Ambitious Coaching Core Practices: Borrowing From Teacher Education to Inform Coach Development Pedagogy

in International Sport Coaching Journal

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Julie McCleeryUniversity of Washington

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Jennifer Lee HoffmanUniversity of Washington

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Irina TereschenkoUniversity of Washington

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Regena PauketatUniversity of Washington

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Coach development programs have been moving away from knowledge focused, rationalistic pedagogies toward more constructivist, applied approaches that recognize the complex, relational, and contextual nature of coaching and learning to coach. Teacher educators have been doing similar pedagogical work: trying to identify the dynamic elements of what makes an expert teacher and distill those elements into a learner-centered teacher education framework that brings knowledge into action. One such practice-based teacher education framework is ambitious teaching core practices. Core practices are empirically-based moves and social routines that teachers learn to enact adaptively to enhance learning across diverse groups of students. The purpose of this study was to explore the application of ambitious teaching core practices to coach development and take a step toward identifying and defining coaching core practices. Findings from this Delphi panel of expert coaches resulted in 15 ambitious coaching core practices for facilitating athlete performance and well-being including allowing space for athlete exploration, creativity, and problem solving and developing and flexibly executing a practice plan. Applying the concept of core practices to coaching is both a novel way to understand effective coaching and a first step toward a new practice-based coach development framework.

Simultaneous shifts in conceptualizations of the aims of coaching (Côté & Gilbert, 2009; Jones & Turner, 2006; United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee [USOC], 2020), the skills, knowledge, and behaviors required to coach effectively (Demers, Woodburn, & Savard, 2006; Hedlund, Fletcher, Pack, & Dahlin, 2018; Turnnidge & Côté, 2017), and how one learns to coach (Cushion et al., 2010; Paquette & Trudel, 2018; Stodter & Cushion, 2017) have brought changes to the content and delivery of coach development programs (CDPs). On the whole, the evolution in all three areas could be characterized as recognizing increased complexity, relationality, and contextuality in coaching (Bertram, Culver, & Gilbert, 2017; Côté & Gilbert, 2009; Jowett, 2017; Morgan, Jones, Gilbourne, & Llewellyn, 2013) and learning to coach (Culver, Werthner, & Trudel, 2019; Paquette & Trudel, 2018; Stodter & Cushion, 2019).

Regarding learning to coach, pedagogical approaches and structures are developing to overcome the shortcomings of traditional, positivist, and more rationalistic CDP, which have been shown to lack validity and relevance for the realities of coaching (Bertram et al., 2017; Paquette & Trudel, 2018). Alternative approaches to CDP design and delivery (e.g., Cushion et al., 2010; Turnnidge & Côté, 2017) are shifting focus toward operationalizing constructivist theories that recognize coaches’ learning as a social, complex, and lifelong process (Paquette & Trudel, 2018). These theories position the coach learner in the center of the coach development and recognize the contextual, relational, and downright messy reality of learning to coach (Culver et al., 2019; Jones & Turner, 2006; Stodter & Cushion, 2019).

Evolving concurrently with notions of how one learns to coach are notions of coaching itself. Côté and Gilbert’s (2009) coaching effectiveness definition has served as a touchstone for the recent proliferation of frameworks identifying the skills and knowledge essential to high-quality coaching (SHAPE America, 2020; USOC, 2020). Côté and Gilbert (2009) define coaching effectiveness as “the consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes’ competence, confidence, connection, and character in specific coaching context” (p. 316). As the definition underscores, an understanding of what coaching effectiveness is, and therefore the skills and knowledge required, cannot be considered without attention to athlete outcomes. Furthermore, conceptualizations of “coaches’ knowing, doing and/or being” cannot be “considered in isolation from athletes’ knowing, doing and/or being” (Jowett, 2017, p. 155). As such, effective coaching, in both performance and participatory domains, is increasingly aimed toward holistic athlete outcomes (Côté & Gilbert, 2009; Jones & Turner, 2006; USOC, 2020).

The CDPs are evolving to integrate these new conceptual frameworks into applied programming (Cushion et al., 2010; Jones & Turner, 2006; Paquette & Trudel, 2018; Turnnidge & Côté, 2017) in a coherent way (Culver et al., 2019) that leads to a change in coach behavior and practice (Lefebvre, Evans, Turnnidge, Gainforth, & Côté, 2016; Morgan et al., 2013; Turnnidge & Côté, 2017). Stodter and Cushion (2019) note that to better capture the complex and relational nature of coaching and learning to coach, CDPs need to be oriented toward “participatory, contextualized opportunities linked to practice and active knowledge construction through social interaction” (p. 307). A number of theoretically-informed approaches, such as competency-based learning (Demers et al., 2006), problem-based learning (PBL) (Jones & Turner, 2006), and ethno-drama (Morgan et al., 2013) have emerged with this orientation aiming to bridge the theory–practice divide and address the complexity of coaching (Jones & Turner, 2006).

These innovative pedagogies might be considered along a continuum: on one end, PBL (Jones & Turner, 2006), which tries to approximate the dynamic nature of coaching in a formal education setting; on the other, facilitated in situ experiences, like internships or mentorships, which try to capitalize on learning in the workplace (Demers et al., 2006; Leeder, Russell, & Beaumont, 2019). Across this continuum of approaches, the goal is similar: provide coaches the opportunity to integrate and utilize competencies, knowledge, and skills simultaneously and adaptively, in response to real-world stimuli and athlete needs; to bring knowledge into action (Culver et al., 2019; Cushion et al., 2010).

While PBL and other learner-centered programs have moved CDPs closer to simulating the complexity, contextuality, and relationality of coaching, coaches must still transfer learning to their specific context. Direct opportunities to convert knowledge into practice are vital to coach learning (Culver et al., 2019; Cushion et al., 2010; Nelson, Cushion, & Potrac, 2013; Paquette, Hussain, Trudel, & Camiré, 2014) and not offered by PBL. However, facilitated in situ learning experiences—internships and mentorships—that might help with this knowledge transfer are generally seen as too divorced from theory (Demers et al., 2006; Milistetd, Trudel, Rynne, Mesquita, & do Nascimento, 2018) and inconsistent in delivery (Cushion et al., 2010) to effectively bridge the theory–practice gap (Demers et al., 2006).

