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Becoming a successful coach

Gene Byrne explains how to create a positive environment for the good of your athlete and the sport.

Working with the young athletes, from the beginner to the elite, it is apparent a coach wears many hats; surrogate parent, teacher, trainer, and sports psychologist, to name a few. In particular, the adage of 20% physical 80% mental hits home at the lower levels of our sport. From the moment a decision has been made to coach young track and field athletes, one must become committed to bettering not only oneself but their athletes too.


A problematic coach is a person who has somehow ended up in charge of a track squad without any knowledge of how to coach. Realistically, because someone competed for a school team or a local club does not make them a coach. Being an Olympian is certainly not a prerequisite and, in some ways, can be detrimental to their coaching skills. We all have started with goodwill, and gladly many of us have graduated to a level of competency. To become a great coach, it is suggested to follow these six criteria:

  • Education
  • Plan
  • Write a philosophical statement
  • Network with higher-level coaches
  • Partner with a track-minded sports psychologist
  • Continue developing a positive training environment

It sounds simple, yet it is not. Many have difficulty separating their coaching personalities from their true personalities. In-experience tends to have us believe we are the best; a wise person learns from mistakes and succeeds while others fail to evolve. Luckily, the Internet can be used to begin gaining experience by helping to find the right education. For the beginner, one can go to many websites that are exclusively track and field orientated. Example:, the International Organizing Body, and in particular, for those in the USA,, both sites are full of educational opportunities. Most countries, with a national track and field structure, have an organizing body where coaches can become members, and involve themselves in education where they can begin to understand track and field.


To experience new ideas, it is essential to keep an open mind; since the introduction of periodisation[1], the science of track and field has advanced rapidly. The development of human biomechanics, physiology, training theory, and sports psychology[2,3,4] has also added significantly to the sport. Understanding how to apply the proper tools helps a coach create a positive training environment.

Do not train the athlete according to experiences, learn to use modern techniques and plan for success. Approaching this volatile sport without a plan is suicidal. Planning can be simple or complicated, depending on the situation. There needs to be a certain amount of flexibility built in to accommodate unforeseen complications. A basic training plan calls for a periodisation chart[1]. Planning the training year is impracticable without periodisation; yes, it is done, although important peaks may well be missed without it. Designing a comprehensive periodisation chart for the team or individual is imperative. It will also benefit the coach to create a chart for themself.

Coach-Athlete Relationship/Communication

We are involved in a sport where the boundaries of human potential are pushed beyond established physical and mental boundaries. While testing these boundaries an uneducated coach can have issues with the safety of their athletes. The coach must commit to being "Athlete Centred". Helping a young person to become an athlete demands attention to detail and for the coach to be focused on the individual. Everything, during training and in competitions, must be centred on the success of the athlete. By design, a coach must develop a culture where the athlete realizes their true potential, including how they conduct themselves while away from the track. Many problematic coaches have a tendency not to care what happens to the athlete after each training session. This carelessness shows during training such as generalizing sessions, where the whole squad runs 6 to 10 x 400m, depending on the level of fitness. This type of training leads to burnout, injuries, insecurity, mistrust, and low team morale. Develop the athlete(s) over time, open two-way communication with the team, and more importantly, with team leaders.

Therein lies a second fundamental rule: Communication. Talking with athletes establishes trust. When a situation arises where an athlete is not performing well, how can a coach help if he/she is unable to talk to them about it? How much influence can a coach have when they are unwilling to communicate with their athletes? It is essential to know how much to give for the athlete to trust the advice of their coach. Most coaches are not experienced or qualified psychologists or medical specialists, therefore, it is beyond their ability to diagnose, a coach evaluates and if needed refers the athlete to the proper professional. Use the experience gained through education to assess each situation; athletes trust their coaches to train them physically; the coach also needs to be there for them emotionally.


Over the past twenty years of conversing with peers in the USA, it has been concluded that there are more want-a-be coaches at the lower level than at the College and Elite levels. With the recent plight of elite athletes, under investigation and receiving suspensions due to the use of steroids, the question must be asked: "How much do their coaches care for their athlete's integrity". Pushing the limits of human potential are accepted within our sport; synthetically enhancing performances is a way of arrogantly breaking the rules. The rules of track and field are designed for fair play, both coach and athlete must stand by the principles of competition; winning by bending the rules must not be part of the culture. Coaches must put pen to paper, and develop a philosophical and ethical statement about why they coach track and field. Have a sports physiologist read the statement and if suggestions are made to make changes, do so.


Track and Field is a highly competitive environment for both athletes and coaches. We expect the athlete to train, compete, be successful and progress to the next level. So too must the coach work to better themselves. Educate, communicate, philosophize, and ask other coaches for help. A coach must inspire, motivate and create a positive training environment to help their athletes succeed. Successful athletes, both at the beginning level and the elite level depend on a coach who is in control and is consistent. Become a great coach; Bill Bowerman may have been a thorn in the side of many officials and other coaches, but his real focus was on his athletes and their success.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • BYRNE, G. (2007) Becoming a successful coach. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 40/ March), p. 3-4


  1. BOMPA, T.O. (1999) Periodization: Theory and Methodology. Human Kinetics
  2. ECKER, T. (2002) Basic Track and Field Biomechanics
  3. TORTORA, G. et al. (1994) Principles of Anatomy and Physiology. Harper Collins.
  4. DICK, F. (1991) Training Theory, British AAA book.

Page Reference

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