Developing a formal coaching philosophy
Frank Reynolds explains why a formal coaching philosophy statement is essential for all coaches.
Much like the aptitude test I wrote in grade school where I skewed my answers to look like I would be suited to becoming an accountant, many coaches today are not being true to themselves or their athletes in their coaching role. To make matters worse, their coaching philosophy is often inconsistent, undisciplined, and frequently undocumented. What messages are these coaches giving their athletes under such scenarios? Where is the trust?
What is a coaching philosophy?
Coaches are not true to themselves for many reasons. These include the goal of winning at all costs, bowing to pressures from parents and other outsiders, or even attempting to mimic the successful methods of other coaches. While many of these influences can result in positive coaching delivery, they have to be taken into the context of the coach's true experiences, values, opinions, and beliefs. It is imperative to appreciate that the coach has a strong influence over the athletes he or she coaches. It makes sense, therefore, to formulate a philosophy based on the coach's aims, beliefs, and personality. The objective of educating the athletes about how and why you coach and what you are trying to achieve develops trust and hopefully results in superior athletic performances. I have noticed inconsistent coaching delivery at all levels of coaching, from the volunteer parent/coach thrust into his child's soccer team's coaching duties right up to coaches at the international level. Therefore, if you are a coach that does not operate within your personally defined coaching philosophy, read on. You will become a better coach, and your athletes will be the beneficiaries.
Assuming that you are a coach, you carry out your role based on your experience, knowledge, values, opinions, and beliefs. This, in itself, is a philosophy. You do this unconsciously. The question is - do you know yourself well enough to understand what your core values and coaching methods are? Of all the coaches I know, very few have seriously considered all of the factors that dictate how they coach. Therefore, their methods are often inconsistent, reactionary, and not directed toward an "athlete first" and performance-based approach. A coaching philosophy that is well thought through clarifies many aspects of the coach's delivery and presents a consistent and positive message to the athletes being coached. One of the strongest benefits arising from a consistent and sincere approach to coaching is trust. A strong bond between coach and athlete leads to higher levels of commitment and athletic performance. With that in mind, it is the wise coach that takes the time to think through and formalize his or her personal coaching philosophy.
A personal coaching philosophy can be likened to a roadmap. Knowing what car you have to drive (your experiences, beliefs, opinions, and values) you can steer your vehicle along the route taking into account the obstacles you may encounter (coaching context, outside influences, facility limitations, rules, regulations, inclement weather, etc.) to reach your destination. (Athlete performance, satisfaction, results, etc.). Therefore, in developing a formal philosophy, the coach can take three key components and to his or her best ability formulate a coaching philosophy document to be a better coach, improve coach/athlete satisfaction, and achieve superior athletic results. These three components are:
Components of an effective coaching philosophy
1. Know thyself
The most effective coaches that I know or have read about have an excellent understanding of their personality traits and habits. They can use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. It takes an honest assessment to admit to having weaknesses, but we all have them. We do not want them to interfere with good coaching judgment. By focusing on your strengths, you will be able to identify consistent ways to coach that utilize those strengths. Are you a good teacher, a motivator, or academic, or communicator, or a former athlete? Are you dynamic, easy-going, hard-nosed, or open and friendly? Use your strengths to your advantage. Some may question whether being 'hard-nosed' is a strength. The answer lies in the coaching context. If your athletes are pre-pubescent girls, a hard-nosed approach will not be effective; however, if your athletes are teenage boys from the 'rough' part of town, this approach could be very effective as portrayed in the movie 'Coach Carter'. The point is by taking the time to make a serious assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and recognizing your morals, values, and beliefs you are better able to adapt your style to the athletes being coachedAlso, you will answer the important questions on why you are a coach, how you deliver as a coach and what objectives you are trying to accomplish. Self-knowledge leads to self-confidence, and you want to exude what you believe in. One other point to consider here is - how do others perceive you?
2. Know what you are up against - your coaching context
As important as it is to understand what makes you tick, it is equally important to understand the confines of your coaching context. By this, I mean:
There could be other restrictions that will affect your coaching delivery. These include laws or policies on safe practices, club or school rules of behaviour, competition with other sports, school pressures and outside activities, parental interference, or performance standards to qualify for teams and competitions. Knowing what you are up against enables you to tailor your annual training program to the specific needs of the athletes you have under your charge. By understanding the outside influences that will affect your program, you can incorporate those that are good practices such as policies on safety and behaviour, adapt to others that restrict your ability to be the 'do it all coach' such as lack of funds, equipment or services, and minimize negative obstacles that will affect you personally or an athlete on your team or your team in general. Dealing with parents can be a stressful situation, and a clear philosophy on how you will deal with an angry parent will minimize or avoid the knee-jerk reaction that often makes matters worse. By adapting your coaching philosophy to reflect the coaching situation you are dealing with, you become more effective and productive, and you minimize obstacles and other difficulties.
