By Dr. Chris Cushion, Loughborough University, UK

How Effective is your Coaching Practice?

(Used with Permission by Dr. Chris Cushion)

The complex nature of the coaching process means that coaches’ behavior, and practice within it, is subject to a wide range of often confounding and uncontrollable variables. However, whilst seemingly obvious, how the coach behaves and what the coach does is one element of the coaching process that is under the control of the coach.

Indeed, the coach occupies a position of centrality and influence in the sporting arena (Cushion et al. 2006, Smith & Smoll 2007). Moreover, the coach is a powerful socializing agent whose behavior can impact athlete performance, learning, and a range of psycho-social outcomes. This impact can be both positive and negative. It would seem therefore, that understanding which behaviors translate into positive (and negative) outcomes for athletes is essential for practitioners and coaching scholars alike. This is the case for practitioners, as evidence would suggest that coaches are notoriously poor at describing their own behavior, while with athletes the reverse is true; athletes are more accurate at describing their coach’s behavior than the coaches are themselves. Therefore, the most sophisticated understandings of coaching practice and advances in coach education would seem fruitless if coaches lack seemingly basic levels of self-awareness. This article considers what advice or guidance we can give coaches in understanding and developing their own coaching behavior and practice.

Looking at coach behavior: How should coaches behave?

A useful database of coach behavior does exist, and what this body of work has done is to identify (within certain constraints) “tried and tested coaching behaviors” (Douge & Hastie 1993 p 54). This has resulted in claims that instructors within sport have available to them an extensive and growing knowledge base from which to make decisions about their practice (More & Franks, 2004). However, in practice precise prescription remains problematic as there are no definitive answers regarding how much of which behavior a coach should use in any particular situation. Similarly, just because a ‘successful’ coach uses much of a specific behavior or coaches in a particular ‘style, does not mean that it will either be applicable or effective for another coach in a different context. Coaching is just not that clear-cut.

Read our article on the Four Coaching Styles, and how they can be used to create consistently effective coaching!

Coach Behavior Thinking Philosophically

Although coaches may not necessarily articulate clear beliefs about it, their practice invariably rests upon basic often unquestioned beliefs about learning (Light 2008). Indeed, all coaching is based upon some theory about how we learn with behaviorism strongly informing coaching (and its research), resulting in an instructional approach that emphasizes the use of feedback and reward behavior. Other instructional methods that are for example, based on modified games (e.g. game sense, games for understanding) have a more constructivist philosophy underpinning them; that is understanding and knowledge is developed or ‘constructed’ through experiences that are social in nature. These philosophical differences are important because they will determine approaches to how knowledge is presented and transferred and how an athlete may go about learning. It is not my intention to square the philosophical circle here, or indeed to promote any approach to coach behavior or instructional model as superior to another. Instead, as a starting point to considering coach behavior it is to emphasize that coaches should be aware of the assumptions that underpin their practice (Cushion, in-press). This is a necessary step to raising coaches’ self-awareness and grasping the implications of their behavior (good or bad).

Read our article on Developing Your Coaching Philosophy now!

Coach Behavior is Context Specific

What are the outcomes?
Coach behavior should be a way to connect athlete understanding with the concepts and skills within the objectives of the session (Hall & Smith 2006). It is imperative therefore that the coach considers the objectives of the session, so that he or she can determine whether given behaviors are relevant to the task. Abraham & Collins (1998) posit this in terms of a simple question: “is the coach’s behavior appropriate to the aim of the session?” (p 66). As such, coaches need to give as much consideration to their behavioral strategy as they do to other parts of the session. For example, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s behavior was in no sense ad-hoc, but the product of extensive, detailed and daily planning based on continuous evaluation of team and individuals matched to the outcomes of the session (Gallimore & Tharp 2004). It is important to note also that coaches should not necessarily follow a ‘plan’ or ‘style’ verbatim without any consideration of what is happening in front of them. In aligning behavior to objectives there remains a need to be flexible and adaptive, this key consideration can be overlooked by some coaches and is often devalued by coach education.

Know your athletes, and yourself

To be truly ‘athlete-centered’ coach behavior should be focused on the potential of the learner. Coach behavior should create the possibilities for development through the kind of active participation that characterizes collaboration; it should be socially negotiated and should entail transfer of control to the learner (Daniels 2001). This would suggest a facilitative rather than dominating role for the coach which in turn, requires a need to respond to the diversity of learners with an appropriately diverse range of approaches (Daniels 2001). The coach should direct and guide individual athlete activity, but they should not force or dictate their own will onto them. Authentic coaching comes through collaboration.

