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Whose sport is it?

Is your coaching philosophy 'coach centred', or 'athlete centred'? Lance Smith considers these philosophies and explains his approach to developing an effective coach-athlete relationship.

"I want him to have enough intelligence, discipline, character, or whatever so that he will walk when I tell him to, run when I want him to, and pass if that is what I want." So said John Thomson, a noted and highly successful American College basketball coach with an NCAA championship to his credit, describing what he wants in a player.

He continued: "…it is as though we are putting on a play. I am the director. I am going to pick the script, and I am going to give them their roles. They are the actors. Their job is to learn their roles - that is what practice is about. When we go out onto the court, that is our stage. Out there, they are supposed to perform as we practiced. I do not want anybody making up new lines, putting on their act."

Autocratic coach

Thomson is the archetypal autocratic or prescriptive coach. Freelancers and brilliant individualists have no place in his system. And it worked. For Thomson, the team is paramount, and he determines the play, the actors, and the roles. Conversely, there have been successful teams that are modelled more on a "Whose Line Is It Anyway" scenario with individuals making it up as they go along. The coach gives responsibility to the players. In an individual sport such as track and field, which is where the writer comes from, the coach should consider his or her approach to giving athletes responsibility or ownership of their sport carefully. Does the coach state at the beginning of the season what he wants the athlete to do, what races will be run, and what the outcome will be, or does he ask what the athlete wants to compete in and achieve?

Every so often a coach should ask the question, whose sport is it? In my book, the answer every time should be the same: the athletes. It is their sport, they own it, and they should have some of the responsibilities of ownership. The coach is there to guide, motivate, help, teach and inspire, but not control. An athlete who goes in a different direction from the coach cannot be coached. It is that simple. If such is the case, it would be better for all if the athlete found another coach or another team. But when the coach and athlete have common goals, shared philosophy, and agreement on how goals are to be achieved, an effective coaching relationship is established. And that can only happen with athlete input.

This means they contribute to the coaching process. It means a partnership. First, the coach must look at his or her coaching philosophy - if the philosophy is based on control and coaching is the "do as I say, do not ask questions" variety, giving athletes ownership of their sport will not work - they cannot have athlete ownership if there is no athlete input. Athlete input can be likened to an architect and client. The client says what style of building is required, what features are needed, and what the price will be. The architect then works out the best way to meet the client's expectations. It is the athlete (client) who determines the level of participation or intensity. The athletes decide their goals, what they want to achieve, and what they want to get out of the sport. The result is an athlete who contributes to their learning. When you get down to it, if a coach wants an athlete to run the 800 metres at the championships and he/she wants to do the 1500 metres, you end up with an unhappy and unmotivated runner. The coach can guide and advise, but in the end, the athlete has to make some of the decisions.

To be successful with an "athlete ownership" approach, the coach must ensure athletes are aware they have a role to play in the planning/learning process. Making sure they know and understand the coaching philosophy is part of this. And the coach must be prepared to accept the athlete's wishes, although not without argument or discussion as the coach's expertise and experience are still critical to the entire relationship. (In the end, the coach has the final decision - if the athlete's desires or goals are contrary to your beliefs or conscience, you can always terminate the coaching relationship.) The key is communication. The athletes must know what you want to achieve, what is expected of them, and what your philosophy is. You must know their goals, their priorities, and their feelings. And it pays to have as much of this communication as possible in writing. If the coach and athlete are a partnership, both partners must be going in the same direction, have the same goals, and agree on the best way of achieving them; otherwise, it will never work. The next section discusses some ways the coach can initiate athlete input.

