How coaches learn and how they measure success

It is well known that the development of talent in sport depends on the constructive relationships between athletes and coaches1 through their support, supervision and creation of a healthy learning environment. By surveying expert coaches through an online questionnaire followed by a face to face interview we explored how expert team sport coaches “learned” their trade.


All coaches had a minimum 10 years’ experience coaching their sport and were coaching more than 4hrs per week. The coaches participated in a diverse range of sports from an early age prior to specialisation in one sport through their teenage years and also held a variety of different coaching positions before eventually taking over as “Head Coach”. Phenomenological (lived) experience, as a player and coach, was reported to be the most relied upon contributor to learning in coaches and how they coached. The quotes below help to outline this:

“…..most coaches… the top end are indifferent to what the formal policies…..are, they work basically independently of all of that, they have their own ideas of what should be done and work on that basis.”

“…..I’ve took something from every coach that I had all the way up and you learn as much…..from…..the bad guys… learn how not to do things……..”

Expert coaches were task-driven rather than ego-driven. To achieve this they recognised they must focus on ensuring the player improved as a person during their time with them. The coaches were unanimous in their belief that by helping the player to improve as an individual their performance could be improved as well. This was how they measured success.

“…….if they’re better at skills, if they’re fitter, if they’re mentally stronger, and they have a balanced lifestyle then you’re a success. If at the end of the day all of that helps you to play the best game you can and then that brings you a trophy………the trophy is just a little reward but you’ve achieved success way before that”

However, the public, and potential employers, often measure success only on results, a point that is not lost on these coaches.


1) Coté, J., Erickson, K. & Duffy, P. (2013) Developing the expert performance coach. In D. Farrow, J. Baker & C. MacMahon (Eds.) Developing sport expertise (2nd ed.) (pp.96-112). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.


Author’s Biography

Ian Sherwin has just finished the first year of his PhD in Physical Education and Sport Science at the University of Limerick, Ireland. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Sport and Exercise Sciences and a Masters degree in Sports Performance. He also worked in rugby development with the National Governing Body (NGB) in Ireland, the IRFU for 13 years in Youth, Adult and Coach Development spending the last 4 years in the professional game with Munster Rugby. His current research is exploring Talent Identification and Development (TID) in team sports in Ireland. He is also the Director of Rugby at one of Ireland’s most successful rugby clubs, Shannon RFC.


Twitter: @ian_sherwin

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