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Teacher, facilitator, manager, counselor, recruiter, leader, role model—coaching involves wearing many hats. A coach directs activity during practice and competition, chooses and implements training regimens and competitive strategies, organizes practices, and schedules competitive events. Sometimes coaching involves the orchestration of a staff of assistants and the teamwork of additional professionals—for example, trainers, physicians, and sport psychologists. Many coaches spend time recruiting. But at some point, and usually on a regular basis, all coaches undergo a test for effectiveness. A coach prepares athletes to do their best, and when they experience success, however it is defined, so does the coach.
Scholars have identified a number of attitudes that distinguish effective coaching and studied the relationships between those attitudes and other variables such as performance, safety, and athlete development. Among other qualities, effective coaching demands a flexible leadership style, a positive approach, and a focus on process rather than outcome.
Flexible Leadership Style
Scholarly work in the area of leadership styles has found that no single leadership style its all situations. An effective style depends on many factors, such as the environment, the characteristics of the athletes, and team objectives. For example, a more authoritative style works better when a large number of athletes are trying to accomplish an immediate goal—for example, leading a two-hour practice with ninety-five football players or changing the lineup of a swim team during a meet. A more democratic style works best when intrinsic motivation, not time, is the primary concern—for example, leading a goal-setting session or deciding whether to practice on a Saturday or Sunday. Because a coach will most likely be called upon to use many different styles, effective coaching demands a flexible leadership style.
Coaches tend to be more successful when they provide positive feedback and reinforcement rather than negative remarks and punishment. A simple three-step strategy is often used to keep an athlete listening and learning, particularly in the moment after a mistake. The strategy includes (1) a positive statement, (2) positive feedback and instruction, and (3) another positive statement. An example might be: “Nice try, Chris. Lower your glove closer to the ground next time. Way to hustle to the ball.”
The desire for mastery, a fundamental human motivation, drives many athletes to want to excel, and the coach is an athlete’s most important source of information and guidance. Effective coaches practice their craft, just as athletes do, until their teaching methods become second nature.
Focus On Effort
Effective coaching involves a focus on effort and process rather than on outcome and winning. An athlete’s amount of effort is controllable, and to a large extent the training process is also controllable. Attributing mistakes and failure to a lack of effort or an inadequate training method allows athletes to see the opportunity to succeed in the future by increasing their effort or changing their methods. Focusing on the outcome might fire up a team momentarily, but focusing on the process creates a more lasting approach to success.
Effective coaches have five important characteristics. They must be skilled in both verbal and nonverbal communication, must know themselves well enough to change if they need to, must be able to gain the trust of those they work with, must be able to entertain several perspectives on one situation, and must know when to rely on their instincts.
Good At Communicating
An effective coach uses verbal skills such as active listening, immediate feedback, and clear, direct, and repetitive messages. An effective coach also needs nonverbal skills such as confident postures, appropriate touching, and eye contact.
A self-aware coach can avoid the dangers of burnout. For example, a tendency to be athlete-oriented versus task-oriented will make a coach more vulnerable to exhaustion and burnout, but a coach who is aware of this tendency can change it.
Relationships between coaches and others, including athletes, parents, and administrators, are built on trust. Demonstrating trustworthiness through consistency, honesty, and reliability, creates peak moments when athletes look to a coach with a complete readiness to learn and perform.
Effective coaching involves looking at a situation that might appear completely hopeless or anxiety-provoking to an athlete and turning it into a perfect picture of challenge and opportunity.
It is difficult to know where science stops and art begins in coaching. Sometimes decisions are made after contemplating concrete factors. Other times they are made with no such contemplation. Like an artist’s stroke of the brush or choice of color, a coach puts in a substitute, changes a strategy, chooses this play or that, is patient or quick-acting, or uses humor or seriousness. Most experts agree that effective coaching is both a science and an art.
Mind and Body
Research in the twentieth century made it imperative to include mental training in an athlete’s preparation. Coaching involves a greater understanding of teambuilding, goal-setting, motivation, thought processes, team dynamics, and the specific mental demands on each and every athlete in changing situations. Coaches are expected to understand the developmental differences in a young athlete’s mental and physical abilities. As athletes mature, they themselves place greater importance on the mental aspect of training and performance. To a certain extent, a good coach is also a good sport psychologist.
Coaches must continually update their knowledge of the physical and mental skills they teach. An increasing amount of research in the sport sciences—for example, biomechanics, exercise physiology, sport psychology, and motor learning—has fueled the organization of conferences and workshops and the creation of journals, books, newsletters, videos, and CDs. A pre-1970s instructional book on sport might have included advice on technique, nutrition, drills, games, and exercises to make practice more efficient and motivating. By the turn of the century, however, publishers were offering numerous books on each of these topics for a multitude of sports.
