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UK Coaching Research Team
Organising and Planning

Intuition and Coaching

Developing your intuition can you save time and energy in stressful situations – time that may be at a premium in the closing stages of competition

As researchers stated in the journal Strategies, intuition is not a magical ability but an important decision-making tool that can be learnt by anyone. This post explains the route map to intuitive thinking and expertise in coaching.

We’ve all witnessed it – the last minute of the match, and the coach makes a decision that turns the game – an inspired moment that confirms the coach has some special talent to make the right decision at the right time. Whatever you call it (inspiration, instinct or intuition), the fact is that it is not a special talent.

The science of the gut feeling

The idea of acting on a gut feeling is not as crazy as it sounds and, in fact, helps explain how intuition works.The process begins in the subconscious part of the brain that is quietly working away in the background. It combines a person’s knowledge, experience and recognition of patterns drawn from memory to create an ‘informed judgement’.

When this judgement is transferred from the subconscious to the conscious mind, you perceive it through some physical or emotional indicator.This is where the gut feeling comes from (it’s a physical indicator), or for others, it may seem like divine inspiration (the emotional indicator). Whatever it feels like, the truth is it did not just appear but is the product of thinking, based on experience and training.

Intuition and expertise

Intuition cannot be discussed without mentioning expertise – the two are inextricably linked. Indeed, as John Lyle’s research with coaches pointed out back in 1999: ‘One of the characteristics of expert coaches is that they make decisions in an apparently effortless, intuitive manner.’ Linking intuition and expertise allowed the researchers to provide a route map to help anyone develop intuition in coaching.The route map follows a coach from novice to expert to explain where intuition comes from.

At the start of the journey are novice coaches, who rely on learning the rules on coaching courses and following these rules as coaches. Although they also have their own experiences as players to fall back on, their lack of coaching experience means they have to remain relatively inflexible in their actions.

As coaches gain more experience, they start to recognise similarities across contexts (the first steps towards that subconscious holistic view of events). Although still very much following the rules, they are developing strategic knowledge. In other words, experience of applying what they were originally taught is teaching them what to ignore and what to follow.

However, advanced beginners still have a long way to go. As with novice coaches, their decisions and actions are still very much governed by previously learnt concepts, rules and procedures. With experience, they will start to modify their patterns of thought and develop a sense of personal responsibility. Described by the researchers as a ‘wilful choice’ of what to do, this is the start of trusting themselves and their own thought processes.

The move to competent coaching comes with this change to wilful choice.The coach realises that everything happens in context and decisions need to reflect this context rather than simply following or adjusting rules learnt as a novice – coaching becomes proactive rather than reactive.

Competent coaches have a sense of what is important and what is not, and can deviate from planned activities depending on the situation. Many coaches who reach this level are satisfied and choose to remain at the competent level. However, as a result, they will never develop the intuitive skills of expert coaches.

Proficient coaches no longer rely purely on conscious or deliberative actions.They are starting to trust their intuition and can now be seen as fast, fluid thinkers who are less conscious of their actions. One of the keys to this development is the ability to recognise patterns in events rather than just see individual events. As the researchers suggested,‘the proficient-level coach no longer looks out and sees individual athletes, but instead sees them as part of the whole athletic environment.’This pattern recognition is one of the subconscious processes that leads to the gut feeling associated with intuitive decision making.

However, what happens next is what separates the proficient coach from the expert (and intuitive coach). After recognising patterns or perceiving that something is wrong, the proficient coach is still analytic and deliberative in deciding what to do. Therefore, they are not making those decisions ‘in the blink of an eye’ that you associate with intuition.

The expert is arational, their thinking is effortless and involves little analytic or deliberative behaviour. It almost feels like they are making things up on the spot. But the fact that they are consistently successful shows this isn’t just down to luck.

Ultimately, we have to conclude that their behaviour is both effective and rational! So what is happening here? The researchers explained that it is the combination of an enormous amount of knowledge in the speciality and thousands of hours of deliberate practice (eg practice actively motivated by the goal of improving performance). Add all this knowledge and experience to the holistic pattern recognition of the proficient coach, and the subconscious mind of an expert is packed full of everything it needs to make informed judgements that seem to everyone else (and the coach him/herself) to come out of nowhere as a moment of inspiration.

Ultimately, the research suggested that no matter what you call it – intuition, instinct, gut feeling – it is all the product of hard work and dedication over a long period of time.

Learning from the research

Research has shown that arational thinking is especially valuable in unstable, complex and unpredictable environments. Sport is the perfect example of such an environment, and this partly explains why those who are successful in sport seem to place so much emphasis on intuition as part of their competitive advantage. However, this is not a special gift only available to lucky individuals. With expert coaches, you can look beyond this almost effortless level of decision making and find a history of hard work, experience and knowledge.
Therefore, everyone has the potential to become an intuitive thinker; it just takes a large investment of time and energy. The researchers provided some ideas of how to get there:

  • Get the basics on coach education courses.
  • Learn everything you can about your sport.
  • Learn from a good mentor.
  • Observe and converse with expert coaches.
  • Strive for a level beyond competency.

Related Content

  • Eight Recommendations for Coaching Decision Making in Sport

  • Four Questions to Consider When Coaching During Competition

  • Communicating with Players During a Match


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UK Coaching Research Team