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How to progress not plateau: The inside track on developing your coaching career

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Head coach of University of Birmingham Triathlon Club Louise Barron – an alumni of our Women into High Performance Programme – and UK Coaching Talent and Performance Lead  Chris Chapman (pictured) offer anecdotal advice and useful strategies that will leave you well-equipped for overcoming any coach development hurdles in your path.

  • It’s not just athletes who must overcome obstacles and challenges throughout their careers if they hope to keep moving in the right direction. This is true of coaches too.
  • And particularly female coaches, who can find a lack of opportunities and confidence stumbling blocks on their personal development journeys.
  • We present some strategies that will help coaches create an effective learning environment for THEMSELVES as well their athletes.
  • The conversations and ideas shared during the four Female Coach Connectivity Events run by UK Coaching demonstrated how supposedly insurmountable brick walls blocking career progression or coach development can be successfully dismantled, gone round, over, under and sometimes through.
  • Although the context of the days and some of the themes explored were around the talent and performance environment, the principles of great coaching remain the same, so the takeaways provided here are just as relevant to participation coaches as they are performance coaches, and to males as they are females.

I’m going to be talking a lot about ‘C words’ in this blog and will drop a few ‘C bombs’ very early on, but I swear this is not what you are thinking. Zero expletives; entirely productive.

If I do go on the offensive occasionally, rest assured it will be in the context of taking a strong stance on female coach development.

I don’t know what it is about coach education but the words that seem to carry the most weight, the most substance, more often than not begin with the letter C. When they are contained within a coaching framework, the energy and potential power of these words to impact, influence, encourage and empower seem to be further elevated.

We have the ‘5 Cs’ holistic model of coaching, which evolved into the ‘C System’ – connection, confidence, competence, character & caring, creativity – that supports the development of children as people as well as performers.

Then you have the ‘3+1C’ model – closeness, commitment, complementarity plus co-orientation – that allows coaches to measure and observe the quality of their Coach-Athlete Relationship (CAR).

And for the purposes of this blog reviewing the Female Coach Connectivity Event in Nottingham, we will be discussing the ‘5 Cs’ model of expertise, representing five key principles of coach development, and a core feature of all UK Coaching high performance programmes.

Taking the time to understand how these ‘5 Cs’ work – build connections, question/consider coincidences, explore contradictions, be curious, embrace creative desperation – will enable you to approach any challenges you face in your coaching more effectively, while giving you the necessary insight to CREATE A CLIMATE OF POSSIBILITIES.

Oh, and the ability to utilise this framework comes with a reward, in the form of a bonus C, which is a desirable by-product of the interaction of all these principles: Confidence.

Together as a tool kit, these ‘C bombs’ form a powerful weapon. Enough to explode any brick wall standing in your way of progress as a coach.

Why it’s okay to put yourself first

Facilitating the Connectivity events was UK Coaching Talent and Performance Lead Officer Chris Chapman, who provided some useful strategies to help embed these qualities into the coaching armoury of the talent pathway coaches in attendance.

After imparting the theory, Chris facilitated the learning process by guiding a series of interactive discussions.

And we heard first-hand from a coach whose journey has benefited tremendously by employing the ‘5 Cs’.

I should say at this point that the day comprised so much more than this… so much more! This is just a snapshot of what resonated most with me from the morning session.

Here was our starting premise: Sometimes you have to put yourself first as a coach.

To help athletes become the best that they can be, a coach must become the best coach that they can be. A key part of that process is learning to prioritise your development goals and to make sure you are playing to your strengths – something female coaches can sometimes fail to fully exploit.

‘We talk a lot about being selfless as a coach,’ said Chris, ‘but sometimes to be the best version of yourself you have to be a bit selfish and create some time for yourself.’

Rule number two. When you are in that space, the learning process is optimised by taking yourself out of your comfort zone. Feeling ill at ease or vulnerable in your surroundings is actually a good thing.

‘Start having conversations that may make you feel uncomfortable as it helps you move as a coach. You can always go back into your comfort zone afterwards and "take a breath".’

So that was the challenge for the day: to put yourself out there to think differently. The coaches were told they would be surprised what would happen if they challenged their thinking and didn’t play by the usual rules.

‘Not everything fits neatly together like a jigsaw, where you simply follow a rigid structure to complete the puzzle. Coaching is more like a mystery; enjoy the journey as it unravels,’ explained Chris.

In the small cohort of coaches in Nottingham, a light was shone on the experiences and feelings of each person in the room during a series of one-to-one and group tasks, so others could see exactly what their likeminded peers were wrestling with in their sports, in their clubs and in their careers in general, so they could learn from each other.

A ‘model’ approach to coach development

Chris provided a brief description of each of the Cs, and the benefits of their application, before we were given a personal account of their power.

