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Mentoring: A brief overview for sports coaches

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This blog post provides a brief overview into sports coach mentoring, with a focus on examples of good practice, factors which might negatively influence the process, and reflective questions for the reader to consider.

An introduction to sports coach mentoring

Mentoring in sports coaching has grown in popularity over recent years, due to its potential to provide personal and contextualised learning opportunities for sports coaches. Despite lacking a clear definition, mentoring is generally presented as a supportive and facilitative relationship between two (or more) people, where often (but not always) a more experienced individual provides guidance to a less experienced individual. Recently, elite coaches such as Pep Guardiola and Eddie Jones have both paid homage to the significant impact their mentors, Johan Cruyff and Jeff Sayle respectively, have had on their development as coaching practitioners throughout their careers.

A sports coach mentor may be able to provide their mentee with care and guidance on a wide range of coaching issues, such as: practice design and planning, managing athlete behaviour, developing a coaching philosophy, and enhancing reflective practice. Support may be provided through observations and feedback, alongside post-session reflective conversations following practical delivery. Therefore, having a mentor or ‘critical friend’ will enable sports coaches to receive feedback on the issues that impact upon their practice. Feedback can be received in real time within the mentee’s own coaching environment, making it more relevant and meaningful to their development.

What does good sports coach mentoring look like?

The following section will look to highlight some key factors which underpin successful mentoring relationships within sports coaching. Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, effective sports coach mentoring relationships will incorporate these elements.

  1. Empathy – it is important for any sports coach mentor to understand the specific needs and wants of their mentee. Mentoring is a great opportunity for personalised coach learning. Therefore, mentors should adopt an empathetic stance and show that they appreciate and acknowledge the desires of their mentee and the challenges they face within that coaching context.
  2. Reciprocal learning – mentoring should be a two-way rather than one-way learning relationship. Despite often being positioned as experts, it is highly likely sports coach mentors will learn from their mentees just as much as their mentee will learn from them. Hence, successful sports coach mentoring relationships should be a reciprocal learning process, with both sides of the dyad open to receiving and taking on board feedback, advice, and new ideas.
  3. Reflection – mentoring and reflective practice appear to go hand in hand, where mentors can utilise skilful questioning to prompt their mentees into critically analysing coaching practice. Therefore, the art of questioning and asking ‘why?’ is important for both mentors and mentees to help challenge taken-for-granted beliefs.
  4. Shared expectations – linked to empathy and the need for a mentor to understand their mentee’s context, it is vital that both the mentor’s and mentee’s expectations with regards to aims, practices, logistics, and outcomes align to avoid both confusion and tension.

What factors might negatively influence sports coach mentoring?

Whilst mentoring practice has great potential to enhance coach learning, there are several factors which might negatively impact upon the process. Once again, this section merely outlines some of the potential problems which might arise.

  1. Matching the mentor and mentee – one issue which is often overlooked within mentoring is the matching of the mentor and mentee. If individuals are paired together with different expectations, contrasting beliefs, and incompatible personal qualities, the success of the mentoring relationship will be impacted. 
  2. Power and negative behaviours – mentors are often placed hierarchically in a position of ‘power’ over their mentee. Consequently, a mentor may abuse this position and demonstrate problematic behaviours. For example, a mentor may be defensive when questioned or challenged, or perhaps push their mentee towards adopting a prescriptive set of coaching practices which aligns with their own beliefs, rather than the mentee’s. If a mentor demonstrates these behaviours mentoring practice may stifle creative thinking and questioning, rather than facilitating it.
  3. Logistics – the effectiveness of a mentoring relationship will be impacted by time constraints, levels of commitment and effort, frequency of meetings, and miscommunication on behalf of both the mentor and the mentee. It is important these aspects are discussed and agreed before any mentoring relationship commences.
  4. Trust – successful mentoring relationships are underpinned by trust, built over time as rapport develops. For example, a mentor needs to trust their mentee to be open and committed to the mentoring relationship, embracing new concepts and approaches whilst acknowledging that mistakes will happen throughout the learning process. On the other hand, a mentee needs to trust that their mentor understands their needs and wants, whilst also sharing the same expectations and possessing the right intentions.

Reflective questions

Due to the global pandemic we currently find ourselves in, practical sports coaching is of course not possible. Therefore, whilst we all take some time away from the field, court, pool, or track, it might be worthwhile to reflect upon the following questions/tasks and consider how mentoring can be implemented/enhanced within your personal coaching context.

