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To enhance our understanding of the practices of successful people, a more comprehensive and nuanced examination of what underpins their successes is imperative; that is, why they behave the way they do. In this chapter, we provide an insight into what we have learned about highly successful elite sport coaches and how this understanding might inform coach recruitment and development. A "logic of person perception" approach to data analysis was used to make sense of the multiple data sets (surveys, interviews) representing multiple layers of a person's psychology. In this research, 14 serial winning coaches (SWC) from 11 countries and 10 sports (128 medals) contributed multiple data sets that were complemented with data from some of their successful athletes. Overall, these SWC were high on conscientiousness and extraversion and low on neuroticism. Their striving content showed they were agentic and approach-oriented. Moreover, their dominant motivational themes were learning and personal growth, achievement, and power. Three key themes emerged from the interview data: vision, people, and environment. A metastory of these SWC portrays them as righteous adventurers with a higher purpose, and as a grounded realist. We conclude with several recommendations for coach developers on the basis of this research.
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Serial Winning Coaches
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Serial Winning Coaches: People, Vision and Environment
Clifford J. Mallett*
The University of Queensland, AUS
Sergio Lara-Bercial
Leeds Beckett University, UK & International Council for Coaching Excellence, UK
Corresponding Author:
Professor Clifford J. Mallett
School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences
The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia. 4072
Email: cmallett@uq.edu.au
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Abstract
To enhance our understanding of the practices of successful people a more comprehensive
and nuanced examination of what underpins their successes is imperative; i.e., why they
behave the way they do. In this chapter, we provide an insight into what we have learned
about highly successful elite sport coaches and how this understanding might inform coach
recruitment and development. A ‘logic of person perception’ approach to data analysis was
used to make sense of the multiple data sets (surveys, interviews) representing multiple
layers of a person’s psychology. In this research, 14 serial winning coaches (SWC) from 11
countries and 10 sports (128 medals) contributed multiple data sets that were
complemented with data from some of their successful athletes. Overall, these SWC were
high on conscientiousness and extraversion and low on neuroticism. Their striving content
showed they were agentic and approach-oriented. Moreover, their dominant motivational
themes were learning and personal growth, achievement, and power. Three key themes
emerged from the interview data: vision, people and environment. A meta-story of these
SWC portrays them as righteous adventurers with a higher purpose, and as a grounded
realist. We conclude with several recommendations for coach developers on the basis of
this research.
Key words: Personality psychology; integrated theorising; high performance coaches
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Introduction
The vocation of Sports Coaching is a relatively new in comparison to say the professions of
medicine, law, and teaching. In the past few decades, the vocation of sports coaching has
continued to develop towards professionalization across the world. Indeed, this progression
towards professionalization is more advanced in some countries compared to others.
However, as an emerging profession, the field of sports coaching has a limited empirical
base to inform this process of professionalization. This limited empirical base is
understandable in light of its recent emergence as an established vocation. Nevertheless, a
key criterion for becoming a profession is an adequate research base (Duffy, Hartley, Bales,
Crespo, Dick, Vardhan, Nordmann, & Curado, 2011). Hence, a key intention of this study was
to contribute in meaningful ways to the empirical base about the development of successful
high performance coaches.
Within the context of high performance sport, coaches are central actors in the
coach-athlete-performance relationship (Cushion, 2010; Lyle, 2002; Mallett, 2010). It is their
responsibility to guide athletes’ performances in the international sporting arena and they
are held accountable to produce winning outcomes (Kristiansen & Roberts, 2010; Mallett &
Côté, 2006). Therefore, they are performers in their own right (Gould, Guinan, Greenleaf, &
Chung, 2002). However, high performance sport coaching (Olympic and professional sports)
is dynamic, complex, and at times characterised by chaos (Purdy & Jones, 2011). Adding to
this complexity, the work of coaches in elite sport has become increasingly more demanding
and complex, reflecting transformations in society and sport itself (Kristiansen & Roberts,
2010; Mallett, 2010). High performance coaches face ever-growing challenges to succeed in
their daily practice due to a number of factors; e.g., increased international competition, the
importance of the stakes relative to the country’s investment in elite sport, the lack of
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adequate resources or the opposite - the appropriate coordination and maximisation of the
abundance of resources available.
The recruitment and development of these coaches of elite athletes and teams is
challenging and typically serendipitous, especially in light of the changing nature of high
performance coaches’ work and the increasing demands placed on them to produce
winning performances in this turbulent and uncertain environment (Mallett, 2010).
Typically, coaches are employed because of their playing success (Gilbert, Côté & Mallett,
2006; Trudel & Gilbert, 2006) and appointed without adequate training (Mallett, Rossi,
Rynne, & Tinning, 2015). It is noteworthy that the recruitment of executives across
professions has also been reported as random and unsystematic (Fernández-Aráoz,
Groysberg, & Nohria, 2009), and at best, rely on subjective preference and trait-based
personality tests (Fernández-Aráoz et al., 2009; Singer, 2005). This ad hoc approach to
recruitment and appointment is most likely the case with high performance coaches in
many countries.
High performance coaches who do not produce winning results often leads to their
sacking throughout or at the end of the competitive season. The sacking of professional
coaches is commonplace and costs sporting organisations significant money (e.g., n=31
sacked Australian Football coaches (=25%) have cost clubs almost $11million AUD in
payouts over the last five years; personal communication David Parkin, Australian Football
League). This example of coach sackings is not confined to Australia but also to other parts
of the world; e.g., England where football coaches have been sacked before the season has
commenced and often after only a few weeks into the competitive season. This high
turnover of high performance coaches has significant implications for player and team
development, organisational growth, and for financial security of sporting clubs. This
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volatility in coach employment is a major issue for the professionalisation of sports
coaching. We argue that there is a lack of a significant quantum of research to inform how
organisations might make better decisions in the identification, recruitment, and
development of high performance coaches. Furthermore, much of the research that has
been conducted does not provide much insight into knowing the coach in any depth;
therefore, this superficial understanding of the coach is limited in making appropriate
decisions to produce successful coach-athlete performance outcomes.
Currently, the identification, recruitment, and development of the next generation
of high performance coaches in many countries are sketchy at best. In the appointment of
executive leaders, personality assessment is often a core feature of the process using
popular tools (e.g., ‘Big Five’ model) that target the broad and decontextualized qualities of
people. However, this broad understanding of people is limited. Contemporary views of
personality suggest that person-based psychology and its assessment should consider a
more comprehensive and integrated portrait. Understanding coaches, as people, requires a
deeper understanding of the person that also includes why they do what they do and how
they make sense of their lived experiences (past, present, and future) in terms of time and
place (McAdams & Pals, 2006). To enhance our understanding of the practices of highly
successful people across various contexts a more comprehensive and nuanced examination
of what underpins their successes is imperative; i.e., why they behave the way they do. In
this chapter, some significant research findings will be revealed and discussed to provide an
insight into what we have learned from these highly successful sport coaches and how this
understanding might inform coach identification, recruitment, and development.
So, what we do know already about successful coaches? Several research studies
have yielded interesting insights into the developmental experiences of successful coaches
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(e.g., Gilbert et al., 2006; Erickson, Côté, & Fraser-Thomas, 2007; Jiménez-Sáiz, Lorenzo-
Calvo, & Ibañez-Godoy, 2008; Nash & Sproule, 2009; Rynne & Mallett, 2012; Werthner &
Trudel, 2006); their most valued characteristics (e.g., Ruiz-Tendero, & Salinero-Martín,
2011); their motivations (e.g., McLean & Mallett, 2012) and perceived needs (e.g., Allen &
Shaw, 2009); how they draw from the knowledge and experience provided by sport
scientists (Reade, Rodgers, & Spriggs, 2008); and their psychological make-up, skills and
coping strategies (e.g., Olusoga, Maynard, Hays & Butt, 2012; Thelwell, Weston, Greenlees,
& Hutchings, 2008). Studies gathering athletes’ interpretations of their coaches’ practices
have also been conducted (e.g., Purdy & Jones, 2011). Specifically, empirical accounts of
coaches’ personalities have typically referred to broad traits or similar constructs (e.g.,
Becker, 2009; Lee, Kim, & Kang, 2013; Nash & Sproule, 2009; Norman & French, 2013;
Olusoga et al., 2012). This research has highlighted some consistent findings (e.g., diligent;
typically played the sport they coached; learn mostly through experience and influenced by
more knowledgeable others; relevance of life histories to how they coach). However, from a
whole person perspective, this focus on broad traits provides an incomplete psychological
portrait of coaches. Methodologically, these studies have typically focused on either the
coach or athlete perspectives and conducted mostly with samples from US, Canada, UK, and
Australia. Furthermore, much of this research has been focused on the ‘what’ of coaching
practice (e.g. behaviours, traits) and provides limited understanding of the person-in-
context. There is a paucity of research that has examined: (a) consistently successful
international coaches from around the world; (b) coach-athlete dyad perspectives; and (c)
an examination of who they are (e.g., meaning making) beyond what they do (attributes,
behaviours).
