Having patience and love in coaching to help athletes be the best they can be


As the NFL preseason is drawing to a close and re-listening to a 2016 podcast with Pete Carroll, I needed to dig further into what he does and why. Extremely successful, Carroll is one of only three football coaches who have won both a Super Bowl and a College National Championship and is the oldest head coach currently working in the NFL. However, his attitude to relationship-based coaching, focusing on being present and recognising moments and helping others optimism and drive made me want to compare further ideas against athlete led versus coach led approaches, something he touches on in this "Finding Mastery" podcast.

It is believed that it is beyond the capacity of any coach (or person in senior management or leadership roles in my opinion) to achieve full, predictable control over leadership and development processes. Therefore, coaches need to learn to cope with ambiguity and difficulty of their role, overcoming a sense of legitimacy or validation and the perceived expectations of others. The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Jones (2004) quotes coaching as “inherently fluid and multifaceted, militating against clean treatment, typified by pre-specification of a cumulative sequence of precise objectives and monitoring their achievement” (Jones et al, 2004). Other research noted expert coaches could be recognised as highly adaptive in nature and adopt flexible planning strategies, relative to the context offered, quoted by Cote as “coaching expertise requires flexible adaptation to constraints” (Cote et al, 1995).

Sports coaches of athletes act as pedagogues and adopt comprehensive and holistic roles in the moral development of their athletes through their adopted and shared practices, languages and beliefs. If coaches are to develop knowledgeable athletes, capable of performing learned tasks when under pressure and not under direct instructions, I believe this shall require bidirectional transfer of knowledge or total ownership by athletes of their development, with support from the coaches as “more capable other”.

Having coaches adopt supporting roles, such as an orchestrating role, allows them to support their “leading actors” through methods such as offering practical guidance with limited control, focusing attention on aiding development through decision making for players and practices from observations, evaluations with positive and honest feedback whilst displaying understanding and care towards players, something regarded as highly important by Carroll. Kidman’s research (2001) addressed ideas such as coaches developing player’s complex skills and tactical knowledge through encouraging abstract thought processes by asking high order questions, which require athletes to apply, analyse and synthesize information. This style of leadership has the coach steering as opposed to controlling decisions and actions, encouraging player discovery through evolutionary planning and organizing of tasks whilst keeping sight of overall objectives and showing empathy to get the best from the athletes. Coaches acting as orchestrators whilst attempting to create a successful pedagogic setting requires coordination of activities to investigate, monitor and respond with honesty to players. This may require some transparency from coaches to offer rationale for processes. It may also require negotiation of processes with players to meet individual and collective performance measures of those being coached whilst matching evolving circumstances for learning and development against attempting keeping sight of overall objectives.

Wallace (2001) looked at shared leadership through “promoting cultural transformation for followers through articulating vision of desirable future state, empathizing dialogue, team work and mutual support”. Therefore, coaches shall look to incorporate a greater degree of follower power, gaining an overall system of collective relations between activities, agents and objectives. Therefore, as defined by Gibb (1954), this form of leadership would be recognized as collaborative, “accomplishing group tasks with leadership as fluid (state) as opposed to fixed phenomenon”. This should enable intrinsically satisfying experiences for all involved, enable personal development through informal and incidental learning opportunities and increased levels of skill and knowledge retention due to increased input into leadership.

However, as indicated, this suggests that group or team consensuses may not be reached by team or informal leaders or contradictory or conflicting beliefs developing amongst players shall result in conflicting micro-politics with players selecting personal over collective interests (Hargreaves, 1994). With these ideas in mind, coaches could acknowledge and support their team as a community of practice or local learning system to teach players within athletic environment socially appropriate cultures of practice, related to their sport. Within this, players can develop shared repertoire, where routines, tools, gestures and concepts become adopted and pat of standard practice by playing members, creating joint enterprise within teams through mutual engagement, therefore finding common goals and reasons for participation in groups. Therefore, like discussed by Carroll in regards to his relationships with players and other coaches, a realistic conceptualization of shared leadership in sports team scenarios would see coaches promoting shared leadership with benefits to all stakeholders while setting boundaries and taking ownership of decisions when disagreement between players arise.

