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What Are Coaching and Sport Instruction?

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Kinesiology 5th Edition With Web Study Guide by Shirl Hoffman & Duane Knudson.

Coaching and sport instruction have a long and storied tradition, extending back as far as the ancient Greeks and Romans. We know, for example, that coaches were hired by early Greek municipalities, and supervised by public officials called gymnasiarchs, for the job of teaching young people how to compete in various forms of athletics. Although held in high esteem, these coaches could be demanding taskmasters. One notable Greek vase depicts a trainer (or coach) flogging two pankratiasts(athletes who performed a vicious form of wrestling popular in the early Olympic Games) for gouging each other in the face while wrestling.


Now, many centuries later, coaches continue to be popular and well regarded, and many continue to have reputations as demanding taskmasters (although none flog their athletes!). Some ply their trade in the anonymous quarters of community gymnasiums and school athletic fields; others work in the glaring spotlight of the collegiate and professional ranks. Some coaches earn very little; others earn millions. Regardless of fame or fortune, coaching and sport instruction can be a fascinating and rewarding career. This chapter helps you determine whether it might be one for you to consider.


Coaching and sport instruction are similar in many ways. Both are performed by professionals who have mastered knowledge about physical activities, as well as the skills and techniques required to transmit that knowledge to other people. Both also require expertise in designing practice experiences that stimulate learning and conditioning experiences to enhance performance.


But coaching and instruction also differ significantly; in particular, they tend to teach people at different skill levels. An instructor’s efforts are usually, though not always, directed toward novices or those lacking a high level of proficiency - for example, young children in a community youth sport development program, middle-aged people in a beginner swimming class at a community pool, and people of all ages who want to improve their swing by consulting a teaching professional at the local driving range.


In contrast, coaches at the high school, college, and professional levels typically direct their planning and efforts toward an already skilled population. Teams at the high school level are composed primarily of students with above-average physical proficiency for their age and gender. College teams tend to be populated by an even more select group culled from the best of the high school teams, and, of course, professional and elite (i.e., international-level) athletes comprise an even more highly skilled group. As the level of competition increases, the pool of eligible performers gets smaller, and the pressure to win typically grows.


Even youth sport programs, whether inadvertently or by design, tend to weed out those who are less gifted in their age groups, leaving a population of relatively skilled youngsters as compared with others of similar age. Sad to say, this phenomenon appears to have become the rule rather than the exception. As a result, kids who are physically less mature are typically eliminated early in the selection process and therefore do not have an equal opportunity to continue with the sport.


Despite these differences, teaching and coaching share many functions. Both involve instructing and interacting with people on a personal basis; in fact, the dictionary definition of coaching is close to that of teaching. For example, both a gymnastics coach and a gymnastics teacher try to impart knowledge, help gymnasts develop skill at certain routines, instill in them a love of the activity, and help them improve their performances. Improvement comes both through practice and conditioning and through explanations, instructions, and feedback (verbal as well as visual, in the form of video replays and demonstrations).


So, how do we determine what distinguishes instruction or teaching from coaching? One good way to address the question is to distinguish between the acts of teaching and coaching and the professions of teaching and coaching. The acts of teaching and coaching may both be designed as attempts to alter the thinking, feelings, or behavior of a particular clientele by systematically exposing them to physical activity experiences, along with appropriate verbal and visual experiences, to bring about predetermined outcomes. Figure 15.1 shows the overlap in the acts of instruction and coaching, as well as their uniqueness; the areas that do not overlap tend to be those directly related to the clients served.


Figure 15.1 The acts of sport coaching and of sport instruction are characterized by considerable overlap.
The acts of sport coaching and of sport instruction are characterized by considerable overlap.