The notion of a more comprehensive understanding of a person dates back to
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Allport (1937) and his view that in knowing someone we should explore the socially
constructed meanings that people attach to one’s lived experiences and the settings in
which they take place; i.e., to know someone beyond traits is to understand their subjective
identities and how they tell their story that, in turn, provides a more holistic portrait.
There have been recent shifts towards frameworks for person-based psychology that
considers the interplay between the individual and the social (e.g., McAdams & Pals, 2006;
Mischel & Shoda, 2008). These frameworks for developing a coherent understanding of the
person synthesize the dynamic interplay between biological contributions, traits, motives,
and personal stories, within a broader socio-cultural context (McAdams, 1995). This return
to a holistic understanding of a person offers an opportunity for a deeper understanding of
personality development that could be generative for future research in coach
identification, recruitment and development. Embracing an integrative perspective of
coaches’ multi-layered personality is logically aligned with the area of sport leadership and
more broadly within sport and exercise psychology (cf. Coulter, Mallett, Singer, & Gucciardi,
2015).
McAdams Integrated Framework of Personality
Personality is a person’s “unique variation of the general evolutionary design for
human nature, expressed as a developing pattern of dispositional traits, characteristic
adaptations, and integrative life stories complexly and differentially situated in culture”
(McAdams & Pals, 2006, p. 212). In recent times, there has been a return by researchers to
appreciating an understanding of the whole person including contextual, biological, and
experiential factors that were originally foregrounded by Allport (1937) and his
contemporaries. The complementarity of phenomenological experience and normative
assessments is consistent with Allport’s well-known ideographic and nomothetic distinctions
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in studying the person. In the past two decades several theorists (e.g., Mayer, 2005;
McAdams & Pals, 2006; McCrae & Costa, 1997; Mischel & Shoda, 2008) have developed
integrative models that capture the complexities of personality. For example, McAdams
(e.g., 1995; 2013; 2015) developed a meta-theory of personality development that drew
upon both the research fields of developmental and personality psychology, two fields in
which people typically operate in discursive silos with limited dialogue between them
(McAdams, 2015). This integrated framework for understanding the whole person
(psychological self) was expressed in terms of three broad metaphors: The self as social
actor, motivated agent, and autobiographical author. These three interrelated and
increasingly more complex layers of a person permit a deeper understanding of why we do
what we do (McAdams & Cox, 2010). Moreover, these three layers draw upon three
epistemological frames (positivist, critical realist, and phenomenological paradigms) that
represent conceptually different layers of personality (McAdams & Pals, 2006) that enables
an examination of the person-in-context. Typically, these ‘discursive tribes’ (e.g.,
developmental psychology and personality psychology; positivist and constructivist) do not
‘talk’ with each other and subsequently limit the potential of a comprehensive
understanding of people.
Social Actor
From birth we play the role of social actors. Initially, genetics lay the foundation for
people as social actors, whose actions are constantly evaluated by self and others. Indeed,
people are performative in the social interactions of daily life (McAdams, 2013) and these
judgements of social performance are framed relative to others (e.g., self-regulation,
societal norms). Over time, people’s behavioural signature (McAdams, 2013) is
characterised by these broad and partly inherited dispositional traits (McAdams & Olsen,
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2010). These behavioural signatures reflect peoples’ social reputation in specific roles such
as coaching and across contexts. Traits provide a broad and generally stable ‘skeleton’ or
outline for understanding people’s personalities. However, traits are broad and
decontextualized, which limits a deep understanding of people in specific roles such as
coaching (McAdams, 2013). So, when we say we know someone, relying on traits is
insufficient in knowing their deeply held goals and values and how they make sense of the
lived experiences in telling their story about who they are and who they are becoming.
Motivated Agent
White (1965) refers to the age 5-7 shift that highlights a psycho-social transition
from early- to mid-childhood, which has significant implications for personality development
(McAdams, 2015). From this transition, children’s personalities from about 7-9 years
undergo further transformation towards that of a motivated agent (Bandura, 1989; Erikson,
1963; Harter, 2006;, 2013; Piaget, 1970; Sameroff & Haith, 1996). Children’s psycho-social
development during this transformation enables them to choose where and how to invest
their time and effort (McAdams, 2013). Social forces are more influential at this layer of
personality than the social actor’s traits and are expressed in terms of personal goals,
values, ideologies, and cognitive style (McAdams, 2015; Singer, 2005). McAdams (1995) also
refers to this layer of personality as characteristic adaptations, reflecting the influences of
social forces on personality development. Peoples’ motivational and intentional lives, and
how they differ in relation to a wide range of social-cognitive, and developmental
adaptations embedded in time, place, and social role characterize this aspect of personality;
children begin to express what they want to achieve, what they want to avoid, and what
they value in their lives.
Narrative Identity
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Around late adolescence and early adulthood, people become an autobiographical
author (McAdams & Olsen, 2010). In McAdams’s (1995) integrated personality framework,
this third and final layer is concerned with how people makes sense of their past life
experiences and their imagined future in creating a coherent story about themselves. It is
noteworthy that not all stories are coherent within and across all three layers (McAdams,
2015). Nevertheless, this often cohesive, purposeful life narrative and identity builds upon
the foundation of the two previous layers (social actor and motivated agent). In telling their
story, people reflect upon “why the actor does what it does, why the agent wants what it
wants, and who the self was, is, and will be as a developing person in time” (McAdams,
2013, p. 273). Comparatively, social and cultural forces shape the autobiographical author’s
unique story more than the first two layers (McAdams, 2013). “The internalized and
evolving stories reconstruct the past and imagine the future in order to describe how we
have become the people that we are becoming” (McAdams, 2015, p. 270); i.e., a person’s
narrative identity is a first-person account of the author’s subjective understanding of how
he came to be and who he is becoming (McAdams & Pals, 2006).
Purpose of study
The International Council for Coaching Excellence (www.icce.ws) established the
Innovation Group of Lead Agencies in 2011. This group brings together a number of leading
coaching organisations from all over the world with the purpose of advancing coach
education and development in a number of key priority areas. High Performance (HP)
coaching is one of those areas. The HP Sub-Committee, led by ICCE President Mr John Bales
(Canada), recognised these challenges and agreed to initiate a research project entitled
‘Serial Winning Coaches’ (SWC). The SWC project aimed to study those coaches who have,
repeatedly and over a sustained period of time, coached teams and athletes to gold medals
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at the highest level of competition such as the Olympic Games or the World Championships.
Therefore, the purpose of the research study was to profile SWC in order to facilitate the
identification, recruitment and development of high potential HP coaches in the future, as
well as better support the further development of HP coaches already working in elite sport.
Essentially, they were interested in what can we learn from consistently successful high
performance sport coaches? Therefore, the primary aim of this study was to examine some
of the world’s most successful international coaches using McAdams’ integrated personality
framework. Specifically, we sought to investigate the personality of these serial winning
coaches from a whole person perspective using different ways of knowing that reflect each
of McAdams’ three personality layers. This unique way of investigating these coaches will
enable us to learn more about how these serial winning coaches typically behave, why they
behave the way they do, and how they make sense of their life experiences that informs
their unique identities. In reviewing all data sets we seek to identify a meta-story that
captures the essence of who these coaches are, their goals, values, and how these
understandings shape their narrative identities.
