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  • Kinjal Suratwala

Emerging Trends in Sports Coaching in the New Millennium

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

In this insightful blog, Kinjal Suratwala, Head - Coach Education and Program Development at Coaching Beyond, dives deep into the trends emerging in sports coaching today. Further, as a participant of the High Performance Coach Development Program (inaugural edition), Kinjal also talks about how it expanded his understanding of a coach mentorship program.

Sports coaching in general, and cricket coaching in particular, has undergone some major changes over the last two decades. This evolution is evident at both the developmental stage as well as with High-Performance coaching. Many of these changes have been triggered by the depth of research being conducted in various domains of sports coaching such as skill acquisition, biomechanics, coaching principles, exercise physiology, nutrition and sport psychology, which has helped shed new light on coaching practices by providing empirical evidence regarding what works and what doesn’t. In the past, most sports coaches (especially in India) had a tendency to coach the way they played and used a methodology and style based on how they were coached by their coaches/mentors.

This generally meant that they relied on personal instinct and handed-down wisdom, which was largely unsupported by credible research. However, as various types of technological tools, gadgets, software, and wearable devices are now easily available, this has changed considerably. Coaches as well as athletes can now rely on hard data and scientifically proven methods to develop their programs. The use of technology to monitor the progress of athletes has become widespread and is contributing substantially to the success of elite and development programs.

My career in sports commenced in 1990 when I started providing sports science support to cricketers in Mumbai. This included being a sports physician, strength and conditioner (then known as Fitness Trainer), nutritionist and even mental skills conditioner. It was a fairly general role catering to all the ‘scientific’ needs of the athlete. Today, a High-Performance sports team and even a quality developmental academy is supported by specialists in each of the different fields. The number of experts forming the support staff of an international team or even a national team competing in a domestic competition is almost as large as the players’ team.

The other major transformation in the field of sports coaching, and perhaps a more significant one, has been the gradual shift from coach-centered to athlete-centered coaching. As discussed during the course, an athlete-centered, coach-led, practitioner-supported (and if I may add, science-informed) approach to coaching is taking firm root at all levels of sports. In fact, the coming years are probably going to see an even greater shift from athlete-centered to person-centered coaching, with a more holistic approach, where the human being behind the athlete will be cared for and developed at athlete development programs.

The focus will shift from coaching the game to coaching the person. This is very useful, especially in a game as popular as cricket in India, where Government sources claim that over 54 million youngsters between the age of 13 and 21 play organized cricket in the country and the success rates (which have not been calculated yet) could be extremely low. Developmental academies would have to focus as much on building sports skills as they would have to on intentional character development. This would include professional character traits such as grit, resilience, and a growth mindset along with personal character traits like empathy, respect and teamwork, which would go a long way in helping athletes transition to life beyond competitive sport.

The athlete-centered approach to coaching is defined by a set of values and behavior that promote learning through ownership, responsibility, initiative and awareness. It encourages the holistic development of the athlete. The needs of the athlete are placed at the Centre of the environment.

This approach seeks to empower the athlete to take their own decisions. A coach-centered approach is when the coach is there to achieve their own objectives, which are often results-based. They use the control, direct instruction, and a win-at-all-costs attitude to achieve this. The athlete- or player-centered approach is achieved by knowing and understanding each individual player and their aspirations. In athlete-centered coaching, the role of the coach is to encourage the player to come up with their own suggestions and decisions (solutions) and to support them in removing any obstacle to their growth and development.

This is a collaborative approach and has a positive effect on the players' motivation. It rejects the idea that coaches should try to gain authority over the player and instead proposes a shared power model. The idea is that a player is likely to be more motivated and empowered if they are allowed to make their own decisions. The third major change that is transforming sports coaching is the shift from a ‘traditional approach’ using coach instructions and drills to more games-based learning. This is based on research in skill acquisition, which has shown that implicit learning is more permanent and withstands pressure compared to explicit learning. A present-day coach is more likely to use questioning, active listening and less instruction-based mode to get their message across.

In short, it is more of a guided discovery method. Blocked practice sessions are giving way to more varied, random and distributed practice sessions. The focus of the coach is shifting from teaching mechanics and motor control to a better game understanding. ‘Let the game be the teacher’ is the new mantra of coaches. A constraints-based approach is being increasingly adopted to master sports skills. This helps the athlete develop other important skills such as decision-making, creativity, problem-solving, and handling pressure, among others, that are so vital to achieving excellence in sport.

For the last two decades, I have been working as a coach educator, wherein I initially worked with the National Cricket Academy, Bangalore, and am now associated with a private organization formed by former Team India coaches, including Ravi Shastri, B. Arun and R. Sridhar, called Coaching Beyond, which is based in Hyderabad and Chennai in India. Coach education, in my opinion, is slowly moving from a more mediated to an unmediated approach. In other words, it is moving from a formal to a more informal method.

While formal accreditation courses are still the bedrock of coach education and help pass on valuable knowledge to aspiring coaches, this type of learning tends to be a bit passive. Here too the faculty lectures are slowly giving way to a more ‘flipped classroom’ style of teaching, making the student an active participant rather than a passive listener. Coaching courses can teach ‘what to coach’ but not ‘how to coach’ and hence the future of coach education will also consist of more opportunities to intern under master coaches, who provide a mentoring relationship, which is so vital for developing coaching skills, mindsets and attitudes.

This in no way means that coaches should be cloned. In fact, quite the contrary. Coaching internship programmes can encourage bespoke learning based on what the trainee coach wants to work on rather than a fixed one-size-fits-all curriculum. During my stint as Head of Coach Education, at the NCA (2008-2014), we established a coaching internship as part of the Elite Coaches Development Pathway, which showed encouraging results. Many of the coaches assigned to work with the national men’s and women’s teams, ‘A’ teams, and junior teams are products of that system. My learnings in the ELMS-Loughborough HPCD course have validated many of my ideas and expanded my understanding of a Coach Mentorship program. Systematic observations by master coaches followed by feedback to the novice coach are now an integral part of our coach internship programs at Coaching Beyond. The use of reflection as an important tool for coach development is another new concept worthy of implementation. Curricula for coach education will emphasize soft skills as vigorously as learning the mechanics of the game.

The coming decade promises to be a very exciting one for sports coaching and coach education. The use of technology, and putting data over instinct is going to be the way forward. Coaches will be adopting management principles from the corporate world much more liberally than ever before and it will indeed be a vital part of any coach development program. Coaches will have to adopt a more collaborative approach while dealing with the millennial generation and go further up the pathway to becoming people-centered coaches who work holistically.

Players’ well-being is also likely to take center stage as the sport becomes more professional. Coaches will have to understand subjects beyond the mechanics and strategies of the sport, especially areas related to physical conditioning, recovery, and most importantly, the mind. Last but not the least, coaches will have to be experts in understanding the functioning of the human brain and nervous system and its contribution to motor skills. The twelve outstanding sessions by the faculty of Loughborough University followed by equally valuable peer learning sessions focusing on the application of those learnings have been vital to gaining a clearer understanding of high-performance coaching today and beyond.

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