By Jason Drummond

The following content has been adapted from a research paper written pursuant to a NRL High Performance Coach accreditation assessment task.

Coaching is a dynamic, multidimensional process that involves interactions between the coach, athlete, environment and task, for the purpose of enhancing athlete performance (Kidman & Davis, 2006). Different approaches to coaching reflect different value systems and can be classified as either autocratic (coach-centered) or democratic (athlete-centered) (Lyle, 2002). In determining whether one should use a coach-centered or athlete-centered approach, it is first necessary to examine the theory underpinning each approach, with a view to discerning which has a more beneficial impact on performance.

Autocratic (coach-centered) coaching positions the coach as the central decision maker (Ahlberg, Mallet & Tinning, 2008). This approach to coaching utilizes method or prescription coaching which requires that the coach break down the skill into specific movements in order to establish correct technique (Davids, Button & Bennett, 2008). It creates a conforming environment where the coach is direct and adopts a dominating “do as I say approach” to learning with transmission of knowledge being unidirectional from coach to player (Ahlberg, Mallet & Tinning, 2008).

Social pressures created as a consequence of today’s ego orientated “must win” culture result in an overwhelming temptation for coach-centered practitioners to be hands on and present the appearance of control. Consequently, this approach is more likely to meet the goals of the coach than the athlete and typically requires lots of verbal instruction whereby the coach presents the illusion of control through barking out instructions (Kidman & Davis, 2006). This leads to instruction overload and results in the athlete becoming dependent on the coach for input to facilitate performance (Davids, Button & Bennett, 2008).

In contrast democratic (athlete-centered) coaching encourages player participation in decision making, with the primary goal of the coach being to help their athletes take greater ownership and responsibility of the sporting behaviors that affect their performance (Hanson, 2007-2014). Athletes have a role in problem solving and through a shared approach to learning, develop an understanding of what behaviors contribute to improved performance. As a result, athletes become self-aware and learn to self-correct technique and tactical play (Hanson 2007-2014, Kidman & Davis, 2006). In this way an athlete-centered approach represents a major paradigm shift from prescription to empowerment (Kidman & Davis 2006).

Academic literature also refers to this style of approach as a constraints-led approach, empowerment coaching and autonomy-supportive coaching (Davids, Button & Bennett, 2008, Kidman & Davis, 2006, Mallet, 2005).

Questioning is an essential tool in facilitating learning within an athlete-centered approach. Coaches help athletes learn and develop self-awareness through posing purposefully phrased questions. This engages players on a conscious level and enhances concentration and therefore athlete intensity (Kidman & Davis, 2006). Hanson (2007-2014) states that:

When anyone is asked a question, they begin to cognitively process information and create their own links to what will and will not work in regard to their sporting technique. When athletes think for themselves they learn quicker. 

It should be pointed out that questioning does not feature prominently in a coach-centered approach where transmission of knowledge is unidirectional from coach to player.

Providing a safe confirming environment is the core priority underpinning the athlete-centered approach. Life skills are developed as the athlete is given ownership through decision making, a cognitive process lacking in the coach-centered approach. (Kidman & Davis, 2006). Athletes are accepted as unique and coaching is adapted to suit the athlete and their goals. Self-awareness is developed through problem solving and a shared approach to learning. This occurs within a holistic framework that develops the physical, psychosocial, cognitive and moral aspects of the athlete (Kidman & Davis, 2006).

Fundamental to the coaches’ role is their ability to influence others to act. Individuals can be proactively engaged or, alternatively, alienated by the social conditions in which they function. Motivation produces outcomes and is a significant factor in influencing others to act. Consequently, understanding motivation is fundamental to producing desired outcomes in sport (Ahlberg, Mallet & Tinning, 2008).

Coach behavior impacts on the motivation of the players according to self-determination theory, a social cognitive theory focusing on how social factors influence motivation (Mallet, 2005). Social factors, which can be defined as coach-athlete relationships and coach behavior, influence motivation though the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy (self-determination) and relatedness.

Mageau and Vallerand (2003) have suggested seven broad coaching behaviors that promote the satisfaction of the three basic needs and therefore impact positively on self-determined motivation:

  1. Providing as much choice as possible
  2. Providing a rationale for tasks
  3. Inquiring about and acknowledge feelings and perspectives of others
  4. Providing opportunities for initiative taking and independent work
  5. Providing competence based feedback
  6. Avoiding controlling behaviors
  7. Reducing perception of ego in competitive sports environment through task focus

These behaviors represent what Mageau and Vallerand (2003) describe as an autonomy-supportive interpersonal style. Nichols and Callard (2012) also refer to the same behaviors as a means to foster positive coach-athlete relationships. These behaviors are clearly synonymous with an athlete-centered approach. Consequently it can be concluded that an athlete-centered approach maximizes motivation which is essential to enhancing athlete performance.

In view of the above analysis it is concluded that it is necessary to reject the “one size fits all” philosophy of the coach-centered approach. This does not mean that the athlete has full responsibility; rather it shifts the application of coach expertise to creating appropriate problems for the athlete to solve relative to their stage of development (Miller, Oldham & Donovan, 2011). The coach shapes learning as learners search for solutions to problems rather than receive deliberate instruction (Davids, Button & Bennett, 2008). While it is acknowledged that there may be instances that necessitate reversion to a more coach-centered approach, for instance where player technique is fundamentally flawed, academic research clearly indicates that an athlete-centered approach impacts more positively on athlete performance. De Souza and Olsin (2008) point out that an athlete centered approach is not for everyone – It takes additional time because it involves developing more than just physical skills. It would appear that this is time well allocated given the benefits of increased player engagement, improved communication, competence and motivation. Hanson (2011), a strong proponent of athlete-centered coaching concludes what really matters in coaching is improving coach-athlete relationships, developing athletes beyond their sport and being a teacher of life’s lessons.

Reference List:

Ahlberg, M, Mallet, C and Tinning, R (2008) Developing autonomy supportive coaching behaviors: An action research approach to coach development, International Journal of Coaching Science, vol. 2(2) pp. 1-20.

Davids, K, Button, C and Bennett, S (2008) Dynamics of Skill Acquistition – A Constraint- Led Approach, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

De Souza, A and Olsin, J (2008) A Player-Centered Approach to Coaching, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, vol. 79(6) pp. 24-30

Hanson, B (2007–2014) How to be an Athlete Centered Coach, Athlete Assessments, viewed February 2014, <https://athleteassessments.com/articles/an_athlete_centered_coach.html>

Hanson, B (2011) What Really Matters, RLCM DVD, Speaking at Evolution of the Athlete, University of Queensland, 2011.

Kidman, L and Davis, W (2006) Empowerment in Coaching, In Davis,W, Broadhead, G 2007 Ecological Task Analysis Perspectives on Movement, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lyle, J (2002) Sports Coaching Concepts, A Framework for coaches behaviour, London: Routledge.

Mageau, G and Vallerand R (2003) The coach-athlete relationship: A motivational model. Sports Journal Sciences, vol. 21, 883-904.

Mallet, C (2005) Self-Determination Theory: A Case Study of Evidence Based Coaching, The Sports Psychologist, vol. 19(4), 417-419.

Miller, S, Oldman, A and Donvan, M (2011) Coaches’ Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature and Intent of Verbal Instructions to Athletes, International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, vol. 6(4), 2011.

Nichols, AR, Callard, J (2012) Focused for Rugby – A proven approach for peak performance, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

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