By Charles J. Infurna
Input from six highly successful American throws coaches, with their views on the 4Cs: closeness, commitment, complementarity, and co-orientation.
The purpose of the present study was to explore how elite level American track & field throwing coaches reflected upon their experiences of producing internationally competitive athletes over a successive period. Qualitative research methods were implemented where 6 elite coaches (1 female, 5 male) participated in semi-structured interviews. The first higher order theme was the incorporation of Positive Coaching. This theme included four subthemes: (a) communication skills, (b) autonomy supportive behaviours, (c) getting to know your athletes, and (d) creating an atmosphere of success. The second higher order theme was Understanding Your Coaching Philosophy. This theme included three subthemes: (a) an established technical model of coaching, (b) lifelong learning, and (c) a peer support system. Findings suggest that coaches would benefit from coach education programs focused on supporting the mental capacity of their athletes when competing on an international stage.
The interpersonal dynamics that are present between sport coaches and athletes are central to the coaching process. However, over the course of the past few decades, a marked interest in investigating how elite level sport coaches acquire knowledge and develop sport specific skills has been examined (He, et al., 2018). Most research has been focused on sport coach education programs, sport specific programs, and certification attainment (Milistetd, et al., 2018). The complexity of sport coaching research continues to permeate the literature, most specific to high performance coaches (HPC) (Buchheit, 2016) or serial winning coaches (SWC) (Lara-Bercial & Mallett, 2016). He and colleagues (2018) argue that HPC learning, and skill acquisition should not solely be focused on formal sport coach education programs, but rather acquired through the lens of a life-long learner (Van Mullem & Dahlin, 2017; Trudel, et al., 2016; Currie & Oates-Wilding, 2012).
Although coaching education programs for various sport governing bodies have been established for decades, early studies reported that positive associations were found between coach education programs and skill development of elite level coaches (Gould, et al., 1987). Gould and colleagues (1990) reported another layer to skill acquisition of elite level sports coaches, of which influences by other elite level coaches aided in their development of effective coaching at the elite level. Similarly, in a study comprised of 21 structured interviews of elite coaches, Salmela (1995) reported that expert coaches learned the skill of coaching at the elite level from mentors. Finally, Callary, et al., (2012) also reported that elite level coaches learn from mentors and peers within a peer support system.
It is widely acknowledged that coaches who have an important role in athletes’ lives can in turn influence athletes’ performance, behaviour, and psychological well-being (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003). There is a considerable gap in the current literature that pertains to sources of knowledge acquisition of elite level American track & field throwing coaches (He, et al., 2018; Milistetd, et al., 2018; Nash, et al., 2011; Nash, et al., 2008). Recently, He, et al. (2018) reported that since 2009, few studies have been conducted on knowledge and skill acquisition of elite track & field coaches, none of which focused on American track & field throwing coaches. A significant number of studies have been conducted on elite level coaches of various sports (Hodgson, et al., 2017; Nash, et al., 2011; Nash, et al., 2008). More recently, the focus of elite level coach skill acquisition has been focused on gymnastics (He, et al., 2018), soccer (Sawiuk, et al., 2018; Freitas, et al., 2013), orienteering (Celestino, et al., 2015), water polo (Currie & Oates-Wilding, 2012), and tennis coaches (Milistetd, et al., 2018).
Consequently, with such a great emphasis placed on behavioural observations of elite level coaches, there is yet more to be explored regarding the reasoning behind their actions, both in practice and competition scenarios (Hodgson, et al., 2017). For example, the current literature suggests that elite level sport coaches can say the right thing at the right time during practice or competitive settings, yet our understanding of this knowledge base is limited (Hodgson, et al., 2017; Cushion, et al., 2003).
Coaching effectiveness is therefore “not dependent upon the efficient application of a sequential process but on the quality of interactions between coach, athlete(s), and the context” (Cushion, et al., 2006, p. 88). Therefore, the aim of this qualitative study is to examine how elite American track and field throwing coaches acquire skills and knowledge that have allowed them to cultivate and develop elite level throwers who participate on an international stage (Olympic Games and/or World Championships). It is in the reflection of the coaches’ knowledge and skill acquisition that would further reveal how they have been able to maintain high levels of coaching success in the preparation of coaching Olympic Games and World Championship throwers over a successive period.
Coach-athlete relationships are essentially defined as social situations shaped by the interpersonal beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors of the coach and athlete (Jowett, 2017).
