By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL (He/Him).
What is coaching? Coaching is teaching, coaching is training, coaching is managing, coaching is growth and development, coaching is so much more than can fit in the five letters that spell “coach.” Athletes look up to their coach for guidance, leadership, mentorship. Coaches look to their athletes for drive, motivation and a will to learn. It’s a relationship that helps both athlete and coach grow within their athletic, professional and personal lives. Yet, the intra and interpersonal complexities of coaching exist within each interaction, decision and observation that represents the fluidic nature of the activity are not always well understood.
Understanding the complexities of coaching from a social cognitive perspective starts with an examination of the limitations in our current reductionist approaches to coaching and a reconsideration of our own internal schemas; our biases that represent the structure of our ability to think, analyze and understand the ambiguous and personal aspects of coaching. This way we can understand the context and constraints that influence our behavior and how we can manage these behaviors to improve our own coaching capabilities.
What are some of the limitations of current coaching models?
Reductionism or trying to understand the whole through analysis of the individual parts. This would be akin to trying to learn how a car works by examining the wheels, engine, transmission, dashboard and other parts as separate and individual pieces. Wheels roll, the engine propels. the brakes stop, etc. Reductionism is central to coaching in its ability to identify, analyze and control variables that affect athlete performance. That is, improve kicking skills, swimming technique, throwing abilities, etc. Being able to gradually improve an athlete’s performance through individual skill acquisition and continuous training is basic, linear and easy to do… figuratively speaking.
Linearity is the key to the weakness of reductionism. Take a team practice in softball for example. A coach might structure the practice to work on various skills inherent in the game of softball. Separate times to work on catching/ throwing skills, batting skills, calisthenics, etc. All categorized by task and then plugged into a scrimmage like car parts assembled to create a working automobile.
It is a simple approach and has worked well; but the complexity lies within the details. Let’s reduce this metaphor down to a single athlete and coach interaction. How do you teach the skill? How will the athlete respond to your teaching methods? What does the athlete already know? What do you teach the athlete about incorporating these new skills into the greater context of the game? Does the athlete think you are competent as a coach to teach such a new skill? Is there any level of trust or respect that would make the athlete more or less receptive? What is the athlete’s state of mind for learning new skills at this time? And so on. Too many questions for any one person to consider in the moment, which is why we don’t. Yet the context of the practice structure and of the coach/ athlete relationship that exist within that moment will influence the future development and perceptions for both the coach and athlete as well as the greater team.
Take Home: Reductionism might work for individual skill development and acquisition, but you must understand how your interactions and behaviors affect the greater whole.
Is the coach’s career defined by the team’s success? Is the coach/ athlete relationship defined by every skill the coach teaches the athlete? Or by every success and failure the athlete has working with the coach?
No. Any athlete or coach will tell you that it is all so much more; which is exactly the point. You can’t quantify a coach’s competence based on the number of skills acquired or medals won. Coaching is a complex and interactive process, it is always changing as every day, every interaction, every athlete, every moment in your career, no matter how small, adds to the dynamic nature of the role.
Reductionism for skill acquisition serves an important role, but emphasis should be placed on training that skill within the context of the environment it will be most utilized. Skill acquisition also entails acquiring the complex nature of where the skill will be used and how to adapt to new circumstances, so that the athlete will be best prepared for it. It’s like training quadriceps for being able to squat rather than just perform a leg extension.
Reducing reductionism. How do we shift coaching toward the context of the environment?
Harking back to Psychology 101 to reconsider schemas. Bartlett, (1932) defined schemas as “cognitive structures representing regularities in patterns of interpersonal relatedness.” Simply put, we use our own interpersonal experiences from the past to influence our current behavior. This is based on a kind of “frame” or “plan” we create in our minds based on our previous experiences that we generalize to help us determine how we respond to similar situations in our present and future. Schemas are constantly being created and changed by each new experience and serve as cognitive maps to help us navigate our physical and social world. (Baldwin, 1992; Fiske & Taylor, 1984).
Coaching, by nature, is a highly social career. Interacting with athletes, parents, other coaches, officials, team managers and numerous other people. As such, coaches create schemas for every kind of interaction they have with every kind of person they come across in their professional, personal and athletic lives. This is known as “person perception” and is what a coach uses to determine how they behave in the current moment and to a specific person. A specific game or tournament can be considered as a sure win, high pressure, or a tough match based on previous experiences with the opposing team or current status of the tournament. This is all depending on which schema is activated and how a similar event was perceived; it is based on past experiences and observation of one’s own behaviors during similar experiences as well as goals, motivations and goals for the current event that will determine the coach’s sense of self and behavior moving forward.