The PBL, as well as many other constructivist and learner-centered pedagogical approaches in coach development, originated in education. Some other examples include communities of practice (e.g., Bertram et al., 2017), competency-based programs (e.g., Demers et al., 2006), and learner-centered teaching (e.g., Paquette & Trudel, 2018). Pedagogical similarities between teaching and coaching offer opportunities for coach developers to learn from the more robust field of teacher education (Armour, 2010; Jones, 2006). Acknowledging the structural differences between coach and teacher education and cognizant of Cushion et al.s’ (2010) advice about the uncritical adoption of learning approaches from other domains, we turn to a particular teacher education pedagogy because it meets the call, also from Cushion et al. (and others), for CDPs to recognize “the separation of learning from practice is a false dichotomy; and learning and practice needs to be conceptualised as a single activity” (p. 72).

As such, we turn to the pedagogies of practice—and associated ambitious teaching core practices—a practice-based teacher education pedagogy that foregrounds a holistic understanding of the dynamic nature of effective teaching and the complexities of learning to teach. This approach supports teachers to develop and apply, in practice, the complex professional knowledge and behaviors they need to improve academic outcomes. In turning to this teacher education model, we seek a pedagogical approach that addresses new conceptualizations of coaching and coach development and helps coaches convert “theoretical knowledge into personal understanding and practical coaching skills” (Nelson et al., 2013, p. 212).

A Turn Toward Teacher Education—Ambitious Teaching Core Practices

Teacher educators have long struggled with how to create programming for teachers that bridges the gap between theory and practice and orients teacher education around the complexities and relational elements of teaching and learning to teach (Darling-Hammond, Hammerness, Grossman, Rust, & Shulman, 2005; Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; Kazemi, Franke, & Lampert, 2009; McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013; Zeichner, 2012). In response to the need “to support teachers—not simply to learn about teaching, but to learn to teach in, from, and for practice” (Grosser-Clarkson & Neel, 2020, p. 473), a community of teacher educators sought to redesign teacher education programming and pedagogy around the integrated nature of theory and practice (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). The result has been the evolution, over the last 15 years, of the pedagogies of practice (Grosser-Clarkson & Neel, 2020; Kazemi et al., 2009).

The pedagogies of practice are a practice-based teacher education (PBTE) model that orients teacher learning around the enactment of core practices, instructional activities, and a cycle of inquiry and reflection (Grosser-Clarkson & Neel, 2020; Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; McDonald et al., 2013; Zeichner, 2012). The design of these pedagogical elements evolved in the early 2000s from questions about how best to prepare teachers to teach in response to student learning and as an outgrowth of the PBTE movement. PBTE itself emerged from a bevy of criticisms of teacher preparation programs in the 1980s, similar to those directed against coach developer programs currently and in the recent past: “being overly theoretical, having little connection to practice, offering fragmented and incoherent courses, and lacking in a clear, shared conception of teaching” (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005, p. 391). In this most recent iteration of PBTE, teacher educators sought pedagogies to foreground the aims of ambitious teaching.

Ambitious teaching is teaching that “deliberately aims to get all kinds of students—across ethnic, racial, class, and gender categories—not only to acquire, but also to understand and use knowledge, and to use it to solve authentic problems” (Lampert & Graziani, 2009, p. 492). Ambitious teaching requires teachers to continually respond to student problem-solving and engage all students in rigorous thinking about content (Kazemi et al., 2009); it is similar to evolving views of the complexity, relationality, and contextuality of the messy work of coaching. If that is what ambitious teaching requires, teacher educators realized, the pedagogical elements of teacher education should provide opportunities to rehearse those types of ongoing problem-solving, situational performances (Kazemi et al., 2009; McDonald et al., 2013).

Core practices, one element of the pedagogies of practice, uniquely integrate learning to teach around the conceptual, practical, and relational elements of teaching practice (Grossman et al., 2009) so teachers can learn to teach ambitiously. Core practices are moves and routines that, when mastered by teachers, are used responsively and adaptively in the classroom and significantly enhance student learning (Kazemi et al., 2009). They can be general in nature, like eliciting and responding to students or providing instructional explanations or they can be content based, like employing historical evidence in a classroom history lesson or identifying inquiry-worthy ideas in science (Core Practice Consortium [CPC], n.d.; Fogo, 2014; Teaching Works, n.d.). Core practices are studied and enacted—in settings with peers, teacher educators, and/or students—in an ongoing cycle of rehearsal and reflection allowing teachers to adapt their content and pedagogical knowledge and skills in relation to and with others (Fogo, 2014; Grosser-Clarkson & Neel, 2020; Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; McDonald et al., 2013; Zeichner, 2012). Core practice pedagogies have been problematized from a social justice perspective (Philip et al., 2018). However, as taken up in the discussion section, the “raging fire of debate about the relationship between justice and practice” (Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020, p. 98) in teacher education might provide fodder for the coach development field in which discussions about pedagogical orientations toward identity, equity, and social justice are nascent.

By rehearsing core practices, teachers learn, through deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993), to enact the content of teaching within the context of teaching. This allows teachers to become skilled at the routine elements of teaching while also learning—through the generative dance of translating knowledge into knowing—to react and respond to the more unpredictable elements of working with students (Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; Kazemi et al., 2009). The criteria that make a practice “core” include teaching practices that occur with high frequency; can be enacted in classrooms across different curricula or instructional approaches; can be mastered by novice teachers; preserve the integrity and complexity of teaching; are research based, and have the potential to improve student achievement (McDonald et al., 2013).