Read our article on Athlete Centered Coaching now!

The most valuable behavior corresponds with the athlete’s developmental needs and individual particularities, and therefore these methods cannot be uniform. This suggestion of responsiveness of behavior rather than imposition of sameness in coaching has still to permeate day-to-day practices in the field (Cushion, in-press). Coaching is a complex activity that demands that the coach interpret athletes’ constructions of opportunities for engagement and select responses which assist that engagement (Daniels 2001).


Paradoxically, approaches to coaching that appear to emphasize the individual often tend to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to coach behavior. That is, regardless of individual differences in the person, even significant ones, the same basic attitudinal and behavioral qualities in the coach are viewed as necessary and sufficient for all athletes (Cain 1989). In reality, adopting one single approach means very little variation in interaction between coach and athlete. However, not all athletes are the same, nor are circumstances and contexts, and therefore a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work for all athletes in all situations (Amorose 2007). Athletes have been shown to have different preferences and different responses to coach behavior (Reiman 2007) and in complex social and interpersonal settings, individual differences are certain to play an important role (Smith & Smoll 2007). Advocating a singular approach to coach behavior seems in fact to contradict athlete-centeredness and deny or minimize individual difference.

Clearly then, coach behavior will be more effective if it ‘fits’ the athletes. Athletes do have the capacity to know or recognize that which promotes their own learning and growth (Cain 1989, Jones & Standage 2006). An athlete’s perception of themselves and their worlds, must be viewed as a key criterion for determining whether the coaches attitude, manner of relating or specific behaviors are facilitative or not (Cushion, in-press). Indeed, truly athlete centered coaches would be continuously receptive to learning how their athletes learn and perform effectively. In this sense, to create an optimal atmosphere for learning and performance, coaches should be less concerned about a coaching style or behavior and more concerned about whether whatever they do impairs or facilitates learning. In this sense, receptivity, flexibility and differentiated responses in coaches are likely to maximize outcomes (Cain, 1989). However, Potrac & Cassidy (2006) draw upon Floden’s (1989) work from education which suggests that there is a failure in coach education to provide coaches with the opportunity to explore how their behavior looks to athletes, how athletes perceive what they are learning, and how athletes learn content that is in some way foreign to them.

In essence we are largely ignoring a key aspect of the coaching role and function (Jones 2006). This reveals two key elements: firstly that coaches are well advised to get to know their athletes (Chelladurai & Reimer 1998); secondly that athletes respond to their own perceptions of the coaches behavior therefore coaches need to understand how athletes interpret their behavior (Reimer 2007). Hence, a key to behaving effectively involves awareness of one’s own behavior and its consequences, and as such, self-monitoring becomes a crucial skill (Smith & Smoll 2007). Indeed, Smith & Smoll (2007) argue that high levels of self-monitoring will impact coach behavior because coaches become more responsive to situational cues, are able to recognize the differing needs of their athletes and situations and, are therefore more flexible in their behaviors.

Role of the Coach

After positioning the coach at the heart of the coaching process, it seems somewhat foolish to consider the role of the coach framed within a discussion of coach behavior. But, as already discussed, a coach’s behavior will be informed, implicitly or explicitly, by their beliefs about learning (coaching). Practicing and behaving according to ones beliefs will directly impact how the coach’s role is perceived and enacted within the coaching process. Therefore, behavior and role are inextricably linked, with the coach’s behavior depending on the role that they have adopted within the coaching process. More often than not, there is a ‘default’ role and the behaviors that coaches engage with are linked to the issues such as tradition of the sport, socialization experiences etc.

The traditional role for the coach has been highly directive, instructional or prescriptive (Cassidy et al. 2004, Kidman, 2001), with the coach deciding when and how athletes should perform specified skills or movements (Potrac & Cassidy 2006, Kidman 2001). This has led to the coach being regarded as the sole source of knowledge, transmitting this in a unidirectional way with athletes having a passive role in the learning process (Potrac & Cassidy 2006). Alternatively, the coach can be regarded as a facilitator who is entirely non-directive and where within certain constraints, the athlete largely controls their own development. In this case the coaches behavior would provide little or no instructional feedback (and therefore need no specialist or content knowledge), but be engaged in helping the athlete solve their problems and construct knowledge experientially through for example, questioning, summarizing, reflecting and listening (Downey 2003).

Read our article on The Critical Role of the Coach!

