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COACHING DANCE, Part 1 – Taking the First Steps

By Nigel Hetherington, Freelance Sports Education Trainer

In Part I of this article I explore the rationale behind the ‘Coaching Dance’ and how and why, as coaches, we might benefit from proactively adopting this approach.  In Part II I expand the article to cover real case studies from coaches and teachers fully engaged in the process with a focus on problem solving, innovation and creativity.

Image: Courtesy of Dance Division, Edinburgh

Be honest, are you a push and tell coach?  Do you find yourself instructing your athletes what to do; intervening to ‘fix’ all the things they can’t do; setting the pace of their learning though detailed session plans, block outlines and annual programmes; feeding back on what they just did well and not so well? 

Do you find that you are the one who sets team or individual goals - or at least are the messenger of this information from on high?  Are you the coach who is said to be motivational through your team talks and relentless efforts to get everything right so your players and athletes can succeed? 

Do these qualities and actions largely define the way you coach?  It’s quite a demanding workload isn’t it!

Or, are you the coach who continuously asks and pulls

Do you pose searching questions of your athletes; seek out their motivations and set targets and determine training content around them; do you base your actions predominantly on what they tell you they want to learn and mainly set interventions based on their feedback?

This approach can often take us outside of our comfort zone and stretch our thinking and actions as a coach yet it too can be hugely rewarding.

Well, if you feel you are mainly one or other of these coaches; though you may still be doing a great job; is there a way you could be even better?  Is it time you tried a new dance, a tango maybe?  And, as we know, it takes two!

What I described above is one way of looking at the ‘Coaching Dance’ being interplay between coach-centred and athlete-centred coaching.  The tell/push coach may be seen as the principle dancer and the ask/pull coach their partner.  Without the two coming together you will not witness a pas de deux to entertain and enthral!

So, what first steps might we consider and why?  What are the characteristics of both coaching styles and why is a blend likely to produce the best results?

Coach-Centred – tell/push

A coach may typically support this style of telling coaching because they are in a position to share best practice and have the necessary experience, skills and knowledge to do so. 

In many circumstances it is effective, may be appropriate and sufficient. 

However, in certain situations, there is a further array of possible less-desirable outcomes:


Typical actions

Possible outcomes

Coach sets the targets

Potential for reduced athlete buy-in to targets and possible resentment of coach opinion

Coach defines the programme and actions

May inhibit athlete thinking; reduce participation of athlete in learning process and stifle innovation

Coaching based on coach instruction

Maintains athlete dependency on coaching input; reduces chances of creativity

Coach gives feedback on athlete performance

Risk of not accounting for the way the athlete feels about their performance or the way they are performing; missed opportunity for ‘two-minds more powerful than one’

Coach demonstrates and shares knowledge to aid learning

Possible mismatch between what the athlete wants to / needs to learn and what the coach wants to / is capable of teaching.  Missed opportunity for input from athlete as to how they learn best

Coach praises and rewards to motivate

Probability of missed opportunities to tap in to / develop intrinsic motivation and may ultimately dim the enthusiasm of the athlete

Athlete-Centred – ask/pull

A coach may typically support this moreinvolving style of coaching because they have developed in the athlete the necessary experience, skills and knowledge to play a more contributory role.  In many circumstances it is hugely effective.

However, in certain situations, there is a further array of possible less positive outcomes:

Typical actions

Possible outcomes

Athlete sets the targets

Athlete may not have the same level of information, knowledge and experience the coach has about them

Athlete has major input to defining the programme and actions

Athlete may not have sufficient experience in all aspects of programme planning, inter-relationships between factors and workable interventions

Coaching based on athlete demands

Risk of programme being reactive to athlete status at any one time rather than having a longer-term view

Athlete gives feedback on performance

Athlete feedback is often critical but intrinsic feedback alone may not provide the whole picture to the coach

Athlete decides learning needs

Possible mismatch between what the athlete wants to learn / enjoys learning and what coach needs the athlete to be able to do / to know

Athlete does what motivates them

Athlete motivation may vary


The benefits of adopting a more asking / pulling approach to coaching are potentially enormous:

“It generates greater self-awareness and responsibility in the athlete as they take ownership of their issues. It helps to unlock more creativity. There are enhancements in learning, enjoyment and performance. The coach/athlete relationship is improved as greater trust and understanding emerges.”

(Developing Potential, UK)

Now, let’s explore the coaching dance – how the coach may move from coach centred to athlete centred (and back again depending on context) to make the whole experience more powerful for the performer; to make the whole experience more performance, and where appropriate, more performer led.

In the work of Professor Carol Dweck in the area of Growth Mindsets we are prompted that engendering a desire to learn can trigger the confidence to be creative.  As a coach, if we can focus on how we can best support athlete-ownership of goal-setting and motivation through process then we can consequently make the connection to problem-solving, creativity, innovation and ultimately performance.

One school of thought is to use the 80:20 rule whereby 80% of coaching is based on an involving style working with the athlete’s learning style, adapting to their feedback and working toward theirgoals and the remaining 20% using a more direct telling approach to impart knowledge and ensure structured progress.

Through taking to the floor and starting to learn the coaching dance we can raise coach and athlete self-awareness with the athlete taking on more responsibility.  As trust and understanding grow the whole process can unleash the creativity of both the athlete and the coach to support learning and improvements in motivation and effort to ultimately unleash the best performance and the best performers – both athlete AND coach!

“Creativity can help us solve problems and see other options to issues, problems or situations, or tasks we may face - not only in dance but in life.  Creativity also often goes hand-in-hand with working with others and willingness and openness to others and other ideas.”  

(Cat Perry, Director, Dance Division, Edinburgh)


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