‘Your experiences will influence your connections,’ began Chris. ‘They will influence how you think and feel and how you see things and, the more knowledge and experiences you’ve got, the more you will start to spot different connections, almost like popcorn popping in your head.’

Make physical connections too in terms of maximising networking opportunities (being a member of ConnectedCoaches is a great start smile). Who is in your network? Who do you know? Who do you want to know? Use LinkedIn too to extend your chain of contacts and have the conversations you want with the people you want.

‘The key is being prepared to delve that little bit deeper. We fear not asking questions because we may look silly but this is how we learn and understand things,’ said Chris.

The more physical and mental connections you make, the more coincidences you will encounter too, and these can have a transformative effect on your coaching practice and philosophy.

You may, for example, decide to move clubs to take your coaching in a different direction. At precisely the same time, an up-and-coming athlete joins and you take them under your wing. You have each raised the level of challenge and both of you flourish under these new conditions. Serendipity in action.

By having more challenging conversations with an extended network of people you will likely encounter contradictions too – things you don’t expect to happen or see in coaching that, once again, may end up changing your outlook or opinion and ultimately having an influence on your development.

‘What may not seem important at the time may prove to be in due course. So be open to ideas from other sports and any contradictions you observe,’ said Chris.

No questions asked, no answers given

And that fits neatly with the need to be curious, about other people’s journeys, methodologies and philosophies. Ask questions to find out how other coaches do things. Don’t feel self-conscious.

Talking of ‘self’, and putting yourself first, self-awareness is important when it comes to understanding and appreciating your own strengths and then playing to them. And being self-aware also gives you a greater awareness of other people and their needs.

Those skilled in self-awareness will find it can be a reciprocal process, whereby becoming more aware of other people can also help boost your own levels of self-awareness. A virtuous circle.

In terms of creative desperation, under pressure we feel and act differently, and in that challenging environment we look for different ways of doing things. The term originated from the work of Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot, who used it to describe some of the innovative strategies and calculated risks chess players devised when they found themselves in trouble during a match. The technique creates opportunities to think differently about your coaching and can contribute valuable insight.

All these principles were expertly exemplified during a candid talk by the day’s guest speaker, who shared her own pathway experience.

The long arm of coincidence

Louise Barron is head triathlon coach at the University of Birmingham, running a club of 120 athletes, including a high performance squad of 12.

Louise – who also coaches privately, from beginners through to elite level – talked about how a combination of curiosity, coincidence and connections set her on the road to becoming a head coach.

‘Someone around 15 years ago who worked for British Triathlon was scouting for some women coaches to help on junior and youth elite camps. It felt like the right place at the right time.’

And so it proved. It happened to be the same camps that the Brownlee brothers were on.

That wasn’t the only coincidence. It was where she first met leading GB Triathlon coach Jack Maitland, who would go on to be her mentor and champion and ‘an instrumental figure in my coaching career.’

A career which hasn’t all been plain sailing.

‘After I first got the job of my dreams, I went in full force and said to the university, “right, let’s develop this club, it’s going to be incredible”. And I kept knocking on the door… and I kept knocking on the door. Eventually I was resigned to taking no for an answer and felt a bit defeated by it and stopped looking for solutions.

‘But then, only about a year ago, I started asking the right questions of the right people, in the right way. I put the fear aside of going wrong and made a beeline for the people who were blocking me and I connected with them. They are actually my ‘champions’ now. When I met them I spoke with certainty and confidence, whereas before I had lacked self-belief and clarity. Suddenly, out of nowhere, five different doors were flung open simultaneously and I was welcomed in.’

Desperately seeking a solution

Louise had benefited from a period of creative desperation. She had been struggling under the misapprehension that her unique style and personality, which she admits does not conform to any standard coaching template, was a weakness. She finally forced a submission in her wrestling match with negative self-talk, acknowledging that it is, in fact, a big strength.

She had entered, and learned to embrace, being in the uncomfortable zone and had come out the other side a better coach for it, by believing what she brought to the table was valuable.

‘If you value yourself, people will value you. I know that if I am in a room full of male tri coaches now, I will never allow myself to act like the underdog any more.’

Her self-belief received further shots in the arm through an acceptance that the previous knockbacks had been ‘nothing personal’. This contradicted her original suspicions.

She had revised her opinion on the back of her confidence-building experiences as a coach.

Experiences like helping one of her student athletes qualify for this year’s Commonwealth Games. ‘That was my biggest buzz yet, accessing that potential and filling him with the faith, confidence and self-belief to get on that start line, because he didn’t feel he could make the squad. And that in turn gave me self-belief in my coaching. He’s a different athlete now and knows he can rely on the faith I have in him.’

And being told by one of her athletes: ‘You are one of the most valued and worthy coaches in the country.’

The facts don’t lie, and Louise had accumulated enough, from the positive feedback from her athletes to numbers her athletes were consistently producing in the lab, to give her the confidence and belief to turn a perceived barrier to her advantage.

