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Three Styles of Coaching

November 11
Female players and their coach going through game strategy before soccer match on playing field.

We’ve all seen it and lived through it: From even the earliest years of organized play, some coaches seem to fit better with some athletes than others do. A coach’s appeal and effectiveness can vary from day to day or activity to activity and, especially for young players, that variation can be confusing and frustrating.

Coach congratulates child athlete after performing well in the match.

Fortunately, there’s logic behind it.
The world of sport has three generally accepted styles of coaching: autocratic, democratic and holistic. Each coaching style has benefits, drawbacks, and particular uses. So, it’s important to understand the ethics driving these management approaches.

History of Coaching Study

Tennis coach teaching back swing technique to young child athlete.

Our understanding of autocratic coaching, democratic coaching and holistic coaching is based on leadership studies conducted in the 1930s by Kurt Lewin, a German-American social psychologist and pioneer in the psychological study of group dynamics. His work focused on studying the effects on group cohesion of each of the three leadership styles he identified.1

Each one of these three styles of coaching has been proven effective in its own right, but it’s important to understand the characteristics of each and how they are suitable for different teams, players and contexts. Understanding each coaching style and being able to adapt your use to given contexts is known as situational leadership. It’s one of the keys to good coaching.2

Autocratic Coaching

Autocratic Coaching

Autocratic coaching can best be summed up by the phrase, “My way or the highway.” Autocratic coaches make decisions with little to no input from the player or players. The autocratic coach articulates a vision for what the players need to accomplish, and the players are expected to perform. Autocratic coaching is victory-focused and typically features inflexible training structures.

Sports managers working together with laptop while talking in a sport office.

The autocratic coaching style works better in team sports than individual sports, and there is some evidence that gender plays into how well autocratic coaching is accepted. For instance, studies indicate that female teams respond well to autocratic coaching from a male coach, but less well to the same style from a female coach. The autocratic coaching style is generally preferred by older players than younger players, as older players may have the discernment to understand why they’re being asked to perform certain tasks at certain times.3 Young players may require an autocratic coaching style for raw skill development. It may, however, be damaging in the long-term for younger players to have no input in their training progress: They may fail to develop a sense of autonomy in their training, which could affect their attitudes toward sport as they grow.4

Democratic Coaching

Democratic Coaching

Democratic coaching is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of dictating to their athletes, coaches facilitate decision-making and goal-setting with input from them. The democratic coaching style is athlete-centered, and the athletes shape their own objectives under a framework outlined by the coach. When utilizing democratic coaching, coaches give a lot of autonomy to players and teams, who are active collaborators in their own development and direction.

Swim coach looking at stopwatch to track his athlete's progress.

This coaching style is well-suited to individual sports, like tennis or track and field events, in which individual athletes have to take a lot of control over their training. Players up to age 14 tend to prefer a democratic coaching style. Studies indicate that democratic coaching helps early and young adolescents to develop a sense of control over their own training, and that it prepares them for more autocratic coaching later in life.3

Holistic Coaching

Holistic Coaching

Also known as “laissez-faire” coaching, holistic coaching is founded on the theory that a happy team naturally becomes a successful team. When employing holistic coaching methods, coaches offer very little in terms of structured training or positive feedback. Instead, the holistic coach works to create an environment in which players feel comfortable exploring and pursuing skills development on their own time and in their own way. In a holistic coaching approach, the coach does not act as a central authority, and instead allows the team members to set their own agenda.5

The holistic coaching style is best suited to mature players who have already developed the creativity and self-awareness to be self-guided. Holistic coaching involves a lot of relationship-building and the coach’s commitment to each player as a whole athlete and person. While this requires some extra work, it can pay dividends for experienced teams with the maturity to handle this “hands-off” style of coaching.6

Which Style Is Right?

Coach spending time mentoring a student athlete.

For most coaches, simply choosing one coaching style isn’t an option. Few leaders fall purely into one style of coaching, and personal experience and philosophy shape approaches to coaching, as well. Whether one utilizes autocratic coaching, democratic coaching or holistic coaching, the skills of coaching are the same skills that inform leadership in professional, academic or military settings; they can be organized around a few key principles. A team should finish a season as better players and people than they were at the start of the season. A coach should learn to recognize the difference between effort and results, and between physical and mental mistakes. A good coach models fairness and good sportsmanship consistently, and maintains clear lines of communication, even if that communication is one-sided.7

Regardless of leadership style, coaching can sometimes feel like trying to push a cloud through a doorway: If you push too hard, the cloud dissipates, but if you don’t push hard enough, you lose control of the direction in which you’re moving. Ultimately, the key lies in the enthusiasm for sport and coaching exemplified by the coach. At the base of this is a personal philosophy that takes into account the three styles of coaching—autocratic, democratic and holistic—your own personal experiences and your particular world view.8

Take Your Leadership Style to Expert Levels

Become the leader you aspire to be in KU’s online Master's in Sport Management* program. Our industry-leading faculty and experiential curriculum, enhanced by our uniquely rich sports history, can help carry you beyond the pitch, field or court, and into a new self-made future.

To learn more, reach out to one of our admissions advisors today.

*This program is a Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) degree in health, sport management, and exercise science with an emphasis in sport management.