As described by Jowett and colleagues (2003; 2016) the coach-athlete relationship is composed of four succinct qualities: a) closeness, b) commitment, c) complementarity, and d) co-orientation (Jowett, 2017). Closeness reflects the interpersonal feelings encapsulated by mutual respect, trust, appreciation, and a sense of liking each other. Commitment reflects how coaches and athletes are able to maintain a relationship over the course of their experiences together. Complementarity is a reflection upon how coaches and athletes correspond with each other. Finally, co-orientation reflects shared understanding and views when looking within their coach-athlete dyad. In essence, “the 4Cs provide operational meaning to the quality of the coach-athlete relationship (Jowett, 2017, p.8).
At the most basic function, coaching involves two people, the athlete and the coach. It is in this relationship both the coach and athlete hold power that will ultimately allow each member to achieve or not achieve his or her individualistic goals (Jowett, 2017). A coach-athlete-centered approach supplies a solid basis from which to understand not only the entire process and practice of coaching, but also, it’s effectiveness (Kim, Kim, and Won, 2018; Jowett, 2017; Hodgson, et al., 2017).
There is a plethora of evidence that suggests neither coaches nor athletes achieve their goals on their own, but rather they need each other to achieve their desired results and success in sport. In the sport of track & field, and more specifically with regards to the throwing events (shot, discus, javelin, and hammer) the notion of a coach-athlete-centered approach allows both coaches and athletes to achieve success while supported by the quality of the connection between coach and athlete (mutual trust, respect, open communication, commitment, and collaboration) (Jowett, 2017; 2016).
To further conceptualize the essence of the coach-athlete relationship, the operational framework emphasized in this paper is focused on how the complexities of coaching can be managed or “orchestrated” (Jones, Bailey, & Thompson, 2013). This notion of orchestration between coach and athlete brings a sense of order through interpersonal behaviours that are engaging, interacting, communicating, reflecting, empowering, trusting, respecting, and understanding (Jones, et al, 2013). The findings of previous qualitative studies that explored the content and functionality of the coach-athlete relationship through the lens of the 4Cs of coaching (Jowett, 2017) found that the 4Cs of coaching were instrumental to the success, well-being, and performance of both athlete and coach (Kim, et al., 2018; Jowett & Carpenter, 2015; Jowett, 2008b; Jowett & Cockerill, 2003). This study aims to further examine the role of coach-athlete relationships as they pertain to the continued serial successes of Olympic track & field throwing coaches over the course of their coaching careers.
In total, six coaches agreed to participate in the study. Upon receiving WIRB approval from the researcher’s university, the American throwing coaches were contacted via email and informed of the purpose and nature of the study. They were advised of informed consent and willingly participated in the study.
To ensure their elite status, the selection criteria for the potential participation in this study consisted of the following: a) at least 10 years of continuous coaching experience and, b) coached multiple throwers to have competed at an Olympic Games and/or World Championships competition during their coaching career. The criteria to define an elite American throwing coach has not been well established, however this selection process was deemed acceptable largely because it allows for comparison of coaching philosophy and methodology between the findings reported in this study and of previous research focused on elite coaching (Hodgson, et al., 2017; Hanton, et al., 2005; Fletcher & Hanton, 2003; Holt & Hogg, 2002; Bloom, et al., 1997). To ensure anonymity, each coach that volunteered to participate in this study was given a pseudonym and was referred to by their pseudonym throughout the written reprint.
The final sample of participants was comprised of six American-born throwing coaches aged 34 – 62. Their collegiate and/or club coaching experience specific to working with elite throwers (shot, discus, hammer, javelin) in the United States ranged from 10 – 32 years. All the coaches have experience being the lead coach for athletes who have participated in international competitions (Olympic Games and/or World Championships). One of the coaches was female. One of the male coaches was not affiliated with a collegiate program, but rather has his own sanctioned USATF club in which post-collegiate throwers train and are affiliated with.
Upon receiving WIRB approval to conduct the study, the researcher contacted American-born throwing coaches in the United States via email. They were informed of the overview and nature of the study. Also included in the introductory email was the interview guide. The researcher scheduled dates and times for the coaches who voluntarily agreed to participate in the study.
All six participants took part in semi-structured interviews that lasted between 60 and 120 minutes. The interview guide was included in the initial email sent to the coaches. The interview guide was again sent to the coaches when a confirmed interview date and time was scheduled. Each interview was conducted via Zoom on a date and time convenient for the participating coaches. The researcher has accumulated over 10 years of collegiate coaching experience, as well as involvement coaching collegiate national champion throwers. The researcher would be familiar with the experiences and terminology used by the participating coaches.
