Reflections on the first semester of the MSc Applied Sports Coaching – Phil Kearney

The new MSc Applied Sports Coaching programme here at the University of Limerick welcomed its first cohort in September 2019. Fourteen coaches with a combined experience of over 250 years arrived on campus every Monday throughout the semester to engage in an analysis of their coaching practice guided by self-reflection, peer discussion, and the latest research. The coaches are drawn from a total of eleven different individual and team sports, and are working with populations ranging from children to elite athletes. Furthermore, half of the coaches entered the programme via the Recognition of Prior Learning route, where they made a case for entry on the basis of their applied coaching experience rather than on the basis of an undergraduate degree.

With such depth and breadth of experience in the room, the programme is not about teaching the participants how to coach, but providing the time, methods and collaborations for them to most effectively interrogate specific aspects of their own coaching. As such, the central theme of our programme is that the coach is the curriculum. What does that look like in practice? In this blog I will explain the organization and operation of the first module, The Coaching Process and Practice, to give you a flavour of the activities on the programme.

European Sports Coaching Framework

The Coaching Process and Practice is built around the European Sports Coaching Framework, which provides a structure within which individual coaches can identify specific problems to explore. Specifically, activities were designed around four case studies focusing on: (i) values and beliefs underpinning an effective coaching philosophy; (ii) building an effective coaching environment; (iii) building quality relationships; and (iv) effective coach behaviours during practice and competition. Prior to each session, coaches engaged with relevant research and other preparatory material to broaden and deepen their understanding of the topic. Subsequently, practitioners delivered case studies, sharing insights from their context. Over the following week, the coaches then reviewed their own coaching context through the lens provided by the research, case study, and peer discussion, and brought examples of their practice back to share with the group. Examples of topics, resources, case studies and follow up tasks may be seen in the table below.

Topic Example Preparatory Resource Case Study Follow up Task
Values and beliefs underpinning an effective coaching philosophy How an Elite Coach’s Philosophy Drives His Coaching Dave Passmore from DCU and Irish Hockey shared his coaching philosophy, how it had developed, and explored how coaches could evolve their coaching philosophies Coaches interviewed each other to test the integrity of their coaching philosophies – could they provide detailed examples of their philosophies in action?
Building an effective coaching environment Analysing the coaching environment Niamh Buffini from the Irish Taekwondo Union and South Dublin Taekwondo shared her story of developing the coaching environment within both a club and a high performance context Coaches presented an overview of their coaching environment using videos, athlete reports, etc, and reflected on how effectively they had designed an environment to facilitate their coaching objectives.
Building quality relationships The practices and development pathways of professional and Olympic serial winning coaches Gary Longwell from the Sports Institute Northern Ireland reflected on his experiences working with a wide range of teams to encourage positive relationships, including coach-athlete, coach-coach, athlete-athlete, coach-parent, etc. Drawing on their experiences, coaches wrote a one page vignette outlining a hypothetical and challenging relationship scenario. These vignettes were then posed to the other coaches to discuss and propose a resolution.
Effective coach behaviours during practice and competition An investigation of practice activities and coaching behaviours Ian Kearney, High Performance Lead with Connacht Golf, Irish U16 Boys Coach & Dromoland Castle Head Professional, shared his story about how a better understanding of his coaching process and philosophy enhanced the quality of his behaviours when interacting with players. Coaches captured audiovisual footage of their coaching, and reviewed this footage with their peers.
Gary Longwell & Niamh Buffini

The engagement from the coaches was excellent from the initial “introduce yourself and your coaching in 3 minutes” task to the examples of coaching philosophies, coaching environments, coaching relationships and coaching behaviours that were shared each week. These examples prompted in depth comparison of the approaches taken across the different sports, highlighting similarities in practice and ideas for coaches to take away and explore.

What did the coaches think of the programme? Jonathan Gibson from The Athlete Clinic:

“As a coach from a very niche environment I questioned where the Applied Sports Coaching MSc in Limerick would position me going forward and what value it would add or subtract to my current coaching practice. A lot of what I do as a coach is one on one and also from a distance (sometimes the other side of the world) with very little in person contact.  I wasn’t sure that the course would suit me as my presumption was that it might be focussed on teams/group coaching etc and not be relevant for me. I decided to reach out to the course director Phil Kearney and bounce a few comments to get a feel for the content and foundation of the course. It became clear that the course is not about the subject being coached or a coaching session per se, but rather about the process and practise used to coach the subject. So regardless of it being a One on One or a 30 man World Cup rugby selection the process and the practice of that process is what’s important. How do you coach?

The first semester started with the apt title of The Coaching Process & Practice. As a coach who has worked with thousands of athletes over a 35 year career from domestic to world podium level I have a vast knowledge and curriculum of learning base but never really understood what the real worth and value of that knowledge was, or even how to use it. As a coach I do things but sometimes don’t understood why or even question why and because of this I don’t explore that value of my knowledge base, both past and present. Semester 1 has opened up this exploration process for me and given me the skills to validate through a peer, research and journal feedback. The semester has probed my coaching, unpacked my thoughts and provided validation techniques for us as coaches to move forward in isolation and with peers to develop our own philosophies and value statements further. For me what I have been doing is correct to a point but now I can push that point further as I have the skills to be confident in my actions. With my value statements and philosophies being dynamic semester 1 has opened the door to dismantling and rebuilding these within a world of chaos that can be coaching. For me this is the fundamental basis of building a coaching platform. It is this platform that the athletes platform for success will be built off so it needs to be good!”

Richard Connolly:

“The course has helped me to remove myself from my day to day coaching, consider & document why I coach and is introducing the means by which I can reflect on and improve my practice. Our discussions in class & coffee dock have also thrown up some excellent nuggets on how other coaches/ sports approach common scenarios from a different direction. Finally the main reason I chose this course was that it is centred on & directly applicable to my coaching.”

For further insights into the activities which took place over the course of the module, search for #MScAppliedSportsCoachingUL on twitter.

The Coaching Process and Practice module provided a broad introduction to the programme, which we will continue to explore and unpack on future modules such as Reflective Practice, Athlete and Coach Development, and Management and Leadership in Coaching. Thus, this module and this semester marked the beginning of a journey that I for one am very excited to be on.

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 or view his research profile on Researchgate  Google Scholar

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