Coaching and Philosophy

By Sam Jarman –

It may not be fashionable to say it in certain circles, but some knowledge, some levels of thinking, are just more important than others.

This hierarchy of knowledge, or more precisely, the fact it isn’t recognised, leads to many of the problems encountered by coaches in their day to day work and life.

Imagine your worldview as a tree. The leaves are your conclusions, the thoughts and decisions from which your actions and behaviours arise.

The leaves are supported by the twigs and branches, your beliefs and preferences.

These in turn grow out of the main branches, your premises, and the trunk of the tree, your principles.

The whole structure is held firm by the roots – your values.

There is a definite hierarchy to the structure. Some parts are integral, others supplemental.

If the leaves blow away, or a few twigs are snapped, the integrity of the tree is still intact.

But if the roots and the trunk are rotten and collapse, you no longer have a tree worth the name.

I believe that for coaches, philosophy and philosophical thought are more important than the coaching techniques or strategies we spend so much time learning about.

They are the roots and the trunk of our coaching practice.

Why?

Because ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of the mind, of language, of logic and reason, of ethics, are presupposed by all coaching techniques and strategies.

They depend on them.

Coaching technique and strategy are not presupposed by philosophical ideas and theories.

Coaching cannot function without some of the basic ideas of philosophy.

This article aims to outline some of those ideas and explain their relevance to our practice and to the games we love.

All Coaches are Philosophers

This premise shouldn’t cause concern for most coaches.

I have yet to meet a coach, teacher or mentor who isn’t something of a philosopher already.

I’m sure you already have a view about who you are, and what the world is, or how it should be.

Perhaps you think philosophy is unimportant or irrelevant?

Well, that’s a philosophical point of view.

The word comes from the Latin ‘philo’ meaning love, and ‘sophos’ meaning wisdom. Therefore, philosophy could be described as ‘the love of wisdom’.

Most coaches are curious about their craft and want to understand more about it.

So, if you have ever spent even a few minutes contemplating why a player behaved in a certain way, or how you might use different language to make the next training session more efficient or engaging, congratulations.

You are a philosopher!

In recent times, a ‘coaching philosophy’ has become a thing.

This has led to some people deriving a different meaning from the words, (meaning is another philosophical concept)

Most coaches have been asked to define or describe their ‘philosophy’, perhaps when applying for a position or studying to gain a qualification.

Perhaps confused by exactly what is being sought, many end up describing their coaching policy or strategy.

A recipe for what they do and how they do it, perhaps with an acknowledgement of some beliefs and values from which the approach arose.

What is Coaching?

So, is it possible to describe a ‘coaching philosophy’?

Is it something more than a way of thinking? A leaning or preference for an attitude or state of mind? An stance for or against a particular model or method?

As suggested above, most coaching philosophies are loose descriptions of the what and the how of a coaching practice, with a few hints at the why.

This can lead to problems as you implement your strategy when things don’t go the way you were hoping they might.

What happens if you don’t get the buy in that you were expecting from players, other coaches, supporters or people higher up the organisation?

Was it a problem with perception? Did they not understand what you meant when you outlined your vision?

This isn’t a coaching problem. It’s a philosophical one deriving from different worldviews and language.

Coaches shouldn’t chastise themselves if they can’t articulate their ‘coaching philosophy’ clearly.

I imagine many of the great coaches would struggle to do so.

The information available from academia and coaching literature is confusing and fragmented, as my friend and coach Edd Conway found when he started to write his master’s thesis on the subject.

You can read his excellent dissertation by following this link.

As you can see from Edd’s conclusions, we are in the interesting situation where coaches are encouraged by employers and coach developers to have a ‘coaching philosophy’.

Most coaches think they have one, but the definitions of what a coaching philosophy actually is are loose, and often seem detached from how it would work in practice.
Could part of the problem stem from the multiplicity of definitions for coaching itself?

A quick search comes up with a number of different statements and suggestions. There seems to be confusion about the differences between coaching, mentoring, instructing, tutoring teaching etc.

As Edd found when researching the subject, this lack of clarity contributes to the difficulties faced by a coach who is trying to define or refine their coaching philosophy and practice.

A Means, Not an End

Perhaps it would be more helpful to regard philosophy in the context of coaching as not so much a set of solutions to specific problems, but an ongoing consideration of sport, life, the universe and our own experience of them?

Using reason and logic to question traditional thinking to come up with insights of our own.
Seeking out conversations with other coaches to challenge and refine our concepts.

