Coaching: An Operational Definition

A while ago I posted about communication and how there seems to be a pervasive issue of frustration resulting from an inability to communicate effectively. Experience has taught me that a lack of ability to speak in precise terms often leaves folks feeling misunderstood or just straight up annoyed. In most pedagogical contexts, whether you’re lecturing, coaching, or even just trying to explain something to someone else, a lack of exacting language can leave your listeners with a painfully nebulous conceptualization of what it is you’re actually trying to get across.

One of the things I love most about teaching and coaching is the challenge of putting the ideas that exist in my mind, into the minds of others. Not just in a way that the listener or student can memorize and regurgitate the information, but in a way that they can apply and integrate the idea into a conceptual framework or model. Effectively communicated ideas will immediately have meaning in the context of that conceptual framework that the listener is capable of understanding and evaluating the significance of.

By making reference to visual aids, providing demonstrations or examples, or simply doing a good job of defining the terms you use to describe a concept, the need to effectively communicate is priority number one. When the idea is clearly fleshed out, it will gain some conceptual steam or weight and provide meaning to the rest of the model within which it fits.

Coaching itself is a pedagogical endeavor, but there’s more to the story. What exists with respect to understanding the exact duties of a coach can have a tendency to be sort of ill-defined as well. The role of a coach and what makes them effective is sometimes sort of schizophrenic in itself, and can take on many different shapes and meanings based on the people they are tasked with leading.

This isn’t breaking news.

In 2009, researchers at Queen’s University and California State University offered up a paper titled An Integrative Definition of Coaching Effectiveness and Expertise in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. If you have a few minutes, it’s definitely worth a read. Fundamentally, Cote and Gilbert cited 95 additional papers in an effort to organize and define the tenets of effective coaching and coaching expertise.

“Despite nearly 35 years of research and discussion, there still remains “a lack of precision in terminology and approach, and a singular failure to relate effectiveness and expertise literature to any conceptual understanding of the coaching process”

Lyle, J., Sports Coaching Concepts: A Framework for Coaches’ Behaviour. [p. 251]

So first is the problem of how we evaluate coaching effectiveness. Is an effective or expert coach judged by (1) Success/Win-Loss Record? (2) Experience? or (3) Athlete Satisfaction and Personal Character Development? Well Cote and Gilbert reviewed five different research articles related to coaching success and effectiveness and repeatedly found the following terms used to describe the coaches: successful, experienced, elite, expert, and great. The result is that “no two studies used the same criteria to identify their participants”. So already, even at the analytical level there seems to be disagreement in what the key determinants of a GOOD coach are.

I doubt very many coaches are actually reading these types of studies, and I’m even more confident of that in American coaches because of the way I’ve heard “admirable” coaches described. Oftentimes in this country, coaches will uphold values of (1) mental toughness, (2) intensity, (3) hard work, and the list goes on. In my opinion, these are probably better described as outcomes or results of effective coaching. Could you potentially produce athletes with the above characteristics by upholding coaching values like (1) intelligence, (2) collaboration, and (3) forward-thinking? After all, these are values that we would attribute to some of the most successful leaders of all time in ANY other context. If you want to talk about buy-in, what do successful business people do? What do successful world leaders do? How do you characterize their success? By the mental toughness and aggression of their employees or citizens? No, you probably characterize them as successful because they cultivate a committed and faithful following with unshakable belief in a leader to steer everyone in the right direction.

Again, it’s just my opinion, but are coaches really hired or described based on their personal characteristics? Or are they hired and described based on the outcomes that people want to see in their athletes? Maybe both are true, but therein lies evidence that the same thing can take on multiple and unclear meanings or expectations. This is a precise example of how nebulous understandings can lead to frustration or a lack of mutual understanding.

It seems increasingly popular to focus on the attributes of the actual coaches themselves, as opposed to the attributes associated with those who have had consistent exposure to those coaches (the athletes).

“First, using the stringent criteria for defining an expert coach, it is not clear that research on truly expert coaches exists, and research on coaching effectiveness is extremely rare. Almost all research that has claimed to focus on expert coaches has relied solely on years of experience and/or performance records although there is no evidence to support that either one of these variables alone are valid ways to identify an expert coach.”

I guess to some, there is a component of face validity that is attributed to a coach or program based on their experience and “success” as an athlete in some sport. It just seems like kind of a flimsy hook to hang your hat on in my opinion.

In fact, some of the best coaches I’ve ever been exposed to personally (as an athlete, and later as a coach) were never competitive as athletes in my or their sport at all. What I mean by best coaches is that they have been both successful by measure of win-loss record, as well as being very capable of creating athletes who are contextually conscious, self-critical, and supportive of each other. This is because there is a strongly developed understanding of expectation, and a leadership persona which inspires others to enforce “the right stuff” among their peers and teammates. These coaches have a confidence in their message that is developed as a result of strong foundations in principles of strategy and leadership. The point is, one of those outcomes is related to process and one is related to result. Even coaches who don’t know anything pretend to be aware of the fact that PROCESS = RESULT, CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL, but they fall short of controlling the only things they can control: Themselves, and consistency and accuracy of the messages they send.

Cote and Gilbert go on to break down coaching effectiveness and expertise into three components. They are:

  1. Knowledge, both declarative and procedural.
  2. Athlete Outcomes, both performance and personal.
  3. Context, both needs and goals of those they manage.

What they ultimately come out with is an operational definition of coaching effectiveness as follows:

“The consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection and character in specific coaching contexts.”

In summary, what we’re really talking about here is the ability of a coach to consistently use the entirety of their knowledge of sport and leadership to affect positive outcomes on their athletes based on the affordances or constraints of their specific situation.

That’s a LONG sentence, but I think it encompasses everything you would want out of a good coach.


This is where things get tricky. A lot of coaching philosophies have components which relate (however indirectly) to each of the above areas in some way. Where they falter in my estimation is that they typically only focus on one subcomponent of each area. Some coaches only possess declarative knowledge. The summation of their subject knowledge is based on what they profess to be key points of the game or skill, without really having the ability to get their athletes to integrate skill knowledge into a functional and adaptable conceptual model.  With respect to athlete outcomes, I’m sure the terms of their contracts are much more heavily reliant on wins and losses than they are on developing model citizens. I’m aware of situations where the latter is actually true, but coaches with egos and big dreams of the next step aren’t really paying attention. Finally, how many coaches struggle to adapt their ideas and philosophies to areas where they have a different type of athlete or combination of resources? (Those are your finger pointers).

A good coach in my opinion is introspective and capable of dispassionately evaluating themselves, their athletes, and their context. Their biggest questions revolve around: How can I make the most of what I have while working within the boundaries of my circumstances?

So take a look at how you manage yourself, your athletes or students, and your context. Are you really doing the best you can to make it about how well you convey ideas? What about the outcomes of the athletes or students? Is it about how well they perform and retain knowledge? Or is it about you making sure you retain your identity as the face of the program and all success is your doing? Lastly, are you blaming your situation for your inability to get the job done?

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