Most coaches that I’ve encountered have what they call a “coaching philosophy” which seems to me a quite broad and unexplained term. It can be anything from “give 110%” to an entire page of rules and regulations, and everything in between. I see it so often that I wonder if that broad term can help improve coaching skills.
The word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek word meaning “love of wisdom.” This is an interesting concept to me because, in terms of athletics and training, it imparts a very different idea than I’m used to. I think most coaches adopt some sort of philosophy that they believe encompasses how they can be good. Instead, the actual word implies a method of passing on knowledge to athletes. This would exclude the rules and amount of effort and instead bring to mind the more task-oriented approach that is so touted in sport psychological literature. According to everything sport psychology stands for, the way a coach works should allow for the athlete to gain an understanding of the task at hand. The athlete should be able to work with the coach to improve their technique, their drive and desire to improve, and above all, their love of learning about the sport.
With this in mind, I think it’s appropriate to re-evaluate how the coach thinks about his or her job. The job is not to lead a group of people to winning. It’s not to make the athlete better. The job is to impart knowledge in order for the athlete to improve. The athlete is really the only one responsible for this; the coach is merely a tool to help improve. In my experience, good coaches don’t yell, they don’t get angry all the time. They are patient and they explain what needs to be done, what can be fixed, what was good. This is a method of creating an understanding in the athlete that seems to fit with the philosophical principle of imparting wisdom. The athlete walks away from this experience, and maybe even each practice, with something new to think about, some knowledge gained, and with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.
On the other hand, we can look at how an athlete might react to a coach that only thinks of effort and results: they will put most of their emphasis on winning at the expense of actual execution of the sport, they will walk away wondering if they had done well, and they will wonder what happened during practice and why. The method of yelling and focusing on winning implies to me that the coach is not knowledgeable in the sport. If he or she is unable to impart knowledge to athletes, then the wisdom that athletes seek is not available; the satisfaction and the whole reason for participating in sports is lost and satisfaction is fleeting.
So, how can a coach approach developing a good coaching “philosophy?” First, I think the most important part is to take a look at what the sport is and evaluate your understanding of the sport. If you can honestly say that you understand what needs to be done and how to get there, then we have taken a step in the right direction. If not, you need to make a serious effort to get to a level where the sport makes sense both tactically and technically. Once this understanding is achieved, you need to understand who your athletes are. An elite sprinter will not need the same style of coaching as an eight year old. The elite athlete will need technical understanding and very fine adjustments, whereas the younger athlete will need broad advice about their overall body position, for example. If you know your audience, you can start to tailor your philosophy a bit more to what your overall goal is. As we’ve discussed, the goal should be to impart knowledge and a desire to learn. The final part, the part that makes up what we know as the training philosophy, is why and how we are doing things.
To illustrate this, I’ll give an example of something that I know well: the hammer throw. (I think it’s good to talk about a sport that may be a bit less common so you adapt it yourself without taking directly from my example). I have experience with the hammer throw and I can see smaller details that will influence how the throw ultimately goes. My understanding is quite technical and I can fairly easily identify fine movements. The athletes that I train with are all ages and all skill levels, so it makes it difficult to tailor, but I can look at each individual athlete or level. The beginners need to think about the basics that will make the throw easier for them in the future, like relaxing and extending the arms throughout the throw. The biggest problem for the more advanced athletes is much more nuanced movements, like pulling with the shoulder. Finally, our goal would be to allow the thrower to complete the movement comfortably and effectively given his or her skill level and to understand exactly how that fits into the bigger picture. My philosophy then, would be to give each athlete the opportunity to understand his or her own movements in a way that allows them to fix their own technique to throw comfortably and far.
My philosophy is broad, it is difficult to explain on a team level and has to be adapted to each athlete, but that’s how it should be. It is very difficult to make everyone understand the exact same concept with the exact same words. Each athlete is different and will require different styles, cues, words, demonstrations. Imparting wisdom is not an easy thing that can be done by putting in effort alone, or by following rules (although those things certainly may help), but by learning as a coach to allow learning for your athletes.
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About Niklas Cederström
A Swedish-American with Sports Psychology Masters. Researcher in Lund, Sweden.