The research project investigated what effect the programme has had on the pedagogical (coaching) skills of coaches involved in the programme to date and on their athletes’ learning (short-term).
Lynn Kidman (AUT) and Dawn Penney (University of Waikato) review Sport New Zealand’s highly regarded Coach Accelerator Programme.
A commitment to continuous improvement through the provision of ongoing learning opportunities for coaches is at the fore of the New Zealand Coaching Strategy. Within the NZ High Performance Coaching Plan, it is suggested that coaches “are relentless learners who collaborate to achieve maximum performance gains” (HSPNZ, 2012, p.3). This view has underpinned the Coach Accelerator Programme (CAP), designed specifically to enhance high performance coach development in New Zealand. The CAP commenced in 2009 and to date there have been 29 coaches selected for the programme.
In this article we present some of the key findings arising from our evaluation of the CAP. As part of the project, we interviewed eight coaches from intakes 2009 and 2010, eight of their athletes, two High Performance Coach Consultants and the CAP Manager. In addition, we followed two coaches for two years to explore the ways in which they were to use the CAP to advance their learning and apply it in their coaching roles.
WHAT IS ONGOING LEARNING?
Learning is a non linear and complex process that is not confined to formal institutions or situations. Everyone will be able to recognise a variety of contexts that have provided learning opportunities and will also be aware that they learn better in some situations than others. There are many factors that determine how people learn and many things that need to be considered if our intention is to promote learning.
Coaches are challenged to take this on board in their endeavours to promote learning amongst a group of athletes – Learning about athletes’ individual learning needs and preferences is an integral part of our own learning as coaches. We must consider the athletes’ needs, the knowledge that both we and the athletes bring to the table, the development of our teaching skills, how individual athletes learn best. Key to all of this is our self-awareness. Any learning that is developed is dependent on an individual’s mental model.
This shapes how the person sees the world, and how we view knowledge and knowledge construction or development – as either something detached from us, or something that we are very much a part of. Thus, coaches’ learning will always be dependent on their motivation of the subject, their perception of truth and knowledge, and their application of these to real life situations.
One of the most important considerations for coach development is that for learning to occur, coaches need to have the motivation to learn something and see relevance in relation to their own coaching. For learning to be meaningful and for us to want to engage in/with a learning opportunity presented to us, we need both reason and relevance. In coaching particularly, the ability to apply learning is critical to making learning meaningful. Ultimately, the experiences of application are likely to be the most significant in determining whether we see purpose to the learning, understand how it can inform our practice, and be motivated to learn more.
Talk of learning in and through coaching reflects that we learn by doing and applying information, understandings or practical concepts to real contexts. The contexts need to be relevant to us and the environment needs to be one that we deem realistic and authentic. If such a context exists, we will be able to reflect meaningfully on our learnings, make links between the immediate situation and others, and relate understandings to the context and the specific demands it presents. Ongoing learning is thus also embedded in reflection, enabling us to deeply consider our own coaching practices and recognise ways in which we can further develop as a coach.
Ongoing learning is thus based on coaches’ motivation to continually gain more skills, understandings or knowledge, in and through their continuing work as a coach. In this sense, it is integral to the work of a coach, not something that is separate from coaching. The main motivational theory that informs this approach is self-determination theory, whereby if we feel competent, autonomous and related to the situation, then we will continue to develop our coaching.
Autonomy comes when we feel like we have choice and control over our destiny. Competence is feeling like we can do the task and relatedness is feeling like we own the situation, that we have a sense of belonging and purpose to the cause (Deci & Ryan, 2000). The NZ Coach Framework is underpinned by self-determination, in that it seeks to ensure that when coaches are ready to learn, they can pursue further development through choosing how and when to take on learning opportunities that are personally meaningful to them.
The CAP is designed to present coaches with a range of learning opportunities and support them in pursuing those that they recognise as most pertinent to their individual coaching situations and as also connecting with their personal perspectives as a learner and coach. Like the framework, its success rests to a great extent upon coaches’ motivation to learn and the ability of systems and structures to foster and support that motivation. To enhance ongoing learning and enable coaches to value it, we need to be able to tap into what and when the coaches are ready to learn. So ongoing learning, as is suggested in the Coach Development Frameworks is finding the motivation for coaches to see the need to continually develop coaching skills.
OUR FINDINGS: COACHES LEARNING ABOUT LEARNING
Selection for the CAP is a rigorous process, with one of the criteria being that coaches should value ongoing learning. The application process in itself was recognised by coaches as an important learning opportunity. As one coach explained, “The whole application process was so in-depth that even going through that process I was learning new things about myself and thought this is a really good way to increase some awareness” (CAP Coach – Marley).
As a programme that spans three years of a coach’s career and that presents them with opportunities to participate in residential workshops, individual mentoring and peer learning activities, the CAP centres on notions of ongoing development through exposure (to new knowledge, understandings and situations), application and reflection. It can be seen as developing and instilling reflection and self-awareness as key coaching skills that the coaches seek to apply in considering the various effects that they have on (different) athletes in various situations.
