Is there the evidence to support the efficacy of athlete-centred coaching in individual sports?

I am researching various sports coaching related subjects while studying for my MSc and I will occasionally post an essay to the blog that I hope will be informative. The first is discussing athlete – centred coaching.


This paper aims to provide evidence to support the efficacy of athlete-centred coaching (ACC) for individual sports. In recent years ACC has featured in many research papers (Oslin and Mitchell, 2006; De Souza and Oslin, 2008) and National Governing Bodies (McGuire, 2015) have incorporated the concept into their long-term athlete development programmes but little inquiry has been given for individual sports. In the past many coach education programmes were typically coach-centred, an autocratic, commanding style, with the athlete being reliant on the coach to facilitate performance and learning (Ahlberg, Mallet, and Tinning, 2008; McMahon and Zehntner, 2014). This linear approach sees the athlete follow instructions and have no control of their destiny. This article will attempt to provide evidence how ACC in individual sports provides an approach to coaching that allows the athlete to develop holistically and considers some of the challenges encountered.

The athlete-centred coaching model

Lynn Kidman (2005) has written extensively on the subject and believes that when athletes take ownership of their learning, they increase their opportunities and strengthen their abilities to retain important skills and ideas. This learning allows the athletes to make informed decisions during play and helps them to take a leadership role and ownership which in turn enhances team culture. Light (2017) experienced this with swimmers developing the feel for the water in breaststroke and commented; ‘feel cannot be taught by using direct instruction, coaches typically provide particular experiences through which the swimmers learns by doing and reflecting in action’ (p.91). The coach provided the experience and the swimmers learned to improve mostly at a non-conscious level. This style of coaching does not come without its difficulties, as is shown in Bowles and O’Dwyer (2019) work with Gaelic football players, who struggled at first to adapt to the ACC approach from their previous coach led environment. 

Kidman and Lombardo (2010) identified three areas of practice in their original athlete-centred work: (a)Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) (Bunker and Thorpe, 1982), (b) questions, (c) team culture. TGfU and more recently Tactical Games Model (Griffin et al., 1997), Games Sense (Light, 2013) and Positive Pedagogy (Light, 2017; Light & Harvey, 2019) have become synonymous with ACC. Introducing a games-based approach allows learning to develop in an unconscious way and the attainment of knowledge is greater than through direct knowledge transfer, whereby players develop as intelligent performers (Mallett, 2004). The ACC model actively shapes learning not only by questions where performance is analysed, new concepts discussed and created, which can be put into practice in the future but through demonstrations and self-reflection. Light and Fawns (2003) gave an example of a grade 5 girls basketball games session where the teacher created a game to highlight ‘keeping possession’ and the students developed much of their understanding of this skill through interaction in the game and the regular discussions they had with the teacher. The students are unconsciously developing skills and overall game awareness by participating in this games-based approach.

The concept of what a person can do with help versus what they can do without help have been discussed by Vygotsky (1978) and Lave and Wenger (1991) who both suggest that teaching and learning are both collectively situated in complex social cultural environments. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what they can achieve with the guidance from a more knowledgeable other. In simple terms; ‘what a child is able to do in collaboration today, they will be able to do independently tomorrow’ (Jones et al., 2018, p.3). Lave and Wenger’s situated learning involves the learner actively engaging with their environment and given the opportunity to become peripheral participants in communities of practice. A study of a junior surf lifesaving club (Light, 2006) highlighted how learning occurs through meaningful participation in the practices of the club and the development of the children is situated within a social and physical context. Furthermore the coaches within the study conducted by Vinson and Parker (2019) in their investigation into the extent to which Vygotskian principles of learning and development might be evident within non-linear sports coaching practice ‘strongly aligned themselves with socially, culturally and historically-informed understanding of their athletes and the learning environments which they constructed’ (p.103).  

The majority of ACC research has been conducted in a sport team environment and little has been done within individual sports due to the perception that they are less suitable to a games-based approach due to their focus on technique (Light, 2014; Light and Wallian, 2008). The accounts below are examples of coaches successfully adapting their coaching practice to ACC, including some of the difficulties they and their athletes encountered adopting to this style of coaching.


Swimming is a technique driven discipline where the coaches often dictate how the swim stroke should be implemented, in some cases by physically manipulating the arm movement. Swim coach Magias’s (2018) autoethnographic account of how he was disillusioned by the traditional coach driven approach to swim coaching, described how he utilised ACC principles in helping swimmers develop a powerful pull stroke by developing what Light (2008) refers to as ‘feel for the water’. He shifted his coaching practice away from a position of power and began experimenting with pedagogical behaviors, with the use of convergent questioning. Through the use of games…. ‘let’s pretend the water is frozen ice-cream and we’re inside the kitchen…..I want you to try and scoop as much of this frozen ice cream onto the (glass) wall as possible, seeing how high you can get the ice cream to land’, Magias (2018, p. 167) found the required time to reach competency in the freestyle pull stroke had been reduced. His coaching practice came under the scrutiny of his supervisors as it did not conform with the national curriculum and as can be the case with hierarchical power structures within organisations, new ideas from coaches can be discouraged. 

