There are three generally accepted styles of coaching in sports: autocratic, democratic and holistic. Each style has its benefits and drawbacks, and it’s important to understand all three. For each coach, establishing a personal coaching style will require a firm grasp of their own natural tendencies, and it generally involves incorporating elements that work from each of the three major coaching styles.
History of Coaching Study
The three styles of coaching are 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 types of leadership he identified.1
Each style 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 style and being able to adapt your use to given contexts is known as situational leadership and is one of the keys to good coaching.2
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 coach articulates a vision for what needs to be accomplished by the players, and the players are expected to perform. Autocratic coaching is win-focused and typically features inflexible training structures.
This style of coaching 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. It’s also a style 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 And while youth players may require an autocratic approach for raw skill development, it may be damaging in the long-term for younger players to have no input in their training progress, as they may fail to develop a sense of autonomy in their training which could impact their attitudes toward sports moving forward.4
Democratic coaching is exactly what it sounds like. Coaches facilitate decision making and goal setting with input from their athletes instead of dictating to them. This style of coaching is athlete-centered, and the athletes shape their own objectives under a framework outlined by the coach. Democratic coaches give a lot of autonomy to players and teams, who are active collaborators in their own development and direction.
This style is well-suited to individual sports, like tennis or track and field events, where individual athletes have to take a lot of control over their training style. Younger players up to age 14 tend to prefer a democratic coaching style, and studies indicate that this style helps early and young adolescents to develop a sense of their own control over training and prepares them for more autocratic coaching later in life.3
Also known as “laissez-faire” coaching, this style of coaching is founded on the theory that a happy team naturally becomes a successful team. Very little is offered in terms of structured training or positive feedback. Instead, the holistic coach works to create an environment where players feel comfortable exploring and pursuing skills development on their own time and in their own way. The coach does not act as a central authority, and instead allows the team to set their own agenda.5
This style is best suited to mature players, who have already developed the creativity and self-awareness to be self-guided. For the coach, holistic coaching involves a lot of relationship building and the 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?
For most coaches, simply choosing one 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. The skills of coaching are the same skills that inform leadership in professional, academic or military settings and 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 coach should model fairness and good sportsmanship consistently, and should maintain clear lines of communication, even if that communication is one-sided.7
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 you’re moving. Ultimately, the key to good coaching 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, your own personal experiences and your particular worldview.8
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1. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Kurt_Lewin
2. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from forbes.com/sites/elenabajic/2017/01/05/leadership-style-works-for-you/#18cd30ca4e14
3. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5465978/
4. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from assets.ngin.com/attachments/document/0047/4915/CoachingStyles-Guidelines.pdf
5. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from changingminds.org/disciplines/leadership/styles/lewin_style.htm
6. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from coach-logic.com/blog/holistic-coaching/
7. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/10/22/10-skills-of-great-coaches/
8. Retrieved on April 13, 2018, from thesportdigest.com/archive/article/coaches-perspective-coaching-style-and-philosophy