The ends of the continuum, directive/non-directive, coach led/athlete led, can be illustrated by both coaches, coach educators and scholars alike who each advocate or even ‘indoctrinate’ (Nelson et al 2006) their ‘right way’ or indeed the ‘only’ way of coaching. The reality of course is that neither approach nor related behaviors are problem or issue free, particularly when used solely and to the exclusion of any other. For example, the use of a directive approach alone has the potential to disempower athletes and impacts the development of decision-making, problem solving and creative skills (Potrac & Cassidy 2006, Cassidy et al 2004). While an entirely non-directive approach, that allows unchecked development can result in the learner acquiring levels of knowledge and understanding that are immature, incorrect and may lead to the neglect of key skills (Cushion 2006, Potrac & Cassidy 2006, Butler 1997).

Potrac & Cassidy (2006) argue that to develop self-regulating and autonomous athletes (i.e. those who can perform when not under the direct control of the coach), the coaching role requires “more than either the one-directional transmission of knowledge from coach to athlete or the total ownership by athletes of their own development” (p 40). As the argument here has suggested the role and behavior the coach adopts is highly context dependent, and therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, this does not seem to prevent some from forcefully advocating and rigidly adhering to a single role within the coaching process and with it, a singular way of behaving.

This rigid adherence to a certain behavior may be experienced by athletes (and other coaches) as an imposition if this is the only way coaches are willing to behave and interact (Nelson et al. 2006, Cain 1989). Despite well intended notions of ‘freedom’ for the athlete, maintaining one approach, despite feedback (directly and indirectly) that this is not helpful, means that coaches are in fact constrained by a limited manner of behaving and interaction (Cushion, in-press). Consequently, any notions of ’empowerment’ may well be lost as the athlete has less power and freedom because they perceive coaches as ‘authorities’ on how best they can change (Cain 1989). So from different theoretical perspectives there maybe ‘optimum’ roles for the coach and related behavior needed to promote learning, but these may not necessarily align for a given athlete, or athletes with specific goals or needs (Amorose 2007, Cain 1989). Indeed, there is no single behavior, role or approach that is either a defining or essential component of athlete centeredness (Popkewitz, 1998; Cain, 1989). In fact, the degree that a coach feels compelled to behave in a single way, the more likely they are to impose limits on their athletes because their own behavior is constrained (Daniels 2001, Cain 1989).

Coaches must be free to interact and behave in a variety of ways that may or may not include directive or non-directive behavior. Attempting to adhere to a particular way of behaving, coaches may lose sight of the fact that they need to be free to act appropriately to create optimal conditions for learning (Cushion, in-press). If behavior and practice can be seen to be from an understanding of the athletes needs, then this is truly athlete-centered. Coaches need to consider if they are inadvertently imposing their perspective on the athlete rather than providing that which will best meet the athletes’ individual needs in a manner compatible with their individual learning.

So the role of the coach and coach behavior is not, and should not be, an ‘either-or’ scenario. Nor should it be a matter of behaving in a singular way. Coaches are presented with a directive/non-directive continuum, but there are of course many degrees of freedom between the two positions (Jones & Standage 2006). In reality, the coach has a role to play in identifying and addressing sporting problems and assisting athletes deconstruct knowledge related to aspects of sporting performance (Potrac & Cassidy 2006). Moreover, the coach must provide the athlete with the personal and informational resources for learning (Cain 1989).

Some Conclusions

Because coach behavior should vary across athletes and situations providing specific recommendations on how to behave becomes difficult. There is no set formula for successful coach behavior. However, it is important to see beyond the directive/non-directive debate and also consider critically advocates of a single ‘superior’ method and position the needs of the athlete as paramount. Arguably, effective coaches are able to focus on the needs of individual athletes; and behavior should be shaped around individual athletes progress and responses, and also the context at any given moment (Cushion, in-press). The intent should always be to connect coach behavior to athlete learning. Therefore, the quality of the support and behavior provided by the coach is the key. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach and the optimal behavior will depend on the characteristics of the situation and the athlete.


  1. What assumptions about learning do you have?
  2. How do these impact your practice?
  3. Can you accurately describe your own behavior? How do you know you’re right?
  4. Have you asked your athletes to describe how you behave?
  5. What is appropriate behavior for each of your athletes given their individual stage of development?


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Potrac P, & Cassidy, T. (2006). The coach as ‘more capable other’. In: Jones RL (ed) The sports coach as educator re-conceptualising sports coaching , London Routledge, pp 39-50.

Reimer, H.A. (2007). Multi-dimensional model of coach leadership. In S. Jowett, & D. Lavallee (Eds). Social Psychology in Sport , pp.57-73. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics

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