Issues surrounding the ideas of shared leadership appears to stem around coaches attempting to take the “lead role”; these ideas were discussed by Carroll looking at former coaches approaches having heavy military themes and being one of the moments "he knew he had a different vision for coaching". Actions such as controlling behaviors as opposed to self-rule for decisions in fear of becoming redundant, coincided with coach-athlete relationship not being treated as interactive or dynamic in nature could result in poor coach-athlete relations. The argument remains that the perceived democracy of athlete-supportive coaches only offers players an illusion of empowerment; the official focus and directions as determined through group or team goal setting originate with the person or people of most authority, which is inherently the coach. However, coaches forcing ideas and issues in forceful or authoritarian manner, alongside lack of information or honesty between all involved stakeholders shall result in absence in effort or damaged relationships.Autocratic styles, being prescriptive in nature with unidirectional transmission of information results in athletes or players feeling undervalued due to lack of opportunity to voice ideas and experiences with coach and other athletes. Therefore, this disengages players and reduces chances to collaboratively learn and resourcefully develop decision making, problem solving and creative skills.

Coaches attempting to control every situation creates an understandable strain on responsibility and accountability; therefore, under a “backstage” leadership style of mentorship or athlete led learning, the coach is required and called upon for detailed observation and analysis whilst offering little direct leadership. Offering player or athlete autonomy “positively corresponds to a number of desirable (player) outcomes” (Gagne et al, 2003); these include task perseverance through developed intrinsic motivation and physiological well-being. Protrac (2000) investigated ideas of coaching unobtrusively which allows players to informally focus on the exercise and objectives with the activities, games or skills being worked on acting as the “teacher”; ideas such as democratic leadership and integrating TGfU (Teaching Games for Understanding) would support this transfer of control whilst offering greater opportunities for decision making and athlete centered cognitive development.

Coaches can still have impact through supporting athletes through suitable use of expert power. They can offer meaningful rationale for completing tasks, offer support for choices made and empathy and acknowledgement as part of feedback, as explored by Mageau and Vallerand (2003). Cognitive development is a social, historical and cultural process, where higher mental functions such as problem solving, planning and communication, are developed through interaction and collaboration as opposed to direct instruction. Direct instruction results in slightly extended form of recitation as opposed to genuine cognitive development. Coaches should recognize and acknowledge that there should be a “dynamic power relationship between the athlete and coach for effective education (and development) to occur” (Jones et al; 2004). I believe coaches can only call upon influence in expert or legitimate power, having no control over social domains of players. Therefore, coaches whom try to “lead” through controlling the education process have a reliance on expert or specialist knowledge, which in turn enhances or negatively reinforces legitimate power.

As previously mentioned, we recognize coaching as acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaborative dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Lemert (1997) discussed that coaches “define themselves and their role by their perception of what it means to be a coach with the influence of occupational socialization and subculture, which provide a sense of others expectations”. However, as explored through previous research mentioned in this article, it is believed coaches whom relationships with players respect their knowledge or expertise in athletic or sports based contexts, cultivate learning without exercising legitimate power and do not influence social aspects or relations can lead to new shared understandings with their athletes. Akin to Carroll's coaching philosophies, Jones and Standage discuss the ideas that “empowering athletes by transferring decision making to them is gathering momentum” yet I believe within rugby union from my research conducted, we need to speed this up for concepts including higher levels of player retention, greater satisfaction at all skill and development levels whilst being committed to develop better people when offering scenarios to create better players as a wider community of practice. I believe a shift in player autonomy like expressed in early stages of Carroll's coaching career shall allow self-rule in athlete actions, offering greater consideration and allowance for their decisions. This shall make the shift by coaches from “being an authority as opposed to in authority” (Bergman Drewe, 2000), gaining closer, more impactful relationships with their players whilst creating player volitional control and self-determined and intrinsically driven actions for expertise in their sport, all working towards Carroll's beliefs of always competing and helping people be the best they can be.

