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15th February 2017

Blog: Liam McCarthy: Developing effective coaches means developing effective decision makers

Image: Liam McCarthy

Coaching is complex. Really complex

This is how I tend to begin teaching with first year students, fresh-faced and eagerly awaiting what they expect to be silver bullets of information, which should make their life easier. Instead what follows, is a potentially uncomfortable, challenging and curious journey down the rabbit hole (to borrow a phrase from Alice in Wonderland) to discover all isn’t quite as it seems. An expectation that particular coaching strategies will work for most people, nearly all of the time, in any environment is quickly dismissed, and instead a rather grey and murky area emerges. This over-simplified and hastily described interaction is representative of many coach development experiences over the past seven years. Whether it be working with National Governing Body (NGB) coaches, Higher Education (HE) students or elite club coaches, this appears to be a common starting point. For anybody who has seen the Matrix, it often comes down to a question of taking the blue pill, or the red pill.  

“You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” - Neo (The Matrix)  

Why take this approach to coach development?

Sports coaching is widely defined as a decision making process, instigated by the in-sightful work of Abraham and Collins as early as 1998. What stems from this is recognition that cognitive demands are placed upon the coach, in practice, to make effective decisions (often based on limited information). For me, effective coaching practice begins by doing our best to understand ‘what works for whom, in which context and why?’ and abandoning the search for certainty. The pragmatic philosophy is in large part inspired by the work of North (2011; 2013) and represents a more realistic conception of sports coaching, reassuring us that what works on one day with one particular group of handball players, won’t work on another day with a different group. And that’s okay.  

What does this then mean for formal coach education?

If coaching is a decision-making process, coach education could be more effective by developing decision-making skills, taking a breadth-first approach to programme design as first identified by Abraham and Collins (1998). Providing coaches with a number of different strategies to experiment with in their context would be a significant shift away from more traditional coach education where programmes might currently espouse singular or a small numbers of solutions to complex, contextual and multifarious problems. By supporting coaches to: develop knowledge of who they are coaching (biological, psychological, social)how they coach (the environment they create by using particular strategies)the demands of the sport formal coach education could support coaches in arriving at novel solutions which are useful to them in their context. The result of this may see coaches led by what is in front of them (and all of the nuances that come with it), rather than an affinity to a particular ‘way’, such as teaching games for understanding (TGfU) or commonly, how they themselves were coached.  

What might this look like in practice?

If coaching is a decision-making endeavour, where particular strategies work for particular people in certain circumstances (we just need to decide what and in which, and often quickly), it may help to follow a framework. Inspired by the work of Dr David Piggott and colleagues at Leeds Beckett University, an approach I take with student coaches to develop their practice is informed by Popper (1963) and looks something like ‘an unending process of trial and error’.  

  1. Set expectations and identify problem situations. Working with a coach to set expectations (of performance, of players etc.) provides a starting point for decision making; if those expectations are breached, this triggers the problem situation.
  2. Tentative solutions are proposed to attend to the problem situation. From the plethora of strategies the coach is aware of (overcome any affinity to one in particular) that coach would suggest a ‘best-fit’ which my alleviate the problem situation (for example, enhance learning).
  3. Tentative solution 1 is trailed in practice. The coach deploys a particular strategy (relevant for their problem, in this context) and a critical discussion emerges as to its success.
  4. Problem situation 2 is identified. As with the notion of abandoning uncertainty, as described earlier, no one solution is likely to be utopian and secondary problems emerge. The process repeats, each time enhancing coaching practice.

The benefit of the above process is that coach behaviour (coaching interactions) and practice design (the activity used) stay closely aligned to the desired outcome and, therefore, every coaching interaction becomes deliberate and purposeful.  

A final message

The most important messages in all of this are that coaching is complex and we should be incredibly supportive and empathetic to coaches in their environments, trying to make the best decisions they can. It becomes unhelpful when judgments are made about coaches’ practice without prior knowledge of the culture in which they work; the nature of their players and the desired objective of the session (not to mention a whole load of other things). As formal coach education matures, I am incredibly optimistic about its capacity to develop coaches’ decision making and be contextually rich. Some fine examples are already beginning to emerge.

Posted by Liam McCarthy in Coaching