Coaching an unfamiliar sport

Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU

Twice this week I have had coaches mention the idea of coaching a sport they have never played, including my good friend Mark Carter from the Ministry of Football. Beginner coaches often coach a sport they have never played, as this is how many parents first start coaching. But what would be the effect on an experienced coach if they were to take on a sport they had never played?

Though rare, there are examples of high-level coaches who never played the sport they coached. Cus D’Amato trained heavyweight boxing champions Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson, without ever having fought in the ring himself. For this article we will not be looking at coaching an unfamiliar sport at a high level. Instead, we will look at the effect that coaching an unfamiliar sport would have on an experienced coach. What are the benefits, and how would it help them to coach their main sport better?

Coaching versus instructing

A word of warning before we proceed. If you think that the role of the coach is just to impart knowledge – to instruct – then coaching a sport you don’t know isn’t going to be a good idea. Why? Because without any knowledge of the sport, you won’t have anything to teach, so as a coach you won’t have anything to offer your athletes.

It’s a different story, however, if you see your role as being a coach rather than an instructor. What’s the difference? Rather than imparting knowledge, a coach will try to:

  • raise their players’ level of self-awareness
  • improve their players’ performance
  • develop players that aren’t dependent on the coach in order to perform, and
  • assist their players to construct their own knowledge.

fireBeing a coach is the difference between filling a pail and lighting a fire. Are you trying to fill the player with knowledge, or to light a fire that burns of its own accord? Without knowledge of the sport – the ‘what’ – you can’t add anything to the pail. But by using effective coaching methods – the ‘how’ of coaching – you can pour fuel on the fire that burns within the player, without necessarily knowing a lot about the sport.

Coaching an unfamiliar sport

If you take on a sport you don’t know you will face a steep learning curve. How do you coach a sport while you are gaining the sport-specific knowledge? Quite simply, you don’t. You coach the athletes instead. Help them to learn about the sport by constructing their own knowledge, through asking  them questions and setting problems for the athletes to solve. Rather than teaching athletes to play the sport how it ‘should’ be played, you assist them to raise their awareness and find how to play the sport ‘their’ way. You focus on developing the athlete to play the game, rather than fit the game.

Developing as a coach

blindfolded-manSo how can coaching an unfamiliar sport help you to develop as a coach? Have you ever been without the use of your sight? Maybe you have been blindfolded, or maybe you had to get up in the middle of the night when it was pitch black. What did you notice when you couldn’t use your sight? Your other senses became stronger. After a period of adjustment you could hear better, your sense of touch was enhanced, and you could notice smells you weren’t aware of with the lights on. Without your technical knowledge – your sight – you must instead rely on your coaching skills. By doing so your coaching skills will become sharper.

Benefits of coaching an unfamiliar sport

So what might be some of the benefits of coaching an unfamiliar sport? By coaching an unfamiliar sport you will:

  • focus on the needs of the athletes, rather than what you want to teach them;
  • work harder to raise your athletes awareness, as you don’t have the answers for them;
  • rely on using your coaching skills, (questioning, encouragement and observation), rather than giving instructions;
  • direct your athletes to use their internal feedback, as you are not capable of providing detailed, sport-specific external feedback;
  • grow in confidence as you are being challenged and placed out of your comfort zone;
  • think more about what you are doing, as you cannot just rely on what you have always done;
  • widen your network as you talk to other coaches from the sport to gain ideas; and
  • become a more reflective coach as you are constantly looking to see if what you are doing is working, or if you need to try something else.

Stepping outside your comfort zone to coach an unfamiliar sport takes a lot of guts as a coach. You cannot rely on your knowledge as a source of power if your athletes know more about the sport than you do. Instead, you have to be able to add value through your ability to coach the athletes. You must coach the athletes because you do not have the technical knowledge to impart. By using your coaching skills in a challenging environment you will enhance your coaching ability and become a more confident and competent coach.

What are your thoughts? Have you coached a sport you didn’t know? If so, what impact did it have on your coaching ability? Leave a comment and share your experience.

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