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Part 3: Coaching Context

Updated: Jun 26

(Series: Coaching: Creating a Practice Environment Where Athletes Will Thrive)

Sports coaching requires specific knowledge about the sport and the many tasks and roles of being a coach. In Canada, the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) oversees courses and certification for coaches. Through these courses, novice and developing coaches learn about their sport and coaching practices to manage a sports program. Coaching involves leading physical training/practice while supporting diverse athlete’s needs. Coaching is complex, and to be effective, a coach needs to apply this knowledge in their specific sporting context—facilities, environment and people. Additionally, creating an environment that allows for social and emotional learning is crucial in supporting athlete development and driving positive changes in athlete behaviours and performance outcomes.

Coach education programs and sport-specific workshops often prioritize measuring and tracking training and performance. In endurance sports, this supports an emphasis on knowledge and practices in exercise physiology and biomechanics. This dominant view informs our coaching practices and resources, such as LTAD documents, yearly periodization planning templates and other tools. A Norwegian research group led by Bjørndal cautioned that this focus on traditional science and coaching practices in high-performance sports ignores or limits the importance of emotions, context, and individual development and, therefore, limits or presents obstacles to collaborative or social learning, in which physical learning is essentially connected.

Dr. Craig Harrison (PhD) of the Athlete Development Project concurs that technical skills (passing, shooting, dribbling) are easy to focus on because you can see and measure them. Further, you can write a practice plan demonstrating a linear progression in teaching these skills. However, emotions and social contexts strongly influence physical learning, athlete development and sustained sports participation. Dr. Harrison refers to  “Invisible Skills”—skills you can’t see or are more challenging to measure. He lists these as curiosity, commitment, and courage.

Therefore, the physical, social and emotional interaction in learning and athlete development is a crucial element in coaching. Coaching expertise requires managing a sports program while effectively supporting athletes’ needs. Physiology is essential to endurance sports performance; however, effective coaches provide space for social learning and creativity in their practice plans.

The Athlete Development Project, Dr. Craig Harrison

In conclusion, I will return to a quote from Dr. Jim Denison, which I shared in the first post of this series. He emphasized, “much of sociocultural research is showing that a long-term, dynamic, multifaceted approach to coaching can empower athletes to think and be fully engaged, which can lead to smarter and more skillful athletes.” He continued, “[We] need to help coaches create practice and training environments that are challenging and empower athletes to take more responsibility for their improvement and hopefully enjoy their sport more” (Graham, 2019). That is to say, when coaches understand the context of their coaching environment and their practices support the development of the “invisible skills,” athletes will learn and perform better.


Coaches, what if there was more space for social learning in your team/group practices? 

  • What NEW things might you learn about the people you coach?

  • How might the athlete's discussion on the ride home or the next day at school be different?

  • How might practice attendance and engagement change?



Bjørndal, C.T., Toering, T., & Gjesdal, S. (2022). Transforming coach education for the 21st century. In K. Petry & de Jong, J. (Eds.), Education in sport and physical activity: Future directions and global perspectives (1st ed.), (pp. 228-237). Routledge.


The Athlete Development Project, Dr. Craig Harrison

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