In the coach development literature, a number of efforts have attempted a similar practice-based categorization of what coaches do into tasks, standards, or competencies (Demers et al., 2006; Rynne, Mallett, & Tinning, 2012). Demers et al. (2006), for example, conducted a job-task analysis resulting in the creation of five functions and 158 tasks, which led to seven professional competencies. SHAPE America (2020) identifies 42 coach standards. Core practices in teaching, however, are distinct from and have evolved from competencies, standards, and tasks in important ways. First, they are closer in “grain size” to the actual work of teaching and therefore more useful than “lists of hundreds of competencies or general standards” (Zeichner, 2012, p. 378; see also Ward, 2020). Second, unlike competencies and standards, they are adaptive and flexible (Ward, 2020; Zeichner, 2012). They are not meant to be mechanistic, a-contextual, a-historical, or a list of “what to do” as a teacher as some critics have suggested (Philip et al., 2018; Zeichner, 2012; see more in Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020). They are utilized as practical elements of teaching, firmly connected to guiding principles of ambitious teaching; therefore, “their enactment occurs within the complexities of teaching and thus cannot be decontextualized from … where teaching occurs, or who students are” (CPC, n.d.).

Importantly for the translation to coach development, teacher educators have generally been less interested in prescribing one set of core practices than using the concept of core practices to organize the field around a common vision and set of tools for PBTE (McDonald et al., 2013; Zeichner, 2012). McDonald et al. (2013) indicate the development of specific pedagogies around core practices has allowed teacher educators to

(a) Articulate a common language for specifying practice, which would facilitate the field’s ability to engage in collective activity; (b) identify and specify common pedagogies in teacher education; and (c) address the perennial and persistent divides among university courses and between university course work and clinical experiences. (p. 379)

This collaborative work has led to the creation of the Core Practice Consortium, faculty from 12 different U.S. universities who develop practices that prepare high-quality teachers, and disrupt educational inequities (CPC, n.d.), across a range of content areas, including physical education (Ward, 2020). Pedagogies of practice have also been picked up and researched internationally (e.g., Waege & Fauskanger, 2020 in Norway). As mentioned above, core practice pedagogy is not without its critics. A discussion of the criticisms of core practices, along with the limitations of their translation to coaching, is included in the limitations and discussion sections.

Using the theoretical framing of ambitious teaching core practices, we aim to identify an initial list of coaching core practices. This article describes the findings from research using a Delphi study of expert coaches’ experience and knowledge to collectively identify and come to consensus on a set of core practices across coaching contexts and sports. The questions guiding this research are: (a) is there a set of ambitious coaching core practices (strategies, moves, and activities expert coaches use to achieve holistic athlete outcomes) agnostic of sport and (b) if so, what are they?

Methods: Delphi Study

The Delphi method is a consensus building inquiry approach that structures communication between the researcher and a group of identified experts on a specific topic (Yousuf, 2007), where they share opinions and judgments from their diverse range of experiences and expertise on a broad and complex problem (Linstone & Turoff, 1975). The Delphi method “allows educators, among others, to communicate and effectively develop trends, needs, or other factors relative to a particular area of education” (Yousuf, 2007, p. 2). Delphi has three main features: anonymous participation by a panel of experts, controlled iteration and feedback, and statistical group response (Dalkey, 1969), and rests on the assumption that group decisions are more valid than those made by a single person (Murry & Hammons, 1995). It has been used in a broad range of educational subjects closely associated with this study, including teaching core practices (Fogo, 2014), concussion education (Kroshus et al., 2018), and sport management education (Costa, 2005).

We chose the Delphi consensus building method based on our research aim of identifying coaching core practices and for its methodological strengths in structuring consensus building. The structured communication approach between the researcher and a group of identified experts is not dependent on convening participants in the same location (Clayton, 1997), as is typical with qualitative method focus groups. The online and anonymous nature of the Delphi consensus building addresses challenges that occur with in-person consensus building and qualitative focus groups by equalizing power among participants through the anonymity of the model (Clayton, 1997). Because the Delphi process activates anonymity while using group decision making, it keeps the group focused on the task while reducing other social-emotional behaviors found with other methods of group consensus building (Clayton, 1997). The equalizing of all participant contributions is an important methodological consideration for studying coaching, a field typically dominated by specific sport sectors and men.

Delphi Methodology: Defining Expert Coaches

The definition of expert within the research context is critical to building the validity and rigor of the Delphi survey process (Clayton, 1997). As such, the primary criterion for Delphi panel participation is expertise on the subject under study (Costa, 2005; Fogo, 2014; Hasson, Keeney, & McKenna, 2001). We rely on Côté and Gilbert’s (2009) definition of expert coaches as those who demonstrate coach effectiveness consistently over time.

This included those coaches at any level of sport, recreational through elite, coaching elementary school through college who had

  1. (a)Seven or more years of experience and at least five as a head coach;
  2. (b)Achieved some level of local, regional, or national success with their teams (won championships, regularly made playoffs, consistently winning records, consistently moved athletes to the next level of competition); and
  3. (c)Displayed and espoused a coaching philosophy congruent with improving athletes’ competence, confidence, connection, and character.

Given the heterogeneity of contexts of the target population of coaches (Martino, 1983), we sought as balanced a panel as possible, given the sample size, across these domains: men and women coaches, coaching men’s and women’s teams, team and individual sports, and college/high school/youth teams.

Participant Selection

Because the validity of a Delphi study depends on the abilities of the expert panel chosen, the selection process is critical (Murry & Hammons, 1995). The participant selection for this study utilized guidelines laid out by Clayton (1997) in his seminal work about the Delphi process, which includes “nominations of well-known and respected individuals from members within selected target groups” (p. 378). In addition, the optimal size of a Delphi panel varies based on the target population and study aim (Costa, 2005), ranging from 15 to 60 panelists (Hasson et al., 2001). However, the number of participants in Delphi panels is generally between 15 and 20 (Hsu & Sandford, 2010). The group size must be adequate to control the iterative process while providing a sufficient amount of diversity of perspective on the discussion (Sekayi & Kennedy, 2017).

