The purpose of this study was to investigate elite athletes’ perceptions of S&C coaches, specifically, (1) their character traits; (2) their effective behaviours that display these traits; and (3) how coach-athlete relationships were fostered. Results from this project support previous research that has highlighted the effectiveness of instruction and technical knowledge, but further suggested the contribution of transferable skills summarised within the higher order themes. Specifically, the findings confirm the coach-athlete relationship is dyadic (Jowett and Cockerill, 2002) within S&C, with participants unequivocally agreeing it is a shared experience. Athletes preferenced coaches who had a positive outlook, an athlete-centred mindset, were attentive, adaptable, and humorous, and had a holistic view to health. It was perceived active listening, providing direct feedback, individualisation, mutual goal setting, acting on athletes’ feedback/suggestions, being energetic and taking an interest in the athlete beyond sport as effective behaviours. In support of previous findings (Jowett and Nezlek, 2011; Sandstrom et al., 2016), relationships were built on prolonged engagement, a shared purpose, positive and negative competitive experiences and face-to-face communication. Importantly, all participants agreed S&C training was vital to their athletic success.
Closeness: Traditionally, it has been expected that a coach leads and instructs and that an athlete executes and learns (Jowett and Nezlek, 2011), and trust has been identified as a necessity in this typical servant–leader relationship in sport (Gillham et al., 2015). The responses from the athletes in the present study identified openness and honesty from the coach as important for establishing closeness. This supports Yukelson’s (1997) assertion that open and honest discussion are central to building teams and that these direct conversations built social and task cohesion (Carron et al., 2002).
Education in a specialised field, such as S&C, aims to prepare individuals for occupational practice (Lyle, 2005). This includes specialist technical skills, personal development, reflective practice, observational learning, and socialisation (i.e. understanding ethical practice) in the field. Previous research has recognised continued education as a critical component of professionalism (Lyle and Cushion, 2010), and although athletes in the present study didn’t care for knowing what specific education their coach had, they did value displays of knowledge. Witnessing evidence of further development was seen as an example of the coach’s credibility, such as observing research studies of their sport in their coach’s workspace. Further, results of training programs such as return from injury that were directly witnessed and experienced, created greater trust in the coach. This is where cohesion led to enhanced sports performance and vice-versa supporting the notion that the cohesion-performance relationship is circular in nature (Filho et al., 2014). Moreover, it has been previously reported that trust is a measure of how close the relationship between the coach and athlete is (Jowett and Cockerill, 2003; Jowett and Ntoumanis, 2004).
The term “human relationship” has been previously used to link the personal and humanistic side of coaching (Lyle, 1999), which has been associated with a coach’s display of deep interest in the welfare and development of the athlete (Jowett and Cockerill, 2003). Subsequent research determined conversations not related to the training process as the most notable (Sánchez et al., 2009) and athletes in the current study viewed conversations with coach’s beyond sport as a display of care on behalf of the coach. These conversations have been said to help the coach development accurate responses to athletes needs and increase reciprocal knowledge of each member (coach and athlete), in turn increasing performance (Jowett and Cockerill, 2003). Scenarios such as return-to-play post injury, where athletes in this study spent significant one-to-one time with S&C coaches, provide greater opportunities for meaningful conversation beyond the sport (Sánchez et al., 2009).
Participants frequently used the term “attentive” as a preferred trait however previous literature has not used the term. Nevertheless, participants viewed individual program design as signs of a coach being attentive and preferenced this behaviour. No research has been conducted on this link, although there is support suggesting that individualised programs are significantly more effective for performance outcomes (Augustsson et al., 2011).
Athletes in this study perceived physical presence as being “attentive”. Observation is a key skill required by coach’s to undertake the ceaseless task of watching, monitoring and assessing performance (Robinson, 2015). Robinson (2015) further explains that to observe effectively the coach moves around the performer/s to view performance from various angles and multiple times when an objective assessment of the skill performed can be made. The experience to make these judgements comes from an S&C coach’s informal and formal education, where most roles require a minimum of an undergraduate degree in a related field to gain employment (Dawson et al., 2013a; Dawson et al., 2013b). Once an observational assessment has been made feedback is given to the athlete.
Steve “Coach” Foulds is an applied researcher and teacher at universities in Melbourne, Australia. He holds an MHPS, GHCE, BExSS (Hons) and a BSpSc(SS) and outside of academia worked with athletes from 20+ sports up to the international level.