When Academia and Coaching Collide

I recently asked a coach what their session was about and they said ‘the 5 Cs’. They had learned about it on a coaching course and felt they had to demonstrate each behaviour in one coaching session. The focus was entirely on implementing an academic theory and not focussing on the needs of the athletes she was coaching. It got me thinking about the role of academia within coaching and what we can do on both sides to ensure it is not to the detriment of the athlete experience.

Coaching has come a long way since I did my undergraduate degree. It is now a bona fide academic subject in its own right and thousands of students across the country are completing courses in coaching sport. A great step forward for coaching. Or is it?

As part of my recent post graduate studies, some of the students I encountered who were studying coaching were not coaches themselves. Now, I have only ever approached the academic side of coaching from the viewpoint of a coach, always asking ‘how can this work in a practical coaching environment?’. So it brings me to ask the question, are we in danger of the academic study of coaching, and practical coaching skills becoming divided and never the twain shall meet?

Let’s look at it from the practical coaching side. A coach with little interest in academia and ‘theories’ can continue to develop through experiential learning and reflective practice. Every session presents different challenges and they learn and grow by problem solving and working with their athletes and other coaches.

Now let us look at the academic with no practical coaching experience. They study the theories and draw their own conclusions about what can be done to improve coaching practice without ever getting out and trying to implement it themselves.

The danger is that academics can often be perceived as removed from the reality of coaching. That is, it is about people. And people are all different and behave in different ways on different days. The ‘C System’ or the ‘power of three’ simply do not work unless there is some suggestion of how they can be implemented.

And that is where the two worlds collide. Putting the theory into practice is left to the coach. To interpret it to work in their coaching environment and overcome the challenges when it doesn’t quite work as simply as the theories sometimes suggest.

I am not suggesting that every academic should be out coaching every day but is it not verging on irresponsible to present a coaching theory with no suggestion of what it looks like in practice. What coaching behaviours should we see when it is being implemented and how can coaches adapt the theory when circumstances change and evolve?

During the first six months of my post graduate studies, I became increasingly frustrated that the theory didn’t work in practice. As time went on, I learned not to take things at such face value and instead, interpret them to my own coaching environment. It’s a real skill to be able to do this but after three years, I have found the value in academia in supporting my practical coaching.

I believe that there is work to be done on both sides. For coaches, we need to learn to interpret the academic side of the subject and pick the elements which continue to support our personal growth and development. For the academics, presenting a ‘coaching theory’ with no indication of how it can work in practice means it may have little impact in the world of coaching. Show coaches what it will look like, what behaviours should we see and how can it be adapted and evolve over time?

I’m still unsure if there needs to be a ‘middle man’ to support coaches to implement academic theories. It may be the role of the coach developer or mentor to stimulate conversations and reflective practice in this area. Whatever the solution, there is still a lot of work to be done to take the written word so it has an impact on coaching behaviours.