A recruitment pool of eligible coaches, per Côté and Gilbert’s (2009) definition of expert coaches that fit our selection criteria, was created by an advisory committee. This advisory committee was composed of six individuals: all had over 20 years of coaching experience across a range of contexts and competitive levels, including three who coached at the Olympic or professional level. All six were in coach development positions either at the university level (4), youth club level (1), or high school level (1); two of the four were coach development researchers. This advisory group made nominations and solicited potential participants. Recruitment from the pool of potential participants was done via email and phone. This advisory committee played a number of other roles including the creation of the initial set of core practices for the first round of the survey and triangulation of results between rounds.

Ultimately, 16 expert coaches from around the United States, with an average of 20 years of experience, completed all three rounds of the Delphi study (Table 1). This research received institutional review board approval and informed consent was obtained by all participants prior to their involvement.

Table 1

Delphi Participant Sport, Experience, and Coaching Contexts

SportCoach genderYears of coachingProgramAthlete gender/sport type
BaseballMale15Club (high school age)Male/T
BaseballMale12Club (elementary school age)Male/T
BasketballMale10Club (middle school age)Coed/T
BasketballFemale36High schoolFemale/T
FootballMale10High schoolMale/T
GolfFemale34College Division IFemale/I
SoccerFemale28College Division IFemale/T
SoccerFemale40Club (middle school age)Female/T
SoccerFemale30High schoolFemale/T
SoccerMale20Club (high school age)Male/I
SwimmingMale12College Division IFemale/I
TennisMale15High schoolFemale/I
TennisMale19Club (high school age)Female/I
UltimateMale15College Division IMale/T
UltimateFemale10High schoolMale/T
WrestlingMale20High schoolCoed/I

Note. T = team sport; I = individual sport.

Procedures

Prior to Round 1 of the survey, panel participants received email instructions explaining the study and defining key terms. Notably, we defined the terms “ambitious coaching” and “core practices” to participants as follows:

Ambitious coaches are those who have coaching success in both team performance and athlete psycho-social growth. Ambitious coaches are trying to achieve both ends simultaneously. Their coaching philosophies are geared toward peak performance and creating a positive, healthy, inclusive, growth-oriented sports experience to get there.

The definition of “core practices” is the routines, strategies, and moves that coaches use day in and day out that have the greatest influence on achieving positive outcomes for athletes. Important components of these core practices is that they are common, observable, and teachable. That is, you could teach another coach to do it.

These same instructions were included with the first round of the survey, which was sent through web-based survey platform Qualtrics. The survey had two parts: the first part asked participants to rate example coaching core practices on a 5-point Likert scale indicating their level of agreement with whether something should be considered a core coaching practice (1 = strongly disagree; 3 = neither agree nor disagree; 5 = strongly agree). Participants also provided justifications for their ratings, describing why they rated it as they did.

The initial list of practices was developed by the advisory committee drawing on the National Coaching standards as well as the University of Michigan’s Teaching Works core practices. The preliminary list was not intended to connote the advisory committee’s priorities for high leverage practices, but instead to identify practices the committee deemed to be in widespread use that would be familiar to coaches. Each core practice title was followed, in the survey, by a descriptive paragraph detailing the specifics of the practice. Below are the abbreviated descriptions of the 10 practices in the first round:

  1. Provide feedback to athletes on technical and tactical skills.
  2. Plan for and adjust physical space, resources, and equipment to create safe and effective training sessions.
  3. Adapt and reframe instructional approach during training sessions based on informal, ongoing assessment.
  4. Create progressive sequences of drills and training sessions that simulate the technical, tactical, and mental skills needed for competitive execution.
  5. Facilitate dialogue with parents and caregivers of athletes.
  6. Utilize consequences to uphold team norms and expectations.
  7. Structure practice time to make formal and informal connections and develop relationships with and between athletes.
  8. Diagnose and correct common sport-specific patterns of athlete movement.
  9. Prepare technical and tactical approaches to competition.
  10. Set long- and short-term goals for athletes and the team.

Finally, participants provided their own core practices and justifications of their importance.

Analysis of Round 1 consisted of “compiling a rank ordered list” of the practices based on “average rating, standard deviations of ratings, and the mode for each practice” (Fogo, 2014, p. 160). Further a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted to “identify possible differences between the responses” (Fogo, 2014, p. 160) of different groups of coaches: male/female; college/noncollege, coaches of male teams/coaches of female teams, individual sports/team sports. Participants’ justifications were coded and analyzed to make revisions to the lower scoring items and/or to those for which the ANOVA revealed significant differences between groups. Furthermore, researchers coded and analyzed the suggested new core practices, adding more practices for the next round. These surveying and analytic steps were repeated twice producing three rounds of surveys ultimately yielding consensus around 15 ambitious coaching core practices.

Results

In Round 1, participants provided just over 13,000 words of feedback on the 10 initial practices and suggested 31 new coaching core practices. Four of the practices, adapting instruction, sequencing, feedback, and connections rated above 4.6, each with a mode of 5.0. Four practices rated between 4.4 and 4.1. Two practices rated below 4.0. Of the two that rated below 4.0, one was removed, and one was rewritten based on participant feedback (Table 2).

Table 2

Descriptive Statistics for Round 1

Core practiceNMModeSD
Adapt instruction164.6950.48
Sequence164.6950.60
Feedback164.6350.50
Connections164.6350.62
Goal setting164.3850.89
Diagnose164.3150.79
Physical spacea164.2540.77
Competition164.1940.83
Parents163.6331.02
Consequenceb162.9421.24

Note. N = number of respondents.

aCore practice divided into two distinct practices for Round 2. bCore practice removed for Round 2.

The ANOVA results revealed significant statistical differences (p value < .05) for two practices. There was a difference between male and female coaches’ ratings on the importance of structure practice time to make formal and informal connections and develop relationships with and between athletes, with female coaches rating it higher than male coaches (p value = .027, η2 = .85). There was also a difference between college and noncollege coaches on the item, facilitate dialog with parents and caregivers of athletes (p value = .024, η2 = .72). Both of those practices were subsequently rewritten, but remained on the core practice list with hopes of decreasing the gap between the means through the revision process.

