that even the best coaches place their athletes at the centres of their environments. Ultimately, our job is to support our players, help them to develop, inspire them, and then trust them “to perform at their very best.”

Developing Your Own Coaching Philosophy and Coaching Style: The Key Points

  • The most successful coaching philosophies empower athletes and give them ownership of their learning, thus helping 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.

Image Source: Unsplash

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