Coaching during the pandemic presents a unique challenge – Dr Ian Sherwin

The recognised and often cited research definition of coaching effectiveness is determined by how the coaches’ Professional (the sport), Interpersonal (the athlete) and Intrapersonal (the coach’s self-awareness) knowledge is applied to improve their athletes (Côté & Gilbert, 2009).  Coaches traditionally have learned to coach through formal coach education courses, from their experience as an athlete in their sport and from coaches they have encountered along their sporting careers.

However, it is far from traditional times in which we find ourselves and coaches have had to adapt their traditional coaching methods to continue to be as effective as they were before the pandemic shut them down. Despite the fact that there are no games, races or events to target, athletes are still training and coaching continues “at/from home”. This presents a challenge for the coaches and support staff in providing a programme that will keep their athletes engaged. The theoretical concept of the “ethics of care” (Noddings, 2012) entails a coach creating a climate where the coach meets the athletes individual needs. This has been further developed by Purdy et al., (2016) who regard coaches who have achieved this as being able to meet athletes individual needs for well-being, health and performance.

We have just started our third semester on the MSc in Applied Sports Coaching and it’s been great to catch up with the students again. The students are all coaches, from 11 different sports, with a variety of coaching experience from 5-35 years. The module, Athlete and Coach Development tasks the students to work together as a group to observe, consult and mentor each other to improve their coaching and enhance the athlete experience. Without “live face to face” coaching, the students have already demonstrated their ingenuity in using technology to coach, circulating the footage to the rest of the group and getting feedback on their sessions. We did a short workshop in the opening session where the students had to respond to a job advertisement to outline their experience and strengths in various aspects of the coaching role. At the end of the session the students highlighted that the most desired coaching trait from all (four) of the job advertisements was the coaches’ ability to interact with others and build relationships with their athletes.

One of the things that struck me most during the course of the first semester of the course was the commitment of all the students to their athletes. Their philosophies prioritised the athletes’ needs and their coaching is true to their philosophies. Throughout the first two semesters the students/coaches have been doing a great deal of reflection on all aspects of their coaching. This reflection is paying dividends during these challenging times in allowing the coaches to move on from traditional coaching methods to keep their athletes engaged. They have created environments irrespective of the circumstances.

Sensei Dave Royle in the “Zoom Dojo”

Take, as an example one of the students, David Royle, or more appropriately Sensei David Royle. Dave’s sport is a style of Karate called Shotokan Karate, in which he holds the rank of 6th Dan black belt, and has been coaching for 30years. He refers to the coaching and learning environment as “the dojo” irrespective of where that is taking place but usually it’s the local hall in Dublin. However, the dojo has moved into Dave’s house and the sessions go on regardless. He has very kindly supplied a short video of his new coaching environment with consent from his athletes. You’ll note from this clip, and others connected to the link, the coaching remains the same and the athletes remain engaged throughout.

Another example of effective coaching has come from a colleague in PESS, Dr Frank Nugent. Frank (pictured far right on feature image) is also the coach to the UL Rowing club and, as the lockdown loomed, the boathouse was cleared and Frank equipped 30+ athletes with everything they needed to maintain their training. The overall focus was on keeping people training 8 – 14 times per week during this important phase of the season as a group and pushing standards. Frank introduced a points race with points awarded based on session difficulty and organised the rowers into competitive groups of high and low level rowers which changed weekly. All sessions were posted in the club WhatsApp group and as an incentive a weekly prize was awarded. Two virtual races (one national, one international) were also organised in conjunction with NUIG head coach Ciro Prisco and NUIG High Performance director Feargal O’Callaghan, the international race included 250 participants from seven countries.

The athlete response has been to maintain their level of training as the coaches continue to provide the care to cater for each athletes’ individual need. This effective coaching climate can only be created by knowledgeable coaches who understand the dynamic in which they operate. Whilst, at the outset, it may have been a struggle to convert to coaching online it is worth celebrating the versatility of our colleagues and students to keep their athletes connected and motivated to train during the pandemic enforced lockdown.

Dr. Ian Sherwin is a Lecturer in Coaching at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences and is the Course Director for academic programmes relating to the National Council for  Education and Fitness at the University of Limerick. Ian can be contacted at and followed on twitter @ian_sherwin or on researchgate.

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