Participants also submitted 31 new suggested practices, with 3,000 words of descriptions and justifications. These 31 were reviewed and analyzed by members of the advisory committee in order to categorize them, identify those suggestions that fit under existing core practices, and define new core practices that were identified by the most participants. For example, 10 participant coaches recommended a core practice related to athlete empowerment, buy-in, and shared decision making. One illustrative justification for this core practice was,

Let the athletes in your program know that this is THEIR program. Let them know through actions. They get to design the team t-shirt. Let the athletes determine the amount of conditioning we will be doing today. Ask athletes what uniform we are wearing for our homecoming match, etc. Give them buy-in. Athletes need to feel a connection. Give them reasons to be connected and motivated. Let them have and feel worth.

Based on participant suggestions, six new core practices were added for the second round; they are identified in italics in Table 3. Notably, all of these participant-suggested core practices were retained throughout the process.
Table 3

Descriptive Statistics for Round 2

Core practiceNMModeLowSDΔM

R 1 & 2
ΔSD R 1 & 2
Frame communications164.69530.60
Routines164.56530.63
Manage competitiona164.56530.63
Feedback164.5530.63−0.13+0.13
Leadership164.44530.63
Goal setting164.44530.63+0.06−0.26
Sequence164.44530.81−0.25+0.21
Diagnose164.44530.73+0.13−0.07
Adapt instruction164.38530.72−0.31+0.24
Shared decisions164.31430.70
Connections164.25430.68−0.38+0.06
Demonstrate/explain164.25520.93
Practice planb164.19520.98
Adapt planb164.13430.72
Competitiona164.13430.81+0.06−0.02
Parentsc163.81411.22−0.18+0.20

Note. Six new core practices suggested by the participant for the second round are italicized. N = number of respondents; R = survey round.

aCore practices consolidated for Round 3. bCore practices consolidated for Round 3. cCore practice removed for Round 3.

At the beginning of Round 2, participants received detailed feedback on the results from the first round. This included the descriptive statistics as well as a summary of feedback about each practice and the revisions made to that practice for the next round (Appendix for an example). Participants said this information was helpful as they shaped their responses to the subsequent rounds. One participant noted she “appreciated the recap of the responses you collected. Those helped me to adjust my responses each round and evaluate my own coaching.”

In Round 2, participants generated approximately 14,500 words of comments on 16 coaching core practices. The highest ratings were given to three of the new practices added in Round 2: frame communication and use language to encourage trust and appropriate risk taking, establish and implement predictable and consistent routines and approaches, and provide steady, flexible leadership and management during competition. Regarding establish and implement routines, one coach noted,

Routines are the most important element in youth sports. When players understand the routine they become self-motivated and self-starters. They know what is expected and get to their routines. Players take ownership, leaders emerge, and the fear of failure diminishes as they work towards the common (goal) set forth. Coaches with great routines in place get to observe their team.

In general, the ratings of the core practices improved slightly in Round 2. Three of the nine practices revised from Round 1 saw increased average ratings. SDs decreased for three of the practices (Table 3). One practice from the first round that had a statistical difference between men and women—structure practice time to make formal and informal connections and develop relationships with and between athletes—improved so that gap no longer existed. However, for other practices the ANOVA revealed significant differences between groups:

  1. Create progressive sequences of drills and training sessions: difference between team and individual sports (p = .026, η2 = .84)
  2. Practice planning: difference between male and female coaches (p = .036, η2 = .9)
  3. Engaging parents: difference between college and noncollege coaches (p = .003, η2 = .86).

As this was the second time the parent core practice had revealed differences between college and noncollege coaches and the qualitative responses also revealed significant differences, that practice was not included in the third round: the role of coach with parents was too challenging to describe for all coaching contexts. These two responses demonstrate the gulf between youth and college coaches: A college coach commented, it is More important for college age players to learn to develop a relationship with the coaches outside of their parents whereas a youth coach stated, You have to teach parents every day the same way athletes are taught every day and that is VERY time consuming.

The other two practices—practice planning and sequencing—were rewritten to address the gap for the third round. Participants also suggested 15 new core practices, and two of these—allowing space for exploration, problem-solving, and creativity and building social-emotional skills—were adapted into practices for the next round.

In Round 3, participants provided approximately 11,300 words of comments on 15 practices. Overall, from Round 1 to Round 3, four ratings went up, four went down, and three remained unchanged. SDs generally decreased (Table 4). As in all the rounds, participant comments offered suggestions for changes to the descriptions of the practices. Sometimes these comments were nuanced and about wordsmithing: “I think combining the sequencing of drills with preparing for competitions seems appropriate and clear. I think this is well written and core to coaching. I might change the ‘carefully sequenced’ to ‘intentionally sequenced.’” Other times these comments were about sport-specific differences. For example, regarding allowing space for problem-solving and creativity while one soccer coach commented “I think this is one of the MOST key parts of any of these” while another said, in swimming, we don’t “go too far outside limits due to the life threatening nature of being in an aquatic environment.” Every iteration of the core practice description sought to incorporate changes and balance varying perspectives.

Table 4

Descriptive Statistics for Round 3

Core practiceNLowMModeSDΔM

R 1 & 3
ΔSD R 1 & 3ΔM

R 2 & 3
ΔSD

R 2 & 3
Instructiona1634.6950.60−0.44−0.33
Adapt instruction1644.6950.600+0.12+0.31−0.12
Practice planning1644.6350.50+0.44−0.48
Feedback1634.6350.620+0.12+0.13−0.01
Competition management1634.5650.6300
Goal setting1634.5050.73+0.13−0.16+0.06+0.10
Frame communications1644.5050.52−0.19+0.10
Social emotional skills1634.5040.63
Sequencing1634.4450.73−0.25+0.130−0.09
Diagnose1624.4450.89+0.13+0.100+0.17
Routines1634.3850.72−0.19+0.09
Leadership1634.3840.62−0.06−0.01
Shared decisions1624.1340.81−0.19+0.10
Allow space1624.0640.93
Connections1624.0040.97−0.63+0.35−0.25+0.28

Note. N = number of respondents; R = survey round.

aInstruction emerged as the new title for the core practice demonstrate/explain based on participant feedback after Round 2.