Method
A key aim of this research is to identify some common qualities and understandings
of their personality but also to identify some unique stories about these highly successful
high performance coaches that will be informative to coach developers. Hence, the search is
not for a magic recipe or ideal profile’ but to contribute in meaningful ways to an
empirical base to inform policy and practice in coach identification, recruitment, and
development.
Methodology
Idiographic and nomothetic research approaches can provide complementary information
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about understanding both the uniqueness of these individual coaches and then collectively
as a unique cohort. However, the discussion of each of these coaches as unique people is
beyond the scope of this chapter; therefore, the focus of this chapter is to use a nomothetic
approach to search for some common elements. Nevertheless, we are mindful of some
potential variation within this group; indeed, there is most likely ‘outliers’ amongst the
group of ‘outliers’. From these various case studies of SWC we collected multiple data sets
to enhance understanding of a highly successful coaches (intrinsic) and to also facilitate
understanding of people who are consistently successful in the international arena
(instrumental) (Stake, 1994). This study was designed and conducted across several research
paradigms. The use of questionnaires (traits and strivings) and a semi-structured interview
embraced an eclectic mix of positivist, critical realist, and phenomenological paradigms that
matched the conceptually distinctive layers of personality (McAdams & Pals, 2006). The
integration of data from these multiple case studies enabled the identification of common
traits and strivings but also the creation of a meta-story that captured the core themes from
the semi-structured interviews.
Participants
A purposive sample of several of the world’s most successful coaches was recruited
for this project. These coaches were recruited through the Innovation Group of Leading
Agencies (IGLA) of the International Council for Coaching Excellence (ICCE). Fourteen SWC,
who amongst them had won 128 gold medals and major trophies, participated in this study.
These ‘outliers among outliers’ had won major international championships with many
athletes/teams and in multiple contexts. In this research, fourteen serial winning coaches
(SWC) from eleven countries (10 sports, including 5 team sports and one combat sport)
contributed to multiple data sets that were complemented with data from some of their
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successful athletes. The criteria for athletes (n=20) were that s/he won a gold medal or title
with coach and worked with that coach in last five years and for a minimum of 2 years. At
least one athlete for ten the 14 coaches participated in the study. The coaches did not know
which athlete participated in the study. The 14 SWC were all male, who were successful
contexts (e.g., coached men and women; different leagues/countries), with an average age
of 55 years (Range = 44-67) and had coached for an average of 25 years (Range = 7-43). All
coaches were married (one re-married) and 13 had children. All but one coach was
university-educated. Eight SWC were ex-internationals and 5 competed at the national level.
All experienced short apprenticeships into high performance sport post playing their sport.
Procedure
Institutional ethics was obtained for this study prior to data collection. The
participant coaches voluntarily agreed to participate in this study. They were purposively
selected (Patton, 2002) because they fulfilled the criteria of repeatedly and over a sustained
period of time, and in different settings, coached teams and athletes to gold medals at the
highest level of competition such as the Olympic Games or the World Championships. The
coach participants completed both measures and were interviewed (Range = 60-180
minutes). The athlete participants completed the observer rater NEO-FFI-3 and participated
in an interview about the coach. Data were transcribed verbatim producing 650 pages of
text (double-spacing). Through the extensive network of contacts available via the
participating organisations, the researchers were able to access a unique sample of SWC
based on the above criteria. Likewise, a total of twenty gold medal or major trophy winners
coached by the SWC were recruited for the study. This was an exclusive and select sample of
consistently successful coaches and their athletes in a study of high performance sport
coaching.
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Measures
The primary aim of this study was to elicit information about the SWC personality
across a number of layers as well as their daily practices, the education and development
routes they took in their journey to success, and the key challenges facing HP coaches in the
future. For this purpose the following methods were employed:
NEO-FFI-3. The NEO Five-Factor inventories (self and observer reports) are
commonly used trait measures within contemporary psychology research (McAdams & Pals,
2006). Specifically, the NEO-FFI-3 (Costa & McCrae, 2010) is a self-report measure that
collects data specific to the first layer of personality self as social actor (McAdams & Pals).
The 60-item NEO-FFI-3 (self and observer reports) assesses the established five-factor model
of personality - openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism
(McCrae & Costa, 1997; McAdams & Pals, 2006). For each item, respondents are asked to
rate the degree to which they agree that the description is true of the coach (self and
observers reports) (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). The NEO-FFI-3 has high
internal consistency (α = .78 .86), sound factor structure, and convergent validity with the
longer 240-item NEO-Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-3; McCrae & Costa, 2007). Earlier
versions of the NEO-FFI have received satisfactory support for its validity, including
convergence with other measures of personality (McCrae & Costa, 1997). The NEO-PI-3,
which is the longer version of the NEO-FFI-3, has been used in sport contexts (e.g., Allen,
Greenlees, & Jones, 2011; Hughes, Case, Stuempfle, & Evans, 2003).
Personal Strivings. This strivings measure (Emmons, 1989) captures information
related to the second layer of McAdams and Pals (2006) integrated framework of
personality motivated agent. Respondents are asked to consider what they typically are
trying to do in everyday behavior. Participants respond to the stem: On a daily basis I
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typically try to….”; for example, “trying to appear knowledgeable”, “trying to avoid
appearing indecisive”. These strivings represent an underlying organization of how
individuals think about their goals. A striving assessment matrix is created on the basis of
respondents considering each striving and rating them along a continuum from 1 (not very)
to 5 (very) on the following: How committed are you this behavior?; How important is this
striving to you?; How likely is it that you will be successful in doing it?; How challenging is
this striving be for you?; How much satisfaction does it bring to you when you achieve it?
Motivational themes can be abstracted from this matrix striving content.
Semi-structured Interview. SWC and the athletes they coach participated in semi-
structured interviews. The semi-structured interview was an attempt to examine the third
layer of McAdams integrated model of personality - autobiographical author. Indeed, the
interviews attempted to explore the personal narratives of these coaches that underpinned
their traits and motives. Through the interviews, we sought to confirm, refute, and enhance
the information provided by the psychometric questionnaires as well as elicit new
information regarding practical examples of their daily behaviours and the strategies they
use to successfully navigate the HP environment. The aim of the interview is to understand
the different ways in which coaches have experienced their lives in and out of sport and
how it might contribute to who they are and how and why they coach. The interviews also
contained specific questions in a number of areas such as the learning and development
opportunities accessed by SWC, the vital steps in their journey to coaching glory and the key
challenges facing HP coaches in the future. In addition, athletes were also asked to identify
the main differences, positive and negative, they saw between the SWC and other coaches
they had worked with in the past or what they understood had been the main changes they
had noticed in the SWC over the years.
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Data Analysis
The data analysis was based on McAdams and Manczak’s (2011) three-phase
sequence termed “logic of person perception” (p. 41). This data analytical approach
integrated findings across the three ‘levels’ of understanding the participants from macro
(broad and decontextualized traits) to micro (personalized life story). Importantly, the data
analysis was concerned with describing and understanding psychological individuality rather
than searching for potential (mal)adaptive functioning. Initially, analysis was performed on
data for the first layer (personality traits), which was followed by analysis of the motives
(second layer). Then an analysis that integrated the findings for the first two layers was
conducted. The next phase of data analysis included an analysis of the third layer (life
narrative), which was subsequently integrated with the first two layers to produce an
assimilated and comprehensive story about the coach (Singer, 2005). Self and observer
scores for personality traits were interpreted for each trait domain and personality style
graphs were plotted following established scoring procedures (Costa & McCrae, 2010). The
authors abstracted key motivational themes (e.g., avoidance/achievement goals) based on
participants’ strivings based on Emmons’ (1989) analytical procedure. The two authors
repeatedly discussed the codes and themes until they reached at least 85% consensus (cf.