New knowledge gave birth to multiple industries that produce equipment and instructional aids, all of which a coach has to evaluate. Therefore, coaches need to understand the language of physics and chemistry, and effective coaching involves keeping abreast of current findings and applications.
A philosophy of coaching to a coach is like a goalsetting program to an athlete. Developing and adhering to it enhances confidence and decreases anxiety; attention is focused appropriately, and ultimately, performance improves. A well-thought-out philosophy is the foundation of an effective coach’s daily and long-term success.
Whenever a profession involves huge gains and losses, financial or otherwise, key players can become targets of negative influence and pressure. If a coach succumbs to this pressure, the result is conduct outside the rules—for instance, cheating, recruiting violations, or forming inappropriate relationships with players—or possibly out-side the law—blackmail, fraud, or sexual harassment.
Negative influence can also be subtle, such as the pressure of conformity. Allowing aggressive behavior, illegal substance use, remarks or jokes that demean others, or eating behaviors that appear to enhance performance but jeopardize health, are all results of a subtle, but powerful, pressure to conform.
The pressure on a coach to win can be tremendous. It comes from many sources, including parents, media, spectators, administrators, and other coaches, and from within the coaches themselves. But regardless of why it happens, unethical behavior is the kind of behavior that ends careers. It undermines another fundamental goal of coaching: influencing the development of athletes in a positive way. Regardless of the statistics, coaching integrity is a building block for all other goals and purposes, although coach education does not necessarily include ethics. The pressure is great, but coaches are in a powerful position to inluence a great number of minds, young and old. If they choose to exhibit the highest level of integrity, they promote the integrity of sport and the positive development of participants, not only as athletes, but also as members of society.
Intense competition, little control once the contest begins, media attention, and a continual test of personal ethics are major sources of stress for all coaches. Coaches lead the charge for a limited number of positive tangible results, results that are used to measure their professional effectiveness and value. But in a zero-sum game, there can be only one winner and one loser. Not many professionals face the possibility of losing as publicly and as often as a coach does.
Exhaustion from long hours and emotional strain can bring on chronic frustration and irritability. Less enthusiasm, less energy, and an overall inability to reach previous standards of effectiveness for an extended period of time despite short rests define staleness, an early stage of burnout. A persistent sense of failure, low self-esteem, depression, and ambivalence about a job that once evoked great passion can follow. For those in the final stage of burnout, a three-day weekend isn’t sufficient for revitalization. Relationships with athletes, assistant coaches, administrators, family members, and friends suffer. Coaching effectiveness wanes. In some cases, recovery may not be possible.
Sometimes coaches choose to sacrifice many things with the knowledge that they are limiting the years they can spend coaching. But if a coach ignores the symptoms of staleness and burnout and continues to push without taking needed breaks, the result can be chronic failure, unhappiness, and possibly tragedy. A position that attracted a bright, enthusiastic, and effective leader becomes a place of despair.
Burnout can be avoided by using a number of strategies that most coaches are very familiar with: pacing oneself, maintaining perspective, using stress management skills such as relaxation and positive self-talk, surrounding oneself with supportive people, inding constructive ways to express frustration, laughing and having fun, and in general, making choices that promote health and happiness.
At the end of the nineteenth century, sport teams tended to be coached by one or more players on the team. In fact, until entrepreneurs and investors became aware of the entertainment value of sport, control of sport activity rested primarily with the athletes. However, by the 1920s a sport contest had more at stake than a win or a loss, and the organizational, technical, and managerial demands of teams grew in number and importance. People were needed to organize, teach, and prepare athletes and teams to perform to their highest potential.
The institutionalization of modern sport in the United States reflects the social environment in which sport exists. In the early years, racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic biases placed pressure on organizations of white athletes to be coached by white coaches, black by black, women by women, and so forth. Since greater financial reward was available within the white male sport arena, nonwhite and female coaches were not offered equal professional opportunities and salaries. Few or no opportunities to train, compete, and coach were available for people with disabilities, Native Americans, and other disenfranchised groups.
As social contexts changed, so did opportunities for coaches from various oppressed groups. But today, many years after civil rights laws were passed, the number of minorities in head coach positions is still not representative of the number of minority athletes participating. For example, in 2002 there were four African-American head coaches in Division I-A football of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA.) In the fall of 2004, that number dropped to two. During this period there were no African-American head coaches in Division I-AA, if historically black colleges were not included.
In 2004,10 percent of head coaches in the National Football League (NFL) were black, although 65 percent of players were black. Even though NFL teams led by black coaches performed better (won more games and went to the playoffs more often) than teams coached by white coaches, black coaches were hired less often and fired more quickly.
