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Coaches - Create independent athletes

Dr Matt long and Jamie French spoke to coach mentor Malcolm Fenton about coach-dependent athletes.

In Athletics Weekly (August 30th, 2012), former national coach Tom McNab alluded to his perception that in the London Olympic women's pole vault final, several of the athletes seemed heavily reliant on their coaches to inform them as to how to gauge the levels of the wind in the stadium which undoubtedly impacted on performance. This observation re-ignites the thorny issue of athletes who may be said to be 'coach-dependent'.

The Problem

While the coach to the athlete can give appropriate feedback during a competition, there is the danger of what Goldsmith (2012) calls 'over-coaching'. He explains that "Coaching is about creating independent athletes. Over-coaching creates a dependent athlete who relies on the coach for decision making and problem-solving, which is performance suicide".

Both track and field athletes can become unhealthily 'coach-dependent' before a competition. During the competition, this phenomenon is more associated with the throws and jumps disciplines because of the greater window of opportunity for athlete-coach interaction. National coach mentor for hammer, discus, and shot, Malcolm Fenton was unconditional in offering the following perspective. "I hate to intervene during competition. I want to engender self-sufficiency amongst my athletes. You have to take a historical perspective. Since the relaxing of the competition rules, the culture of the coach being there for the athlete has changed in the last 20 years or so".

The allusion to relaxing rules allowing closer proximity between athlete and coach in the competitive arena can be counterproductive for the athlete because of a vicious cycle of self-perpetuating doubt (see Karageorghis, 2007). The legendary Green Bay Packers US football coach so perceptively pointed out, "Confidence is contagious, but so is a lack of confidence!"

The causes

In applying the work of Woods (1998), one can see how a command style of coaching based on one-way instruction can lead to a coach centred and potentially unhealthy relationship between athlete and coach. Coaches who refuse to engender a more reciprocal style of contact with their athlete(s), whereby the athlete, to an extent, becomes a problem solver exploring solutions to the demands of event-specific competition, are in danger of unwittingly cultivating an overly dependent athlete. While the issues may manifest themselves in the heat of competitive battle, the relationship built up in the training context where unhealthy seeds are sown.

The solution

Malcolm provides us with three lessons: (1) the coach must work on developing an appropriate relationship with the athlete in training well before the competition. (2) Concurrent feedback given by the coach to the athlete should be a process rather than goal-focused, and (3) the use of appropriately adapted drills can be a way to engender self-analysis and cognitive shift from goal to process.

It is far easier for coaches to give athletes what Davis et al. (2000) term 'exteroceptive feedback', ordinarily underpinned by observation and delivered verbally, during training than in competition. There are many factors that both coach and athlete are unable to control during a competition which may somewhat inhibit the coach from giving feedback, not least of which may be volume levels caused by crowded stadiums at elite levels of competition.

For Fenton, the key would seem to be coaches facilitating feedback both before and in some instances during a competition which encourages the athlete to respond to the feedback provided by their bodies. Intrinsic feedback tends to be further subdivided into proprioceptive (conscious) and kinaesthetic (almost reflex) types. Whilst the coach is limited in influencing these internal mechanisms, the use of effective questioning before and in some cases during competition can, to a certain extent, influence how the athlete responds to what their body is telling them.

During a competition, coaches can to, a greater or lesser extent, offer their athletes what Galligan et al. (2000) term 'concurrent feedback'. For Fenton, one of the keys to avoiding a coach-dependent athlete is to attempt to engender KP (Knowledge of Process) rather than KR (Knowledge of Results) feedback during training, well before the competition. He continues, "You have to remember that all athletes are different. I had one athlete, for instance, who was very goal-driven indeed, even in training. I wanted the training to be more about the process and less about the goal. So, I modified the discus throw by questioning introducing a skill drill, which meant inevitably that the distance achieved would be some 10-15 metres less than it would in a short unadapted throw. The athlete began to focus less on goal and more on the process".

Once again, Fenton is a great believer that working in training is a prerequisite in shifting the athlete from overreliance on exteroceptive to intrinsic feedback during competition. He offers a further example, "In the throwing circle in training, some of my athletes experience difficulties in their right leg action in the hammer. So I got them to shout out the word 'right' at the appropriate point to ensure that they did this. To make sure they vocalised this, I often stood up to 100 yards away to make sure they remembered to shout this. One of my athletes even carried this training technique into the competitive arena once and was heard shouting this."

The athlete reflecting and using a verbal cue to trigger focus can lead to the athlete 'feeling' the movement pattern and then articulating what happened, reinforcing the learning of the movement patterns. Suppose this or other self-reflection processes are repeated enough. In that case, it is hoped that the athletes will become quasi-autonomous learning individuals or those who can learn themselves and develop themselves and therefore adapt to the differing competition environments. While for what Fleming described as kinaesthetic learners, this process of self-reflection may be appropriate, the VAK/VARK model of learning styles (Leite et al. 2009) suggests that some athletes will need to be shown or told their movement patterns. However, the process of athlete-owned interventions will once again lead to learning and adaptable athletes.


This article has done first to acknowledge a problem in our sport of coach dependency on the part of some athletes. Having articulated why this phenomenon is almost universally felt to be unhealthy, we explored the underlying causes for the manifestation of this undemocratic relationship between athlete and coach. Using the experiences of one of Britain's most respected coaches, we then moved on to consider practical solutions that can help encourage athletes to sustain a high degree of self-sufficiency during competition.

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Long & French (2013)[1] with the kind permission of the authors and Athletics Weekly.


  1. LONG, M. Dr (2013) Making a Decision, Athletics Weekly, 18th April, p. 58-59

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • LONG, M. & FRENCH, J. (2013) Coaches - Create independent athletes [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dr Matt Long and Jamie French are Coach Education Tutor and Regional Trainer with British Athletics.