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What Is a Coaching Philosophy?

Our coaching philosophy is essentially the framework around which we build our coaching approach. It’s the product of our beliefs and values, and has a huge impact on our coaching methodologies and the way we work with others. Everyone’s exact vision and coaching philosophy is different; it’s crucial that, when forming our own, we’re authentic to our true selves and considerate of our environment and the individuals we’re working with.

A clear coaching philosophy can:

  • Give us a well-defined coaching approach.
  • Help us to set expectations, both for ourselves and the athletes we coach.
  • Affect things like the way we coach and teach, how we work with individual athletes, our communication strategies, and our team values.
  • Provide valuable guidance throughout our coaching journey — particularly when we face adversity.
  • Help us to be consistent in our actions and decision-making.

Below, we consider some of the things that coaches may wish to consider when forming their own coaching philosophy.

Why Do We Coach?

Before trying to form a personal coaching philosophy, it may help to self-reflect; ask yourself why you coach, and think about what the word ‘coaching’ means to you. Our reasons for coaching, core values, and what we believe the act of coaching actually entails, will have a profound impact on our coaching philosophy.

After all, the role of a coach – at any level – is much more than to simply deliver training sessions on the grass.

“It comes back to what the end goal is,” explains Dave Wright, High Performance Athlete Development Consultant at High Performance Sport New Zealand. “Personally, I want every young person to have a great experience and maximise their potential — whether that’s lifelong participation or becoming a professional athlete. And that’s reflected in my coaching.”

“I think of coaching as constantly observing, and actively challenging, habits in new games,” adds Warren Grieve, Technical Director at Football New South Wales. “By observing, understanding, and challenging athletes, we can help them to improve their habits, potentially convert bad habits into good ones, and get some successful outcomes.”

Importantly, we must remember that what works for expert coaches, or even our peers in grassroots sports environments, may not work for us; even if another coach’s philosophy is bringing them success, it might not be suited to our context, and we must be careful not to simply imitate other coaches or the coaching philosophies we see elsewhere.

In fact, one of the cornerstones of effective coaching is authenticity. Athletes will often detect when their coach is not being genuine – and this can have a profound effect on the athlete-coach relationship that develops. Accordingly, our coaching philosophy should reflect our own beliefs and core values, as well as the specific demands of our environment, and the precise needs of the young people we coach.

So, before developing your coaching philosophy, think about why you coach, who you’re working with, what you want to help them achieve, and how you can help them achieve it.

For all coaches, our own notions of why we coach, and what that means, should directly influence our vision and overall coaching philosophy.

What Is Our Environment?

Our coaching environment — our setting and the people we’re coaching, their age, level of ability, and their aims and ambitions — will also affect our coaching philosophy. 

For example, if we’re coaching very young children, our approach may be centred upon making our sessions fun, helping participants to enjoy themselves, and laying the foundations for a lifetime of involvement in the sport; in a performance environment, our attention might be more focused on developing athletes and experiencing success in competition; in some grassroots clubs, we may believe that our primary role is to develop people – which could mean using practice to teach life skills, in a way that builds character and prepares children for the world beyond the playing sports.

It’s also possible that our club or organisation has a curriculum, mission statement, or existing set of values to work from. This will require us to be flexible, and creative in the way we embody and teach our own philosophy within those parameters — especially if the two don’t always align.

Regardless of our objectives, an overarching philosophy or vision is an integral part of all successful sporting programmes. And the best coaches will be capable of helping to shape the principles and approaches of their teams and clubs and allowing those same environments to guide and inform their own coaching philosophies.

Distinguishing between Coaching Philosophy and Tactics

In the media, it’s increasingly common to refer to the philosophy of elite coaches while discussing the tactics they employ. But a coaching philosophy is much more than a tactical approach to playing a sport.

Tactics are a planned series of actions — for instance, the way that a team positions itself when attacking, defending, or in specific moments of transition — that coaches put in place to try to achieve certain outcomes. At elite level, the outcome is usually to win games; in youth sport, we’re likelier to use tactics to help individuals develop, normally by giving them specific challenges or opportunities in competitive situations.

Our coaching philosophy, on the other hand, encompasses our beliefs, values, actions, and the way that we coach our athletes. Tactics are just a small component within that. In youth sport, where the primary aim is to develop people (as well as athletes), tactics will naturally form a less significant part of our coaching philosophy.

Youth sport gives us numerous opportunities to shape young people, and help them to develop key character strengths that will benefit them throughout their lives; beyond specific skills and physical fitness, sport can help a child to develop self-esteem and a growth mindset, understand the value of hard work, mutual respect, and being a team player, learn to socialise with peers and adults, and experience both success and failure within a safe space; when delivered well, it can provide an invaluable platform for personal growth.