Smith, 2000). The authors analysed the data following the principles of thematic analysis
described by Braun and Clarke (2006) to reveal patterns within the data. Owning to its
theoretical freedom, thematic analysis provides a flexible and useful research tool, which
can support researchers in yielding a rich and complex account of data. The authors
followed the six-step approach proposed by Braun and Clarke which included a period of
familiarisation with the data through repeated readings of the data sets; a phase of initial
generation of codes; categorising the general codes into themes; reviewing the themes;
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defining and refining the themes; and the final production of the full report from which this
section of the chapter has been developed (Mallett & Lara-Bercial, unpublished). The
coaches’ and athletes’ interview data were coded separately after which key themes from
both data sets were compared. The broad themes that emerged were similar, yet there
were noteworthy nuances within the themes, which we draw attention in the results and
discussion sections. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that there is always potential for some
confirmatory bias in the analytical process, which the authors were cognizant of and
attempted to minimize (Patton, 2002). Strategies to minimize researcher bias included
multiple readings of the text by both authors, and then the extraction of major themes that
were discussed until consensus was reached.
Results and Discussion
Social Actor - Personality traits
Coach self-reports. When compared to other adult men, the SWC self-reports offer
the following information. The most distinctive features of this serial winning coaching
cohort are this group’s standings on the factors of Conscientiousness (C), Neuroticism (N),
and Extraversion (E) (see Table 1).
Table 2. NEO-FFI-3 Serial Winners’ Scores
Scale
Raw Score
T Score
Range
(N) Neuroticism
12
40
Low
(E) Extraversion
32
58
High
(O) Openness
28
51
Average
(A) Agreeableness
28
46
Average
(C) Conscientiousness
40
63
High
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Observer-reports of coaches (Athletes). Ten of the 14 participant coaches received
observer reports from athletes with whom they were recently successful over the last five
years prior to data collection. Of these ten coaches, four received two athletes’ observer
reports; hence there were 14 athlete observer reports in total.
There were consistencies between the scores and the overall range for the self-
reports and observer reports. This consistency provided some validity to the self-reported
scores of the coaches. Nonetheless, an examination of the scores for N factor showed that
the eight athletes’ averaged scores (four received two athlete reports) reported that the
coaches were less emotionally stable than self-reported. The athletes overall reported the
coaches as average N. In terms of E scores there some variability with five athletes’ scores
reporting their coaches as High. Similarly, five of the ten athletes’ differentially rated their
coaches on Openness some higher and others lower but overall average. Four of the ten
athletes’ scores were inconsistent with the coaches’ scores for A. All four rated their
coaches less agreeable, which meant they were comparatively Low. The most consistent
coach-athlete scores were reported for the Conscientiousness factor. Seven of the ten
athletes’ scores were consistent but the other three athletes’ scores rated their coaches as
more conscientious than coach-reported.
Overall, it is suggested that the coaches self-reported scores were consistent with
their athletes. Nevertheless, the participant athletes perceived their coaches as less
emotionally stable and less agreeable, which warrants some consideration in making sense
of the results of the coaches’ self-reports.
Distinctive Trends in Personality Style. Coach scores for Conscientiousness,
Neuroticism, and Extraversion and their interaction produce a noticeable profile that
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places this cohort as clear optimists (well-being), directed individuals (impulse control), and
go-getters (activity). This combination of personality styles (for well-being, impulse control,
and activity) builds a picture of most coaches within this SWC group that (1) takes life in its
stride, with a positive orientation focused on the future; and (2) has a clear vision of what
each wants and needs to be done in this regard accompanied by a will and zeal to work
and focus hard to reach set targets.
More generally, this cohort is able to deal with stress in an adaptive manner, and
focus on problem-solving solutions and actions instead of dwelling on life’s challenges. They
generally control their anger and frustration if anything, showing an ability to suppress
negative emotions and harness these for their own benefit and pursuits. They display a mix
of creative instincts, enjoy topical discussion with others, and are attracted to educating and
working alongside colleagues. In this socially desirable context, they are confident decision
makers and often see themselves as leaders who can mobilize people. These coaches are
aspiring learners with an on-going thirst for knowledge. Their approach to learning
advocates a collection of individuals who either enjoy the creative nature of problem
solving, or instead, stick to more traditional rules of engagement. Lastly, these coaches are
clear achievement strivers, who channel tiresome efforts into others’ for (1) the selfless
development, growth, and achievements of the athlete, and/or (2) the promotion of their
own personal needs and recognition as a coach.
In providing a foundational structure to these SWC, the broad, comparative and
decontextualized traits (McAdams, 1995) portray an understanding of how they typically
present themselves in the public domain. As a group these coaches present themselves as
conscientious, extraverted, and emotionally stable, which is consistent with some of the
literature (e.g., Olusoga et al., 2012; Thelwell et al., 2008). Nonetheless, traits are limited in
Serial Winning Coaches
20
what they tell us about people. Specifically, we are unclear about people’s motives, goals,
and values that drive their actions. What do they want to achieve and why? To answer these
and related questions, requires a shift to another epistemological lens to examine the
second and third layers of their personality.
Motivated Agent - Strivings
In assessing the SWC personal strivings, the focus was on understanding these
coaches as motivated agents. Specifically, what do they want in their life and how is that
expressed in their coaching practice. These strivings provide some understanding of their
motivational agendas that underpin their coaching behaviors and coaching priorities. A
hierarchical content analysis (Patton, 2002) revealed several key motivational themes from
the strivings, guided by Emmons’ (1989) structure (cf. Singer, 2005). In assessing personal
strivings, the emphasis is on what the coaches are trying to do rather than what are they
like (Traits). McAdams (2015) suggests that the influence of traits on goals is modest, partly
because they represent different layers of personality development. The influence of social
and cultural forces on the motivated agent is much strong compared to dispositional traits
(McAdams, 2015).
Content of Strivings.
Approach versus Avoidance. Overall, the SWC were very much approach-oriented.
Their daily strivings included, “be enthusiastic towards my job”, “be energized”, “have fun”,
“complete tasks and meet deadlines”, “control training intensity”, and to “help athletes with
skills”. These coaches are positive in their outlook and possessed a strong sense of purpose
and overall striving for achievement. Their strivings suggested they were optimistic, sought
opportunities, and were solution and future focused. This strong approach theme correlates
with trait profiles associated with upbeat optimists (low N, high E) and go-getters (high E,
Serial Winning Coaches
21
high C). Bleidorn et al. (2010) suggested that that people high in conscientiousness tend to
be associated with strivings focused on achievement and power. Comparatively, there were
very few avoidance strivings (e.g., to not lose control”, “not be withdrawn”).
Agency versus Communion. From the trait profiles (average A, high C) we did not
know whether the SWC were more driven in helping others (i.e., getting along; McAdams,
2015) or for own needs or self-promotion (i.e., getting ahead; McAdams, 2015). The content
of these strivings provided some insight into the motives and goals of these SWC in terms of
what was the source of their conscientiousness. Overall, the two-thirds of the strivings of
these SWC reflected strong agency (e.g., for self-improvement, learning; “to learn
something new about my job everyday”, “challenge my thinking every day”); however,
there was a commitment to the service of others for a clear purpose (e.g., “be fair”, “do
something good for someone I know and someone I don’t know”) albeit less strong than
agentic strivings. This strong theme of agency correlates with trait profiles associated people
who have clear direction (low N, high C). Perhaps the SWC seek to be the best performers
they can be to enhance athlete/team performance outcomes.
Motivational Themes.
Learning and personal growth. A central motivational theme centred on learning and
personal growth (e.g., “engage, support and learn from support staff”). This personal
growth was considered important for both coach and athlete (e.g., “permanent on-going
education”). Many strivings were focused on self-improvement, which demonstrates the
high degree of agency in becoming the best they could be (e.g., learn something new about
my job every day”; “discover something new”). This strong sense of purpose (e.g., “to
achieve my objectives”) also reflected in their commitment to the service of others (i.e.,
Serial Winning Coaches
22
athletes and support staff; e.g., “promote teamwork”; “support my kids and athletes”); that
is, they were also athlete-centred and realistic (“demand but be supportive”).