As mentioned earlier, instruction focuses primarily on novices, whereas coaching focuses on more advanced performers. As a consequence, instruction typically focuses on skill development, whereas coaching encompasses skill refinement coupled with learning about tactics (strategy). Coaching is usually directed toward select or advanced populations who, at least to some extent, have already acquired the skills, knowledge, and attitudes essential for performance. Thus, the overriding emphasis for coaches, particularly at higher levels of competition, must be placed on individual and team performance, because success is typically measured by wins and losses. As a result, coaches, especially those in the college and professional ranks, tend to direct much of their effort toward improving skills already learned, rather than teaching new or basic skills, and then meshing that improved technical ability with sport-specific tactics and a high level of muscular fitness, aerobic fitness, or both.


Overall, coaches may spend a disproportionate amount of time motivating and conditioning athletes and refining and retaining acquired skills. Sport instructors, on the other hand, are likely to focus their efforts on helping their clients acquire new skills and learn how to apply them in real-life settings.


But making too fine a distinction between the acts of teaching and coaching is probably not useful because the roles associated with these positions can switch back and forth. Indeed, it is safe to say that most coaches consider themselves to be, first and foremost, teachers; conversely, sport instructors, particularly at the youth level, commonly envision themselves as coaches. Youth sport coaches, for example, spend much of their time teaching children how to perform basic skills; their emphasis is not, and should not be, on who wins the games but rather on maximizing each player’s level of expertise. However, coaching at the high school varsity or college level usually involves more of the unique aspects of coaching identified in figure 15.1.


Sometimes, professional sport instructors serve in a role that we might define as coach-instructor - for example, when they supply instruction on a one-to-one basis to professional golf or tennis players. In fact, some of the more successful golfers regularly visit such instructors (also called teaching professionals or "swing doctors") to correct flaws that have caused their performance to deteriorate. Many professional tennis players include staff in their entourage who perform the same function. Regardless of whether one refers to these individuals as teaching professionals, golf or tennis instructors, or coaches, they play fundamentally different roles - and work in quite different settings - than do coaches of scholastic athletics or college-level athletes or those who supply sport instruction to large groups in municipal recreation settings.


Despite this considerable overlap between the acts of coaching and instruction, the same is not true for the professions of coaching and sport instruction. By profession, we refer to the entire range of duties carried out by a coach or instructor beyond the direct acts of coaching and instruction per se. Instructors and coaches must carry out different professional responsibilities in different occupational subcultures. Figure 15.2 shows the differences and similarities in the instruction and coaching professions. As you can see, the similarities here are considerably fewer than the similarities between the acts of instruction and coaching shown in figure 15.1. There are two major differences:

  1. Instructors tend to spend more of their time involved in on-task duties - that is, in disseminating knowledge and molding students’ behavior. Coaches spend less of their time on this work and more on the off-task duties of recruiting, scouting, reviewing video, planning strategy, addressing compliance (eligibility) issues, scheduling, budgeting, and fundraising.
  2. The nature of the off-task duties also differs between the two jobs. Whereas instructors spend time maintaining records, repairing and maintaining equipment, advertising classes, and (if teaching in an institution) attending to institutional demands, coaches are more likely to become absorbed in the off-task duties described in figure 15.2.


Figure 15.2 Differences and similarities in the coaching and sport instruction professions.
Differences and similarities in the coaching and sport instruction professions.
Based on the study of G.M. DeMarco 1999, "Physical education teachers of the year: Who they are, what they think, say, and do," Teaching Elementary Physical Education 10(2): 11-13.


Key Point

The acts of sport coaching and sport instruction are more similar than distinct; the professions of sport coaching and sport instruction are more distinct than similar.


Clearly, then, in the most fundamental analysis, the act of instruction is essentially the same as the act of coaching. To some extent, all teachers are coaches, and all coaches are teachers. However, when we consider the professional responsibilities of the two roles, we see that the jobs are really quite different. Even when a person plays both roles in the same job - for example, when a school or college physical education teacher also coaches - the demands of the two roles are distinct. Therefore, although we recognize similarities in many of the professional responsibilities of coaches and teachers, we also need to keep in mind that each operates in a distinctly different occupational subculture and requires a unique set of professional knowledge and skills. In addition, the ultimate goals to be achieved are not always identical.

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