The three Delphi survey rounds resulted in 15 ambitious coaching core practices (Table 5). Table 5 includes just the abbreviated core practice title. Each practice has a fuller, paragraph-long description that details some of the how and why of the core practice. Participants’ feedback helped shape each of these. Here is an example, the paragraph description for the feedback core practice:

Effective feedback helps focus athletes’ attention on specific qualities of their movements and actions; it highlights areas needing improvement and delineates ways to improve. Good feedback is specific, not overwhelming in scope, focused on the particular skill at hand, and bolstered by positive messaging. The coach makes strategic choices about the frequency, method, and content of feedback and communicates in ways that are understandable by athletes. Feedback on kinesthetic movement requires coach knowledge of the sport and attends to a variety of modes of feedback including tactile, visual, verbal, and technological. Effective feedback over time helps athletes develop and enhance their own proprioception and awareness and allows them to self-monitor and self-coach.

Table 5

The Final 15 Core Practices

Core practiceDescription
1. InstructionDeliver clear explanations, demonstrations, and instructions about techniques, tactics, and drills.
2. DiagnosisDiagnose common sports-specific patterns of technical and tactical movement
3. FeedbackProvide feedback to athletes on technical and tactical skills.
4. Adapt instructionAdapt and reframe instructional approach during training sessions based on ongoing assessment and diagnosis of performance.
5. Frame communicationsFrame communications and use language to encourage trust and appropriate risk taking.
6. SequenceCreate progressive sequences of drills and training sessions that simulate the technical, tactical, and mental skills needed for competition.
7. RoutinesEstablish and implement predictable and consistent routines and approaches.
8. Allow spaceAllow space for athlete exploration, creativity, and problem solving.
9. Practice planningDevelop and flexibly execute a “practice plan.”
10. Goal settingSet long- and short-term goals for and with the team.
11. Competition managementProvide steady, flexible leadership, and management during competition.
12. Social emotional skillsName, practice, and identify the social-emotional skills necessary for athletic (and life) success.
13. Shared decisionsEncourage shared decision making and expectation setting.
14. Relationship buildingStructure time to facilitate relationships with and between athletes.
15. LeadershipProvide opportunities for athletes to develop and practice leadership skills.

Also in this final round, participants were asked about their participation in the Delphi process. Fifteen of 16 participants were positive. One participant said the process had her “reflecting on the prospect of what can I do to improve my own performance and the consequences this has on my players” and she “appreciated the opportunity for self-reflection as well as the opportunity to learn from my peers.” Another expressed a similar sentiment about learning through the process: “I look forward to enhancing my coaching by using the things I learned and thought about.” Another coach expressed support for the results: “this set of practices absolutely, positively, massively improved and I have a hard time arguing with any of it after this iteration. Great stuff.” Negative feedback included comments about the redundancy: “asking for justification for the same practices over and over again became tiresome.”

Limitations

There are limitations in the Delphi method as well as other caveats to take into account in interpreting these results, including the translation of core practices from teacher education to coach development. Methodologically, the Delphi creates the chance for nonresponse error due to the inherent time commitment of the study (Murry & Hammons, 1995; Sekayi & Kennedy, 2017) affecting response rate. In this study, while researchers started with 20 participants, by the end of the three rounds of surveys, the subjects who completed all rounds totaled 16. Procedures to lower nonresponse rate—including incentives, multiple methods of contact, and assistance from an endorsed individual (the advisory committee)—were all utilized, but there was still attrition. While the sample size falls into the recommended 15–35 participant range for Delphi studies, as with all qualitative research, the small sample limits transferability and generalizability. In addition, the online only interaction potentially reinforces difficulties in understanding participants’ or the groups’ responses and collaborative exchange (Fogo, 2014). Researchers using Delphi must carefully craft each iteration of the survey to scaffold for maximum participant understanding, and with any empirical method, researchers must account for how their biases and perspectives may influence the question formation and analysis of data (Clayton, 1997; Fogo, 2014; Murry & Hammons, 1995). Some of these challenges did arise in this study as we sought to balance perspectives of the participants. Despite balancing and adjusting through the three rounds, we did not succeed in raising the ratings of all the practices and reducing all the SDs. The advisory committee served as a check on researcher bias and provided guidance on each iteration of the practices.

Another limitation of the study includes borrowing from teacher education since there are distinctions between teacher and coach and therefore between teacher education and coach development. One challenge of borrowing this particular practice-based approach is that CDPs are typically more condensed than teacher education programs; this challenge has been noted in the use of various problem-based or experientially-oriented pedagogies in coach development (Culver et al., 2019; Cushion et al., 2010; Horgan & Daly, 2015). However, teacher educators have used core practice pedagogies with in-service teachers (Wæge & Fauskanger, 2020), so the structural elements utilized in ongoing professional development, and their efficacy, warrant further investigation. Also, the more variable nature of sport context (a swimming pool is not a classroom), adds a layer of complexity to creating a true practice-based experience for coaches. This too, has been identified as a challenge for CDPs in general, as PBL is an abstraction of actual coaching practice but conducting practice-based learning within the sport environments is more challenging, costly, and time consuming (Cushion et al., 2010; Horgan & Daly, 2015) than in a classroom. In the next section, we describe the ways future research could build on these preliminary findings to both provide increased sports contextualization and address the research limitations. While some of these challenges are specific to core practice pedagogy; the problems of time and context are ones CDPs are trying to solve in general (Cushion et al., 2010; Morgan et al., 2013; Nelson et al., 2013).