Achievement. Another key motivational theme was associated with achievement
(e.g., “perform my potential”; “be successful”). They valued their work as highly important
and challenging and the sense of accomplishment was a driving force (i.e., high levels of
internal motivation). This strong task-focus with clarity of purpose (e.g., “clear daily goals”)
is associated with the drive to be successful. Moreover, this drive for success was driven by
an approach for success rather than avoidance strivings (e.g., “try not to be negative”;
“build confidence daily”). These strivings, which suggest a high degree of confidence in their
method, were consistent with the low-average N and high C.
Power. The third motivational theme that emerged was power the ability to
positively influence others (e.g., “teach something to my children every day”) – also
emerged as a strong motivational theme and consistent with the high E, and average A
(Leader Style of Interactions). Central to this motive for power was the holistic development
of athletes (average A, high C). For example, “have the athletes move one step closer to
their performance” and “build athletes’ confidence daily”. Furthermore, the strivings
reflected the need for personal development (e.g., “balance work and family”; “look after
own health”) to create the best environment for the athletes to thrive (e.g., “be positive
within positive surroundings”).
In summary, these strivings reveal that these coaches are driven by (a) personal
growth and development for self and others; i.e., getting along (McAdams, 2015); (b) to be
highly successful and achieve through thorough planning and contingency plans that
internally fuelled their desire to challenge themselves; and (c) lead through the positive
influence over others (i.e., power); i.e., getting ahead (McAdams, 2015).
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23
Commitment-Investment. These coaches reported a strong commitment to most of
their strivings, which they also considered important. Unsurprisingly, there was a high
degree of personal investment in sport and specifically the development of athletes. These
strivings are consistent with the high scores for conscientiousness and for example, Style of
Learning (high C, low to high O; good students, by-the-bookers) and the need for
achievement.
Ease-Effort. Ratings from the perceived challenge and likelihood of success related to
the stated strivings are related to the theme of ease-effort. The scores for these aspects of
the strivings are consistent with the style of Well-Being (upbeat optimist) and a directed
Style of Impulse Control (low N, high C).
Desirability-Reward. The coaches’ scores for how satisfied they feel when their
strivings are achieved related to the desirability-reward theme. The high scores for
satisfaction and the many strivings related to enhancing performance reflected the strong
drive for success. From the trait profile (high E, average A) they enjoy the company of others
and the ability to lead others to successful outcomes (Style of Interactions).
These SWC are highly motivated for success. Nevertheless, little is known about why
they are driven to improve themselves? Why is it so important for them to be successful?
What does it mean for them to be coaches within the context of their own lives? How do
they make sense of their lived experiences and the person they seek to become; in other
words, what are their narrative identities?
Coach (and Athlete) Narratives
Fourteen serial winning coaches and 17 of their athletes (coached by 10 of the
coaches) participated in semi-structured interviews. The authors and in some cases author-
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24
led trained researchers conducted the interviews in the various countries. Interviews were
audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and where necessary, translated into English. These
were returned to participant coaches for review and editing but they did not request any
changes.
In this section, we provide an overview of the key findings. However, presenting a
thorough and detailed account of each of the themes and sub-themes elicited by the
interviews is beyond the scope of this chapter. After summarising the key themes that
emerged, the authors highlight and discuss, in some depth, a few themes deemed to be of
special significance either because of their novelty; or because they affirm and/or challenge
previous research findings or public opinion of what serial winning coaches are like and do;
or because of the potential impact of these findings in the thinking and practice in how high
performance coaches are recruited, developed, and managed in the future. We use coach
and athlete data to illustrate these key themes.
As previously stated, although the emergent themes and narratives might suggest a
simplistic overview of the coach-athlete-performance relationship, we underscore both the
complexity and diversity of elite coaching experiences and how coaches and athletes made
sense of these events. Identifying a stereotypical serial winning coach is likely impossible;
however, the research has identified some common and also several unique qualities and
practices and the underlying forces that contributed to making these coaches highly
successful. At the request of the IGLA group, the researchers focused on the following broad
questions in the interviews:
1. What are serial winning coaches like (personality traits, values, and beliefs)?
2. What do serial winning coaches do (practices and behaviours)?
3. How did serial winning coaches develop into the coaches they are today?
Serial Winning Coaches
25
What are serial winning coaches like? There were consistencies between data
collected from all three layers of a person: NEO-FFI-3 (Costa & McRae, 2010), the strivings
matrix (Emmons, 1989), and coaches’ and athletes’ interviews. These emergent themes are
presented in Table 2.
Table 2. Comparative analysis (coach vs athlete) of SWC personality traits, values and
beliefs, and key skills
Coach Data Themes
Athlete Data Themes
Personality Traits
SWC described themselves as:
having a very strong work ethic
confident
being thirsty for knowledge
socially competent
endorsing a positive approach to
problem solving
Athletes described their coaches as:
having a very strong work ethic
confident
knowledgeable
socially competent
endorsing a positive approach to
problem solving
Values & Beliefs
(the way the world should be)
SWC believed that:
coaching should be athlete-centred and
holistic
coaches must uphold high moral
standards
sustained success requires an adequate
work-life balance
Athletes thought that their coaches:
were athlete- and team-centred
upheld very high moral standards
valued all involved
had an appropriate work-life balance
Key Skills Required to Succeed
Effective communication
Teaching
Planning
Managing
Decision-Making
Relationship building
Effective communication
Managing
Motivating
Planning
Relationship building
What do serial winning coaches do? The data revealed three key themes about
what serial winning coaches do: vision, people and environment. First, a clearly articulated
vision of what is necessary to win was perceived as central to success. Seeing the ‘big
picture’, understanding its complexity while being able to simplify it into manageable
Serial Winning Coaches
26
components and developing and implementing pertinent strategies to make this vision a
reality was underscored. Monitoring and regulating action plans was pivotal to achieve that
end. Second, the importance of selecting and developing a high performing and cohesive
group of people who exude confidence (including the athletes and the support team) was
reported. This confidence or belief in all actors was framed as the ability of the coach to
instil belief in: me (get all in the programme to believe in the coach); you (develop higher
levels of confidence in athletes and the support team that they could succeed); and us (the
realisation in all involved of the power of the group to achieve more by working together).
Third, SWC created a functional work environment, which facilitated the achievement of
actors’ goals (coach, athlete, and organisation). These SWC developed a high performing
culture, in which everyone understood and bought into the communicated vision and
invested necessary (human and material) resources, to maximise the chances of success.
The congruent data and emergent themes from both coaches and athletes are combined
and presented in Table 3.
Table 3. What serial winning coaches do: Main themes and subthemes
Vision
Developing and enacting a clear philosophy
Ability to see into the future
Capacity to simplify complexity
Thorough action planning
Constant reviewing and adjusting
People
People selection (athletes and staff)
Believe in me (the coach)
Believe in you (the athlete)
Believe in us (the team and organisation)
Managing the High Performance Entourage
Environment
Building the organisation (influencing upwards)
Creating the culture (norms and ways of
working)
Providing stability and dependability
Serial Winning Coaches
27
A detailed discussion of what SWC are like and do is not possible in this chapter.
Nonetheless, in the following section we attempt to consider the findings described above
to offer a tentative explanation of what we believed to be central to success in a high
performance environment as described by these SWC and their athletes. When considered
as a whole, coach and athlete data were consistently pointing in the direction of the
relational nature of high performance coaching as a fundamental factor to success. We will
thus shift the focus to this point and the impact of the nature of the coach-athlete-
performance relationship on performance outcomes.
