Situational Coaching

As a young coach I struggled to find my coaching style. I was naturally reserved, bordering on shy, and yet I wanted to be an Athletic Development coach. After following the examples of a few great coaches around me along with a little trial and error, I eventually settled into a style that I was comfortable with. And as a result I was able to effectively reach most of my athletes. Mission accomplished right? Well, not quite. Not too long after I was feeling good about my coaching, I started coaching with Rett Larson. Rett is one of the most charismatic and engaging coaches out there. Ideally, I would have welcomed the opportunity to learn from another coach that was so different than me.  Unfortunately, my competitive nature and ego took over. I couldn’t stand NOT being the favorite coach of EVERY athlete we were both coaching. Being an athlete’s “favorite” coach has a lot to do with individual personalities and shared interests, but an athlete’s favorite coach is also the coach that seems to explain things and motivate them in a way that just makes sense. So, while I was going to be hard pressed to win over the U-12 girls soccer team that had crushes on Rett, I still had to find a way to make meaningful connections with athletes that I had been missing the mark with. You see, even though I finally found my own coaching groove, I had yet to accommodate my style to those I was working with. I was a hammer and every athlete looked like a nail.

If the end goal is to effectively coach ALL athletes you work with, then the first step is to identify what coaching style you are most comfortable with. Coaching athletes that have different preferences and characteristics doesn’t mean you have to change your style, only ADJUST. So recognizing your natural style is important. In the book Successful Coaching, Martens describes three distinct coaching styles; Command, Submissive, and Cooperative.

Command: authoritative, coach makes decisions while athletes listen and respond to commands.

Submissive: passive, minimal decision-making and instruction, only steps in when absolutely necessary.

Cooperative: coach shares decision-making with athletes, establishes structure then guides the process.

Martens also provides overviews for 8 other coaching styles with a self-reflection tool that can help you to recognize specific characteristics that make up your coaching style. Download it here.

So, what is your natural coaching style? If you are anything like me, then it is probably a mixture of the styles that Martens describes.


The more critical part of this equation is being able to identify what type of athlete you are working with, so that you can adjust your coaching style accordingly. One way to deliver optimal coaching is by making adjustments that span and overlap individual sensory learning preferences. For the most part, athletes are predominately Visual, Kinesthetic, or Auditory learners.

Visual – learn by watching: Most people are visual learners. These athletes ask, “Can you show me again”. Take advantage of demos, diagrams, and video playback with visual learners. Keep in mind that your demos better be on point for these athletes; they will do EXACTLY what they see regardless of the verbal description that accompanies the demo.

Kinesthetic – learn by doing: Athletes are typically more kinesthetically inclined than the general population. These athletes will start practicing the movement while you are still describing or demonstrating it. Minimize verbal instruction and utilize more actual movement practice along with manual/tactile/rhythmic cues and positioning. You can also guide their intrinsic feedback mechanisms by asking questions like, “How did that feel?”

Auditory – learn by listening: These athletes repeat what you say and/or ask, “Can you say that again”. Auditory learners can be catered to by using speech patterns, musical elements, rhymes, and voice tones to emphasize important teaching points. Similar to the importance of demos for visual learners, auditory learners demand clear, concise, consistent, and specific descriptions and instruction. Also encourage dialog with these athletes. Allowing them to “talk through” the learning process will help.


We can also learn a lot from the Situational Leadership Model created by Blanchard & Hersey in the 1960’s. Developed as a way of helping business leaders get the most out of those they managed, its premise is to utilize specific leadership strategies based on situational variables. Basically, Blanchard & Hersey looked at corresponding the way one manages with an interaction of the employee’s Commitment and Competence. For example, a person with low Commitment and low Competence needs a different management style than someone that exhibits high Commitment and high Competence. I really like this model because it also integrates a developmental scheme to progress poor performers towards high levels of both variables. Brian Grasso, founder of the International Youth Conditioning Association, has tailored this model specific to sports performance coaching. Grasso looks at it like this:

Low Motivation Low Skill: Use a Direct coaching style; avoid singling this athlete out by “directing” coaching points to them in a subtle and personal manner.

Low Motivation High Skill: Use an Inspire coaching style; spend most of your energy motivating and challenging this athlete. They have natural ability already, but need someone to captivate their interest and inspire effort.

High Motivation Low Skill: Use a Guide coaching style; this athlete has the inherent desire to improve, match their eagerness with coaching that is focused on teaching them the technical aspects of athletic movement.

High Motivation High Skill: Use a Delegate coaching style; make sure these athletes understand the goals and structure of training then include them in the training process, gather their feedback on programming, put them in situations where they can teach other athletes. As a coach, your goal should be to develop all athletes to this category.

Here is short video of John Spence, a leadership consultant, explaining the dynamics behind the situational leadership model. He is presenting from a business management perspective, but there are strong parallels with sports performance coaching.

I truly believe that a great coach is one that can effortlessly adapt their coaching style to best match the athlete they are working with, even in team settings. In case you are wondering, the coaching battle between Rett and I was cut short before I could completely dominate the training floor we shared (I transferred to another facility). But if you ask me, I was well on my way to stealing his “favorite coach” status by some of his most devoted minion.

– Coach Hall

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