Ten years on - where's coaching at?

24 November 2014

Professor Lyn Kidman describes how coaching and coach development have evolved here and overseas over the past 10 years.

Athlete- or participant-centred coaching is the heart of the New Zealand Coaching Strategy. One of the long-time advocates for this approach is Professor Lyn Kidman. Kidman has recently semi-retired from her role as a senior lecturer in Sports Coaching and Leadership at AUT University.

By Andrew Dewhurst


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What changes have you observed in New Zealand's coaching environment over the past 10 years - since the New Zealand Coaching Strategy was developed in 2004?

There have been a multitude of changes. With the New Zealand Coaching Strategy came a need for coaches to think outside the square. The strategy suggested development but it was still old school traditional requests – we need more coaches, retain coaches, better quality. But no one ever asked what the quality was.

Paul Ackerley (who passed away in 2011) was the one that had huge impact on coaching change in New Zealand. In 2006 Paul called a taskforce together. It was brilliant; a mix of coaches, academics, sport development-type people and a few athletes.

What happened was he had a previous agenda but the taskforce immediately thwarted it and he was unbelievable in his ability to go, 'Okay, tell me, what do you mean?' This was amazing in a government agency at that time. His facilitation of that taskforce was magnificent and what the group came up with was revolutionary as far as the world goes in coach development.

What was so revolutionary, what did this taskforce come up with that was cutting edge and continues to lead the world?

One of the aspects was it used to be coach education and the whole term education really turns off coaches because of the connotation that goes back to school and being assessed. The group said we don't need any of that, what we need is the idea that coaches be able to learn – it is not about the qualifications, it is about us trying to encourage coaches to learn and value learning. The framework attended to that in the sense that it became about continuous learning.

People didn't have to sit in a workshop, earn points and gain level one or whatever. They could do whatever they wanted as a multitude of formal and informal opportunities. Paul's ability to stand back and listen and use what the current people were saying and use the current research which was saying qualifications don't mean anything but rather it is the learning that helps coaches become who they are and become better quality. This is difficult to do in regards 'standardising' though.

Is there still a quantitative element though – most sports are always looking to 'grade' or be able to put coaches into some sort of a pecking order?

People have taken it differently but it is such a move in thinking that people don't buy into it easily because they are used to having to be assessed and get the qualification and the certificate. Nowadays you get a certificate for everything – you go to school and get one saying 'wow, congratulations, you came to school'.

Personally I think the quality is enhanced and part of the impact has been the All Blacks coaches. The All Blacks coaches completely buy into this philosophy and their ability to use it and implement it and see its success prevail – sure they had lots of faltering in between, but this has probably been one of the higher impacts for coach development to accept this whole new belief that actually it is really about ongoing learning and we can learn off each other better, things like that.

Everyone wants that measurement though, I have just learned this recently from one of my students but it is actually the intangibles that we can't see that makes a good coach. It is not that they can have five positive comments and talk to every athlete and encourage everybody to be active all the time - that is part of it but the bigger part is actually understanding the people, the athletes, who are they, where did they come from and why do they think the way they do but then taking a step back and asking 'why do I think the way I do as a coach?'

It is self-awareness combined with enhancing awareness of the athletes. You can't measure it, you can't see it, and it is very interpretative from each coach but you can certainly see the significance. You can see that in the end result with the All Blacks and you could see it with the Breakers, with [former Breakers coach] Andrej Lemanis. The problem sometimes is the media and public can't see how they are doing it.

The learning is important, not the qualification. Paul was able to put that into practice as a principle and it has become a national framework and that change is huge worldwide.

You clearly believe that New Zealand is at the forefront globally in this coaching revolution that has seen a move away from a 'certificate-based' approach to one that is athlete-centred and 'learning-led'. How are we leading the way?

It is leading edge in the sense that all the research, learning and teaching and what we call Pedagogy, which no one understands – it is basically the teaching, learning – the education part of coaching, is providing evidence we have the right approach. That is, that coaches learn better with informal instruction or having informal opportunities, speaking with other coaches rather than sitting in a workshop listening to a presenter go a million miles an hour and demonstrating the knowledge.

While the knowledge is important in some ways, it is understanding people that is more important than the knowledge of the game or the science. That means understanding your athletes and yourself, the whole concept of self-awareness and managing self is a lot more important than the coach coming in and going 'you will do it my way…' when the coach actually doesn't understand why they do it that way.