The interview guide consists of two overarching sections: 1) coaching, coaching relationships, and coaching effectiveness, and 2) coaching style and motivational climate. Each section is made up of several questions pertaining to the larger section. The coaching, coaching relationships, and coaching effectiveness section is made up of several questions pertaining to effective coaching (what do you view as essential for effective coaching at the elite level?, how do you evaluate your success as a coach at the elite level, and in your experience to what extent is it necessary to have a level of personal relationship with the elite athletes you work with?). The coaching style and motivational climate section are made up of several questions pertaining to the coaching environment, atmosphere, individual athlete motivation, and the relationship between athlete and coach (what do you try to accomplish per coaching session and why, how do you motivate your athletes, and how do you know what to say and when during training sessions and competition?). All six of the coaches who participated in the study were asked the same questions, as well as follow-up and clarifying questions based on their initial responses.
An inductive-deductive content analysis was implemented to analyze the six coaches’ interviews (Patton, 2002). The process consisted of several steps. First, after the interviews were conducted, the audio portion of the interviews were transcribed by a third-party transcription service outside of the researcher’s university. The transcription process produced 125 pages of single-spaced text. The transcriptions were read, reread, and reread again by the researcher to become familiar with the content.
The second step of the process involved the identification and coding of individual raw data items. The second step also involved the review of the transcripts by a second researcher with multiple decades of qualitative research experiences. This second researcher supported the lead author in the review of the transcripts and the identification of and coding of the raw data items. Multiple levels of coding were incorporated and developed to refine coded categories until data saturation was reached. First order and second order themes were established. The support of a second researcher established trustworthiness of the data (Patton, 2002; Marshall & Rossman, 1995). Following the suggestion of Patton (2002), all six coaches were sent their interview transcript for review. No coaches provided amendments to their transcripts.
The analysis of the six elite American track & field coach interviews produced two higher order themes. The first higher order theme was Positive Coaching. This theme included four subthemes: (a) communication skills, (b) autonomy supportive behaviours, (c) getting to know your athletes, and (d) creating an atmosphere of success. The second higher order theme was Understanding Your Coaching Philosophy. This theme included three subthemes: (a) an established technical model of coaching, (b) lifelong learning, and (c) a peer support system.
When the coaches were asked to define what effective coaching meant to them, the immediate responses were about how they can communicate with their athletes. Donald, who has coached three different Olympic athletes said, “Obviously, number one, you have to be able to communicate well. Number two is you must be personable. You have to be able to develop relationships with your athletes.”
Gabby, who has coached multiple Olympic Games and World Championship competitors said,
I think one of the things that has made me an effective coach is my ability to communicate with my athletes. In an Olympic final, I know that I need to communicate just enough to make sure they understand their cues and what they are trying to accomplish in the circle. It is something I constantly think about because there are times when I cannot be close to the circle, so when I have the opportunity to say something, it has to be clear and consistent with what the goal of the competition is.
Another perspective given by the coaches was about the incorporation of common language used at both practice and competition. Anthony, who has coached Olympic Games and World Championship participant throwers said, “I think effective coaching really just kind of comes down to relating to the athlete and being able to have a common language at practice and meets”. Similarly, Rick said, “Being able to communicate with your kids is really important. The way I discuss cues and technical information is the same at practice and at meets. It brings consistency to my coaching”.
Finally, Bill, who has coached Olympic Games and World Championship participants at multiple colleges over the tenure of his coaching career said,
I think everyone starts at a different level mentally and physically. And I must get into tune with where they are in their life, and where they are in their development, and where they are mentally, where they are in terms of their goals, and where they are in terms of what their reality is. The only way I can do that is to be able to communicate with my athletes in a way that shows them I care about them not only as an athlete, but as a person too.
Autonomy supportive behaviors
Essential to enhancing the quality of coach-athlete relationships is a coach’s ability to allow athletes the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process (Ryan & Deci, 2002). Coaches shared how they ensured that their athletes had an opportunity to be part of the decision-making process that would create a path towards their training for, qualifying, and competing on an international stage. “In this approach, empowerment of the athlete is the central concern and focus” (Lee, et al., 2009, p. 306). Bill, who has coached multiple collegiate throwers who represented the United States on an international stage said,
But I think, leading up to the Olympics, one or two years out, we do the cliché day at a time, weeks at a time. We know we have to do the boring, mundane things. We work on the plan together. The athlete has much more input if they are trying to make a second Olympic team. The plan is always coming down to getting the best technique we can when it matters most, at the Olympic Trials. But the athletes, especially if they are post-collegiate, have a lot of authority in when we practice, for how long, and what the goals for the season are. By that point they know themselves better than I do.
Gabby spoke about how her and her athletes discuss goals for the season. She said,
I think a theme that I was taught over time over the years is to break down a big goal into little tasks and little goals. After 2004, it was obvious the goal was to go back and win in 2008, but it isn’t that easy. It’s a daily thing at practice. He had a lot of say leading up to the 2008 Olympic Trials. It was thinking about a small goal or win for the day. I would ask what he wanted to work on for the day, and that is what we focused on. After two Olympic Games, athletes know more about what they need than I do. It’s my role to provide support and what we can do together to get 1% better each session.