  1. Think about whether you currently ‘mentor’ other coaches within your coaching context. Are these relationships formal or informal? What practices do you utilise? How are you enhancing their learning and development?
  2. Consider which individuals have significantly shaped your coaching practice. Ask yourself whether these experiences have shaped your coaching in a positive or negative way? Why?
  3. Reflect upon your current coaching philosophy (values and beliefs rather than tactical/technical models). Share these with a critical friend and ask for feedback. Use their feedback as a catalyst to engage in reflective conversations, in order to understand your coaching philosophy further.

Mentoring can support coaches with enhancing their ability to reflect on their practice, who is your mentor? Have you any tips or suggestions to add? Please add a comment below.

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Comments (2)

   
jcoadyukcoachingorgSYRQSHZ2

Great post Tom. Really enjoyed the read and summary of the fantastic work you have done in this area. I have had some really positive experiences as a mentee on my journey. Some things that resonated with as a mentee, mentor and coach developer in this current climate...how does the virtual platform change the relationship or rapport building ? What is different about the see, feel, hear approach I would get if I had an insitu visit or met at a coffee shop? Is empathy as effective through a screen and therefore does it take longer to build trust ? My role at the moment stops the visits but I can say the richness and depth of conversation is still there...it's just different. Not better or worse just different. What else is interesting (sparked by your reflective questions) the coaches that are in groups have now started to share stories regularly (highs and lows) and CoPs are organically popping up. The power of the informal network has started to rise and it's all very exciting to observe and support. The question is...how do we stop this from being a cliff edge experience and when the train speeds up again how do I support people understanding where it's going and what that looks like ?

02/04/20
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tomleederueaacukYWVBEUL0

Hi Jen thanks for your comment and feedback - some really great points made here. Within sports coaching there has been a considerable growth in e-Mentoring recently, due to the fact mentors cannot always physically be there! Technology is also evolving at such a rapid speed that it is natural to embed this within our mentoring practice.

Interesting to note how you feel trust may take longer to build without that face to face contact. Can someone come across as genuine, sincere, and honest through a screen? It's certainly something to think about. Myself and some colleagues are working on a project exploring trust in sports coach mentoring at the minute - so watch this space!

Informal coach mentoring is on going and an essential part of coaching - we cannot avoid observing and interacting with other coaches. What is key is the impact this informal mentoring is having on coaches' practice/beliefs - is it simply reinforcing what they already know, or is it genuinely challenging their taken-for-granted assumptions? Where does the informal mentoring start and when does it end (if it ever does!)?

Happy to chat further!

03/04/20
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tompo92hotmailcoukOLPL9975

Hi Tom

You raised a really good point on "Power and negative behaviours". It can be the scenario. I think it can be the fault of both mentee and mentoring when considering what mentoring is (or is not). Sometimes the mentee wants to "download" the experience of the mentor, who has achieved what the mentee wants to. There is no doubt sport/life experience of a mentor is a foundation ingredient to mentoring but far from being the sole one. As listed by you empathy, reciprocal learning and reflection are all generic mentoring skills not linked exclusively in any manner to someon's past sports career.

In the case of reflection, the best mentoring for me, is where the mentor doesnt give the answer. Thats certainly what I experienced when I was mentored by a former boss. Instead, a mentor can guide and facilitate the mentee through the process of raising their self awareness, understanding and management.

So the great thing is mentors can come from various starting backgrounds but do need to constantly develop the generic skills of mentoring. To that end, there is an array of free online courses at OU at the moment. There is one on coach development but I have opted for one about "Learning through practise" which involves mentoring in the nursing profession. Its always interesting to see how other sectors utlise mentoring.

During these lockdown times, others might be interested in these course, so here is a link

https://www.open.edu/openlearn/free-courses/full-catalogue?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIiY7lwa216AIViaztCh3EWwrQEAAYASABEgJyGfD_BwE

06/04/20
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tomleederueaacukYWVBEUL0

Hi Graem, thanks for your comment some good ideas here. From my own research, two 'schools of thought' emerged regarding what individuals believe a good sports coach mentor is. One perception is that a good sports coach mentor is an individual with significant coaching experience/high level coaching qualifications, whilst the other perceptions suggests to be a good sports coach mentor an individual requires natural personality traits which cannot be trained, i.e. being empathetic.

Nonetheless, problematically within sports coaching mentors rarely receive any training or support, based on the assumption that they are experienced and know what they are doing. Good sports coaches do not make good mentors - this assumption is flawed and needs to be reviewed critically. Mentors need to be positioned as learners and receive on-going CPD.

Thanks for sharing the courses, happy to chat further if you want.

07/04/20
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tompo92hotmailcoukOLPL9975

Tom, I am in the same general viewpoint as you. I think experienced coaches cannot be assumed to make good mentors automatically. They can be, by developing their mentoring skills such as active listening, open questioning. These skills can be learnt and everyone's aptitude for them will to some degree dependent on their more natural personality traits.

07/04/20
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