• Ralph Spangenberg

What executive coaches can learn from sports coaches - part two

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

The role of the sports coach has been transformed over the past 40 years. Since the 1970s there has been a movement, slow at first, towards an athlete-centered approach that engages the individual and team in the spirit of inquiry. This trend is certainly not universal and depends to a degree on the coach’s personality, the level of player being coached, the sport in question and the cultural context.


The evolution of coaching

However, successful coaches have certainly discovered that professional sport evolves at ever increasing speeds and, as such, it is essential to develop and engage intelligent and motivated decision makers who can adapt, in the moment, to fluid and complex situations. The history of sports coaching philosophy and methodology in many ways mirrors other changes in society, education and business organizations that have occurred in the last five or six decades.

By the 1970s, an evolution and greater understanding of the learning environment was occurring, after many years of traditional education. Within this there was also a more intuitive and sophisticated sense of what components motivated individuals to work and perform. The increasingly accountable sports coaches and teachers at this time began to question whether their previous methods were actually effective. Were their students and players actually improving? If not, then it was time to review and innovate their methods. The progressive coach was observant, reflective, and openly embraced change.

In an arena that was becoming increasingly professional and preassurised, the coach needed to find an edge. In the US at this time, the tennis coach Tim Gallwey was discovering that the more he taught and corrected his players, the worse they often performed. He noticed that the less he taught, the more they learnt for themselves.


He concluded that it was important for the player to pay more careful attention to his or her own experience in the moment rather than an ongoing commentary. The age-old idea that a coach imparting knowledge and correcting errors would automatically guarantee a player’s improvement was now under scrutiny. From these observations, Gallwey developed his ‘inner game’ theories and first published the Inner Game of Tennis in 1974.


Executive coaching as we understand it today

Many people argue that his ideas gave birth to the field of executive coaching as we understand it today.

Gallwey argued that optimal performance is a natural phenomenon that evolves organically, but is often hindered by the interference of negative, distracted thinking. Such thinking can be the result of all the advice, feedback, checklists and negative criticism received over time – and it can be compounded by inflexible coaches who take away the player’s autonomy.


Gallwey was proposing and promoting a coaching method where the sports coach created an opening for the player to improve and perform optimally through direct experience.

Soon afterwards, two physical education lecturers at Loughborough University, Rod Thorpe and Dave Bunker, developed a new way of teaching physical education, known as Teaching Games For Understanding which was a radical change from the old system of teaching. They proposed a methodology, which focused more on playing modified games, where students and players could explore strategy and decision making together in a context that was far more realistic and enjoyable than isolated technical activities, such as standing in line and shooting unopposed at a goal. This new method was an exciting and innovative movement that caught on in some areas, but many practitioners were and still are reluctant to modify methods that had been in place and unquestioned for a long time.


Many coaches and teachers were anxious about handing the learning over to the players, fearing a loss of control or a perception from others that they were not actually doing anything. The philosophy was more enthusiastically embraced in Australia and New Zealand, where it became known as ‘game sense’.


New coaching approach

In this new player-centred approach, the emphasis was on empowering athletes as individuals and yet also on integrating them into cohesive, committed and highly intelligent teams. The development of technical and physical skills was increasingly complemented by honing perception, self-awareness, reflexivity and openness.

A key part of this process was the building of a healthy confidence and ego strength while at the same time nurturing a personal humility that benefits the team. This is a highly demanding challenge for sports coaches and creates a need for traditional, omniscient and omnipotent leadership to make way for a more humble and reflective approach. Sports coaching now requires a much more rigorous, inclusive and nuanced interaction and a better understanding of what confidence and humility actually signify in high-pressure environments.


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