It is more than managing people, anyone can do that. It also shouldn't come from the coach, it is 'what can I do to help you' rather than 'here is my action, how do you react'. It is about trying to figure out why and how they tick and then being able to act and respond accordingly. That is the worst part, it is so entirely complex there is no answer. Everyone is looking for a magic formula but there isn't one. The essence is understanding the people. New Zealand has taken the philosophy on board; the implementation is the next part.

What can we learn from overseas?

The advantage we have in New Zealand is actually trying to use that stuff whereas other people say it is too hard. Perhaps being a smaller country we have better opportunity to do that but there is a lot of work still to be done. Learning from overseas is mostly what the researchers are saying, but we can also learn what not to do.

Are we then at the forefront of this move in coach education and learning and is the rest of the world in fact looking at New Zealand for the lead?

The research around learning - which is what playing sport and developing athletes is about - is about developing that person, it is not about winning. Winning is important in sport but one of the worst things we can do is focus on winning and not focus on the athlete – that is when you get drop outs and problems and all the issues. If you focus on the athlete and understand why they tick and where they want to go and how you can help them get there, that is the essence of it, not 'winning next week'.

That is the biggest mind-set to get over because we watch professional sport and it is all about winning. So the best thing that happened to the All Blacks this season was losing that game. Because the learning opportunities are massive. The public doesn't appreciate that though. Coaches must use those experiences to their advantage though, it is no good if they keep trying to do things their own way, and that just doesn't work.

How can research and tertiary institutions inform coaching practice and vice versa? What impact have tertiary coaching qualifications had on the sector and coaching in particular?

This place here [AUT University] is amazing. This is a coach development centre and we are in partnership with Greater Auckland Coaching Unit (GACU) which sits within AKtive Auckland Sport & Recreation [formerly Auckland Sport] running coach development. There were their own entity previously and are run by Andy Rogers and a great team. AUT joined so we can work with the community so we are trying to get over that gap between the community and the Universities.

This is about offering learning opportunities, some take the form of workshops, some are mentorships, some have programmes, there are all kinds of different ways. It is about grabbing the opportunities when the coaches are ready. From a learning perspective and all the research says this, people do not learn until they are ready to learn. That is why our education system falls apart because we tell them they have to learn stuff. 'It is the same in the sport system, telling someone we have to learn this to win, it doesn't work.

The research shows this, so for us it is about helping the coach development group to do that but also the other way around. When we first had our relationship I didn't realise what was happening in the community. Andy opened my eyes to the things the coaches were saying, he and his team are on the ground and know what is going on.

Having that link is essential and unfortunately Sport New Zealand has never acknowledged that Universities have anything to say, although recently they have started to. There has been this huge mismatch, we make fun of the community and they make fun of us, we are trying to break that down. I think it is working, the biggest thing is collaboration in one word, how we can collaborate with the people who represent coalface people so we understand what they need and provide that in the form of research or programmes or whatever they need.

The problem is the Universities are too focused on research. Their publications are only for people who are already in academia, it is not for the coaches. The difference with us at AUT is we try to say 'what do the coaches need?' UNITEC also does it and there are some other places that are trying to bridge that gap.

Has the athlete-centred coaching philosophy evolved over the past 10-15 years, and if so where is it at currently?

It has hugely evolved but it is not set yet and it has evolved internationally as well but again I think New Zealand has led that because of the way the Kiwi coaches are well in demand overseas. It has been slow and people like the Breakers and All Blacks who have demonstrated how it works and how successful it can be have helped. But we have to rely on the HP groups to show the success because the community people aren't in the public eye but there are a large number of community coaches that have taken it on board – equally there are many who haven't yet.

Is this especially an issue in a development space, where a coach might not be athlete-centred but rather they are all about performance and results and you end up with 18-year-old kids who are burned out?

That is still there for sure, I think New Zealand (anecdotally) possibly leads in that but there are still a lot of people out there [like that]. The work that Andy and his team at GACU are doing is great. They go out to schools and they send people out to train coaches. This is a huge programme from the past ten to fifteen years where they are carrying on this philosophy of trying to teach the teachers but it is a very long process and the buy in is long. We do talk about early specialisation and winning as the thorn in our side.

Does the philosophy of athlete-centred coaching have to be NSO-led?

It does but unfortunately the administrators by and large don't understand coaching. Because they don't understand it doesn't filter down. They rely too often on the media and TV and when the media comes up and says that is a good coach when they see someone screaming and yelling at their athletes, they just copy that; they don't understand learning. That is the part that is missing, the understanding of learning and we have taken teachers out of coaching who have that understanding of learning because they are overworked and underpaid and we bring parents in and God bless them for doing it but they have no idea.