Donald spoke about the goal setting process and how he helps instill and build confidence in his athletes. He said,
The other thing we look at is the building blocks to becoming a good thrower. Are you getting stronger? The stronger you get usually applies to throwing farther. We look at nutritional and recovery goals. If there is an improvement in their diet and whatever other goals they set for themselves that year, then we pat them on the back for that. We also encourage distance’s improving as well. We try to build confidence in our athletes. They lead the discussions about goals, but we as coaches need to hold them accountable. Then I praise the wins along the way. It shows them that just because their distances aren’t always going up, they are accomplishing other things. We know what it takes to make a World Championship team and throwing far is important but other factors play a role as well. That is why we allow the athletes to have multiple things to focus on during a season.
Aligned within the goal setting framework, some of the coaches shared that part of the yearly process or Olympic quad was going to require each thrower to participate in and complete mundane tasks (Chambliss, 1989). Anthony said, “Yeah, even though the goal might be to win a medal at the Olympics, it takes a certain number of high-level training sessions to get there. Unfortunately, some of those training sessions are rather boring, but the work needs to get done.” Donald shared similar experiences with his athletes. He said, “We know that this isn’t a very exciting lifestyle. My athletes train upwards to six hours a day. Most of the time we do the same thing repeatedly, but we know those little daily tasks are going to produce big results in the future.”
Gabby talked about her routine with her athletes. She said, “We keep our routine the same. From a daily perspective, we warm up the same and focus on similar drills and movement patterns. We know they are boring, but those little things are what have helped us the most during our training sessions.” Rick said, “We probably complete the same four or five drills thousands of times between international competitions. They may seem boring at the time, but if you look around, at that (Olympic) level, your technique has to be spot on when the pressure is on.”
Getting to know your athletes
When asked to discuss their success as a coach in context to what effective coaching looks like and means to them, the coaches shared their thoughts about getting to know their athletes on an interpersonal level assisted in their effectiveness as a coach. This tenet of developing positive interpersonal relationships with your athletes has been previously reported in the literature. Anthony said,
Every athlete you come into contact with is going to be different. And everyone’s on a different timeline as far as what their goals are, or where their talent level it. Whatever it may be, talent-wise, I won’t get the best out of them unless I get to know them on a more personal level. Winning championships is great. Going to the Olympics is nice, but at the end of the day if I don’t know much else about them, then I didn’t do a good job preparing them for life after throwing.
Currie and Oates-Wilding (2012) reported in their qualitative study consisting of eight Olympic level coaches that developing a quality coach-athlete relationship was critical to their abilities to coach at the Olympic level. Developing interpersonal relationships was also reported by Jones and colleagues (2003), which highlighted the positive influence having an interpersonal relationship with their athletes had on their successes as coaches. After relocating to a different institution, Donald said this about working with his athletes,
I have to coach differently here. And the main reason is the level of talent is way different here than it was at my old school. So there are a few changes with that, and a way to overcome the potential difference in talent is by having a stronger relationship with the throwers on my team. To be able to break down barriers here, I need to get to know my throwers on a more personal level. In my opinion, that is what makes the biggest difference with success. At the Division 1 level almost all of the throwers are on a level playing field when it comes to talent. The ones who break through are the coaches who can better reach their kids on a personal level. Once that trust and respect is established, the athletes will walk through walls for you.
Olympic coaches have stressed the critical importance of developing positive coach-athlete relationships with their athletes as a direct influence on their (the athletes) success at qualifying for and competing at an Olympic Games or other international competition (Dieffenbach, et al., 2008). Rick summed up his experiences like this,
By the time I’ve worked with an athlete for two or three years after I worked with them in college, I’m not really their coach anymore. I’m more like a Sherpa. I already know a lot about them, so keeping open communication after they have graduated from college is critical, but at this point it’s different. I’ll get them where they want to go, but at this point they are the ones who are doing all the work. I’m working with them to achieve their goal, but I need to tap into something more at this point. I act as an emotional guide as well.
Gabby said, “At this level, I’m not just getting to know my throwers, but their families as well. Some of my athletes are married, so I’m not just working on building relationships with my throwers, but everyone involved within their support system.” Sam added perspective when working with elite collegiate throwers as well. He said, “When coaching collegiate throwers, you definitely need to get to know them on a personal level. They oftentimes tell you things that they wouldn’t tell others because they trust you. That personal relationship is what helps break down barriers between coaches and athletes, which should allow the throwers to compete at a higher level because they trust you.”
