coaching development

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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Commitment or Compliance?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word “compliant” – particularly in the context of bringing a team of coaches together such to establish/improve standards and uniformity. I’ll start by acknowledging that standards and uniformity help drive replication and, in turn, predictable outcomes. This type of reliability is at the crux of systems that are developed and scaled by successful companies (think Starbucks). The more a company expands, then the more those systems are relied upon. Conversely, the absence of a sturdy system will result in an exponential drop in product quality.

So then, being compliant to the system is a key factor for success, but this is where semantics makes an entrance. Compliance is a word that I used fairly liberally in the past, and even then I’m not sure it inspired the type of behavior I was looking for. Looking back at some of those managerial days, when I reminded my coaches to stay compliant to the program, there was usually an initial response back to the company line. But it seemed somewhat reluctant, and inevitably I was having the same conversation a few months later. The compliance pep talk/overtone never really proved to be an effective approach.

I believe that words have more power than most folks realize. When I put myself in a coach’s shoes, the word “compliance” has the power to change the feeling of whatever is being discussed at the time – and not in a good way. Particularly when used among educated, driven, and high energy coaches. Generally, these are people who reject the notion of conforming to a formalized standard – especially one developed by a source/person that isn’t part of the daily work environment. In this way, complying is sterile and uninspiring.

As mentioned, it’s true that the quality of a company’s product relies on a certain level of structural/programming compliance; I’m just not convinced that speaking about it in a literal sense is the best approach. Consider that a “compliant coach” is a commodity – an ordinary and replaceable cog in the machine. The compliant coach conforms to the systematic rules of the machine so that efficiency and replication are maximized while waste and disruption are minimized. So what’s wrong an efficient, reliable, and therefore, sustainable machine? Nothing…if you’re the machine. Furthermore, this Industrial Model is built on two beliefs. One is that the coaches, or cogs, are easily replaced when they aren’t interested in being cogs anymore. And the second is that the machine can perpetually thrive using only the creativity of few (cogs do as they’re told, they don’t innovate or ask hard questions). If, however, this doesn’t jive with your beliefs, then it’s time to change the way we think, talk, and act when defining coaching and leadership in business cultures.

I believe that it is the coaches within the system, the human element of the machine, that will innovate and drive continual success. In as much, they are held in the highest regard, despite the easily seen results produced by the machine. I also believe this is where the conversation of greatness starts and finishes. Likewise, an organization without a tangible strategy to honor the personal and professional development of its coaches – is living on borrowed time. Soon to be made obsolete by former cogs.

One way to look at this is creating a culture (overarching philosophy) of commitment, instead of compliance. What if each coach approached everything they did (athlete interaction, programming, equipment maintenance, etc.) with an entrepreneur mindset? What if they planned and executed their work as if they all had financial/emotion ownership of the facility? Then the conversation changes from a compliance reminder to an excellence and commitment agreement. An agreement that high level coaches can get excited about, because they are made to feel as if they are critically important to the success of their company. The easy way to do this is to respect, support, challenge, and serve as their advocate. Additionally, few things make someone feel more important to “the cause” than being genuinely and strategically developed. Consider these excerpts from a recent Harvard Business Review blog post :

Investment in professional development sends a clear message that they matter now and in the future…And don’t forget to have fun. Celebrating exceptional work, big wins, and milestones brings people together and acknowledges their value to the business…Ultimately, everything you (and your people) do should be about the business. One way to strengthen that commitment is to align an individual’s interests with those of the business.

All that said, even within a philosophy that emphasizes ownership vs. compliance, it’s probably smart to examine the tenure and evolution of each coach as an individual. It’s possible that some coaches require a higher level of actual compliance than others (although I might not call it “compliance”). Here is a breakdown of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition and it’s application to athletic development coaching. I believe most coaches naturally develop along this progression when they work under an established system. As such, identifying which stage a coach is at can help to set expectations (know the rules before you break the rules) and speed the rate of progression. (Seth Godin definitions in red)

1. Novice

-wants to be given a manual, told what to do, with no decisions possible.

Coach one exercise at a time. Moving from one exercise/drill to another during a singular training session with no real reference or forethought about how the exercises/drills relate to each other. Scripted demonstrations and cues. They crave compliance.

2. Advanced beginner

-needs a bit of freedom, but is unable to quickly describe a hierarchy of which parts are more important than others.

Coach one workout at a time. Starts to understand the relationships between exercises/drills within a single workout. Still doesn’t grasp the full context of the global system and how the workouts are pieced together. They accept a moderate level of compliance.

3. Competent

-wants the ability to make plans, create routines and choose among activities.

Coach the system. Fully comprehends the entire system of training and the relative role of each workout, and, by extension, the role of each exercise/drill. They now “know the rules”. Only short-term response to compliance reminders.

4. Proficient

-the more freedom you offer, the more you expect, the more you’ll get.

The ability to make appropriate adjustments within the parameters of the “system”. These individuals will begin to make the system better with their strategic tinkering without the risk of disturbing the overall plan. They begin to resent compliance.

5. Expert

-writes the manual, doesn’t follow it. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.

Remove the guard rails and let them proactively redefine the system by “breaking the rules”. They reject compliance.

A final quote that simplifies coaching development and compliance;

Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.

– Charlie Parker, Jazz Musician

– Coach Hall