How do we build trust within our teams; Encourage leadership, integrity, honesty and accountability...


To all my Northern Hemisphere coaching and global business friends entering a new season and early stages of financial year, remember in earnest; if every member of a team doesn’t grow together, they will grow apart. 

As we prepare for a new rugby season, pre-season should be the time for remembering that we as leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the environment needed in order to be at our best. Therefore, understanding and solidifying why we are coaching, leading and teaching is the thing that inspires us and inspires those around us. Use this time at the start of 2018 to ask ourselves and communicate with others what our purpose or beliefs are, establishing or reaffirming connections through trust and authenticity which is vital to an organization or sporting team's success and become better leaders through recognition and celebration, coaching, and communication skills.

A small group of inspired and engaged employees or players can have a positive impact. Players today want to feel that they matter, that their work or efforts matter and that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. Together, you and your teams can create a positive and productive environment where trust and cooperation are the norm, not the exception. However, for people to follow you and identify you as their leader, it starts with integrity, honesty and accountability; all components of trust. When you clearly understand our own why, you can display a greater sense of purpose within our teams and organization and are able to contribute the best of who you are. When you are at your best, contributing to the vision and the long-term progress of the teams or businesses we are involved in, the natural result is greater fulfillment for all involved.

Once you've established why you are leading or coaching, here's some leadership tips for managing young workers and players in today's environment:

  • Lead by example; show heroism and leadership in their daily lives for examples to follow.
  • Teach them leadership including sharing ideas on how to give and receive feedback for personal growth.
  • Accept "failures" as part of growth mindset: Acknowledge failures are helping the person and program grow if we learn and grow from mistakes made.
  •  Teach and empower them to search and solve their own problems, encouraging new and innovative ideas for ever-changing environments.

Focus of transition periods in Australian Rugby: Importance of coach-athlete relationships

Recent appointments and interviews have highlighted the importance of transition periods in Australian rugby union environments. Former Wallaby James Holbeck has signed on as a career and pathways manager with an eye to helping current and former Australian rugby players with their transition into life after rugby and GR&G Podcast with NSW Waratahs Elite Youth Development Manager, Pat McCutcheon looked at the importance of talent ID alongside young player personal and professional development. While these are extremely pleasing developments in recognising the importance of player welfare and acknowledging the stresses involved in entering and exiting the professional atmospheres, my passions and practices revolve around focusing on player well-being when in the relevant rugby programs and how we as coaches and mentors can facilitate these players to gain perceived personal success, both on and off the pitch. 


On his appointment, Holbeck will now work closely with Rugby Australia, the Classic Wallabies and the Rugby Union Players’ Association (RUPA). His qualifications and personal insight into what current footballers are going through will be hugely beneficial. Holbeck knows as well as anyone how difficult life can be when a professional sporting career comes to a screeching halt. Holbeck said: 

I had no confidence post-rugby that I’d be able to do anything of note; My first job was a commentating gig at the World Cup in 2003 and then my next job was working at an IGA as a weekend manager on the Gold Coast. That’s sort of the fall from grace that a lot of players have.

From that perspective, it is about trying to get players a bit more prepared, which is easier said than done because players want to put it off until next year. That’s what we all did.

All players would say they didn’t make the most of the Players’ Association and the connections you have while you’re playing; I haven’t met a player that hasn’t said that over the last 10 years. We want to get senior players as mentors. For the current Wallabies, we want to look at some sort of structure for them to be working towards life after rugby.

NSW Waratahs Elite Youth Development Manager, Pat McCutcheon discussed recently discussed the importance of player and personal development on young players entering the GenBlue system: 

One thing that I always say and I always will say is that we want to develop the player to be more than just a rugby player. We want them to be strong, physically good and technically good, but we want to develop them as human beings.

