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Learning as a coach

This is an excerpt from Sport Coaches’ Handbook by International Council for Coaching Excellence.

By Cliff Mallett, Steven Rynne, and Pierre Trudel

Learning is a process that shapes change. It leads to more sophisticated cognitive understandings and behavioral outcomes. The catalyst for this change is experience, which increases one’s potential for improved performance and subsequent learning. Here are some key points about this definition:

  1. Learning is not an end in itself (i.e., a product) but a process. We can only infer learning has taken place (via observation of coach behaviors or self-reports) because this learning process initially takes place in the mind.
  2. Learning involves changes in both cognition (knowledge, beliefs, attitudes) and behavior. These changes are dynamic, evolving over time, and exert enduring influence on how coaches think, feel, and act.
  3. Learning is a personal responsibility. Just as coaches cannot make athletes learn, coach developers cannot make coaches learn. They can create conditions that are conducive to learning, but coach learning ultimately depends on how coaches engage, interpret, and respond to their lived experiences (past and present), both implicitly and explicitly.

The ways in which coaches respond to learning situations are influenced by their experiences, self-efficacy (confidence), openness to trying something different, and personal qualities.4 These factors carry implications for facilitating coaches’ learning related to autonomy, practical application, experience, and collaboration. In most cases, coaches are autonomous learners; that is, they are mature learners who freely choose to learn. Thus, in contrast with, say, young children engaged in compulsory schooling, they are self-directed, self-empowered, and therefore well positioned to be heavily involved in planning their own learning. Essentially, coaches seek learning opportunities because they want to become better coaches.

Second, the heart of a coach’s learning is found in praxis, or in the application of skill. Certainly, most coaches want a solid theoretical foundation and a good grasp of basic coaching concepts—but always with an applied focus. In other words, learning for coaches tends to be goal directed, in that their learning is driven by specific desired outcomes or critical incidents. As a result, coach learning may appear to be far more individualized than learning in other settings.

Third, veteran coaches come to any learning situation with a richness of experience that can provide a basis for generating new understandings and capabilities. At the same time, these experiences, which may be associated with ways of being, are often challenged through learning, and coaches may find this process to be limiting, confronting, upsetting, or some combination thereof. The goal, then, is to encourage open-mindedness and decreased defensiveness about established ways of thinking and being—an aspirational goal that can be challenging to achieve in practice.

Finally, opportunities are available for coaches to learn collaboratively, and this approach may resonate with the goal-directed nature of coach learning in that coaches’ goals almost always involve others (e.g., athletes, athletic trainers). In addition, most adult learning occurs outside of formal situations—for instance, through social networking or engagement in coaching tasks—thus downplaying individual achievement and performance and emphasizing the pursuit of agreed-on (i.e., collaborative) objectives. Of course, this dynamic may run against the grain in the competitive environment of sport.

Research has highlighted seven core principles that underpin learning and are relevant for coaches.5 (p. 6) Think about how these principles relate to the ways in which you have learned and continue to learn your coaching craft:

  • New knowledge is built on existing knowledge; yet existing knowledge can either help or hinder learning.
  • The ways in which we organize knowledge influence how we learn and how we apply what we learn.
  • Our motivation to learn determines and sustains what we do in order to learn.
  • Mastery depends on developing essential skills, regularly integrating them into practice, and knowing when to apply what we have learned.
  • Learning is enhanced by goal-directed practice coupled with specific and constructive feedback.
  • Learning is shaped both by one’s current level of development and by the social, emotional, and intellectual climate in which we live and work.
  • As self-directed learners, we should develop self-regulatory skills, such as monitoring and evaluating how we learn.

In brief, while learning is an individual process influenced by the learner’s prior knowledge and motivation, it happens in a social context. Therefore, sport organizations and coach developers play an important role by proposing various learning situations based on a coach’s stage of development in a specific context and setting.6

One way to conceptualize how we learn to coach divides the coaching journey into three phases: broad early learning, certification or accreditation, and postcertification. The first phase involves learning that takes place before assuming a coaching role. In fact, research suggests that coaching philosophies are considerably influenced by childhood experiences in family, school, and sport.7 Granted, the importance of athletic experience as a source of coaching knowledge has sometimes been overestimated, but it has also been well documented and widely acknowledged.8

Ideally, the second phase of the journey involves training or coach education programs that lead to certification or accreditation. Although it has not been easy to rigorously demonstrate the effectiveness of such programs,9 they provide an efficient way to ensure that everyone who coaches in a specific context has been exposed to minimal coaching standards for core competencies defined by coach developers. One key question here asks how we can know what participants have learned. Even so, certification is important considering that professionalization has been on the global coaching agenda for some time. Although the drive to make coaching into a fully developed and fully recognized profession is far from complete, it is widely agreed that the vocation at least needs to be made more professionalized.

This brings us to the third phase of the journey: postcertification. Certification is assumed to indicate what a person knows at a specific moment. Thus, as the years accumulate, a coach’s initial certification often becomes less relevant as the field develops new knowledge. For this reason, most professional organizations ask their members (e.g., coaches, teachers, medical doctors) to participate in learning activities known collectively as continuing professional development. These activities generally occur in the form of professional in-service training, conferences, workshops, seminars, short courses, postgraduate study, study leave, and study tours.

More Excerpts From Sport Coaches’ Handbook