To swim faster and increase your swim performance, it is essential that a swimmer develops a feel for the water. This cannot be taught using direct instruction and swimmers need to learn through adapting their stroke and ‘experiencing a state of mindfulness as awareness of the body in the present moment and in which the body and its sensations are central to learning’. (Light & Harvey, 2019, p.154). While at Waseda University in Tokyo Light, like Magias conducted a swim session developing the feel for the water in breaststroke. He asked his swimmers to perform two standard drills, the inward scull and outward scull (the two halves of the breastroke pull) and by immobilizing their legs from propelling them forward using flotation devices clamped between their legs, the swimmer became aware and sensitive to the water against their hands, fingers and forearms, to move them forward. As the session progressed, further constraints were implemented, sculling with closed fists and then gradually the swimmers were allowed to open up their hand a finger at a time until they were sculling with both hands fully open again. The result of this was improvement by all the swimmers at the end of the session.  Light provided ‘opportunities for learning through doing, individual and collective reflection upon experience and verbalizing understanding through the structuring of social interaction’ (Light & Harvey, 2019, p.156).

Adopting the ACC approach from an athlete or coach perspective is not always easy especially if transiting from a coach-centred environment. The study by McMahon and Zehntner (2014) highlighted three challenges; (1) The coach-centred culture deeply embedded within the national governing body (Magias, 2018). (2) Having been successful under the coach-centred system, there is a worry of failure when adopting a new coaching approach. (3) Hierarchical power structures that exist within employment systems (Magias, 2018). Change can be painfully slow within organizations and the ‘why change a winning formula’ is often stated when a new approach to coaching is developed.


Efficient running is all about creating a comfortable rhythm, balancing the body and reducing overall energy expenditure to propel yourself over the ground as quickly as possible. Light (2017) focused his attention on helping primary school children understand and improve the use of their arms in beach sprinting by using a holistic and humanistic approach to learn a technique that many would consider requires direct instruction. The children were first asked to run while holding a ball in both hands and asked to reflect on their experience; ‘How did that feel and why do you think that restricted your running so much? (Light, 2017, p.103) This focused their attention on the feeling of running without the drive provided by the arms. The children were then given the opportunity to run using their arms freely and were asked to describe the difference from when they were constrained with holding a ball and what they had leant from this.  As the session progressed, they were given the opportunity to experiment to find at which magnitude of movement was required by their arm to gain the most propulsion. Questions were again asked; ‘Do you think that bigger arm movements would help you run faster?’ (Light, 2017, p.103). This approach involved providing the children with a series of activities that enabled them to discover the most efficient arm movement to make them run faster through a learning method of reflection and dialogue between each other and coach.

Likewise, in 4 x 100m relay you have a 20m zone in which to exchange the baton in what is a technical and crucial manoeuvre that often predicts the outcome of the race. Light (2017) used an ACC approach on a senior girls’ primary school relay team over a five week period, however, in this instance he used direct instruction for the first session and then allowed the girls to become independent learners through engaging in discussion amongst themselves and the coach, ultimately discussing performance and identifying problems collectively allowing the coach to  retreat to the periphery of the group. Light commented; ‘over five weeks my pedagogy moved from direct instruction to an athlete-centred approach, with all four girls moving from being dependent upon me for instruction to be independent, confident and active learners’ (Light, 2017, p.106).

The holistic and humanistic approach to coaching, where learning is gained by questioning, engagement and reflection takes time to develop (McMahon and Zehntner, 2014; Harvey, 2018). Both these studies, one a team sport and the other an individual sport recognized that the athletes struggled to engage in questioning at first, ‘which lead to a stoney  silence and some athletes saying ‘just tell me, just tell me what to do’ (Harvey, 2018, p.88), however, as confidence grows the willingness to share and reflect becomes easier and thus the learning evolves with the coach taking a less active role.


The objective of this paper was to provide evidence to support the efficacy of ACC for individual sports, using recent research in swimming and running as examples. ACC aims to empower athletes to take responsibility of their learning through engagement, enquiry and dialogue (Light, 2017) and is structured around three pedagogical principles of (1) the design and management of physical learning activities, (2) an emphasis on questioning to stimulate dialogue and thinking, and (3) taking an inquiry-based approach (Light & Harvey, 2019, p.157). There is evidence to suggest that performance and technique is improved with this inquiry led approach (Light, 2017; Magias, 2018; Light & Harvey, 2019), however, although ACC has been widely used in team sports, further research in individual sports is required for better understanding. Coach learning is ongoing and the world is rapidly changing with the advancement of technology and the way people interact with each other through social media. This will ultimately  require the coach to adapt to each new environment; to design and develop activities to challenge and empower his/her students.


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