New ideas and insights emerge through discussion, examination and analysis of our direct experience. The field of knowledge moves forwards.

Or backwards as is sometimes the case.

Often there are no ‘correct’ answers to the questions posed, or the conclusions drawn raise further questions to explore.

But the ongoing enquiry broadens and deepens our understanding of our values. It defines and reinforces what sport means to us and the people around us.

From these values we derive principles and beliefs, about our relationships with our fellow enthusiasts and about the games we play.

From these principles and beliefs come strategies and policies, and from these our thoughts and behaviours will emerge.

The leaves on the tree.

We have experiences that challenge those beliefs and call our behaviours into question.

The information derived from experience feeds back into the philosophical process and the cycle continues.

The Big Questions

Seen from this perspective, a coaching philosophy is not something that does or does not work.

That would be a coaching strategy or practice.

It is more a process of continual reassessment of why you coach and a reappraisal of your own beliefs and behaviours, and those that you notice and prefer to see in your teams and players?

The ‘why’ can most readily be found by exploring what is most important to you. This will almost certainly mean looking beyond your coaching practice.

Many coaches seem to start with their beliefs about the game, or with the behaviours or outcomes that they want to see.

(The differences between values and beliefs are discussed in this article).

So how do you know whether you are considering your values, or your beliefs?

The evaluation below might help:

If you want to change something when you run into problems or results go bad, it’s a belief or a behaviour.

If you feel strongly that you should stick to it when times get tough, it’s a value.

All coaching strategies are focused on changing or fixing behaviours.

What are the chances of success without consideration and understanding of the values, beliefs and assumptions from which the behaviours arise?

Your definition of success is itself a question about your values.

Understanding values means looking at the bigger picture, to what comes before coaching and sport.

An honest appraisal of where your ideas about yourself fit in to an overall worldview.

I would suggest that any coach who is seeking to understand their values, and in doing so gain a clearer picture of their principles and beliefs should give some consideration to some of the questions that human beings have been asking themselves for at least the last 3000 years.

For example.

What is there?

Who am I?

How do I know?

What should I do?

These questions might seem deep and ethereal, somewhat beyond our pay grade when our roles are usually defined in terms of helping people play and enjoy games.

But how can you help a player who is sweating the small stuff, a missed selection or a lack of enthusiasm for example, if you don’t understand the big stuff, ie why people play sport and what it means in the wider context of their lives?

How can you weigh up the evidence for one approach vs another, if you haven’t considered how you know what you know?

How can you address and resolve conflicting points of view without at least a cursory understanding of what is right and what is wrong and why people believe what they believe?

It may not be possible to come to clear cut answers to these big questions. The fact that they still warrant thought and discussion after all this time suggests that such answers might not exist.

But considering them and perhaps exploring them with someone else who has an interest in coaching and philosophy might well unearth some wisdom.

After all, that’s what philosophy means, the love of wisdom.

A perspective from beyond the limits of the game itself might make it easier to approach day to day problems with clarity and empathy.

Hopefully the following brief considerations of some simple philosophical questions might fire your curiosity.

What is there? (Metaphysics)

What is the nature of reality, whatever it is that exists?

How is that relevant to everyday coaching or playing of games?
Well, most coaches will say that environment and context are important aspects to consider in their practice.

Coaches who subscribe to the ecological model would suggest that understanding the relationship with the environment is perhaps the most important element of coaching.

How can you understand environment if you haven’t given some thought to what the environment is at its most basic, most fundamental level?

It isn’t confined to the pitch, the training ground or the stadium.

Reality, whatever it is, is the environment in which everything takes place!

It is also the bedrock of logic and reason.

Reality is what it is, and it isn’t what it isn’t.

If you have made some assumptions about the nature of reality, then the chances are you have also done so about the narrower environment within which you and your players are operating.

When things don’t work out the way you hoped they might. When expectations are not being met, it is usually because you have overlooked something, or assumed something that isn’t correct.

Perhaps that ‘something’ is an assumption about the overall context, the nature of reality, the bigger picture in which coaching and therefore learning is taking place.

Who, or what am I? (Ontology)

Coaching is fundamentally relational. Indeed, it could be said that to be human is to be related.

And you are the common factor in every relationship you have.

How can you understand those relationships without having contemplated the underlying nature of your own existence, your direct experience, your true nature?

And so doing might provide powerful insights into the nature of the people you are coaching and are working with?

Do you sympathise with ideas such as ‘becoming the best version of yourself’ or having ‘self-belief’?