To wrap things up, she had benefited from considering coincidences, contradictions, connections, curiosity and creative desperation, leading her to give the following advice to the coaches in the room: ‘If you find a brick wall and are having no joy, then find a different one. You might find a little hole underneath it, or a high jump next to it.’

Strategies and soundbites

I was beginning to formulate a series of soundbites from the session: Don’t be afraid to try your luck – it is the law of averages that if you keep rolling the dice your number will come up; the odds will be stacked in your favour if you build up stacks of experiences; seek different advice from different people in different environments.

Or, as one of the slide’s in Chris’s presentation phrased it, far more smartly than I ever could: ‘Find your strengths and act on them and the world will beat a path to you’ – Elsie Jones-Smith.

By their own admission women – certainly those in the room – tend not to consider their strengths and, even when they do, they play them down, almost apologising for being successful. 

Chris went on to discuss strategies to leverage those strengths effectively if the perception is that you aren’t good enough. Simple ideas to free yourself of negative self-talk like:

  • Keep a diary of things you do well when people give you a compliment. Positive affirmation is important. Bank them. You build confidence off your successes. Write down examples of when you think you have added value: ‘They left with a smile on their face; I have managed to increase participation at my club’.
  • One coach advocated using post-its on the fridge: ‘How many times do you visit the fridge every day’.
  • Identify your strengths by having quality conversations with other coaches and athletes to find out what your strengths are.
  • Start a self-reflection book. ‘Read it back over time to learn from your mistakes, but also to see how you were taking things too seriously,’ said Chris. ‘How we feel emotionally at a given time can influence our actions. Your perception about what had seemed important a day ago, a week ago or a month ago might have changed. It will encourage you not to dwell on the negatives and over-analyse things.’

The ladder to instant confidence

One quick confidence-building strategy to bring things to a close, based on the premise that preparation is key to building self-belief.

Next time you are about to go into a training session, a meeting, or into an interview, try this five-step routine as a means of building instant confidence and erasing self-doubt.

  1. First of all focus on what you are trying to achieve. When you have that clarity of mind, take a step forward.
  2. Concentrate on your breathing, remembering to breathe from your stomach. This will help calm you down and improves your thinking. Take a step forward.
  3. Correct your posture. Placing yourself in the right position helps our body function effectively but it also helps us enter the right mindset, instilling a sense of confidence and control. Straighten your back and push your shoulders back. Then take a step forward.
  4. Form a picture in your mind of what success will look like in the scenario that awaits. You should by now be feeling more comfortable about yourself. Take a step forward.
  5. Finally, talk to yourself, either inside your head or out loud. Say to yourself exactly what you are going to achieve.

When we get greater clarity, we are able to see things differently and this helps us move forward, armed with a strategy for positive action.

So in summary, have a plan of where you want to go on your journey, consider your strengths, identify some techniques to build self-belief – like the ones we have examined above – and ta-dah, you have your own personal compass to steer you through troubled waters or, if you prefer, the ammunition at your disposal to help you demolish the brick walls you may run into rather than bounce off them.

Please share your thoughts on this blog by leaving a comment below.

Further reading

A review of last year's Coach Connectivity event: Greater self-awareness key to making a greater impact as a coach

Louise who was selected for UK Coaching's Women into High Performance programme spoke to UK Coaching about her experiences. Check out this podcast with her on the UK Coaching website for more insight from her.

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Comments (4)


A great article covering the different paths coaches have every day. The honesty of the article resonates and I think self belief can be knocked at times but this makes us stronger if we see it as normal. Its seeing it as normal that takes time to put into perspective but being vulnerable or uncomfortable is necessary to develop. Thanks for sharing Chris and Lou!

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A really enjoyable read. I really like the concept of the 5C's and also the questions this article poses. Although I would add one more:
- Who knows you?
I think this extra question obviously links very closely with the others but the reason I would add this is when it comes to people recalling to others who they should approach for a job role or to connect with, you need to be one of those names mentioned. This has been mentioned to me before that we now work in a culture where it's no longer about what you know or who you know but who knows (remembers) you.

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Great Article. Though busy with Coaching Athletics and work. I keep these posts , read them and review. I developed similar thoughts, self awareness of my coaching over the past 15 years . When sessions went well, and where some go badly , no matter how much I had planned. I will always remember the 5 Cs and to use them in my sessions. Yes I too have been there with knocking on the doors , and I recollect one poster at Brunel Univ indoor Track, when there are no doors , " build one ". Wonderful article , honest and sincere. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you all sporting successes for 2019

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This is a great article. I've learned in my short time a s a coach that connections are very important in this business. It can help you get jobs and also help you learn from the right people. I think your 5 steps for confidence are great for coaches to remember when they are in nerve-wracking situations. I know this will help me be calm and confident.

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