Creating an atmosphere of success
The coaches interviewed spent a lot of time sharing their ideas about creating an environment conducive to consistently being able to produce elite level throwers. Most of the coaches shared their thoughts about creating a culture built upon positive relationships. Donald shared,
And at that point when they can start to open up to me and the coach doesn’t seem that scary, and the coach is almost somebody that you want to go to to be helpful, I know we’ve created a positive atmosphere and culture. Then it’s really awesome because before any meet, or during practice, when an athlete pulls me aside and says I need to talk to you about something, it usually isn’t throwing-related. It is related to something else going on in their life. That tells me that our environment is safe enough for them to share things with me that they probably wouldn’t talk about with their parents.
Similarly, Rick has coached multiple collegiate national champion throwers, some of whom were national champions during the same collegiate season. He said,
That’s all I’m trying to do. I try to find where’s your current as a thrower. I’m just going to go for a swim with that. I do that with all my throwers, but having Michelle was different. She helped elevate the other throwers. I can train them for strength and power with their current, but having your best thrower be your hardest worker helps set the tone for everyone else.
In their qualitative study focused on SWC, Lara-Bercial and Mallet (2016) reported that coaches shared this belief in creating an atmosphere that stimulated athlete growth, fostering a feeling of trust, and their abilities as coaches to develop positive relationships with the athletes.
When asked about their experiences as coaches and coaching in competition, the coaches discussed how the interpersonal relationships they had developed with their throwers allowed them to know when to or not to say something either during a training session, competition, at the Olympic Games and or at the World Championships. This is what Anthony said about knowing when to speak or not. He said,
I think I’m guilty of knowing when I need to keep my mouth shut and still going. I think we all tend to overcoach, especially in competition. And it starts with practice. I think the whole idea of thinking before you speak is key. Is what I have to say meaningful and worthwhile? Or am I just talking to talk? And understanding like be careful with praise. It comes down to knowing each of your athletes as individuals. Some may require consistent feedback and cuing. Others don’t want you to say anything. It’s the same for practice and the Olympic Trials. You just need to know your kids.
When asked about coaching in the Olympics, Bill said, “You need to know when to give feedback, the type, and how much. You don’t have a lot of time to talk at the Olympics, that is why knowing your athlete and understanding their needs will help. You can’t talk at the Olympics like you do in practice”.
Gabby shared her initial concerns about her athletes thinking she didn’t know enough. She said,
So I knew enough, but there were definitely holes in my knowledge. And so I didn’t have all of the technical knowledge. But I still got success out of those athletes because even though I wasn’t the most knowledgeable coach, we had a very good relationship and I knew what they needed of me during competition. I was able to instill confidence with the little I was able to say.
Donald talked about trial and error when knowing when to say something or not to say anything at all. He said,
I think its just trial and error. When I first started coaching, I coached the way I would want to be coached. How would I want somebody to respond to my performance at this meet? Now I try to think about what I would need in that position. But the whole idea of knowing what to say and when to say it is about how well do I know my athletes. Some athletes are used to hearing something after every throw in practice. And I could respond quickly to them. Other athletes don’t need much in the way of speaking, sometimes it’s just a look. It takes a lot of communication to get to know how your athletes want to be coached.
Sam spoke about his ability to read body language when giving coaching cues. He said,
I think it’s reading them and understanding their body language and knowing how to handle stress. My best weightlifters will stare at a wall the whole time. I know they are focused on what they need to do. I think that’s where it’s got to be up to the coach to learn the tendencies of each specific athlete and know what communication they handle the best. I don’t coach much during training, maybe just a cue or two cues the whole session. We can’t work on much during a meet, and I try to coach in practice like at a meet so they know what to expect of me too. It just comes down to knowing what type of feedback they like to receive in the situation. We talk about that a lot.
Understanding Your Coaching Philosophy
An established technical model of coaching
When the coaches were asked to describe what effective coaching meant to them, all six coaches first referenced that they had an established technical model of coaching that they were comfortable implementing with their athletes. Each coach discussed how they have developed their technical model of coaching that they believe has allowed them to be successful over the course of their coaching careers.
Gabby, who has coached throwers of different disciplines to competing at an Olympic Games shared this thought, “I think that at the elite level you have to be incredibly disciplined with your technical model. I believe in what I’m doing because I’ve had success over the years”. Anthony, who has coached at multiple levels at the collegiate level, had this to say about the importance of having an open mind within his technical model. He said,
I think a democratic style is absolutely the way to go. And that may not work for everyone’s situation. It very much works for mine. I think that getting input from my seniors, getting input from my captains helps give me a pulse of how training is going. I think one of the biggest mistakes any coach makes and the biggest mistake I think I made early in my career was that I was forcing a model on my kids. They are all different, and technique is not always a one-size-fits-all model.
Previous research on the topic of coaching philosophy was shared by Lara-Bercial and Mallett (2016). In this study composed of SWC, the coaches reported that having a grounded and stable coaching model helped to ensure optimal outcomes for their athletes.