Do you believe that your role as a coach or mentor is to help athletes achieve or attain those things?

If so, where do you start if you don’t know who you fundamentally are, or haven’t given some consideration to what the ‘self’ is?

Is it the body? The mind? A combination of both? Or neither?

How do you explain why some players enjoy your coaching sessions while others don’t if you don’t understand the relationship between thoughts, feelings, situations and circumstances?

How can you help if your players lose their enthusiasm for the sport if you don’t understand how their experience of the game and of life is created?

How can you understand motivation if you have never thought about meaning – what it is and where it comes from?

How do I know? (Epistemology)

This question is surely fundamental to anyone involved in learning or teaching. As coaches, learning is our stock in trade.

In recent years, as science has played a greater role in sports, a trend has developed to making coaching ‘evidence based’.

While in theory, this seems like a good thing, it raises important questions.

Questions that many coaches, and indeed scientists are unable to answer.

What exactly is ‘evidence’. How does it come to be known? What exactly is the nature of knowing?

What is it that allows us to perceive our environment?

To be aware of the task, aware of the challenges, aware of our capacity to address them?

All these questions are philosophical, rather than scientific.

Without the capacity to know how we know, how can we put a value on anything? This limits our capacity to reason, to be rational, to use logic.

Which has big implications for the next question.

What Should I do? (Logic and Ethics)

This is perhaps where most coaches would enter the philosophical conversation, either with themselves, or with someone else.

Every day, our coaching practice throws up situations where the course of action is unclear.
How do we evaluate these situations and come to a conclusion on the most appropriate thing to do?

Is there always a right and a wrong answer? Is one option always better than the others?

As suggested earlier, your coaching practice doesn’t take place in a silo.

It’s part of your life. For many coaches, it’s a significant, if not the major part.

It would be highly unusual if your reasons for and your approach to coaching were divergent from your beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life.

When people pinpoint the attributes of the best coaches, authenticity is a word which often comes to mind.

If you haven’t spent some time contemplating whether your ideas about coaching fit in with your ideas about what a good life looks like, what your purpose might be, authenticity might be an issue further down the track.

There will inevitably be a mismatch between your words and your deeds at some point.

The thinking we have, and the subsequent decisions and actions are largely a product of the beliefs we have about ourselves and about the world.

Whenever a coach or anyone else is struggling it’s because their beliefs and expectations do not match up with the reality in which they find themselves.

We come to our beliefs in different ways. Many as part of our societal and cultural conditioning. As we get older, we gain the capacity to use reason and logic to explore and refine or reject those beliefs.

This is a philosophical process.

Conclusion

Being a sports coach is probably only 20% about the sport. The volume, depth and variety of knowledge and information available in the modern coaching world means that learning about that 20% is straightforward.

But what about the other 80%?

In my opinion, every coach, regardless of their specialisation, is a life coach, because the purpose of sport is the same as the purpose of life:

To know happiness.

This is what every human being is seeking, in their work, in their relationships and in their sport.

When happiness is elusive, we see it as a problem.

A big problem.

A common approach is to try to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable chunks, like we might do with a project at home or at work.

We usually focus narrowly on the area that we believe is causing the problem. Usually thinking or behaviour.

Unfortunately, this rarely works.

Let’s go back to the tree analogy in the introduction to this article.

Our thoughts, and beliefs about coaching are somewhat ephemeral. Like the leaves on the tree, they will change shape and colour over time, they will come and go.

This is where the techniques and strategies of our coaching practice are found.

The twigs and branches, our preferences, are often hidden beneath these thoughts and beliefs.

We see the behaviour and experience the feelings that arise from them, but we are only forced to investigate them when things are going badly.

Even less attention is paid to the trunk and the roots, to our principles and our values, even though these are the most permanent and most important elements of the whole system.

When life isn’t going the way we hoped we tend not to look beyond the leaves and twigs. We change our strategy or our models of thinking.

I believe this is a mistake.

If the trunk and roots are not sound, the whole tree is unlikely to thrive.

Presuppositions which we make at the level of our values and principles will affect our beliefs, preferences thoughts, behaviours and actions.

We can have the greatest coaching techniques in the world, but if our values, or lack of them, overshadow our personal well-being and disrupt our relationships, any impact we have will be superficial and short lived.

The coach who understands her true nature, the nature of reality, the value of evidence and can use logic and reason to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together as parts of a greater whole, is a coach who will surely enjoy a long and successful, and most importantly a happy coaching career.

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