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The Good Coach: From Beginner to Expert


We live in a culture of now. More and more things are available at our fingertips instantly. We often expect amazing results after just a few weeks of effort. This quest for quick upgrades is on par with the rest of our speeding culture. Even coaches can fall into the trap of getting frustrated when performance change doesn’t happen quick enough. However, in the world of sport it is important to remember that great performances, or becoming an expert player, require a combination of effort, time and patience. And great coaches and coaching expertise, require the same things.

So what is expertise and how does one get it? Expertise describes a proficiency created through a combination of learned knowledge and practical experience. In coaching, like in any area of knowledge, developing expertise requires time, experience, diligence, and a desire to continue to grow and learn. Ideally, true expertise should be viewed as the lifelong journey of the intentional learner. It should not be viewed an end point or something to be achieved and rested upon. Certifications and degrees are only steps along the way.

The 4 stages in developing expertise, beginning, competent, proficient and expert, were described by researchers Dreyfus and Dreyfus. Everyone starts at the first stage, as a ‘beginner’ in the field. During this stage it is important to identify key areas of emphasis and to determine ways to learn more. Although progress through the stages is very based on the individual, Dr. Herbert Simon, a researcher who spent much of his career exploring expertise, has stated that it takes 10 years of purposeful practice and experiences beyond basic knowledge (the beginning stage) to develop expertise.

How do you know when you have become an expert? In the Practices of Expert Teachers Paul Schempp, Steven Tan, and Bryan McCullick (2002) explain that unique characteristics of expert teachers. In coaching terms these characteristics include a great depth of knowledge in the sciences of coaching and approaching new situations with an understanding and respect for the uniqueness of each athlete instead of a one size fits all response. Additionally, when compared with novices, experts have been found to have better short term memories, be more skilled at self monitoring, and are continual learners.

Expertise is often confused with personal achievement. Often people falsely assume that elite achievement as an athlete automatically translates into expert knowledge. It is important to keep in mind that expertise is the combination of knowledge and knowing what to do with that knowledge. Recently, Alan Castel and his colleagues (2006) explored the ‘dark side’ of expertise. They found that ‘doing’ knowledge often did not translate into the ability to teach or pass on information effectively to other people. Individuals who were successful on a high level typically had automated their skills to such a level that they lost touch with how they learned those skills or the process of building those skills. Their work highlights the importance of understanding not only what needs to be done but also the why’s and how’s for the achievement of true expertise. For coaches, this highlights the importance of learned knowledge and the value of coaching science understanding in addition to valuable practical riding experiences.

Here are a few key ideas to help coaches develop their expertise in their sport. The intentional guided development of personal expertise in coaching not only enhances the work that you do; it also enhances the profession of coaching and raises the bar for others to follow.

  • Start with 15 minutes a day – Set aside a small period of time daily or weekly for learning something new.
  • Soak it up – Attend conferences, meetings, classes and workshops whenever possible. Look for things both directly related to what you do and things just outside your comfort zone. There is something to be learned in everything.
  • Subscribe & Read– Keep up to date with articles, books, and other publications that explain and explore new science related findings that pertain to the art and skill of coaching, the coaching sciences, and, more specifically, to your sport.
  • Seek it out – Don’t wait for new ideas to trickle down to you. Actively look for new information
  • Listen – Listen carefully to the explanations, theories and ideas of others. Seek new perspectives and new ways to see things. You do not have to agree with everything you hear, but you never know what you might learn.
  • Avoid getting in a rut – Don’t just read the same magazine or the same website. Read multiple theories and different opinions. Strive for variety and change.
  • Embrace a mentor – Both new and experienced coaches can benefit from mentor relationships. They help new coaches pull together learned knowledge and experiences and for the more experienced coaches, mentorship is a great way to stay current with the art and science of coaching.
  • Network – Build a network both in and outside of coaching. Build relationships with people from various fields. A peer group can provide camaraderie, a sounding board, new perspectives, and problem solving assistance.
  • When in doubt, ask – Too often it is falsely assumed that being an expert means never having a question. No matter how much you know or how long you have been coaching, there will always be new information and new situations. Questions are valuable learning tools that never go out of style.
  • Be flexible – As you learn, be flexible with your ideas and the ways you do things. Don’t be afraid to try new things and to evolve over time.
  • Evaluate and learn – take time to review not only the success of the training plans you write, but also regularly review the effectiveness of your approach to coaching and your coaching bedside manner. Coaching knowledge does not translate into true expertise unless you are able to effectively share that knowledge.

Castel, A.D., McCabe, D.P., Roediger, H.L. & Heitman, J. L. (in press). The dark side of expertise: Domain-specific memory errors. Psychological Science.
Dreyfus, H.L. & Dreyfus, S.E. (1987). The mistaken psychological assumptions underlying belief in expert systems. In A. Costall & A. Still (Eds.), Cognitive psychology in question (pp. 17-31). New York, NY: US: St Martin's Press, Schempp, P. G., Tan, S. K. S., & McCullick, B. A. (2002). The practices of expert teachers. Teaching and Learning, 23, 99-106.

By Kristen Dieffenbach
West Virginia University

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