Discussion

The aim of this study was to investigate a novel approach to coach development and join the ongoing academic and professional discussion about pedagogical approaches that bridge the theory–practice divide by recognizing the complexity, relationality, and contextuality of coaching and learning to coach. To do this, we leaned on the field of teacher education, specifically the ambitious teaching core practice framework to find out if and how it could be translated to coaching and coach development. This study identified an initial set of ambitious coaching core practices: the routine, teachable, observable, replicable activities coaches engage in that have the most impact on achieving the aims of ambitious coaching. The 15 identified core practices resulting from this study provide a platform for the field of coach development to consider a practice-based pedagogical approach focused on a shared understanding of what effective coaches do and oriented around rehearsals of and reflections on those behaviors and moves.

The participants in the Delphi study coached athletes ranging from upper elementary school to college-aged and across a range of team and individual sports. Their ability to come to agreement on the commonalities of coaching—both its aims and its core practical elements—across a broad range of contexts offers evidence that core practice framing may be helpful in two ways. First, it illustrates coaches’ ability to foreground a holistic, relational vision of coaching in the practical elements of what they do each day. The panel jointly created the majority of core practices through the Delphi process: approximately nine of the 15 core practices came through their novel recommendations. While many of the core practices are oriented toward the direct pedagogical interactions between coach and athlete—instruction, diagnosis, feedback—they also cover the more interpersonal components of coaching: relationship building; positively framing communications; sharing decision making with athletes; allowing space for exploration, creativity, and problem-solving, and explicitly building social-emotional skills. Further the descriptions the coaches created of the more micro-pedagogical practices were framed around holistic and relational views of coaching. For example, the feedback core practice is oriented toward increasing athlete awareness over time so they can ultimately self-monitor and self-coach. The planning core practice focuses on building sessions that are engaging and enjoyable. The emergence of these practices suggests participants recognized the aims of coaching as being based in both performance and athlete wellbeing, aligning with the Côté and Gilbert’s (2009) 4Cs: competence, confidence, connection, and character, and they were able to identify and articulate the specific behaviors and actions they take to reach these aims. As one coach noted, the process “forced me to reflect on core practice and competencies taught in developing student-athletes for pathways for success beyond the field/court.”

Second, the focus on core practices gave coaches a common language to talk about practice. Participants valued the process of explicitly naming those aspects of coaching that “have become ‘just what we do.’” One coach noted, “it made me reflect upon my own coaching methodologies and evaluate whether or not I actually ‘do as I do’ or ‘do as I say.’ I found myself once again reflecting on the prospect of what can I do to improve my own performance and the consequences this has on my players.” Another noted that it allowed them to explore the “hows and whys of my coaching” and develop “shared specificity” regarding coaching practice. These comments suggest that the ambitious coaching core practice framing can help coaches engage in discussion about skills necessary for coaching that is complex, relational, and oriented toward holistic athlete outcomes. Creating a shared language has emerged as an important component in coach development programming (Culver et al., 2019; Horgan & Daly, 2015; Lefebvre et al., 2016) and is an essential element of being able to construct meaning through reflection within a community (Bertram et al., 2017; Morgan et al., 2013; Nelson et al., 2013). The core practices provide coaches a platform upon which to scaffold dialogue about putting knowledge into action. Coaches on the panel appreciated learning from other disciplines and levels: “Being able to review and learn from the insight of other high level coaches from multiple disciplines has been particularly interesting for me.” This is consistent with other studies showing that coaches appreciate sharing practices across sport (Nelson et al., 2013). But they also noted how they could see the need for adjustment within their context, with one coach commenting that the process “highlighted the different needs and expectations that can exist” across programs.

The exclusion of one core practice, in particular, demonstrates these different needs and the way core practices need to be adapted and flexed for particular contexts. The panel of coaches, given the differing ages of the athletes they coached, could not come to agreement on a core practice related to relationships with parents. This lack of agreement does not invalidate the notion of core practices or the importance of working with parents; it suggests the need for adaptation and conversation among coaches and coach developers to shape practices specific to context. According to McDonald et al. (2013), “One common mischaracterization of the core practice movement is that it is pushing for the identification of one set of practices for the field to adopt as a whole” (p. 380). The scholars leading the work around teaching core practices are more interested in creating a community of practice using common language and a common vision to build out the idea of core practices across contexts and content. The same could be true within sport. The core practice framework inherently provides space for adaptation and flexibility necessary across sporting disciplines and contexts. Just as there are core practices of teaching elementary mathematics and secondary science, there might be core practices of high school soccer coaching or club gymnastics.

The core practices movement is not without its critics (Philip et al., 2018). While some criticisms are related to the ways ambitious teaching core practices have been taken up in the school-reform marketplace (Philip et al., 2018), other criticisms address concerns about which coach developers might want to be wary. One such criticism is that this move to a practice-based approach is too divorced from theory and therefore too reductionist and decontextualized to be valuable and may, in fact, be harmful, from an equity and justice perspective (Philip et al., 2018; Zeichner, 2012). This is important within the field of coach development where there are already concerns about an over reliance on mechanistic, one-size fits all CDPs. The field of coach development has not yet grappled in a deep way with critical pedagogies and the intersection of race, gender, and class in coaching effectiveness and coach development.

In teaching, concerns about equity and justice are addressed by explicitly orienting core practices toward the ambitious teaching definition of engaging students of all races, genders, and classes in rigorous academic thinking. Core practices are also undergirded by foundational principles (Grosser-Clarkson & Neel, 2020) and a guiding philosophy. Their purpose is to provide teachers a framework to use in learning to teach in contextualized, student-centered ways. Accordingly, “Their enactment occurs within the complexities of teaching and thus cannot be decontextualized from the histories and policies of schooling, where teaching occurs, or who students are” (CPC, n.d.). Pedagogical interactions are not divorced from social-cultural constructs but embedded within them. Core practices, therefore, offer an opportunity for teacher educators (and coach developers) to examine how routine elements of coaching/teaching serve to either “reproduce unjust and inequitable social patterns or to interrupt those patterns through their embodied activity in the classroom” (Ball, 2018 in Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020, p. 71).