Title IX, which mandated that schools receiving federal aid had to provide equal opportunities for girls and women in sport, and the feminist movement of the 1970s sparked social change, making it more socially acceptable and financially feasible for females to train, compete, and coach. The development of the Special Olympics, the Senior Olympics, and Gay Games suggests a shifting away from prejudices of the past. But these changes did not bring more coaching positions to women and other minorities in sport.
When Title IX passed in 1972, women held approximately 90 percent of the coaching positions for women’s teams. In 2002 women coached approximately 44 percent of women’s teams. Ninety percent of new opportunities to coach women’s teams between 2000 and 2002 went to men. The decline in the number of women coaches has been greatest at the highest level of sport and with the highest paying jobs.
Small changes have appeared on the global level as well. There were no women on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) until the 1980s. In 2004 the committee consisted of 10 women and 127 men. The IOC did not meet their goal of 10 percent women by the year 2000, and it is not likely that they will reach their goal of 20 percent by 2005. Over 90 percent of all national team coaches are men.
Despite legal advances, the prejudice and power structure of white males in sport worldwide continues to suppress efforts to equalize opportunities for women, nonwhite men and women, and other minorities. Increased efforts on the part of major governing organizations such as the IOC, the NCAA, and the NFL will be necessary if positive and enduring changes are to occur.
Throughout the twentieth century competition between teams became more popular and intense; schools developed mascots, uniforms, traditions, and rivalries; clubs, leagues, conferences, national teams, and other sport organizations formed. The IOC, the national Olympic committees, and numerous national governing bodies for each sport at the youth, adult, amateur, and professional levels formed to administer to the needs of these groups. Ever-increasing media attention inspired young and old to participate in sport. The number of girls and women playing interscholastic and intercollegiate sport increased as much as tenfold. The need for coaches at all levels, from volunteer parents to milliondollar professionals, grew concurrently.
The demand for coaches grew throughout the twentieth century as winning became more important and the belief grew that sport programs built character. Governing organizations and institutions established guidelines for professional competency and ethical conduct, and created opportunities for continuing education. More and more coaches with little or no training beyond their own sport or on-the-job coaching experience led a growing number of athletes. Thus the need grew for coach education and credentialing.
Even if they are surrounded by assistants, few coaches today are able to succeed without formal training of some kind. Most high school and collegiate-level coaches have an undergraduate degree, and many have an advanced degree. In some educational institutions coaches are members of the faculty and are asked to teach courses and coach multiple sports.
In the 1950 and 1960s, the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) set standards for training high school coaches and determining ethical conduct. A task force from AAHPERD recommended the establishment of minimal competency certification standards. In 1970 the Task Force on Sport for Canadians issued similar recommendations, which resulted in the creation of the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC), an organization charged with the responsibility of improving coaching effectiveness for all sports at all levels. The CAC has become a world leader with regard to coach education and training.
The American Coaching Effectiveness Program (ACEP) was certifying approximately 63,000 coaches per year by 2004. Since 1971, the CAC has trained more than 900,000 coaches. They train over 50,000 per year. Many other coach-education programs have emerged— for example, the Coalition of Americans to Protect Sport (CAPS), the National Youth Sports Coaches Association (NYSCA), and the Program for Athletic Coaches Education (PACE). There are also countless certification programs designed for specific sports at different levels—for example, soccer coaches through the American Youth Soccer Organization, cross-country coaches through the Road Runners Club of America, and youth softball coaches through the ACE program of the Amateur Softball Association.
The International Council for Coach Education, established in 1997 with fifteen countries participating, now has thirty members. The European Athletic Association, the International Association of Athletics Federations, and sport-specific organizations such as the Union of European Football Association and the International Tennis Federation are examples of organizations that sponsor educational opportunities and training for coaches on an international level.
Educational websites for coaches have been growing on the Internet. In fact, websites serving the training and continuing education needs of coaches might be the way of the twenty-first century. Some examples of these include the following: Sports Coach (www.brian mac.demon.co.uk), Athletic Insight (www.athleticin sight.com), United States Sports Academy (www.ussa.edu), and the Institute for Sport Coaching (www.insti tuteforsportcoaching.org).
Sport in the twenty-first century is a major industry characterized by a network of local, regional, national, and international competitions. It is defined by the need for a positive outcome—to some extent, the job security of all coaches depends on their ability to win. But sport is also defined by the process, the competition, and the striving toward a goal. The process is a test of integrity, determination, teamwork, endurance, intelligence, patience, wit, and coping skills. Good character is not inherent in athletes any more than it is inherent in salespeople or musicians. Athletes build character through the choices they make, and coaches are in a powerful position to influence those choices. As long as coaching enhances the probability of winning and builds character, coaches will have a secure and valued place in the sport arena.
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