High performance coaching is highly relational. A large part of the role of the high
performance coach revolves around the management of the performance team, including
but not limited to athletes, other coaches and support staff (Lyle, 2002; Mallett, 2010). We
concluded that it is the ability of the SWC to build and manage a ‘high performing’ coalition
of people that facilitated success. The members of this coalition must have the required
skills to fulfil their roles, the motivation to succeed, and the desire to compromise personal
pride or gain for the benefit of medium- to long-term success (i.e., selflessness). From this
perspective, high performance coaching is clearly relational. It is about people supporting
other people to achieve exceptional outcomes. Two main themes emerge from this parallel
analysis of the data: the role of emotional intelligence as a springboard to a plethora of
positive outcomes; and the evolving shift in the nature of the coach-athlete-performance
team relationship towards a ‘benevolent dictatorship’.
Emotional intelligence as a springboard to management, learning and coping. Chan
and Mallett (2011) underscored the importance of emotional intelligence in successfully
dealing with interpersonal challenges in highly contested sporting environments. The
International Sport Coaching Framework (ICCE, ASOIF & LBU, 2013), based on the work of
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28
Côté and Gilbert (2009) and Gilbert & Côté (2013), proposed that as well as having
appropriate professional knowledge (i.e., of the sciences and the sport), coaches must also
possess interpersonal (i.e., how to connect with people) and intrapersonal (i.e., self-
awareness) knowledge and skills. Moreover, Côté and Gilbert posited that effective
coaching is the consistent and integrated application of these three types of knowledge to
facilitate athletes’ developmental outcomes, including performance. Both coaches and
athletes corroborated these assumptions.
From the high degree of congruence between coach and athlete NEO-FFI data, it was
established that SWC have an enhanced level of self-awareness, a key component and
mediator of emotional intelligence (Chan and Mallett, 2011; Gilbert & Côté, 2013).
Interviewed athletes also reported their coach as having an enhanced level of self-
awareness and emotional intelligence. For instance, an athlete talked about how his coach
“wasn’t always nice, but knew exactly when he was and when he wasn’t and plays whatever
role he thinks is going to get the job done on that day” (Athlete 11). Another female athlete
(Coach 10) openly said that her relationship with her coach and her performance was
hindered:
“until the coach became more self-aware of some of his behaviours and how they
affected us. We were constantly in fear of him and it took us two years to gather the
courage to talk to him about it. He has done a lot of self-reflection since and we
went on to win gold” (Athlete 12).
Coaches reported that high levels of emotional intelligence were necessary to adapt their
behaviour to each individual rather than using a one size fits all to relationship building
and/or conflict management. They also reported that emotional intelligence played a role in
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29
anticipating problems and putting the steps in place to avoid them before they occur (cf.
Olusoga et al., 2012).
Within this context, and as expressed in Athlete 12’s quote above, optimal levels of
self-awareness seem to protect coaches against their own behaviour that unwittingly can
have potentially detrimental effects on athletes’ performance. It is also plausible that
enhanced levels of self-awareness are linked to the ability of this group of coaches to be
effective and efficient learners. Having a clear idea, through introspection and self-
reflection, of one’s own strengths and areas for improvement could provide the impetus
needed to seek ways to fill a gap in knowledge or skill.
As aforementioned, high performance coaching is a social activity in a highly
pressurised context. Long hours, prolonged international trips, close yet hierarchical
relationships with athletes and staff, within a highly contested and at times unpredictable
setting, amongst other factors were identified by SWC as a potential “recipe for disaster”
(Coach 10). The majority of SWC expressed a view that high performance coaching is not a
profession for the faint hearted and that steps need to be taken to ensure that the coach
remains healthy and fit to lead and manage the group. Coach 7 put it this way “I learnt the
hard way. I became very ill and had to drastically change my approach to things, find ways
to switch off and manage pressure better. I am never going there again.” While high
performance coaching can obviously lead to proud and memorable moments in a coach’s
career, it is clear that the mental and physical well-being of the high performance coaches
can be compromised by the very nature of the job. Aspiring high performance coaches
should be made aware of these risks and the antecedents. Increased self-awareness, as
suggested by Longshore (2015), may have potential therapeutic and protective properties to
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30
buffer against the inevitable stresses of high performance sport and help coaches cope
(Olusoga et al., 2012).
The coach as a benevolent dictator. Although coaches and their athletes generally
agreed with the nature of the coach-athlete relationship they emphasised different
elements of the coach-athlete dyad. Coaches viewed their coaching style as collaborative
and facilitative whereas the athletes generally viewed the coaches as a “benevolent
dictator”.
I think the consequences [of tough decisions] are, he feels massive pressure to get
it right and it’s people’s lives. People are there, [athletes] are there giving up their
all of their twenties and some of their thirties because they love [sport], but when
you have to make selection decisions it’s people’s lives. And that’s tough especially
for the Olympics. He’s not a robot with no emotion. He understands that that affects
people, but they’re decisions that have to be made and he makes them in the best
interest of [national sport] and he justifies that, but it’s still tough for him. (Athlete
11)
The athletes acknowledged that while coaches were keen to demonstrate some eagerness
to listen and take athletes’ opinions on board to build a partnership between athlete and
coach, athletes recognised that the final decision was the coach’s and that that was his role.
The term ‘benevolent’ however, indicated that athletes felt the coach had their best interest
at heart the majority of the time (Jowett & Clark-Carter, 2006). Coaches repeatedly stated
that they always tried to put themselves in the shoes of the athlete. This need to show
empathy was something these coaches learned as athletes. Through the interviews, coaches
were mindful that the daily decisions they make affect people. However, coaches stressed
that, while being considerate to athletes and others in the way decisions were made and
Serial Winning Coaches
31
communicated, they were paid to make those decisions and live with the consequences.
These SWC were described as ruthless, yet not heartless decision makers because they
cared about others.
Consequently, SWC are not just transactional leaders, but transformational in how
they conducted their business. This is consistent with previous literature (Chan & Mallett,
2011; Din & Paskevich, 2013; Kellet, 1999). Indeed, sustained success at the highest level of
competition depended on the ability of the coach to transform athletes and teams into self-
driven, self-regulated, and self-reliant actors this agency was identified in the strivings
data. Coaching at this level (it could be argued at any level) is interpreted much more as a
partnership between coach and athlete rather than a dominant hierarchical power-
relationship. This paradigm shift in the way high performance coach-athlete relationships
are construed and function has been reported in the literature (Davis & Jowett, 2014;
Hodge, Henry & Smith, 2014; Mallett, 2005). Nonetheless, this (when appropriate)
collaborative approach to leadership between coach and athlete at the elite level has not
been commonly reported and especially in terms of contributing to successful performance
outcomes. These collective studies provide increasing support for this paradigm shift in
fostering successful coach-athlete-performance relationships. A fundamental part of this
partnership building relies on coaches’ respect for athletes as people:
Yes, and coaching, but not only as a person, but also as a human being. And also some sort of
a manager, because he wants… at some point my management quit, for example, and he
searched for a new management for me, so he wants the best for me and then… of course it is
not part of his job, but he wants… he just does that. I think that is the bond you have or
something, but he is very… yes, how should I say this… he is very involved with you. And
Serial Winning Coaches
32
sometimes more than you know. And he treats everybody of our team like that, so to speak.
(Athlete 7)
Within this context, several athletes identified the persuasive skills of their coaches to build
a collaborative environment, which was characterised by open and transparent
communication, consensus decision-making, and support for athlete initiative in problem
solving. A number of athletes expressed how they had struggled with this idea of
collaboration as they had always worked under more controlling and directive coaches who
told them what to do and when to do it, which problematizes the notion of collaboration or
autonomy-support in decision-making (Mallett, Rabjohns, & Occhino, 2015; Occhino,
Mallett, Rynne, & Carlisle, 2014). Essentially, athletes referred to their coach as someone
who had their best interest at heart, sought consensus, but in the end made decisions some
of which may have been unpopular. Furthermore, athletes accepted that the final decision
rested with their coach but endorsed the shift away from coaches whose practice was ‘my
way or the highway’.