Take Home: Our past experiences influence our present behaviors based on our own perceptions. It is important that we have the flexibility to adapt to our current demands because what has worked in the past won't necessarily work in the present.
The more experience a coach has, the stronger sense of self they will have when processing new information efficiently and consistently to determine their actions and decisions.
Situation perception is quite a common tool used by coaches and athletes in sports settings. In sports psychology it is often described through the use of visualization exercises where you put yourself in an anticipated setting; say a specific game, practice, or moment within it that you play through to help anticipate how you will interact and behave during the real moment. Your perceived behavior during your prototype situation is a rehearsal based on your previous experiences and your expectations to the environmental presence and demands in the future. In a visualization exercises, it’s common to rehearse every detail of your anticipated setting. That is how do things look, smell, sound, the timing of the activity, your emotional state, how things can go right and most importantly, how things can go wrong. This way you learn how to anticipate possible variables and learn how to behave if and when they appear in a real-life situation. This is what makes visualization an important tool for athletes and coaches alike.
Take Home: Visualization can help you mentally rehearse future events based on current knowledge and past experiences. Use visualization to anticipate all possible outcomes and things that can go wrong so you learn how to respond accordingly.
Relationship schemas coupled with situation perception can help you better prepare to interact with your athletes, coaches, parents and others.
As individuals, we possess a great knowledge of complex internal structures, such as schemas, that can be simultaneously activated and creatively combined to meet the needs of our current situation. We adapt and grow based on our current context because despite a wealth of experience, no two situations are ever exactly the same. A coach’s relationship with their athletes, other coaches, parents and whoever else influences their interactions. It isn’t just about adding new information to a pre-existing schema however, it’s a reflection of your sense of self within that moment. This can be shaped and molded by current events, adapted to meet the demands of the situation and help determine the dynamics of your behavior within that moment. By allowing all these components to interconnect and interact with the context of your situation, you can better reflect the relationship of yourself as a coach and your environment.
This is what we define as the complexity of coaching and it builds resiliency and situational awareness for the coach to understand how to better structure practices, games, interactions, lessons and behaviors to adapt to the needs of their environmental context.
Take Home: Emphasis on your local interactions and be mindful your behavior during such interactions. You can’t always control a situation, but you can control how you respond. Each and every interaction you have will influence how others will interact with you in the future.
Instead of reductionism, We can exam the nature of coaching as a Complex Adaptive System. Rather than the car analogy used earlier, we can think of coaching as a flock of birds.
A flock of birds contains numerous individual elements (birds) that self-organize and lead to the emergence of behaviors and movements of the group that would otherwise not exist on an individual level. Interactions happen with lower order elements in the constraints of the environment such as a single bird maintaining a spatial position between the other birds around it. This leads to the emergence of higher order structures such as a flight pattern which, in turn, coordinates the lower order elements. This is known as a feedback loop that allows the system, in this case the flock of birds, to evolve and change its behavior based on the actions of individual birds, their relationship to each other and the environment. This way, the flock can adapt to changes in the environment and needs of their current situation.
As a coach, your team, athletes, support staff, parents, facilities, everything is represented as a elements part of complex adaptive system. You can define the system on any level. Each one of those elements exists on an individual, lower order level whose interactions with each other lead to the emergence of higher order structures including your team, practices, games, fundraisers, parties and other events which in turn allows for coordination of the lower order elements. As a coach, you are a bird within this flock, how you perceive and respond to those other birds around you influence the development of the flock as a whole. This allows your system to grow a relationship with the environment and adapt to the changes and needs of their current situation.
Take Home: As an element within a complex adaptive system, you as a coach influence those other elements around you which in turn influence those around them and so on. This leads to changes within the behavior of the system which in turn, affects you and the other elements.
Coaching is multifaceted, structural, dynamic and socially interactive because it takes into account so many features of the past and couples that with the complexities of the present. This is an important tool for each coach to keep in their toolbox that will have far reaching benefits in each person’s own professional, personal and athletic development.
By Dirk Smith
Baldwin, M.W. (1992). Relational schemas and the processing of social information. Psy- chological Bulletin, 3, 461-484.
Bowes, Imornefe & Jones, Robyn. (2006). Working at the Edge of Chaos: Understanding Coaching as a Complex, Interpersonal System. Sport Psychologist. 20. 235-245. 10.1123/tsp.20.2.235.
Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering. Cambridge: University Press.
Fiske, S.F., & Taylor, F.E. (1984). Social cognition. New York: Random House
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.