Helping with simple things, such as how to deal with stress and anxiety, how to deal with losses, how to analyse games (while assisting players to) set themselves up for post career development as well, because when you’re 30-35 and had a pretty good career and you are retiring you’ve got the rest of your life in front of you. If we can give these young men more tools and more education, and a more holistic approach I know the byproduct of that will be better rugby players.

In regards to Talent ID, There’s obviously a physical element when it comes to doing that talent identification for those young players coming through the ranks; I think that the first things we look at our behavioural characteristics. We want to pick good blokes. We want to pick good people, and that essentially gives a whole element of coachability. If you’ve got people who can listen and are responsive, they’re selfless in their action with really good character,  I think that’s far more important than skill development. You start talking about the mental side of things, leadership and life after rugby. There is so much more emphasis on that at the moment.

I believe we as coaches need to assist players in building and maintaining positive mindsets while creating fulfilling experiences through interactions on and off the field. How can we do so? Ideas such as encouraging players to be "present" through sports specific mindfulness tactics, being aware and encouraging their individual visions, both short and long term, to support their aspirations and find ways they can effectively and purposefully achieve their goals can be some adopted tactics yet the importance of coach-athlete relationships right through their playing careers shall ensure a holistic entry and exit from rugby union. 

Good coach-athlete relationships can assist in offering the emotional support and perceived efficacy in sport to assist  prolonged athlete involvement, retention and engagement, which can be enhanced by understanding of what players’ value and why. Previous research by Gould’s found ideas for coaches such as cultivating personal involvement with players, offering two way communication, utilising player input and understanding player’s feelings (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996) could strengthen these areas for player support. Cresswell and Eklund (2006) also found ideas such as enjoyable challenges within rugby, open and free communication with coaches and management alongside few or flexible responsibilities outside sport allowed and encouraged player engagement, reduced burnout or dropout and ease the exit anxiety which Holbeck shall be looking at. Coaches and administration staff alike should take note from qualitative investigations which found attributions to burnout symptoms included transitions between competitions or stages in season, which added emotional and mental stress akin to areas mentioned by Holbeck; pressure to comply and perform in elite environments and negative development environments, all areas which could factor and enable greater control for players and coaches alike.

So, from previous research and current adopted ideas, what does good coach-athlete relationships look like? The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognised as an educational dynamic relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships. 

The main aspects of influential and successful coach-athlete relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship. Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply ingrained within the coach-athlete relationship. Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognition, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Therefore, a coach’s ability to acknowledge and develop positive interpersonal connections, driven by interpersonal skills and united sense of purpose and achievement, can offer solid base for positive group climate. As in PYD (positive youth development) models, a coach should look to offer opportunities to continually develop strengths, improve performance and increase positive emotional states.

Coaches should assist players to identify problems as opposed to solving them, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions, ideas which have been touched on by both Holbeck and McCutcheon. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Therefore, coaches within HP rugby programs could adopt ideas from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where this theory has the coach standing as a recognised more capable other to the athlete with their requirement being to engage in contextual collaborative and learning relationship with athletes to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance. Zone of proximal development (ZPD) as defined by Vygotsky, is an area I believe would be successfully applicable to PYD promotion and specialising athletes in team sports such as rugby union and offer life building skills for when exiting the sport.This theory encourages players to ask questions and adopt sub routines; therefore, the players are taking over the structure of tasks and practice while acquiring performance or transfer of performance. This again allows coaches to act as mentors, supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies. This supports the ideas of learning being a series of episodes; scaffolding, where players identify and build knowledge, another key point identified by Pat McCutcheon in regards to developing the players as "better blokes".

Another stage for developing "better blokes" or structure for them to be working towards life after rugby is considering or thinking about adopted knowledge, where players can work independently to analyse developed ideas and skills with last stage being evaluating learning. Through this adopted approach, they could identify applicable monitoring, review and learning processes such as self or peer review or socio-constructivist theory, where learning occurs in social groups through ongoing interactions between relevant people. This method positions coaches as mentors where they shift from knowledge expert for athlete as in early stages of development to learning manager or facilitator (Carnell and Lodge, 2002), offering constructive feedback for the player to investigate further.

