Athlete-Centred Coaching

An effective coach – an athlete-centred coach – provides an environment that ensures players grow continuously, with every training session and every match. In this article we will look at what an athlete-centred coaching approach is and how you can use it. We start this article with a discussion of the coaching styles that you can use and how they relate to the purpose of coaching.

Purpose of coaching

While coaches will have different motivations for coaching, the purpose of coaching is quite simple. Coaching is about helping athletes to learn what works best for them. To coach is to educate a player, providing them with opportunities for personal growth and development. As a coach, you are tasked with helping your players to reach their potential. This will include helping prepare your players to perform in competitions; more importantly, however, you need to help your players to achieve their goals.

Coaching styles

Coaching styles refer to how coaches work with players and where they direct their focus. They cover areas such as how much responsibility for decision making the coach allows the players and how much the coach focuses on the athletes’ goals. The coaching style that you use will depend on your philosophy, your understanding of how athletes learn, how you were coached yourself, and what your objectives are. There are a range of styles you could use; it is useful to think of these as working along a continuum.

At one end of the continuum is a coach-centred coach, and at the other end is an athlete-centred coach. A coach-centred coach is there to achieve their own objectives, which are often results-based. They use control, direct instructions and often a ‘win at all costs’ attitude to achieve this. At the other end is the athlete-centred coach, who places the needs of their athletes at the centre of the coaching environment. They are focused on player development and creating independent athletes.

Figure 1: Coaching styles

The style that you use will influence the objectives you set, the coaching methods you use, how much freedom and responsibility you allow your players and the sort of environment that you create.

Table 1 presents some of the general characteristics of each type of coach:

Table 1: Characteristics of coach-centred and athlete-centred coaches

Coaches should aim to develop “independent” athletes. This means that your athletes are able to critique their own performance, make decisions and correct their mistakes without relying on you to do it for them. After all, in the midst of competition there is often little that the coach can do. The athletes are the ones playing the sport; your role is to prepare your athletes so that they can perform independently.

Many people view a successful coach as a winning coach. While competition success is an important factor for many coaches, truly successful coaches are those that help their players to achieve the goals that they set. How you coach will be shaped by how you define success.

Defining success

How do you define success? An athlete-centred coach does not rely solely on results to determine their – or their athletes’ – level of success. You should measure your success as a coach by how well you are fulfilling the purpose of your role: assisting your athletes to learn and grow. Your true measure as a coach is not how many trophies you win, but how many of your players are able to grow towards reaching their potential. And when are athletes successful? When they are achieving their goals and those of the team.

Why use an athlete-centred coaching style?

Sport is about the people that participate in it: the athletes. An athlete-centred approach focuses on the achievement of the athletes’ goals. It creates a positive learning environment and caters to the needs of all athletes. It prioritises the holistic development of the players, and is necessary if you are to develop independent athletes.

By contrast, a coach-centred approach does not address the needs of the players. It will often result in a negative environment, and does not focus on learning. Player development will take a back seat to results, preventing many players from reaching their potential. To provide the best possible environment for their players coaches should adopt an athlete-centred coaching style.

Tools of the athlete-centred coach

There are a number of tools and approaches you can use to develop independent athletes. The starting point is a structured environment based on a shared goal. You need to understand the needs of your athletes and work to meet those needs. You can help your players to develop skills and make decisions by using a range of training games, rather than spending most of your time “drilling” your athletes. You should also allow your athletes to have input into the direction of the team. The development of your players’ game understanding, and the use of questioning, are two important tools for an athlete-centred coach.

Game understanding

It is important that your athletes understand how to play the game and can make decisions based on their understanding. You need to help your players to learn about their sport and to learn about themselves. Effective learning doesn’t come from being told what to do; it comes from trying things out and seeing what works. If your players are scared of making mistakes, they will stay within their comfort zone and avoid trying something new. Players need to know that making mistakes is fine; the key is that they must learn from their mistakes.


Ask your players questions to help them to learn from their experiences – both successes and mistakes. Focus on open questions which require your players to think and make decisions. Some useful questions for helping players to learn from their experiences include:

  • What did you notice as you…?
  • Where were your feet during…?
  • What were some other options available to you?
  • How did it feel as you…?
  • What have you learnt from this?

Resist the temptation to tell your players what to do; instead, pose questions and set problems for your players to try and solve. Your role as coach is to question your players and to help them to draw out their learning from each experience, and to guide them to understanding what else they could have done. For example, rather than telling them how to beat a player in a 2v1 situation, put them in an activity where they score points by beating a player 2v1. Instead of instructing them on what to do, ask them questions that help them to find a solution that works for them:

  • What are you trying to achieve in this activity?
  • How can you create space for yourself?
  • How can you draw the player in?
  • When is a good time to make the pass?
  • What did you do on the times when you were successful?

Taking this approach is more enjoyable for the players and requires them to take ownership for their learning. If they come up with their own solution in training, they are more likely to use it in competition. You want your players to just react during competition; if they have to first remember what you have told them to do, their performance will be much less flowing. And that is if they remember what you said at all!

Asking your players questions will help them to understand their own performance better, raising their self-awareness. It will engage them in the learning process and give them experience making decisions. These are all aspects that will help your players to become independent.

Using an athlete-centred approach involves designing sessions that meet the needs of your athletes, asking questions and allowing your players to take ownership. To meet your players’ needs you must understand them, and make your players and the achievement of their goals the focus of your coaching.

Credit – Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach AdvisorSport Auckland / GACU

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