Coaching in a state of flux

(Edmonton) In the high-stakes world of elite-level athletics, coaches are more often than not regarded as the undisputed authority on what it takes to train an athlete to maximal performance potential, but being placed on a pedestal often doesn’t allow for proper reflection about their coaching practices or any margin of error when there are Olympic finals and medals at stake.

As a consequence, they may not be doing the right thing for their athletes, says Jim Denison, co-author of a new paper on positive coaching and ethical practices for athlete development. “Coaching is complex, continually changing and influenced greatly by the context, the athletes’ circumstances and the developing relationship between the coach and the athlete.

“Good coaching, as we talk about it in our paper, means thinking about these complexities and dealing with them positively, proactively and ethically,” he says.

Denison says one of the greatest dangers is that coaches can become set in their practises of working with athletes, positioning themselves as experts, who brook no criticism or questioning of their expertise. “They become entrenched in methodologies that worked in the past and they expect those methodologies to continue to work,” says Denison.

“There’s good research that shows that when coaches achieve this expert status they tend to want to maintain that,” he says, “so admitting that you don’t know becomes a threat to their expertise.”

Denison, a sport sociologist and coach educator who directs the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre, says coaches need to take an integrated approach to coaching and look at their athletes as individuals rather than trying to find a system or template they can apply to all and, importantly, learn to “problemetize” an issue before coming up with a solution. In essence, thinking critically about a problem, determining whether it is in fact a problem, and having the confidence to look at themselves because their behaviour might be contributing to a problem.

“Often the most successful coaches are the ones who are most willing to adopt a lifelong learning approach and to admit what they don’t know,” says Denison, who advocates “problem-setting,” determining whether there is indeed a problem, before “problem-solving.”

At the coaching centre, Denison and his team have developed a national coach mentorship program in partnership with Athletics Canada to enable this cultural shift from being the unquestioned expert to the thoughtful coach. “To us [at the CACC] you cannot begin to ‘problemetize’ until you acknowledge and recognize that the knowledge you have is socially constructed and is based on a lot of take-for-granted ideas and traditions that have become dominant. We invite coaches to think more critically about how they think and what they do, to ‘problemetize’ their assumptions and to open their minds to look at their coaching practices critically and with the opportunity to try new things without feeling threatened by change.”