3. Understand your athletes, their personalities, abilities, goals, and why they are in your sport
A recent study done to determine why athletes participated in sport indicated that the athletes' primary reasons were to have 'fun' and learn skills. 'Winning', perceived by many to be the most important reason for participation ranked no higher than 7th, even among the most competitive athletes. With this in mind, you should ensure your program focuses on these critical areas to retain your athletes and recruit new ones. Communication is a vital aspect of coach/athlete relationships. It is very important to talk to your athletes individually to determine what their values and beliefs are, what their goals are and why they are participating. Without this knowledge, you might be delivering a coaching bag of apples to athletes wanting a bag of oranges. The program will not work properly. As a coach, you are a powerful role model and can have a tremendous influence on your athletes if you and your athletes are on the same page. Take the time to get to know each of your athletes just like you examined your values, beliefs, and habits. Once you know and understand each of your athletes, their strengths, weaknesses, abilities ,and skills, then I suggest you develop an approach to coaching them. Will you focus on the stars? Will you treat everyone equally in terms of your attention and help? The teamwork approach will work for you.
What is your attitude toward teamwork?
I coach what many consider an individual sport - athletics, yet I have found that by focusing on building a 'team' of athletes, we have become stronger for it. Our motto "TEAM - Together Each Achieves More" lets everyone know what we stand for. By developing a TEAM philosophy as well as your coaching philosophy, you bring together ingredients for superior success. By knowing your athletes, you know how each fits in with the TEAM philosophy. Some may have values or behaviours that undermine the team, and you can work out solutions to change the athlete's behaviour to fit for the good of the team. Knowing your athletes enables you to identify your leaders and role models to whom the rest of the team will respond positively. By getting athletes to buy into the 'TEAM' concept, you will aid in streamlining a consistent approach to training and competition by each athlete. This makes coaching much easier and hopefully, more rewarding.
Process versus outcome
Every coaching philosophy should have a major statement on how the coach views the results of both training and competition. I cannot stress enough the importance of educating athletes that it is more important to focus on their process of development and how they performed in competition rather than the results or outcomes that they achieved. In a race or game, there can be only one winner. Does that mean everyone else is a loser? If you read the newspapers, that is what you would think. I have seen athletes become complete idiots after finishing second or losing to a rival. We are so programmed that we react with anger and all manner of negative behaviour if we lose. "There is no room for 2nd place" - Vince Lombardi. Although Lombardi quotes are often misrepresented, the message delivered is very clear, it is the outcome that matters and nothing else. Therefore, to build self-confidence and see measurable progress and learn positively from mistakes made, I urge all coaches to focus on the process and not the outcomes with their athletes. The athletes need to do the same.
All coaches operate under a coaching philosophy of some kind. It may be by instinct, or it may be formally documented and well thought out. The advantages of a well thought out coaching philosophy are threefold:
With this knowledge, it is possible to develop a team approach that achieves superior performance. Linking the aspects of the three segments of coaching philosophy will create a coaching roadmap for you that is realistic, satisfying to both you and your athletes, and rewarding in the form of improved performance. My coaching philosophy document begins with a mission statement - my reason for coaching, followed by seven key points on my approach to coaching and then several pages expanding on the points I have outlined in this article. It has helped me immensely in keeping focused and consistent, and I see great results from the athletes I coach. However, it is time for me to review and update it. You will also find that yours will change over time.
Therefore, it is important once you have formalized your coaching philosophy and given it to your athletes, parents, and other interested parties, that you review it periodically and make changes if needed. As well you need to keep current in your coaching education and use what you learn to improve your philosophy. Study other coaches constantly for better ways to coach without dishonouring your basic personality, habits, and ways of coaching.
Coaching is all about helping athletes achieve their dreams. It should be done positively and smartly and with passion. The positive coach and role model, following a well-defined coaching philosophy, will be a key ingredient in the success of his or her athletes. For that reason alone, the development of a formal coaching philosophy statement is essential for all coaches.
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About the Author
Frank Reynolds is a Canadian Level 4 high-performance coach, middle and long distances, working with elite athletes as well as coaching high school athletes with the NorWesters Track and Field Club.