Look, from my own experience, if I was a coach this is what I would do. The more dictator-like
coaches, the reputation of the guys from the Balkans, that kind of coach doesn’t work at all,
they are going to become extinct because sportsmen need to be happy too and enjoy what we
do and what we like doing. When we stop enjoying ourselves, we cannot perform at our best
and you can tell very easily when you go to a session happy because you know you are going
to have a great time, that you are going to have a dynamic session, that you are not going to
have a coach making you run or punishing for just about any silly thing for small stuff… when
you are happy is when you are going to perform better and also improve more. (Athlete 3)
Another key element of the effective coach-athlete collaborative approach was the ability of
the coach to find the appropriate balance between challenge and support to facilitate
growth and development. These data associated with collaboration are related to key
Serial Winning Coaches
33
themes from the strivings data around personal growth and learning as well as power to
influence others. The importance of creating simulated pressure was emphasised; however,
supporting athletes through that process was deemed vital to success. Likewise, eliminating
athletes’ sense of entitlement (e.g. taking staff and fellow athletes, resources and status for
granted) especially in an era where financial support for some athletes is vast and some of
them enjoy celebrity-like status, are daily problems faced by SWC. Coaches also felt that the
current trend in which athletes’ every want is catered for by the coaches, support staff, and
the organisation had the potential to undermine athletes’ agency, independence and
initiative (Mallett, 2005) and to likely produce docile athletes (Denison, 2007). Coaches felt
this docility potentially mitigated against the development of self-reliance, which they
viewed as fundamental to success - we termed this notion athlete grounding.
Furthermore, the belief that athletes should be solely focused on training and
performance and not be ‘bothered’ with potential distractions (e.g., family, friends, study)
was not supported. Coaches stressed the need to understand that athletes “have other
things going on in their lives” (Coach 6) and that providing the time to deal with them can
actually enhance performance rather than take away from it. Athletes generally supported
this view.
The final element of the study related to the developmental pathway of the coaches.
Coaches were asked to describe their journey into and through coaching with special
reference to critical moments and the sources of learning they were able to access.
How did serial winning coaches develop their craft? Two main lines of enquiry were
pursued in relation to how the SWC developed their craft. The first revolved around the
educational pathways of the coaches and the second delved into the most significant events
and milestones in their career.
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34
Coach education pathways and opportunities. Contrary to some previous accounts
(e.g., Trudel, Gilbert & Werthner, 2010), SWC strongly valued formal education, be it
academic or sport-specific, as a platform or foundational stage of learning from where to
grow (e.g., Araya, Bennie, & O'Connor, 2015; Demers, Woodburn, & Savard, 2006; Mallett &
Dickens, 2009). All but one of the SWC were university-educated. Regardless of the
discipline studied (e.g., sport science) they all reported the significant contribution of their
formal education to provide foundational skills to succeed in professional coaching (Allen &
Shaw, 2009). Formal education, especially early on in their careers, provided SWC with
mental models and reference points they could use to attempt to define what their
objectives were and how they would go about achieving them. It also provided ‘thinking
tools’ they could use to interpret events unfolding in front of their eyes. In addition, SWC
emphasised the power of non-formal (e.g., clinics, seminars) and informal learning
opportunities (e.g., dialogue with others or self-reflection). Collectively, these formal, non-
formal, and informal learning opportunities were valued by the SWC, yet their relative
contribution seemed to vary over time and at different stages of their coaching career as
previous research has shown (e.g., Côté, 2006; Mallett, et al., 2009; Mallett, Rynne & Billett,
2014).
SWC viewed themselves as curious and having an insatiable thirst for knowledge
(Valée & Bloom, 2005), which is generally consistent with their trait profile (conscientious
and most with a high degree of openness) and strivings (e.g., agentic, personal growth and
centrality of learning). What underpinned these themes of conscientiousness, personal
growth and learning was the desire to be better and know more (to get ahead). This led
them to seek additional learning opportunities in the guise of coaching clinics and study
visits and were avid readers of electronic and hard copy material, especially early in their
Serial Winning Coaches
35
careers (e.g., Mallett et al., 2014). They also confessed to being avid consumers of their own
sport, watching it as much as they could afford. This on-going obsession to learn as much as
they could was underpinned by their need to prove themselves competent (e.g., Deci &
Ryan, 1985; McLean & Mallett, 2012).
Various forms of informal learning were reported. All coaches identified that direct
engagement in coaching practice was the most influential on their coach development (e.g.,
Allen & Shaw, 2009; Jiménez-Sáiz et al., 2008). Catalysts for learning were the athletes and
other coaches. In particular, the importance of athletes for stimulating learning is a novel
finding. Although this finding makes intuitive sense, the role of athletes in high performance
coach learning has received little attention in the literature (Rynne & Mallett, accepted).
Gilbert and Trudel (2001) reported the significance of issue setting (how issues were
identified and framed) to stimulate reflective practice, albeit with youth coaches.
Nevertheless, the notion that athletes stimulate coach learning is implicit in Gilbert and
Trudel’s notion of issue setting. SWC viewed athletes as invaluable sources of information.
Observing athletes in training and competition striving to find solutions to problems allowed
coaches to think through the same issues and find novel solutions (if not outright copy those
found by the athletes themselves). Engaging athletes in a regular process of consultation
was also viewed as capital to obtaining ‘insider information’ that otherwise would remain
hidden. Coaches and athletes stressed that this was not an easy process as there was a fine
line between athletes liking being consulted and them thinking the coach had run out of
ideas or was directionless. This consultative process was especially so particularly for
athletes more used to didactic and controlling approaches with previous coaches.
Nevertheless, for any learning to take place, a deep level of self-reflection and self-
awareness was deemed necessary (e.g., Werthner & Trudel, 2006). Structured self-
Serial Winning Coaches
36
reflection was not considered essential although necessary when dealing with technical and
tactical debriefs (i.e., formal meetings with staff and players). As an example of
unstructured regular self-reflection Coach 3 said “you never stop thinking about it when you
go home; about the things you could have done better to impact the outcome”. SWC
reported that solitary introspection contributed to regulating coaching practice. This is in
keeping with the earlier theme of self-awareness as a springboard to other positive
outcomes and the striving to influence others in this process.
All SWC stressed how a number of significant others (e.g., mentors, family) had been
very influential in their learning. Mentors were highlighted as one of the greatest influences
on SWC development and importantly they identified the capacity of the ‘developing coach’
to retain decision-making power, even if wrong, was necessary for enhanced growth and
learning (e.g., Bloom et al., 1999). Sometimes, this mentor was just someone they admired
and tried to emulate, but no direct contact was necessary other than observation and
writings of these ‘mentor’ coaches.
In addition, most coaches were former elite athletes themselves (e.g., Côté et al.,
2013; Gilbert et al., 2006). Eight of the fourteen had been international athletes, five had
been national level athletes, and only one had not played his sport at a high level. An elite
playing background was not considered the main reason for elite coaching success but
coaches stressed it had afforded them a frame of reference as both a player as well as a
coach (Rynne, Mallett & Tinning, 2010). It also provided an expedited transition into high
performance coaching (Rynne, 2014). Specifically, this previous elite athlete experience
provided not only credibility with the players and a very practical knowledge of their sport
but a way to better relate to what their athletes were going through (Côté & Gilbert, 2009;
Erickson et al., 2007; Occhino, Mallett & Rynne, 2013; Rynne et al., 2010).
Serial Winning Coaches
37
In sum, the obsessive pursuit of knowledge was central to these coaches’ on-going
success. Their personal agency and meaningful engagement in learning situations guided
learning and growth. This obsessive pursuit of knowing more is consistent with the trait
profiles and striving themes of these coaches. Amongst other things, the following section
will propose an explanation for the SWC’s quest for knowledge and the constant need to
demonstrate competence.
Coach critical life events and milestones. Becoming a high performance coach and
specifically a serial winning high performance coach was characterised by a combination of
four underpinning factors that are worthy of discussion. These included: (a) parental
influences work ethic, lifelong learning, and altruism; (b) early desire to coach; (c) ‘serial
insecurity’ and; and (c) serendipity and risk taking.