Coaching core practices would need to be similarly grounded in principles of athlete development, safety, and identity. In the lead author’s Coaching Philosophy and Pedagogy course, for example, she uses the following principles around which to orient ambitious coaching core practices: a caring coach–athlete relationship is central to core practice enactment; all athletes are valued and seen as capable of growth in all facets of performance and behavior, and approaches to technical, tactical, mental, and physiological training are developmentally appropriate, fundamentally sound, and culturally responsive. These principles are further developed through conversation about how identity shapes pedagogy and creates magnets and blindspots for enacting core practices with athletes. Building a shared ambitious coaching framework would necessitate, and perhaps motivate, conversations about the ways current coach development pedagogies do/don’t center notions of race, gender, and class. Core practices—as constructs that require the enactment of knowledge in relation to athletes’ needs and identities—may actually provide a framing for needed conversations about equity in CDPs.

Conclusion

This study is a first and modest step in the exploration of ambitious coaching core practices. To advance beyond this exploration, future work would need to take up a number of important issues. The most salient of these is that the ultimate goal of coach education is to support coach behavior and practice that leads to improved outcomes for athletes. Tracking CDPs through to changes in coach behavior and athlete outcomes is rare (see Smith, Smoll, & Cumming, 2007 for an exception), and the evidence for the impact of coach education on coaching practice (Deek, Werthner, Paquette, & Culver, 2013) and athlete outcomes relatively limited (Langan, Blake, & Lonsdale, 2013). Teacher and coach education share this problem of how to evaluate the direct connection between professional preparation, coach/teacher practice, and student/athlete outcomes. Teacher education, however, is further down the evidentiary road to understanding the ways teacher education programs (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; Sandoval, Van Es, Campbell, & Santagata, 2020) and teacher practices impact student learning. Core practices (in teaching) have been identified as “core” precisely because they have an evidentiary base connecting that practice to student learning (Kavanagh & Danielson, 2020; McDonald et al., 2013; Ward, 2020): specific core practices in elementary mathematics instruction, for example, have been shown to improve student learning (see Franke, Kazemi, & Battey, 2007).

Future research would need to contend with these issues. For a coaching core practice to be “core,” it must have the potential to improve athlete outcomes; therefore, examination and validation (or exclusion) of this preliminary set of core practices through a literature review of evidenced-based coaching practices (Fogo, 2014; Ward, 2020) is an important next step. Another set of research questions emerges regarding whether the proposed core practices fit all the other definitions of core practices: frequent, observable, replicable, teachable, and complex (McDonald et al., 2013). Observational studies could help determine whether these practices are indeed common, and identify which ones are most salient in which contexts. Other research might identify core practices, through Delphi or other consensus building research, in sport-specific domains and contexts. Finally, coach developers might pilot a core practice focused CDP, experiment with its design and delivery, and evaluate its efficacy in impacting coach behaviors (Turnnidge & Côté, 2017; Ward, 2020) and ultimately athlete outcomes.

Our aim was to explore a novel framework for coach development programming that recognizes the complexity of coaching and learning to coach and extends thinking about practice-based approaches in coach development to bridge the theory–practice gap. The resulting 15 ambitious coaching core practices provide coach educators a framework to reflect and build on. We do not posit these 15 core practices as universal but as a starting point for conversation, adaptation, and future research.

Author Biographies

Julie McCleery is Director Research-Practice Partnerships, Research Associate & Lecturer, Center for Leadership in Athletics, University of Washington. The Center’s research interests include coach education, youth sports, college sports, and women in sports leadership.

Jennifer Lee Hoffman is an Associate Professor, University of Washington. The Center’s research interests include coach education, youth sports, college sports, and women in sports leadership.

Irina Tereschenko is a research assistant at the Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington and an adjunct lecturer in the SoPA Kinesiology Program at Tulane. The Center’s research interests include coach education, youth sports, college sports, and women in sports leadership.

Regena Pauketat is a Research Assistant, University of Washington. The Center’s research interests include coach education, youth sports, college sports, and women in sports leadership.

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Appendix: Sample Participant Feedback From Round 2

Practice title: Frame communication and use language to encourage trust and appropriate risk taking (4.69)

The coach intentionally frames communication around positive reinforcement, reassurance, and future orientation. The words used in practices and games should elicit a positive response leading to growth and improved effort. The coach develops, rehearses, and regularly uses cue words that signal leaving mistakes behind, evoke positive performance images, and signal specific tactical maneuvers or adjustments. Coaches identify opportunities to compliment athletes for good or improved performance, attitude, or effort. This positive communication helps create a mastery-based climate conducive to effort and risk taking without fear of failure.
Summary of feedback: Ranked number 1 (new; no ranking last time)—12 participants strongly agreed. The majority of respondents agreed that positive reinforcement, intentionally framed communication, story-telling, and meaningful cue words are critical to success.

The description of the practice has been modified slightly: “compliment” replaced by “reinforce.”
Illustrative comments

 (a) “I firmly believe that the practice of positive reinforcement and the specific meaningful use of ‘cue’ words, is essential in grooming athletes/players psychologically for peak performance. The tangible relationship between the coach and players is further enhanced by the mutual bond of appreciation facilitated by the coaches verbal communication.”

 (b) “The story the coach tells plays a large role in the outcome.”

 (c) “The language used to encourage trust and appropriate risk taking is highly important in competition but must be developed during practices. Commonly used phrases and cues are part of the routines that are essential to creating a positive mental attitude in athlete’s ability to focus on success and learning to let go of mistakes.”
Disagreements/suggested revisions

 (a) “There are many forms of getting your point across—I’ve seen positive and something I would classify as intensity used for communication. While I take the positive approach, I’ve seen the later get results as well.”

 (b) I wouldn’t say it always needs to be roses and positive because during tough times it can come across as fake.

The authors are with the Center for Leadership in Athletics, College of Education, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.

McCleery (juliem4@uw.edu) is corresponding author.
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    • Export Citation
  • Ward, P. (2020). Core practices for teaching physical education: Recommendations for teacher education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 40(1), 98108. doi:10.1123/jtpe.2019-0114

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    • Export Citation
  • Yousuf, M.I. (2007). Using experts’ opinions through Delphi technique. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 12(4), 18.

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    • Export Citation
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