Sam discussed teaching his technical model in relationship to defining clear expectations for his athletes. He said,
But I think it always comes back to that clear expectation. I just think that the best way to get the kids to do what I need them to do is communicate my expectations with them. I tell them this is what I want them to look like in the circle. I show them videos. They know my stuff works, but I have to explain it differently to some of them because they learn differently. I just have to adapt my way of communicating, but I want them to look a certain way when they throw.
Similarly, Din, et al., (2015) reported that athlete successes were predicated on the coach’s ability to articulate a clear and cohesive coaching philosophy and vision of excellence. Bill took the discussion of his technical model in a different direction. After over 30 years of collegiate coaching experience he had this to say about training,
Everyone has X’s and O’s, but what makes the good coach or great coach is intentionality. I think I have an ability to say the right things, intentionally say wrong things and see what reactions may be, to see where I need to go. I’m good at communicating what I want the kids to do when they throw. Not just how to communicate and teach technique, but because I have a vision at seeing what I think is going to work best for each thrower. You can’t put a square peg in a round hole. We got to figure out what works best for that person and have them understand where they are.
When reflecting on their time as throwing coaches, an aspect of lifelong learning was mentioned by all the coaches. When asked about structuring practice sessions and the specific purpose of each session, each coach discussed that they continue to build upon their prior knowledge in order to best meet the needs of their athletes. An example they each shared was about continuous growth as a coach. Bill shared his thoughts about coaching athletes from all over the world. He said,
And now I’m starting to coach some more international kids, which I’ve never done before very much. And so now I’m trying to learn that, how to do that. Deal with athletes from different cultures, different families and all that. So it’s another piece of a puzzle I’m trying to put together for the kids to help them throw farther.
Anthony, who also shared that he is coaching more international athletes, had this to say about learning more about different cultures. He said,
Throwing far and achieving these results is a means to an end of a journey, right? You’re on this journey to challenge yourself and know how far you can push the athletes. I care about my athletes and I want them to do well. I need to figure out how to better coach athletes that come from different cultures and backgrounds. They need to be coached differently, and I’m learning how to do that. I’m learning more about the throwing cultures of where they are from. I try to apply that. It isn’t easy, but the kids see I’m making an effort which helps with team culture and buy-in.
Sam spoke about the biomechanical challenges he faces as a throwing coach. He said,
I think for me, I need to learn more about how the body works. I’m able to explain what I want them to look like in the circle, but sometimes I’m asked why I want them to look the way they do. I watch YouTube videos. I’m trying to learn this stuff, but it is difficult sometimes to explain.
Peer support system
The coaches spent ample time discussing a network of peers that they could share their thoughts with and ask questions to. Gabby, not having an initial strong background in throwing, had this to say about her early coaching support systems. She said,
I did not have a strong throwing background in college. When I started coaching hammer throwers, I didn’t know what to do. I reached out to a local coach in the area and asked for help. My background was predominantly in the shot and discus. Then I had another guy that I would bounce ideas off of that was a javelin thrower. I would show him videos of my throwers and he would give me feedback. Now, I still call a few people I trust. I’ll give them the situation and talk it through with them. I have a couple of Division 1 coaches I’ll reach out to if I need something.
Similarly, Anthony shared his thoughts of support systems when he began working with elite level throwers. He said, “I reach out to other coaches when I’m not sure of what I’m seeing. I don’t want to change something with the kids I have if I don’t have to. I usually reach out to a couple of people and ask them what they think”. Sam was also able to recall times he reached out for assistance about technique and programming. He said, “Yeah, I have a few coaches I trust to talk to about throwing. We usually talk once a week. It’s usually about technique and programming.” Unlike prior research focused on structured mentorship programs (Sawiuk, et al., 2018), the coaches in this study did not specifically share thoughts about mentorship programs or having secured a mentor in the past (Hodgson & Butt, 2017). Rather, they spoke at great length about their peer support system they have been able to develop through networking throughout their coaching careers (Callary, et al., 2012). Bill spoke about asking for support when discussing the mental aspects to throwing. He said,
So with her, she was a prime example of having tons of ability, but she didn’t know how to compete. So I reached out to others who had more experience in that aspect of throwing than I did. We spent way more time on the mental than the physical side to throwing. That was new to me, but I had coaches that I could reach out to for help.
Rick spoke about learning new ways to communicate technique with his athletes. He said,
I think I always want to get the right message across correctly. I’m a very adaptive and open person. I think I’m very high on openness. By openness, I mean that I’m always willing to hear that there’s a better way to do or say something. Honestly, I think that leads into, obviously, when we learn, once you’re out of school, you choose what you learn, right? I try to talk to people to learn more about better ways to share the message correctly.
