We use cookies to give you the best experience and to help improve our website. By using our website you are accepting our cookies.  Learn More

UK Coaching Team
Developing Mindsets

The Coaching Plan for England and the Changing Role of the Coach

How people consume sport has changed, so how does the coaching sector align itself with these new market needs? Sport England’s new Head of Coaching Stuart Armstrong tells Blake Richardson that the role of the coach will become more diverse as the sporting landscape continues to evolve

Sport England’s new Head of Coaching, Stuart Armstrong, has a mammoth task stretching out before him.

Charged with enforcing the Coaching Plan contained within Sport England’s new £250million five-year strategy to tackle inactivity, Stuart has a to-do list that would make newly-elected Prime Ministers wince.

In an ideal world, faced with such an overwhelming assignment, there would be time to get his feet under the table at least, but Stuart – who took up his new position just weeks before the official launch of the Towards an Active Nation strategy – hasn’t had that luxury.

In at the deep end he may be, but if early indications are anything to go by, he certainly isn’t swimming against the tide of a heavy workload. Rather, he has picked up the baton from previous incumbent Justyn Price and has flown out of the blocks.

While Stuart will be pleased to have made a smooth transition, the coaching sector is also in a state of flux, with coaches being asked to deliver across a growing number of platforms, to a growing number of people. It is vital they embrace change if Sport England is to deliver on its overarching intention to make the nation healthier.

The Towards an Active Nation strategy will see Sport England triple its investment as it aligns itself with the government’s own Sporting Future strategy, working towards the common aim of tackling sedentary behaviour, investing more in children and young people from the age of five, and encouraging the growth of social inclusion projects that boost participation among under-represented groups, such as disadvantaged and disaffected youngsters, women, the elderly and the disabled.

With the inactivity epidemic costing the UK economy billions every year, the move was inevitable, while the benefits will be invaluable.

Stuart explains to UK Coaching just what all this means for the coaching industry.

Coaches are the driving force

First thing’s first, the definition of a coach is having to be rewritten.

“It needs to be broadened, or, at the very least, what coaching is needs clarifying,” says Stuart. “And aligning that definition with the work I am trying to do with the Coaching Plan for England will certainly form part of my job.

“For me, coaching is about helping people change behaviour. And if you are going to help people change behaviour, say from going inactive to active, or to go from never having thought of getting physically active to being persuaded to do so because of a health scare, for example, then making that kind of behaviour shift carries a high risk of failure without some kind of help.

The role a coach can play, by whatever definition of coach we arrive at, in helping people and driving people on that journey is going to be central to the agenda of any organisation that is looking to try and tackle that sort of challenge.”

That there is an inescapable shift in the way coaching is being provided can be seen by the sharp rise in the volunteer workforce. This trend is set to continue on an upward curve due to more substantial investment being directed into organised ‘get active’ programmes that can demonstrate an impact on society – giving rise to a proliferation of physical activity participation and social inclusion projects.

Such initiatives, whether government backed, peer-led or pioneered by forward-thinking individuals or organisations, has also led to the popularisation of the word ‘activator’.

But that is no reason for coaches brought up on the traditional, narrower definition of coaching (a qualified workforce who work regularly with participants) to be wracked with fear. These roles still exist, it’s just that there are other opportunities being created alongside them. Those who choose to adapt will simply be increasing their options.

Activators and volunteers are still performing a coaching role,” says Stuart. “It’s still part of this broad umbrella that we could call coaching.

The problem is that when most people think of a coach they tend to think of a trainer, or somebody who is there to improve skill from a performance perspective. That’s just one part of coaching. The wider parts of coaching also include helping people become a better version of themselves in whatever domain it is.”


Activity ‘on the go’

For coaches to play their part in accelerating a nationwide shift in behaviour, Sport England needs them to understand and embrace this changing marketplace and be sensitive to people’s motivations for playing sport or being active.

In modern society, where there are ever greater demands on people’s time, exercise must be grabbed in available chunks. Taking part in recreational sporting activity has to join the queue.

This explains the explosion in popularity of gyms and health clubs, which people can visit at their convenience and remain for as long as their diary allows.

But, again, it creates coaching opportunities, with the number of personal trainers and fitness instructors rising on a similar gradient.

Certainly, university coaching graduates looking for a career in coaching should not be worried by the rise of volunteer and unpaid activator roles or the blurring of the definition of a coach.

Nothing will change,” Stuart assures them. “In fact, for them it’s actually even better, as there will be even more roles – they just might be slightly more diverse.

“The hope would be, for example, that in the past if you had graduated with a coaching degree you would probably be looking to enter some sort of governing body pathway, or something along those lines, probably in the sport of your choice.

“That will definitely still exist because there will always be a core market for sport and, even within the new strategy, the core market is still central to where Sport England investment will be directed – because, ultimately, that’s where people end up wanting to play, whether it be recreationally, competitively or to move through the talent pathway.

“The difference is about broadening the availability and access that people have to high-quality coaching experiences. So, from my perspective, if somebody wants to come out with a coaching degree, and perhaps wants to specialise in, for example, tackling inactivity, hopefully there are going to be roles and deployment opportunities for them.”

Participation and retention

I ask Stuart if governing bodies will have to widen their remit too, as they, like every other organisation, will have to link physical activity with improved health outcomes in order to benefit from funding.

Participation programmes that used to be aimed at attracting people to their own sport must now be broadened (there’s that buzz word again) and look to increase physical and mental well-being – which is at the heart of the new strategy – as well as improve social and economic development.

Will governing bodies have to change the way they deliver coaching and their methods of engaging with participants as a result?

“One of the questions Sport England will be asking through the new strategy is, who are the best people to invest in in order to meet that challenge?” explains Stuart. “In the last few cycles, it’s probably fair to say that a lot of that investment went through governing bodies, and that’s probably had a mixed success.

I would say, and certainly with my experiences of working within a few governing bodies, that their focus probably ought to be more on the experience that people have when they go into clubs or enter those environments.”

Stuart would like to see more of an emphasis on developing club coaches to help retain the influx of people entering sports clubs and activity sessions.

Hence the need for good coaches, and plenty of them, as their ability to provide motivation and enjoyment, and, if sought by the participant, advice leading to improved performance, will be vital to the retention process.

At this point in time, just weeks after its launch, there are still a lot of questions that remain unanswered. But Stuart is on the case.

“You touch on something really important for me. And that’s the question of who gets coached, and who will be a high-quality coach in a club? Somebody who is coaching the first team? But actually, the vast majority of participants in the club are recreational or, let’s say, not first-teamers. Who is providing high-quality support for those individuals and diversifying the opportunities for them?

“That is an area in governing bodies that for me really needs some work, meeting the needs of this wider participation audience who have got different wants and different needs.”

Pulling together

There is no quick fix or seamless transition when it comes to getting the nation active. Achieving a nationwide change in behaviour patterns will take time, which is why Sport England have committed five years to the project. As the saying goes, old habits die hard.

Coaches have a crucial part to play in the process and are themselves being asked to adapt and change with the times.

Ultimately, the more attuned coaches are to the strategy’s objectives, the better chance Sport England will have of meeting them.

Related Resources

  • Sport England Ten-Year Strategy: From Great Adversity Comes Great Opportunity

  • Coaching Behaviours

  • Thought leadership article: #UnitingTheMovement


Unlock the secrets of #GreatCoaching


Join our exclusive UK Coaching Club to enjoy 12 months' unlimited access to industry-leading resources, member benefits and offers that will help you transform your coaching.

UK Coaching Team