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There is nothing so practical as a good coaching philosophy

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Key elements:

  • A coaching philosophy is a set of explicit guidelines to translate my core values and beliefs into actions.
  • I illustrate how my coaching philosophy informs my session planning.

The quotation from Kurt Lewin which I have adapted for my title was foreshadowed by a much earlier comment by Leonardo da Vinci, who included a section in his notebooks titled Of the mistakes made by those who practise without knowledge. da Vinci wrote:

“Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory”.

For me, this quotation about theory (an explanation of how some aspect of the world works) resonates with the concept of a coaching philosophy.

All of my actions when teaching (in higher education) or coaching (in youth sport) are shaped by my underpinning values (e.g., sincerity, society) and beliefs (e.g., what is learned with practice, what is the purpose of youth sport). These values and beliefs manifest in the decisions that I make and in the behaviours that I enact; for example, in deciding which members of a youth sports team will play in the final.

My philosophy shapes my practice by providing a set of explicit guidelines on how to translate my core values and beliefs into actions; in the words of Wade Gilbert (2017):

“Your coaching philosophy describes how you will approach your role as a coach and how you will ensure that you are staying true to your purpose and core values” (p. 25).

I describe my philosophy as practical because I use it; I use it when reflecting in and on practice, and I use when planning sessions. For example, after drafting a session, I examine what I have planned in light of the tenets of my philosophy to ensure that I am remaining true to my aspirations.

My philosophy has five central tenets:

  • Connect with the individual
  • Work in partnership
  • Create something tangible*
  • Develop through affirmation
  • Celebrate growth

If you do not have a coaching philosophy, then now is a very good point to pause. For advice on how to develop a coaching philosophy, have a read of this blog by ACLAÍ’s Ainle Ó Cairealláin, or complete this activity from the excellent iCoachKids project. If you have already started to develop your coaching philosophy, then review this blog from Blake Richardson for a more nuanced insight.

What follows is an example of how I used my philosophy to plan a recent workshop on “effective coaching”.

Connect: I started by presenting my background, including many details (where I am from, where I have worked) that were irrelevant to the content of the day. However, as I explicitly told the audience, my purpose in doing so was twofold. First, to find common ground with those in the audience; anything that would help us to start a conversation during one of the subsequent breaks in the day. Second, because I was looking for the audience to share information about their background and practices with me, it only seemed fair that I started by sharing about myself.

Partnership: The goal that I set for the workshop was to generate examples of good practice; incidents where coaches had been able to exploit teachable moments to enhance their athletes’ competence, confidence, connection or character. I would share some examples to delineate the task, and then the coaches in attendance would work in small groups to generate stories from their own practice. We would work together over the course of the workshop to create the resource that everyone would take away: a set of stories that could enhance their reflection over the coming weeks.

Tangible: Worksheets were provided which were filled out in the session by participants. Afterwards I added some brief comments or questions, and scanned the worksheets to form a pdf; a tangible resource that we had created together, which could be shared amongst all attending coaches.

4Cs Worksheet

Affirmation: I believe that the path to effective learning is through affirmation. Affirmation recognises and highlights what the learner can do, rather than focusing on what the learner cannot do. Thus, the session aimed to empower coaches by emphasising that examples of insightful, effective coaching can be found in everyone’s practice. Master coaches simply recognise, respond to and engineer teachable moments more consistently and more effectively than developing coaches. By highlighting and exploring examples of what everyone in the room does sometimes, we could create a set of context-specific examples to guide all of the coaches to become more consistent in their exploiting of teachable moments.

Growth: The final tenet of my philosophy, to recognise and celebrate growth, takes time, and is therefore not appropriate to try and address within the scope of a single session. It is something to follow up on, 4-6 weeks after the session. First, attendees will receive an email asking how they have reflected and acted upon the session content and on the resource we produced. If all goes to plan, the coaches will reply sharing their new stories, and then we can celebrate instances of growth.

Now it is your turn. Write your coaching philosophy on one sheet, and your latest session plan on another:

  1. Can you identify where each aspect of your philosophy manifests in the session that you have designed?
  2. Are there any elements of your session plan that are not aligned with your philosophy?

 

Conclusion

A coaching philosophy is a set of explicit guidelines to ensure that your behaviours as a coach are consistent with the values and beliefs that you aspire to. Critically, a coaching philosophy is designed to be used; to be a practical tool that enhances the quality of your coaching process; to act, in the words of da Vinci, as your rudder and compass.

*This third tenet, create something tangible, is present when I am teaching but not essential when I am coaching. By tangible I mean a physical resource; something written down or drawn or recorded; a reminder that can be used when reviewing the content of the session.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Jack Cooney and Sifu Dave Bright for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this blog.

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