Goal Setting

Goal setting should be considered more than a psychological tool as it is a sound basis for establishing the coach/athlete partnership. Goal setting should not be about giving a focus to athletes and a basis for the coach to set the training - it also means athletes are setting the criteria for their running and establishing that they "own their sport". An effective approach is to have athletes write down their training, performance, and competition goals pre-season. They should be given some time to think about it, and the coach should be involved as this will help reinforce the athlete/coach team concept. But it must be understood that it is the athlete's goals that are being sought, not the coaches. Goal setting has been covered in depth in many publications, but the following points should be considered during the goal setting process. Goals need to be short and medium term (now and the first part of the season, especially when training or technique related), as well as being directed towards the main competitive part of the season. And they should have some bearing on long-term goals (next year, the year after, next World Youth Championships, Olympics, whatever the ultimate foreseeable objective is.) For example, if the World Youth Junior Championships in two years is an objective, what is done now and next year will be important, as are the goals set for this season and next. Goals should cover Training/Technique, Performance ,and Competition.

Goals can be general or specific.

A training/technique goal could be to improve pre-season aerobic fitness. Another could be to improve form and running posture by mastering sprint drill techniques. Another might be to look forward to races with self-confidence and not let nervousness detract from performance or enjoyment.

Performance goals are relative to the athlete's events, e.g. breaking 1 minute 55 seconds for the 800 metres, consistently breaking 11 seconds for the 100 metres, making the team qualifying time for example. Be careful about making performance goals too specific, for instance, a PB or specified time in a chosen race might prove impossible if there was a howling headwind.

Competition goals aim toward a specific event and allow the coach to target and train the athlete towards it. Such goals are usually the athlete's main competition for the season. Goals must be a challenge. It is not good to set goals that can be easily achieved. Improvements are not gained by doing that. On the other hand, they must be realistic. Aiming for the impossible, only sets an athlete up for failure. For example, if an athlete is one of the four or five best in the country for their age, winning the national championships would be a realistic goal and something to work hard towards. But if their best times would not get them past the first round, winning becomes unrealistic. Perhaps making the semis should be the aim.

Goals should be based on what the coach and athlete can control. Admittedly winning a particular race is not entirely within one's control, the other competitors have a bearing on the outcome, but being good enough to win is well within an athlete's control.

Setting Priorities

This is the next step in athlete ownership. An athlete cannot race well week in and week out. As well as being physically tiring, racing is mentally draining. An athlete mentally tired is stale and unable to concentrate on the job, i.e. racing effectively. Some athletes overcome this by racing rarely. For senior athletes focussing on a major event, this is wise. But most youngsters love racing. Telling them to not turn up at race day is like telling a rugby player to play only every third or fourth match. Races can be used as part of the training. As well as being a fast training session, races allow athletes to learn and practice strategies, tactics, and techniques. Racing is also when coaches can learn more about their athletes, e.g. the way they race, their strengths and weaknesses, their attitude, and fitness level.

The dilemma then is how to race frequently without over-racing. The answer is to prioritise. This has athletes setting their priorities before the season starts, so coaching and training can be planned around the important races.

An effective system is based on a 1-2-3 grading. Before the season starts the athletes go through the season programme and mark races as 1, 2, or 3. A "1" is an important race, one they want to do their best in. A "2" is a race they will run hard but not freshen up or mentally motivate themselves for. Then there are the "3" races, events of little importance that the athlete wants to do or support but where the result is of little importance, even to the extent of taking the race easy.

Championship events, relays, national championships, the club championships usually come into the 1 category. It is preferable to have no more than 4 or 5 category "1" races in a harrier season and around 5 or 6 over the athlete's main distance in a track season. However, a category "1" might only be one race, e.g. club championships, national championships, Olympics, etc. Priorities can be set years ahead, towards to Olympics for instance, the road relay championships next year, or a marathon in the future.

Mental fatigue (staleness) has a significant influence on performance as physical fatigue (overtraining). An athlete cannot mentally motivate him or herself for every race, nor can they peak and freshen up for all races (they would never get any training done). The idea is to have athletes choose their events and do brilliantly in the important ones rather than mediocre in all. It is their sport and their choice.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SMITH, L. (2005) Whose sport is it? Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 21 / April), p. 9-11

Page Reference

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

  • SMITH, L. (2005) Whose sport is it? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase, and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in harriers, track events, and jumps.