These studied theories could be supported by Entwistle and Smith’s research (2002); this allows an athlete to explore personal understanding of subject or sport in question, assisted with relevant, timely and challenging feedback from coach or mentor. These theories promote the ideas of both learner/athlete and educator/coach to act, reflect, evaluate, plan and experiment prior to acting and starting the cycle over again. These processes offer both players and coaches security to adopt and test skills in preparation for competitive environment, understanding that all involved parties can reflect and plan new strategies if required. As opposed to a coach led or directive approach, it offers players autonomy to internally understand sport expectations and how they may offer new solutions or scenarios to develop mastery approach or elite status.

Part of the importance and difficulty of good coach-player relationships is the perceived passion towards the sport. Both parties having harmonious passion, defined as “autonomous internalization that leads individuals to choose to engage in the activity that they like” (Vallerand et al., 2003), towards rugby should be positive for all dimensions for coach-athlete relations and result in understanding of importance of sport yet not over whelming in each other’s identity. An equally or unequally obsessive passion towards the sport can show positive signs for direct commitment to the player-coach relationship yet shall result in externally regulated motivations taking control, with player or coach being more controlled by outcomes which are regulated or recognised by others than those within relationship. High quality coach-athlete relationships, which are optimised by harmonious passion, result in higher subjective well-being within player (Lafrenière, 2008), an area which is critical for  player retention and development of self-determined motivations and mastery mindset.

My current research of personal strivings amongst age grade elite players such as players found in McCutcheon's GenBlue offers a potential framework to strengthen these coach-athlete relationships in future. Robert Emmons, creator of Personal Strivings assessment, found pursuit of strivings offered basic needs, similar to Self Determination Theroy, investigated by Deci and Ryan amongst others. Strivings offer safety and control (akin to autonomy), social belongingness (akin to relatedness) and self-esteem and competence (Emmons, 1999). Possession of and progression towards intrinsically important goals “instantiate needs of autonomy, competence and well being” (Emmons, 1999), which closely tied to player well-being.

Emmons and Diener (1986) researched the positive effect related to presence and attainment of important goals in everyday life, echoing Emmons belief of progressing toward meaningful life goals is a prerequisite for subjective well-being (Emmons, 1986). Sheldon and Kasser (1995) suggested personal strivings serve as “motivational organising principles that lend coherence and continuity to day to day goal pursuits”. Strivings explore the link between motivational aspects of personality and environment as defined ideographically, therefore being important components why individuals would spend time in certain situations while avoiding others (Emmons, 1991); as investigated, goal attainment is related to well-being over time whereas commitment regarded as unrelated (Emmons, 1999)

Therefore on the information provided and past research, I feel Holbeck and McCutcheon could place a greater empathsis on coach-athlete relationships while in RA programs, including addressing the social and mental sides of coaching, assisting players build intrinsic motivations within and away from the game and ensuring Rugby AUS has emotionally satisfied players entering and exiting into life after rugby. On this note, keep an eye out for my new mentoring program staring soon for athletes of all ages, offering ideas and collaborative solutions for strengthening mental skills required for elite programs and professional environments. 


"Becoming is better than being": Morning with Wade Gilbert

This week, I was really fortuante to spend time with Wade Gilbert as part of a discussion group at University of QLD. Canadian coaching guru Wade Gilbert is in this country as a guest of Cricket Australia; as well as speaking to CA’s coaches and leaders, Gilbert has spent time in recent days with NRL clubs Melbourne, South Sydney, Cronulla and North Queensland. He has also visited AFL clubs Collingwood, North Melbourne, Richmond and the Brisbane Lions.


