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Using Critical Reflection to Become a ‘Good Coach’

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Although critical reflection is important for any coach wanting to improve, it can often be more difficult than expected to put into practice. Researchers in the Netherlands recently conducted a programme that taught coaches a simple approach to aid reflection. Using examples from coaches on the programme, this summary provides ideas that might help any coach.


What makes a good coach? Is it someone who can consistently get the best out of their players? Or someone who makes coaching sessions so much fun, players want to come back week after week? Perhaps it’s someone who helps players achieve their goals. Or someone inspiring that players look up to. The truth is a good coach is probably all these things and a whole lot more, depending on the environment they coach in and the people they coach.

New research from the Netherlands argues that the notion of a ‘good coach’ is an ambiguous concept. Although training courses generally agree on the skills a coach needs to learn, the researchers argue it is difficult to prioritise these around individual needs. In response, they set out to create a course designed from feedback gathered directly from coaches and their personal perceptions of what a good coach is. The focus of the course was critical reflection as this would allow the coaches to change their own behaviour, rather than focusing on how the coaches improve their players’ behaviour.

The theory – designing the course

The researchers identified 35 football coaches to take part in the study – 30 men and five women aged from 18 to 62. Some coached recreationally while others coached competitively, with the group having an average of seven years’ coaching experience.

Discussions were held with the coaches to identify how they wanted to change and improve their coaching. They were also asked to illustrate what they believed made a good coach. Much of the data gathered concerned dealing with behavioural problems of players and parents. Therefore, this was a key focus of the course.

The researchers designed the critical reflection course based on a well-established approach from education initially created by Dr William Knaus in the 1950s. 

This set a framework to help coaches change their behaviour by identifying the thoughts that influence how they behave. By changing these thoughts, coaches would then be able to change their behaviour. They were taught to reflect on these thoughts and constantly ask themselves questions, often thinking about how their ideal good coach would approach the situation and how they needed to change in order to approach it in the same way.

The framework used is summarised in the diagram below. This is followed by examples of three coaches who completed the course. By following this framework, they experienced a change in their coaching and moved closer to their own idea of what makes a good coach.

Forgetting Mr Perfect

The first coach wanted to change his perfectionism. He scrutinised his coaching through confessional practice and found his constant desire for things to be perfect – his coaching technique, policy documents etc – led to trouble.

He spent precious time redoing things that were already adequate. He also felt his perfectionism led to uncertainty. This was characterised by a situation where he froze and did not know how to respond when one of his players behaved strangely.

When thinking about how a good coach would behave in that situation, he referred to a colleague:

 A good coach conveys calmness. When he works with his athletes, he stays calm and at the same time

stimulates them to improve. I never see problematic situations arising when he is coaching. That is the coach I want to be.

The key is that his idea of a good coach behaves in the opposite way. He is calm throughout and never uncertain.

 To become this type of coach, he used critical reflection to change his behaviour. He talked to his head coach if he felt tense or was too demanding of his players. He read up on perfectionism to understand the problem more fully. He also used a voice recorder to note his experiences, enabling him to revisit them later if he needed to think of other solutions.

Critically reflecting on his own behaviour in relation to his idea of a good coach enabled him to change his coaching behaviour and become a better coach. 

Prisoner of the past

Through confessional practice, the second coach found he was a prisoner of his own sporting past. His youth coaches had been disciplinarians, and reflecting on his own behaviour, he discovered he was now the same.

His idea of a good coach was his stimulus for change. He thought there were similarities between himself and the Dutch junior men’s team coach, given their comparable approach to rules and discipline. However, on another training course, he saw a video of this coach encouraging other coaches to communicate frequently with their players. It was then he realised his behaviour was not the same.

On reflection, he realised his approach caused friction between himself and the players. He admitted he was not a big talker and probably did not communicate with them enough.

He changed his behaviour by sitting down with players and discussing things with them when they stepped out of line. In the past, he admitted being quick to punish them if they did something wrong.

As well as changing his own behaviour, this coach increased the possibility of his players changing their behaviour through the coaches’ critical reflection, given they now enjoyed more positive relationships with him.

Striving for 100%

The third coach confessed to being too empathic with her players, to the extent that she did not know what to do to ensure they gave 100% effort in her sessions. She noted how she would sometimes not substitute players as she knew how much they didn’t like it.

When reflecting on her own idea of a good coach, she felt it was important to empathise with players but at the same time have the ability to demand and receive 100% effort from them.

Her strategy to change included constantly thinking about how she acted with the players and suggesting alternative methods for future occurrences. She did this when driving, immediately after coaching sessions. She also watched how other coaches tried to bring about change in their players’ behaviour and analysed how the players responded.

Finally, she asked other coaches to work with her players while she observed, before asking the coach their opinion of the players and comparing that to her own judgements.

She wanted to change her behaviour and drew on the behaviour of other (good, in her eyes) coaches to enact that change.

Learning from the research

These three examples show that, through critical reflection, coaches can change their behaviour and improve their coaching, with an added bonus of increasing the likelihood of their players changing their own behaviour as a direct result of the coaches’ reflection.

This research summary presents an outline method for critical reflection, as well as some real examples detailing how coaches in the Netherlands have used the technique to improve their coaching.

Some further pointers for critical reflection, to be used in conjunction with the diagram above, are given below: 

  • Don’t be put off by being honest and admitting where you need to improve – remember, identifying the aspect of your coaching that you want to change is the first step to making that change happen.
  • Consider completing your confessional practice with a colleague or close friend. This might remove any feelings of discomfort when having to identify any shortcomings you may have.
  • Use your own ideas of how a good coach would behave in the coaching situations you encounter to help you develop strategies to change your behaviour. If you’re not sure how a good coach might behave, ask a coaching colleague or another coach for help.
  • Constantly question your own behaviour against your idea of a good coach – critical reflection is an ongoing technique that requires continual practice.

 Download Research Summary:Using Critical Reflection to Become a ‘Good Coach’


If you are interested in finding out more about this area, this summary is based on the article below:

Jacobs, F., Claringbould, I. and Knoppers, A. (2014) ‘Becoming a “good coach”’, Sport, Education and Society, 19 (8): 1–20.

Comments (2)

Thanks for this, John

Self-review isn't easy, but it is the essential complement to personal and professional development. The framework certainly helps.

Two observations
1. I think the "simple" advice to "use Foucault's confessional practice" probably needs translation to every-day coaching practice - the over-confident will need help to see their own sins, whilst the self-critical might see so many flaws that they undermine what little confidence they started out with...
2. Shouldn't we be striving to become "better" coaches (i.e. continuously improving), not just "good" (perfected)?
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Thx for the share John Mcilroy.

"Good" Coach is too subjective a label, although you hear it used all the time, by players, parents, Club Officials, and coaches at large. What is 'good' today may be out of date in next to no time at all; unless the good coach being spot-lighted is continually becoming 'better', as Andrew Bevan alludes to in his Reply. Wonder if EHB Coach Development ever saw this research?
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