Coaching important life skills such as these is a fundamental part of our role as coaches. And it is through our coaching philosophy – not our tactics – that we are likely to derive most of these benefits.

In fact, given the need to help develop adaptable, free-thinking athletes, most coaches in youth sport avoid tying their coaching philosophies to specific tactics, systems, or formations altogether.

Using Coaching Philosophies to Drive Team Culture

A team’s culture — whether that team is one athlete and their coach, or a 25-person squad and associated coaching staff — is the sum of the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of the people within it. As sports coaches, the values and behaviours that we hold and model (qualities that are underpinned by our coaching philosophy) will have a huge impact on the culture that develops within our team; if we want our athletes to uphold our team principles on the sports field, we must live those principles on the training pitch – every single practice.

Given the role that team culture plays in helping young people to develop key character strengths and behaviours that will benefit them throughout their lives, we have an immense responsibility to create a positive team culture. We must be thoughtful of the values and behaviours that we promote and exhibit, and consistent in how we exhibit them.

This is easier when those values and behaviours are built upon a solid coaching philosophy.

Beyond Coaching Practice: What Kind of Coach Do We Want to Be?

Ultimately, our job is about more than just coaching practice once or twice each week. As mentioned, our role as coach gives us a unique opportunity to guide our athletes and help them to grow and develop as people.

But to succeed in this aim, we need a solid coaching philosophy.

Given that our philosophy directly impacts the type of coach we are, it may be helpful to consider what kind of leader and educator we want to be before seeking to form our coaching philosophy. For example, do we tend towards traditional command-based approaches, or do we look to give our athletes support and autonomy? Is our communication one-way or collaborative? Do we seek to control young athletes or empower them?

“Historically, we’re very socialised into controlled coaching,” says Dan Abrahams, Sport Psychologist and former consultant to AFC Bournemouth. “It’s a misunderstanding of motivation, learning, and leadership. Learning is about discovery — through things like repetition without repetition, and self-organisation.

“I prefer an autonomy-supportive environment, which means helping players to motivate themselves, relate to what you’re doing, and express their own views.”

No matter what our coaching vision, it’s important that our coaching philosophy and coaching methodology align. For instance, if we believe in developing athletes by empowering them, that must extend to how we talk to them and share ideas, not just the activities we create at training sessions; the ways we seek to educate, lead, and interact with athletes should always be a reflection of our coaching philosophy.

Thus, to be a successful coach, we don’t just need a sound coaching philosophy; we need to be consistent in how we implement it.

Developing Your Own Coaching Philosophy (And Tying It to your Coaching Style)

Finally, to develop your own coaching philosophy, it may help to break the process down. Here, we explain how to build a coaching philosophy in five simple stages:

  1. Practice self-awareness and determine what your values are: your coaching values and your personal values should be closely aligned. What are your beliefs? Take time to think about the answer. It will underpin your overall coaching philosophy.
  2. List your values in order of priority: having identified your values, rank them in order of importance (to you). This encourages further introspection and will help you to gain an even deeper awareness of self, can drive personal growth, and, ultimately, enable you to be authentic as a coach.
  3. Form a set of coaching objectives in order to help you live those values: this is how you translate values into observable behaviours. The precise nature of your objectives will depend upon your environment and the athletes you’re coaching. But it should always reflect your own beliefs and personal outlook.
  4. Openly express your philosophy: having formed a well-defined set of values and an articulable coaching philosophy, you can reinforce the process by expressing your philosophy to your athletes. This will not only help motivate you to remain true to your values in moments of difficulty, but may encourage your athletes to reflect on the values that they themselves would like to live by.
  5. Tie your philosophy to your coaching style: your coaching style should be an expression of your overall philosophy. Consider the way you coach, ensure that the two are aligned, and strive to be consistent in letting your coaching philosophy guide your behaviour.

In Summary: What Is a Coaching Philosophy?

  • Our coaching philosophy is the framework around which we build our coaching approach, encompassing things like our beliefs, values, and actions.
  • Avoid imitating other coaches; your coaching philosophy should reflect your own values and beliefs as a coach.
  • Before forming our coaching philosophy, we should consider why we coach, and what coaching means to us.
  • We may need to adapt our coaching philosophy to suit our environment and the athletes we’re working with.
  • Philosophy and tactics are different; a coach’s tactical preferences are only a small part of their overarching coaching philosophy.
  • Our vision and coaching philosophy can have a significant impact on the culture we create within our team.
  • As a coach, we should consider the type of educator and leader we want to be, and consistently reflect those ideals in our approach.

Image Source: Canva

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