A recent article published in the Times suggested that a postgraduate degree gives elite sports coaches an edge. This article sparked discussions about the role of formal postgraduate courses in coach development. As course director for the MSc Applied Sports Coaching which begins in September 2019, this is certainly a topic on which I hold strong views.
Coach development should be three dimensional: broad, deep and long. Breadth of experience refers working with differing populations (e.g., younger and older athletes), different forms of the game (e.g., 7s and 15s rugby), or with different sports. A former colleague of mine used to speak of “vocational contextual interference” (Christian, Berry, & Kearney, 2017) – working with a wide variety of people, skill levels, objectives, and locations presents challenges which interfere with a coach’s standard practices. This interference, which may be particularly strong in the context of adventure sports (Christian, Hodgson, Berry, & Kearney, 2019) may stimulate the coach to constantly compare and adapt, developing as a more sophisticated practitioner as a result. MSc programmes are designed to efficiently enhance breadth of experience, by exposing candidates to both expert case studies from a range of sports and, as importantly, to a diversity of peers who are following different learning journeys. However, breadth of experience does not inevitably lead to enhanced coaching practice.
The second dimension of coach development, depth, refers to the intensity of analysis of the coach’s practice (Nash, Sproule, & Horton, 2016) . Considered, constructive scrutiny of what you are doing and why you are doing it, from mentors, peers and self (i.e., reflective practice), is well-established as a means of enhancing coaching practice. Unfortunately, a perceived lack of time and insufficient guiding structures result in many coaches never being exposed to the level of scrutiny and support that they offer their athletes (Knowles, Tyler, Gilbourne, & Eubank, 2006) . An MSc programme provides an ideal environment for coaches to experience a deep inquiry into their practice.
Coaching science research, such as is found in the International Sport Coaching Journal distils the essence of the experiences of elite coaches to fast-track the development of others. Such research can be a very stimulating resource. By providing enhanced training in finding, interpreting and applying research, an MSc programme specifically targets the critical thinking skills that underpins effective coaching (Collins & Collins, 2015)
Another aspect of depth refers to how coaching effectiveness is measured, whether in terms of performance enhancement, relationship development, or culture change. As a science programme, an MSc in coaching equips its graduates with a set of research skills to more rigorously evaluate their practice. In particular, these research skills allow the graduate to evidence the innovation that should be a characteristic of master coaches. Within the MSc Applied Sports Coaching at the University of Limerick, research skills are embedded within taught modules; thus you are learning research skills through analysing your coaching practice and that of your peers.
Finally, the length of time invested in coaching is a vital ingredient in the development of a master coach (Lara-Bercial & Mallett, 2016) Time invested in coaching includes not just time spent in training sessions or competitions, but “time on the bus” – time when connections with athletes are established, when lessons are learned from your fellow coaches, where the sport becomes deeply engrained as part of who you are. However, just as we all know highly experienced yet poorly skilled drivers, length of practice is not sufficient to develop expertise. The critical thinking skills enhanced by the breadth and depth of exposure inherent within an MSc programme will enable the coach to learn more from their experiences during the programme and beyond.
The learning journeys undertaken by master coaches are highly individual (Lara-Bercial & Mallett, 2016). A postgraduate qualification will offer many individuals a challenging, organized means of gaining the breadth and depth of experience to accelerate their development.
You can find out more about the MSc in Applied Sports Coaching at the University of Limerick here
Dr Phil Kearney is Lecturer in Motor Skill Acquisition Coaching and Performance and Course Director of MSc. Applied Sports Coaching in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Dr Kearney’s current research interests include maturation and youth sport, coaches’ knowledge and practices and enhancing practice quality. You can contact Dr Kearney via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or view his research profile on Researchgate