The aim of this qualitative research study was to provide insight into how elite American throwing coaches have been able to continuously produce international competitive throwers over the course of their coaching careers. In total, six throwing coaches working with throwers in the United States participated in this study. Overall, the coaches in this study have coached throwers who participated in an Olympic Games, World Championships, and other international competitions beginning with the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
To repeat, the throwing coaches who participated in this qualitative study highlighted two higher order themes that they have attributed to their success as throwing coaches. The first higher order theme was the incorporation of Positive Coaching. This theme included four subthemes: (a) communication skills, (b) autonomy supportive behaviours, (c) getting to know your athletes, and (d) creating an atmosphere of success. The second higher order theme was Understanding Your Coaching Philosophy. This theme included three subthemes: (a) an established technical model of coaching, (b) lifelong learning, and (c) a peer support system.
In their reflective journeys as throwing coaches at the collegiate and club level, the coaches discussed psychological tenets that allowed them to coach multiple throwers to competing on the international stage while representing the United States. First, the coaches spent ample time discussing the importance of being able to effectively communicate with their athletes. Law (2013) suggested that communication is one of seven social competencies that should be developed, which supports the idea that coaching is indeed a social competency in which the role of the coach is provide athletes an opportunity to attain a high level of performance by communicating expectations, cues, and experiences with their athletes (Rezania & Gurney, 2014). The coaches stressed the importance of being able to express what they needed their athletes to do in respect to working on a technical cue in practice and how to implement that cue in competition. Positively communicating with athletes is a central theme that has been recognized as a critical factor in ensuring success of the coach-athlete dyad in respect to Olympic athletes (Jowett & Cockerill, 2003).
Similarly, the ability to positively communicate with an athlete is in tune with the overarching theme of positive coaching (McGuire, 2016). The high performing coaches in this study understood the value and critical importance of having excellent communication skills. They also understood that it was important to regularly communicate with their athletes and have an understanding of the type of communication was most important in high stress situations, such as competing at the Olympic Trials, Olympic Games, and World Championships. In line with prior research, these findings support the notion that coaching is more than a simple transmission of tactical knowledge and the simple teaching of skills (Hodgson & Butt, 2017; Olusoga, et al., 2012). Stelter (2016) sums it up best by suggesting, “the ultimate goal of coaching is to facilitate and improve leadership, communication, and cooperation” (p. 55).
Coaches in the present study advocated the importance of developing a strong interpersonal relationship with their athletes. A philosophical aspect of their coaching style was focused on the implementation of autonomy supportive behaviors (Ryan & Deci, 2002) related to the goal setting process. Autonomy supportive behaviours have been discussed in the sports and physical education literature previously (Bartholomew, et al., 2009). All the coaches who participated in this study made some reference to allowing their athletes the opportunity to contribute to the daily practice regimen, the yearly outlook, and competition strategy. All but one of the coaches that participated in this study was employed by a college/university. Sam’s coaching, most of which consists of a team of post-collegiate throwers, suggested that he provides his athletes with “a lot of room when it comes to what to focus on in practice, how many throws to take, and how many meets they want to compete in.”
To be a successful high performing throwing coach, “coaches must have/develop a mindset characterized by openness to diversity and flexibility” (Milistetd, et al., 2018, pp. 11). In similar instances of working with post-collegiate and collegiate throwers at the same time, Bill said, “Well, I’ve been working with her for six years now. I think she knows what she needs to do more than I do.” This distinction is important to make at the elite level of throwing, especially when working with collegiate athletes who qualify for international competitions before they graduate from college.
All the coaches who participated in this study maintained an effort to develop and maintain positive interpersonal relationships with their athletes which assisted in developing and creating an atmosphere in which the athletes could achieve their athletic goals. Like the research conducted by Nash, et al., (2011), the coaches in this study took a more holistic approach to coaching their athletes. The coaches understood that even though they have had consistent success at the highest level of individual athlete performance, not all athletes at the collegiate level will one day represent the United States at an international competition. They felt it was important to not only ensure their athletes met their athletic goals, but also ensured that their athletes knew they could talk to them about things unrelated to coaching. All of the coaches shared experiences about the importance of getting to know the individual because it would be at that point that they could then help them achieve their athletic goals. Gabby said, “It’s like you are peeling back an onion. Eventually you get to where you need to go, but they need to know you care before they let you start peeling.”
Bill summed it up best by suggesting that “sometimes it takes a long time before they let you in. As long as you continue to show them you care, eventually you break down those walls.”