Having previously met Gilbet at ICCE Conference in Liverpool (an admittedly nerve wracking experience as he chaired my research presentation!!), I was keen to spend some time with him while on Australian shores. Gilbert, currently Professor at Fresno State University in California, started by discussing where he was from and his journey to where he is now, outlining how fortunate what he has been doing being in "the right place at the right time". He has worked within academic research circles with such people such as Jean Cote, Pierre Trudel and Cliff Mallett and worked alongside legendary coaches such as Coach Wooden among others, gathering a wealth of knowledge along the way. He has recently been involved in creating the USOC Quality Coaching Framework, which provides an overarching set of principles that is designed to inform how to coach most effectively. The USOC QCF is a  evidence-based resource that establishes a common language and principles of quality coaching for all those working in Team USA coaching contexts. He highlighted the running joke of how a Canadian has been used to make US Coaches better but no one can dispute his reputation in coaching circles. 


Gilbert started to discuss further areas he considers of growing importance within coaching, one of them being coach wellness and ability to perform. He discussed how he has seen an increase in importance of coach's health and wellbeing with increased pressure to perform, increasing turnover of coaches and staff and good coaching practices being overlooked for result driven industry. He echoed Coach Wooden's saying of "never mistake activity for achievement", expressing how busy coaches made themselves appear and focusing on the results or the product over the process, an area I have discussed previously towards coaches adopting a growth mindset. He talked about the coach's ability to perform in different moments, preparing to win training sessions, meetings and matches with the correct mindset and how increasingly important mindfulness tactics such as active breathing, imagery and meditation are to catch and create energy for people to learn.

Highlighting the number of coaches within NBA this year taking a medical leave of absence, he highlighted another area of importance and which I have previously addressed of coach burnout. Coach like athlete burnout results from “chronically frustrated or unfulfilled basic physiological needs” (Cresswell, 2006) and “denotes a negative emotional reaction to sport participation” (Gustafsson, Kenttä, Hassmén, & Lundqvist, 2007). Coaches recognising themselves as performers should again increase awareness towards well-being to portray the clear purpose and passion towards their program, understanding your players and offering what is required in meeting their needs. Coaches need to have the physical and mental capacity to create environments and atmospheres where all involved are testing and pushing by training to improve themselves as opposed to training to prove themselves.

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Cliff Mallett, Steven Rynne and Gilbert discusses amongst the group high performing and serial successful coaches. The highlighted areas such as continually striving to improve and continue learning, never happy or satisfied and always looking to improve the process while adopting transformational leadership styles. Gilbert highlighted areas I have recently discussed looking how coaching success stems around the competence, confidence, connection and character developed with the athlete as a result of the coach-player relations yet coach adopted transformational leadership styles would result in positive intrinsic motivations and increased athlete effort. Wade addressed that you "aren't selling your program; meet them at their needs and better understand through connection". 

Addressing discussed area of relationship, I reminded myself of a couple of Coach Wooden quotes to add context to the discussion:

The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example”

”It’s the little details that are vital; little things make big things happen

Gilbert again discussed with the group regarding coaching being navigating moments and this included defining and recognising moments of leadership. Offering an example used from time with Melbourne Storm, when asking players what does leadership look like to them and asking for examples or moments in action on and away from the field each day, he ensured examples offered where really highlighted and applauded when offered. 

Gibert touched on other apsects discussed in his Australian trip with coaches including developing leadership groups, team communication and athlete readiness, all part of your coaching domain. I have previously heard Gilbert refer to coaches as "environmental engineers" suggesting creating an atmosphere where coaches both continue to learn and encourage learning. Gilbert strengthened this statement by saying how learning aids meaning and context while being intrinsically motivating to learn. He reiterated the saying "becoming is better than being" which enforces the belief of the great that you never "become" a great coach or achieve mastery in playing; you focus on the importance of the individual and relationships and focus on how and why to keep getting better. 

Thanks to Cliff Mallett and Steven Rynne of UQ for hosting the forum and Darren Holder of Cricket Australia for incorporating as part of Wade Gilbert's trip to Australia.