The CAP coaches are encouraged and supported to reflect on how they work and interact with support staff and other coaches in their specific sport setting, and how they approach and manage change in their coaching context. Many of the coaches interviewed see the programme as having enhanced their understanding of themselves, of others, and as developing their inter-personal relations in coaching, and thereby, extending their abilities as coaches.
A notable aspect of the self-awareness arising from the programme is an understanding of professional learning as an ongoing process that is an inherent and necessary part of becoming and being a better coach. As one coach highlights:
I think the [CAP] has been less about the… science of coaching and more about the art and there’s been a lot more… I can remember once where we actually went and coached somebody and it’s been more about your understanding of yourself first and that was quite different to what everyone else thinks coaches do and what we spend most of our time doing is worrying about the athletes. Whereas this [CAP] has spent more time about saying actually you need to look at yourself, understand yourself and where you stand before you can actually help athletes. (CAP Coach – Andie)
The CAP coaches are able to articulate individual strengths and areas that they recognise as ‘work-ons’ – aspects for development. As coaches they have become highly reflective and have developed high levels of self-awareness, and are applying this in engaging with both new learning opportunities arising in the programme and in their everyday work as coaches:
…I probably have only just started seeing this in the last year…that there is massive value in the players and tapping into their knowledge and that starts with being open with the fact that I’m comfortable with not having all the knowledge and I position myself to work with them and understanding learning new stuff together, so that I don’t need to have all the answers …That if there’s a question that I don’t know the answer to that’s cool. That’s where we can both go and discover through a number of tools or methods that they have the knowledge to discover, or we go and seek it from someone else. I think … I’m really comfortable with that position.
(CAP Coach – Fenauge)
The CAP coaches come across as highly committed to learning and recognise ongoing learning as fundamental to personal improvement and career development as coaches:
…the more I’m learning the more if I’m in a constant state of challenge in my coaching ability, then that’s a good thing and I won’t suddenly get to the age of 45 and be like, “right I’m a Master Coach, I don’t really need to think more. I can just relax now and I can coach because I’m really good at it” (CAP Coach – Marley)
I’m thoroughly enjoying the [CAP] but I’m still of the mindset that there’s so many things out there that I still haven’t learnt – and that’s the cool part of it and there’s so many athletes that I haven’t even worked with that I’m going to learn from as well. (CAP Coach – Fenauge)
The CAP has provided opportunities for coaches to extend the ‘pedagogical tools’ that they have to apply in their coaching, in a range of situations and with different athletes. Learning with and from other coaches who are involved in different coaching environments, but who face often similar challenges, has helped coaches to extend their visions of prospective application of different approaches or strategies. Thus, they have gained a greater understanding of and ability to adopt alternative ways of coaching. As one of the coaches commented:
…I think kind of one of the biggest things is just that critical thinking, being able to bounce ideas, being challenged and kind of really going away from the coaching environment and then coming back in with a just slightly different tweak or slightly different slant or perception or the way that you look at things. I think that’s one of the most beneficial aspects of these camps. (CAP Coach – Marley)
The purpose of the professional development that coaches participate in through the CAP is to change their coaching for the betterment of athlete performance. Coaches have faced some challenges as they gain a great deal of useful information in a relatively short timeframe, and understandably, want to then implement the new knowledge in their coaching contexts. One athlete felt this:
…I definitely see <coach> growing as a coach and you know just learning different strategies and ways to deal with different things …when [coach] comes back from any of those camps, [coach'll] be really excited about something, like a story that [coach name] heard one of the other coaches say or…that related to a situation [coach name had] been in or just different tools [coach name] learnt to try out on different athletes and stuff. So it seems like it’s definitely helping. (CAP Athlete – Bobby)
Several of the coaches have also acknowledged, however, that effective application of new knowledge takes time and needs a cautious, highly reflective approach. Coaches have benefited from opportunities to be actively supported in the challenging process of applying new learning to their ongoing work as coaches.
CONCLUSION: LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Coaches in the CAP recognise significant ways in which the programme has extended and enhanced their coaching knowledge, skills and understanding, including knowledge and understanding of themselves as coaches and learners. They have developed an enhanced understanding of the complexities and social nature of coaching, and the centrality of personal relations in coaching. As a result of their own learning and development through participation in the CAP, many have endeavoured to instil enhanced self-awareness and responsibility in their athletes and extend their use of questioning in coaching.
In looking to the future, it is vital to acknowledge that the coaches in the CAP are themselves, a diverse group, with highly individual background as coaches, coaching contexts, learning needs and career ambitions. For coaches ongoing in the CAP, it is clear that there is a continued need for a flexible approach to programme management that enables learning opportunities and time-frames are adapted to suit this individuality.
We would like to acknowledge and thank all of the participants for their willingness to be involved in the project, and particularly the CAP Manager for facilitating data collection activities and remaining so open to this research. We also acknowledge and thank Sport New Zealand for funding support for this project.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
- High Performance Sport New Zealand (2011). New Zealand high performance coaching plan: 2011-2020. Auckland: High Performance Sport New Zealand.
- SPARC (2007). New Zealand coaching strategy: Taking coaches into the future. Wellington: Sport NZ.