When asked about their style of coaching, each coach shared their thoughts about having an established technical model of coaching. “A coaching philosophy is believed to underpin individual coaching practice” (Nash, et al., 2008, p. 550). Four of the six coaches interviewed have coached athletes of different disciplines to international competition during their coaching careers. Having a firm background of specific technical expertise allowed them the opportunity to coach athletes who bought into programming while excelling in their chosen discipline(s) of competition. Similarly, the coaches exhibited craft knowledge as opposed to professional knowledge in helping support the development and implementation of their coaching philosophies. Irwin, et al., (2004) defines the professional knowledge “as formal coach education” (p. 247). Craft knowledge is defined as “knowing in action—an intuitive feel…which develops with experience” (p. 247).
As the coaches shared their professional experiences, none of the coaches referred to their formal education as a support to their knowledge and expertise as an elite level throwing coach. Rather, the coaches in this study suggested that informal opportunities of lifelong learning and the support of peers within the track & field throwing community were the backbone that aided in their coaching development over time. This is interesting to note because much of what is reported in the current literature suggests that receiving formal training (He, et al., 2018; Irwin, et al., 2004: Cushion, et al., 2003) and the support of a mentor or mentors was key in the development of elite level coaches (Nash, et al., 2011; Nash, et al., 2008; Nash & Collins, 2006). In this study, the coaches suggested that having a peer support system of other coaches and peers they trusted were important to them. Rick said, “I only attend conferences and clinics now to talk shop with my coaching friends. I haven’t sat through a breakout session in years.” Bill added, “I don’t go to conferences any more. If I need something, I call someone I know that can help me.” Similarly, Donald said, “I don’t mind attending conferences, but I go for the social aspects of sharing ideas with other coaches outside of the conference.”
Limitations and future research
It is important to note a few limitations to this study. First, the study consisted of track & field throwing coaches in the United States, and the results of this study cannot be generalizable to either, a) other event groups within the sport of track & field, and b) other elite level coaches from a broader scope of coaching professions either within the United States or globally. Future studies should examine how coaches from other Olympic sports within the United States define effective coaching in respect to the successes they have achieved during their professional coaching careers.
Second, five of the six coaches were male. Future studies should emphasize the perspective of elite female coaches across a horizon of sports professions within the United States and possibly across the globe. As Hodgson and Butt (2017) reported, “only 11% of the 3225 coaches at the 2012 London Olympic Games were female” (p. 27). Third, all the coaches were white. Future studies should include and examine elite level sports coaches from a more diverse population of sports coaches. Finally, four of the six coaches referenced some difficulties they experienced in the early stages of their coaching careers when supporting the mental capacity of competition their throwers lacked. Future studies should examine how the support from sport psychology practitioners can enhance athletes’ capacities to prepare for and compete in high stress and anxiety causing situations, such as representing the United States on an international stage, more specifically with other teams of low team interdependence (tennis, golf and swimming and diving).
The coaches interviewed in this study show a clear understanding of how developing interpersonal skills enhances the relationships with their athletes. In turn, these positive coach-athlete relationships have provided the athletes with communities of support, belief systems, and opportunities to reach their athletic goals. The coaches interviewed in this study can be described as serial winning coaches, a term coined by Lara-Bercial and Mallett (2016). Their experiences as elite level throwing coaches “represent a powerful reference point from which to understand this very unique environment and the required skills and attitudes of coaches to succeed within it” (Lara-Bercial & Mallett, 2016, p. 43).
The coaches provided great depth and knowledge in understanding how the psychological tenets of coaching (goal setting, communication, and a belief in their athletes) added to their coaching philosophy that strengthened their preparedness to coach collegiate and post-collegiate athletes on an international stage. Findings suggest that coaches would benefit from coach education programs focused on supporting the mental capacity of their athletes in regard to competing internationally. A majority of American Olympic track & field athletes only earn one opportunity to represent the United States on an international stage. Coaches, and in this case throwing coaches, would benefit greatly from education programming focused on ways they could enhance the mental skills required to better provide their throwers with the opportunity to excel on the international level.
It is important to recognize that no two coaches interviewed in this study had similar trajectories in terms of becoming elite in the field of coaching throwers internationally. In fact, their stories all begin at different points and with diverse experiences in the early stages of their coaching careers. A large contributing factor of their successes as throwing coaches can be characterized by their early experiences as throwing coaches either at the collegiate and private sectors, their thirst for continuous improvement and life-long learning, and their expansive peer support networks. Their stories and experiences lend themselves to providing compelling accounts and familiarity into the world of high performing track & field coaches that have achieved unparalleled levels of success by coaching throwers at Olympic Games and World Championships over a successive period.
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Charles J. Infurna, Ed.D. was a four-year competitor in the hammer throw at SUNY Fredonia. As a coach he has coached two Division III national championships in weight throwing, as well as one HS national champion. He is a USAW Level 2 certified coach. Infurna is currently the throws coach at Alfred State College.