Most coaches lean toward one of three coaching styles: the command style, the submissive style, or the cooperative style.

Command Style (The Dictator)

In the command style of coaching, the coach makes all of the decisions. The role of the athlete is to respond to the coach’s commands. The assumption underlying this approach is that because the coach has knowledge and experience, it is the coach’s role to tell the athlete what to do. The athlete’s role is to listen, to absorb, and to comply.

Submissive Style (The Baby-Sitter)

Coaches who adopt the submissive style make as few decisions as possible. It’s a throw-out-the-ball-and-have-a-good-time approach. The coach provides little instruction, provides minimal guidance in organizing activities, and resolves discipline problems only when absolutely necessary. Coaches who adopt this style (1) lack the competence to provide instruction and guidance, (2) are too lazy to meet the demands of their coaching responsibilities, or (3) are very misinformed about what coaching is. The submissive-style coach is merely a baby-sitter and often a poor one at that.

Cooperative Style (The Teacher)

Coaches who select the cooperative style share decision making with their athletes. Although they recognize their responsibility to provide leadership and guide young people toward achieving the objectives set forth, cooperative-style coaches also know that youngsters cannot become responsible adults without learning to make decisions. The challenge of the cooperative style is providing the right balance between directing athletes and letting them direct themselves. That’s why I call it the cooperative style–coaches cooperate with their athletes in sharing decision making.

Coaching Styles Evaluated

Let’s first dismiss the submissive style. It’s not really coaching; it’s baby-sitting. As such, it’s an abdication of your duties as a coach.

The second coaching style–the command style–has been prevalent in the past and continues among some professional, college, and high school coaches. Sometimes inexperienced coaches adopt the command style because it is the one they have seen modeled by their own coaches or others. Some coaches adopt this style because it helps them conceal their doubts about their capabilities. If they don’t permit the athletes to question them, if they can avoid explaining why they coach the way they do, then their inadequacies won’t be uncovered–or so they think!

On the surface the command style appears effective. Good athletic teams need organization. They cannot be run effectively as participant democracies; the team cannot vote on every decision that needs to be made. Indeed, the command style can be effective if winning is the coach’s primary objective, and if its authoritarian nature does not stifle athletes’ motivation. But this risk of stifling motivation is one of the major limitations of the command style. Rather than playing because they are intrinsically motivated, athletes may play for the praise of the coach or to avoid the coach’s wrath. Coaches who use the command style also prevent athletes from fully enjoying the sport. The athletes’ accomplishments are credited to the coach, not the athletes.

Coaches at all levels of sport are increasingly finding the command style less effective with today’s athletes. Coaches are recognizing that the command style alienates all but the highly gifted athlete and that it diminishes their own satisfaction in relating to athletes.

The command style is not compatible with the objective of Athletes First, Winning Second. If your objective is to help young people grow physically, psychologically, and socially through sport; to help athletes learn to make decisions; and to help young people become independent, then the command style is not for you. Even if your foremost objective is to win, the command style is not likely to produce the best performances in your athletes.

Obviously I favor the third coaching style–the cooperative style of coaching. It shares decision making with the athletes and fosters the Athletes First, Winning Second philosophy. Cooperative-style coaches provide the structure and rules that allow athletes to learn to set their own goals and to strive for them.

Some people think that adopting the cooperative style means that you abandon your responsibilities as a coach or let athletes do anything they want. That’s not the case at all! Being a cooperative-style coach does not mean avoiding rules and order. Failing to structure team activities is neglecting a major coaching responsibility.

Instead, as a cooperative-style coach, you face the complex task of deciding how much structure will create the optimum climate for athletes’ development. It’s like handling a wet bar of soap. If you hold it too tightly, it squirts out of your hands (the command style), and if you don’t grasp it firmly enough, it slips away (the submissive style). Firm but gentle pressure (the cooperative style) is needed. The cooperative-style coach gives direction and instruction when needed, but also knows when tolet athletes make decisions and assume responsibility.

You know there is more to being an athlete than just having motor skills. To perform well, athletes must be able to cope with pressure, adapt to changing situations, keep contests in perspective, exhibit discipline, and maintain concentration. These qualities are nurtured routinely by cooperative-style coaches, but seldom by command-style coaches. The cooperative approach places more trust in athletes, which has a positive effect on their self-image. It promotes openness in the relationship between coaches and athletes, and it improves both communication and motivation. Athletes are motivated not by fear of the coach, but by a desire for personal satisfaction. Thus, the cooperative style is almost always more fun for athletes.

There is a price to pay, however, in choosing the cooperative style of coaching. This style requires more skill on your part because choices are seldom absolutely right or wrong. As a cooperative-style coach you must individualize your coaching much more than command-style coaches do. You may at times have to sacrifice winning in the interest of your athletes’ well being. Throughout the remaining chapters of this book you will learn more about how to use the cooperative style.

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