Exploring athlete centred coaching. Paul Kinnerk

Back in late July of last year (2018), I presented qualitative findings of a study conducted with 12 senior inter-county Gaelic football coaches at the AIESEP World Congress in Edinburgh. The study was conducted to examine the why and how behind the strategies coaches apply in their practice. One of the slides near the end of the presentation focused on the concept of “athlete centred coaching” and in a lively 10 minute discussion that followed my presentation, this concept was to the fore in the conference room. In summary, there was debate about identifying coaches who are truly athlete centred and then those who claim to be. The session chair curtailed the discussion but not before parting with a closing statement of significance, “show me a coach who claims not to be athlete centred in this modern age”. Coaches are clearly aware of the term ‘athlete centred’ and associate it with progressive and ‘good’ coaching, but have they an understanding of what it means to be truly athlete centred in their coaching? The following piece will discuss the concept of being “athlete centred” in team sports coaching and explore examples of such strategies being applied in a Gaelic games context.

The ‘player centred’/’athlete centred’ coach has emerged as an idealised and supported concept in the sports coaching literature (Kidman, 2005). Being ‘athlete centred’ requires the coach to encourage and empower their players to gain and take ownership of the coaching processes (De Souza & Oslin, 2008). This approach contrasts with the traditional ‘coach centred’ relationship where the coach’s role is to tell and the player’s role is to listen (Martens, 2004). This dynamic ultimately takes ownership and responsibility away from the players (Kidman, 2005). Consequently, research has strongly advocated the coach adopting strategies which allow players take responsibility for their own learning and performance (Jones, Armour & Potrac, 2002). Player ownership promotes giving players autonomy for decision making with the clear purpose of offering them opportunities to make choices, develop higher levels of motivation and learn how to develop solutions (Kidman, 2005).

While the potential benefits of adopting such an approach in coaching are clear, research suggests that uptake by coaches is sparse (e.g., Partington & Cushion, 2013). Coaches feeling under pressure to win, bound by traditional norms and inadequate pedagogical and conceptual knowledge have been highlighted as some of the barriers to coaches adopting this innovative style of coaching (Kinnerk et al., 2018). While similar trends were noted amongst some of the senior inter-county Gaelic football coaches in our study, there were also some rich examples provided by coaches supporting the notion that ‘athlete centred’ coaching was an established part of their coaching. A number of coaches used video analysis as the medium through which to offer players ownership and greater autonomy:

Sometimes they (players) will deliver a video analysis meeting. So basically they’re not hearing it from the management about what they can improve or did well but they are actually telling each other about what they felt they can improve upon or what they thought they were successful on in the match

Steve Kerr (picture, coach to NBA team Golden State Warriors), a known proponent of athlete centred coaching has adopted similar strategies in allowing his players to deliver team talks. The adoption of such an approach promotes player discussion and engagement within the session. As one coach asserted:

“Some of the best discussions we have are in video analysis meetings. And it’s one of the single biggest improvements I’ve seen this year is players’ readiness to engage, interrogate, contradict, disagree with each other, all within the one meeting.”

The social aspect to the learning players experience in such examples can be very powerful. Aligned with social constructivist theory, these social interactions between players and reflection can promote deep understanding while making learning authentic and meaningful (Light & Harvey, 2015)

Another example of coaches adopting an ‘athlete centred’ approach can be seen in how players were encouraged and included in the development of ideas for game plans:

“…even this year the players might say “we’d like to try this” and I’d never agree with them straight away because I do think for any new thing you do there are consequences. So this year the players wanted to do something in a replay and I said I have a problem with it but I’ll agree with it if A, B and C are complied with. So I focused the guys on A, B and C at training and as a result we were able to comply with their demands for the following week.”

Critical to this example, is the shared partnership between coach and players. Being ‘athlete centred’ does not mean the coach relinquishing all control to the players. In fact, while autonomy is important, it must be accompanied by structure and support (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). It can be seen that the coach, in stipulating certain conditions that must be met in order for the players to apply their tactical idea that the coach was providing structure to ensure players have necessary understanding and information to perform these roles (Pope & Wilson, 2012) consequently fostering their perceived competence to apply their new tactic (Occhino et al., 2014).

An athlete centred approach possesses great potential in sports coaching, but, as highlighted by the session chair at the AIESEP World Congress, it’s prevalence in coaching is equivocal. Challenges and barriers exist, and authentic adoption of such strategies requires significant change to coaching norms. The examples given in this piece should be viewed as tangible examples of methods applied by individual coaches in their unique contexts, and not as something that can be extracted seamlessly into another coaching context. However, they do provide some level of a blueprint on what athlete centred coaching may look like and possibly encourage/stimulate thoughts amongst coaches in ways they might look to incorporate such a concept within their coaching setting.

Paul Kinnerk is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.  His current research interests include sports coaching, sports coaching pedagogy in team sports and game-based approach pedagogies.  You can contact Paul via email at paul.kinnerk@ul.ie.        Paul Kinnerk






Kidman, L. (2005). Athlete-Centered Coaching: Developing Inspired and Inspiring People. Christchurch, NZ: Innovative Print Commuincations

Kinnerk, P., Harvey, S., MacDonncha, C., & Lyons, M. (2018). A Review of the Game-Based Approaches to Coaching Literature in Competitive Team Sport Settings. Quest, 70(4), 401-418.

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Occhino, J. L., Mallett, C. J., Rynne, S. B., & Carlisle, K. N. (2014). Autonomy-supportive pedagogical approach to sports coaching: Research, challenges and opportunities. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 9(2), 401-415.

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Potrac, P., Jones, R., & Armour, K. (2002). ‘It’s All About Getting Respect’: The Coaching Behaviors of an Expert English Soccer Coach. Sport, Education and Society, 7(2), 183-202

Souza, A. d., & Oslin, J. (2008). A player-centered approach to coaching. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 79(6), 24-30.

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