Becoming a Good Enough Coach


Today's daily blog entry is a paper written by two brillant athletics researchers in Canada, Jim Denison, Ph.D. & J. P. Mills, Ph.D.

Personally, I read this paper years ago and it had a deep and profound impact on me and the trajectory of my coaching practice. 

I share it now in hopes it prompts useful thought. 

Enjoy! // jm


Becoming a Good Enough Coach

by Jim Denison, Ph.D. & J. P. Mills, Ph.D.

‘Being perfect.’ Should it be a coach’s aim?

The perfect workout, training program or practice plan. The perfect set of progressions or cues. It’s enticing, a goal that can clearly be called, aspirational. But what can striving for perfection as a coach do? As one perspective on this question, trying to be a perfect coach can bring with it increased levels of control and surveillance. For a perfect coach, as logic would hold, would only be content with perfect athletes. As a result, he or she would likely use his or her force—his or her power and knowledge—in nonorganic ways: ways founded more on selfishness, ego and insecurity than providing one’s athletes with the necessary space and time to develop in ways more appropriate for them. That is, developing according to the unique contexts, settings and realities that surround their lives and no-one else’s. Paradoxically, then, the perfect coach’s athletes almost always run the risk of underperforming.

How could it be otherwise?

What then if a coach simply aimed to be good enough?

To intervene only when it was absolutely necessary; to identify what is and is not important to control; to open up more spaces and possibilities for difference, creativity and imagination; to develop broader and more forgiving timelines; to question tradition and expectation and the judgments of others.

Or put differently, to resist the colonization of science, technology and efficiency—themes born of a modern industrial age—and its all too frequent controlling and dehumanizing practices. Of course we appreciate that ‘only’ striving to be good enough will not be easy for a coach to do. The push for more control (read science) across coaching is ceaseless. The development of ‘new’ systems, new models and ‘best practices’ is endless. So it is that ‘just’ aiming to be a good enough coach could come across as being negligent, irresponsible and unprofessional, an anathema to coaching: anti-coaching almost. 

Related to the idea of being a perfect coach is the very powerful notion that good coaching is about prediction and knowing when an athlete is ready to perform.

The threat of the unknown is often seen as too heavy a risk for a coach to take. Coaches, research shows, don’t like to be in that space.

So different thinking, different practices, different bodies, different cultures, just plain difference is erased. In this regard, the exercise of control by coaches serves very well as a technique for reducing risk by eliminating difference. In other words, through the exercise of control by a coach his or her athletes can easily become homogenized and sanitized in order to become a risk-free body. But surely something must be lost in this process? Surely there are risks associated with coaching in a controlling way?

The sport sociologists Jason Laurendeau and Mark Konecny argued, “Risk, or that which might be considered risky or dangerous, constitutes a system of cultural understandings about our selves, our bodies and our relationships.”

They continued: “risk is produced within, and (re)productive of, patterns of social relations, regulatory schemas and broader systems of power relations. In this way, it constructs what is hazardous in particular cultural locations, and how hazards are understood, and talked and written about.”

It is in this way that prevention, prediction, fear and avoidance dominate so many of our social practices, sport included.

The unknown, what can’t be evidenced or viewed as a “best practice” is dismissed or disregarded as too risky. However, following so-called best practices in sport—aiming to be that perfect coach—will not necessarily eradicate many of the risks, challenges or unknowns that come from doing sport, it will in fact increase them as athletes training in risk-free environments will likely be unequipped to manage these various challenges and as a result turn in performances far from what they might be truly capable of doing. 

So it is that high performance coach education today is dominated by procedures that involve the use of greater and greater techniques designed to normalize athletes’ bodies. A constant process of ‘checking-in’ and oversight dominate what coaches learn to do. But, as we have been arguing, coaching this way comes with a host of risks with respect to an athlete’s development and performance, his or her engagement and enjoyment.

As just one example, within a rigid coaching framework, learning through one’s mistakes as both an athlete and a coach is curtailed; the daily training environment, to borrow from the philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault, becomes “a machine for learning designed to derive the maximum advantages and to neutralize the inconveniences;” a whole analytical pedagogy and specific set of restraints are brought into play such that the athlete becomes “a fragment of mobile space, before he [or she] is courage and honor.” And as a result, for a coach, always having a plan and always knowing what to do is prioritized above all else. It is prioritized above listening, learning and forming positive coach-athlete relationships. Is it any wonder then that athletes’ experiences in sport today have become characterized more and more by instances of burnout, dropout and underperformance as well as increased feelings of disappointment, resentment, dissatisfaction and regret?

It is in this way that the risk discourse is also political and becomes commodified and leveraged to create and sustain products and subjectivities aimed at ensuring coaches can keep their athletes safe from any risks. There is the use of tracking and monitoring devices to ensure that athletes are developing the ‘right’ type of athlete body. And the so-called best coaches, the ones everyone listens to, profit as experts in normality. They give talks and clinics, develop curricula and advise federations and teams; in the process those coaches who are not seen to be putting themselves under their watch are deemed risky or unsafe practitioners. Thus, working towards becoming the perfect coach takes on a moral tone and legitimizes and justifies doing almost anything within that framework without explanation or any consideration of the possible unintended consequences.

To an extent, it is understandable that a coach would seek out a more risk-free coaching pathway given the many risks coaching raises: litigation threats, parental advocacy groups, institutional politics, athlete protests. And of course there is the risk of losing and all that could come with that: job losses, funding cuts. Thus, a one right way of coaching is produced and it takes a very special person (read brave; very brave) to think differently and to see the risks that the prevention of what have become normal coaching risks can generate.

Therefore, given the challenges that any coach would likely face in an effort to coach in less controlling and dominating or perfect ways, he or she will almost certainly need some type of support, some type of education. And it is this need for support that is why we are by no means angry at coaches for continuing to coach in safe or ‘more known’ ways; we refuse to label coaches, as some critics of sport have, ‘agents of normalization.’ This would be to ignore the complex historical formation of sport and the multiple relations of power and their effects that circulate within every sporting context.

In other words, from our perspective as social scientists and coach developers, to enhance athletes’ performances and increase coaches’ effectiveness there is no enemy or bad guy who must be exposed and deposed. There is no singular identifiable problem we are trying to solve. So where is the threat coming from? What is it that needs to be challenged? Surely sides must be drawn—someone to root for and someone to root against? How can a story be told well, or a case made for action and change without these dynamics?

Actually, we think a story can be told well this way, and subsequently a case made for change. In fact, it is the telling of such stories that we are in desperate need of across high performance sport and coach education. Stories from successful coaches that foreground and star nuance, complexity, ambiguity, luck, history and the all vagaries of truth and reality. Whereas stories that seek closure and resolution too often simplify who we are and what we do. Moreover, such stories can be false and misleading as well as dangerous and damaging because underpinning them is the misplaced assumption that the same stories, i.e., the same coach education curriculum, will work for everyone.

Alternatively, it is ideas, their formation and their effects, that must become the new characters of our stories of high performance coaching. Ideas concerning how coaches come to know and make the decisions they do. Ideas concerning what coaches believe to be normal and why. This is what defines the stories we are writing as part of our research program into high performance sport. For to promote real change within coaching and coach education it is important to first challenge many of the established and taken-for-granted assumptions coaches hold about coaching and what they believe it means to be an effective coach. Only then can the promise of being a good enough coach begin to emerge and transform coaching from a largely normalizing practice into an activity that supports critical thinking, creativity and an ongoing commitment to learning and change.

Jonathan Marcus