How do coaches inspire, and how do they become inspired?

Coaches inspire by caring about their athletes. I don't believe you can motivate an athlete, they need to motivate themselves, so the coaches' job in inspiring is to provide those opportunities so they will be motivated. Again it is about if I am curious to learn I am going to do everything in my power to find out, the job then for the coach is to inspire that curiosity really, that is what is missing.

A lot of coaches tell them what to do and it is their way of looking at it so the athlete doesn't get it. It is like parenting, you can say things until you are blue in the face but your daughter won't get it until you figure out how she is interpreting it.

How are coaches inspired?

The big question is not how are they inspired, for some it might be money, for some it is seeing their athletes improve and succeed. The big question is, how do we get them to value learning? The people who value learning, like Wayne Smith, Andrej Lemanis, Ruth Aitken – they are fantastic.

Do you see a tension between a volunteer-based coaching workforce and the seemingly growing requirement for all coaches to be qualified and accountable? If so, how can we manage that tension to the benefit of participants?

That tension comes from the school or administration. Grammar Schools are often poaching players from each other just so they can get the win so they can increase their enrolment etc. And that pisses me off because it is meant to be an educational institution. In the end coaching is about developing people and enabling them to learn but as far as tension between the volunteers and the right system is concerned it is more a lack of understanding.

They are giving their all and doing the best they can but all they are doing is copying what they see on TV so it is not their fault. Providing them with the tools and educating them is harder because everybody is giving up a lot of time already, it is a resourcing issue really.

I don't agree that all should be qualified or accountable though. Many of the volunteers do it because they have a passion to do it. If they have that passion they are going to want to pursue the information and the curiosity to learn will be there.

It is that part that we need to get right, not the qualifications. The current coaching structure doesn't encourage qualification, there are still some sports that haven't got their heads around it and still do some sort of qualification but it is not like the UK system where you have to have a qualification to even coach.

The American system is one of the worst. There are some good coaches but the whole talent ID model is flawed. If I am a year 9 student and don't have the right attributes to offer in sport I am gone for the rest of my life. Only the best people make the teams and there is no recreational stuff unless you join clubs of which there are not enough so they are missing out completely on most of their athletes – if you look at Michael Jordan he didn't emerge until he was about 17 or 18.

All those people between 14 and 18 they are missing out on.

What does it take to become an effective sports coach? Has that changed over the past 20-30 years? Would the successful coaches of the 50s and 60s still be successful today?

For athlete centred coaching the bullet points would be:

  • Enabling people to learn
  • Enabling ownership of the vision and common purpose by the team/individual
  • Taking responsibility

There is a self-determination theory that says you are highly motivated to do something if you feel confident, if you have autonomy and if you feel like you have a sense of belonging. If those three things take effect then you are more self-determined to do something. That is the essence of it, the whole thing.

If sports coaches can enable success, make it fun and give athletes choice and control over their own destiny and environment and use that common purpose of the team to make sure everything goes smoothly and they feel like they belong they are more likely to stay in sport and give it more effort. Arguably the All Blacks do that and Andrej Lemanis did that with the Breakers.

What's your vision for coaching in New Zealand? What should the future focus be on?

Please don't go away from it [the athlete-centred approach], please rely on what you have done because it has been magnificent, the research is showing it is the way to go.

The athletes love it, there are a lot of hurdles to climb but the principles that are up there on continuous improvement, continuous learning, athlete centred, caring about the athletes, and working on development rather than winning – not that winning is not important but development is the first point. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

But I can see it now, there are some old boys there now in Sport New Zealand that don't get it and there are moves that we should get back to qualifications and rubber stamping and all that standardised testing. It does not work in the States and it won't work in coach education.

They are creating robots in the States and UK because of the standardised expectations and competencies but it is not about that and you can't assess it. Coaches have to self-reflect and figure it out. It is the intangibles that we have no idea about and that no one else can report on.

What's one final message to those in the sector?

Please keep going on the path that we are on here in New Zealand. It is developing in the literature here in New Zealand but is not yet there in international literature. We are trying to follow what people are saying about it, we are doing this better than anyone else. We can keep going and be world leading and show the world that this is what you need to do for coaching.

I feel comfortable in heading into semi-retirement because of the new blood that is coming through and can continue the passion and the campaign that I have been doing for 25 years. But I do worry about the lack of buy in from the head people that make the decisions.

The new coaching strategy that is out there has it in there. If we can educate the people that make the decisions, sport in New Zealand will just fly.