First, parental influences were associated with SWC work ethic and practice in
lifelong learning as well as their passion for coaching. The altruistic traits of half the SWC
were attributed to their parents who worked in the ‘helping professions’ (e.g., teaching,
nursing). For instance, Coach 3 stated that, “he had the teaching gene in him”. Moreover,
nine coaches reported how the work ethic exhibited by their parents had had a significant
impact in the way they approached their sport and the subsequent obsessive engagement in
lifelong learning, initiated by a valued university education that was considered essential to
success.
Second, SWC identified both an early desire to coach (from a very early age) and the
recognition by a significant other (a teacher or one of their coaches) that (a) they wanted to
coach, and (b) that there was a ‘special talent’ or disposition for coaching. Coach 4 recalled
how older coaches used to mock him because he was attending coaching clinics while still
playing the sport or how his teammates would come to him for advice instead of going to
Serial Winning Coaches
38
the coach. He also spoke about how his coach would sit down with him and run things past
him. Coach 7 retold the story of how he always felt he was the teacher or coach in the field
and that he brought it upon himself to coach his teammates during games and practices and
that it just felt natural. For the majority of the coaches, their previous elite athlete
experience provided a ‘foot in the door’ to elite coaching opportunities (Erickson et al.,
2007; Rynne, 2014), which they embraced.
Third, the subconscious forces associated with the coaches’ need to constantly prove
themselves were a key driver for their progression. Consistent with the high scores for the
conscientiousness trait in the NEO-FFI and the very strong achievement striving, coaches
and their athletes reported the extremely high work capacity of the serial winners and their
very strong drive to win. Two main factors were identified as underpinning their significant
drive for success: Grounded Self-Belief (coaches’ self-belief based on previous successes and
on how much work has gone into preparing for a specific competition); and Reasonable Self-
Doubt (a nagging feeling at the back of the coaches’ mind that they either were not good
enough to win again or that they still had something to prove). These interrelated factors
seemed to spur the coaches onto continued effort and buffered against potential
complacency. Remarkably, for such an accomplished group of people, and in line with Carter
and Bloom (2009) and Mallett and Coulter (under review), a high number of the SWC
recounted experiences of ‘unfinished business’ as athletes that somehow they had managed
to ‘put right’, or were trying to, as coaches. Painful losses or an overall sense of not having
fulfilled their potential as athletes seemed to have driven the careers of some of these
coaches. These statements point towards a underlying drive for these coaches to
consistently need to prove themselves, a certain level of what we have called ‘serial
Serial Winning Coaches
39
insecurity’, which were significant forces in driving their motivation them to continue to
strive and thrive in the high performance environment.
‘I’d say is I’ve been on a journey that in some ways has been driven a little bit by fear of not
being good enough I want to be great, I don’t know why but I do. I don’t want to be great
last year; I want to be great this year. I was voted ‘coach of the decade’ by [sports magazine]
and that summer I was sitting with my Dad, before I went to the Olympics, and he said ‘what
decade was that again?’ I said ‘it was last decade’ and he said ‘that’s what I’m saying’. (Coach
2)
The SWC’s ‘serial insecurity’ also reflects the very nature of high performance sport in
which coaches’ and athletes’ self-efficacy and perceived competence are put to the test on
a daily basis. SWC expressed that to be able to cope with this constant pressure, developing
‘a thick skin’ and learning to embrace the ‘insecurity’ and allowing it to drive you forward
was vital (Coach 2).
Finally, although most SWC were doing rudimentary ‘coaching work’ prior to
commencing their coaching careers, their foray into formal coaching was typically
serendipitous and opportunistic. For example, Coach 4 spoke of how he received a phone
call while he was about to jump on the team bus as the captain of the national team to go to
the European Championships when he was asked if he wanted to coach a specific senior
team. Put on the spot, the SWC decided to ‘hang up his boots’ there and then and to start
his coaching career as of that moment. For others, their athletic careers were cut short due
to critical life incidents. For instance, Coaches 10 and 13 spoke about road accidents, which
finished their playing career or side lined them for a substantial period of time. It was during
these critical periods that they either started considering a career as a coach or actually
started coaching. Associated with this notion of serendipity was the opportunistic risk-
Serial Winning Coaches
40
taking, considered necessary for coaching development and success. This risk-taking
element was present in most SCW career pathways. These risks included leaving stable
employment, dropping pay or status to become a head coach in a different setting, retiring
early from playing to coach as the opportunity arose, taking a coaching job in a faraway
country just to get started. Some were calculated risks, some were perceived as outright
‘leaps of faith’, but it was apparent that a certain element of serendipity and potential risk,
in addition to their strong work ethic and passion, was a feature of these consistently
successful career coaches. Incidentally, Coach 4 went on to win a national and European
title in his first season as a coach. This is not to say that the coaches had got lucky or had not
worked hard. These coaches were ready, willing and able to take their chance when it came
along: a winning coach is a “predator of opportunity” (Coach 13).
Author Coaches’ Personal Narratives
In general terms, SWC told underlying plots in their stories. For ease of
understanding we provide a generic ‘title’ for two major characterisations and then go on to
offer a rationale and description for both. Every coach is different and to an extent they all
share parts of both narratives. We are solely attempting to generate a coherent story.
The Righteous Avenger. There is a strong sense that many of these coaches are on a
personal crusade of atonement fuelled by perceived past failings that are omnipresent. They
are trying to put right the perceived wrongs of the past. For example, unfulfilled
ambitions as an athlete due to personal shortcomings or critical life-events and a near-
pathological ‘serial insecurity’ drives them to work relentlessly hard to achieve their goals.
However, single Olympic or Championship success does little to feel atonement for past
failings. Even repeated success (winning) does little to stifle their quest for some
redemption. They always need a new adventure to aim for and see themselves as the
Serial Winning Coaches
41
heroes who will save the day. This obsession with their past inadequacies might manifest in
potentially blinding egos, which they need to keep under control to ensure it does thwart
succeeding in their quest. This is a precarious balance, which can only be sustained through
high levels of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and persuasive power (at times
manipulation) to bring the performance team (athletes, coaches and support staff) along
with them on this quest. Nevertheless, these adventurers operate from a moral high ground
and strive to do the right thing for themselves and others. Finally, these coaches understand
that no adventure worth a big reward is risk-free and demonstrate a tendency to take risks
when the opportunity arises in order to achieve their goals. As we have seen some of these
risks can be fairly calculated, while others are outright leaps of faith.
The higher purpose altruist. Coaches fitting this description tended to believe that
their actions where driven by a higher purpose such as the nation’s pride or fulfilling the
dreams of the athletes and their families. They carry out their work with a sense of duty and
responsibility and understand the inevitability of the personal suffering attached to the job
(e.g. lack of family time; stress and pressure; public scrutiny) as part of the package and
something to be proud of. While guided by a strong sense of right and wrong, in pursuing
this higher purpose these coaches exhibit a certain ruthlessness and steely determination to
achieve their goals that may appear as detached or impersonal, particularly when it is
necessary to make a difficult decision. A higher proportion of coaches in our sample would
fit within the adventurer profile than the altruist, and yet the two plots can coexist within
the same coach.
In addition, the researchers found that the two types of SWC shared a common
narrative which we termed the grounded realist. The grounded realist is the part of these
Serial Winning Coaches
42
coaches’ persona that allows them to normalise the exceptional set of circumstances
surrounding the life and work of a high performance coach: a highly pressurised job; public
scrutiny; long hours; time spent away from home; the immediacy and potency of results;
managing a large group under pressure; etc. The grounded realist is able to keep these
factors in perspective and rather than fight them, embrace them, and use them to his
advantage. This coach is also able to find ways to keep doing the normal things and preserve
their life outside the sport (stay in touch with family and friends; hobbies; etc.) as well as
staying in good physical and mental shape in order to being able to do the job to the best of
their ability. All in all, the grounded realist provides the conditions that allow the coach to
continue to perform; in other words, it underpins the longevity of the coach, which is
requisite to become a SWC.
Implications and recommendations for high performance coach recruitment
The premium placed on the identification, recruitment and development of elite
athletes, should be afforded to those charged with the responsibility for delivering athlete
success the high performance coaches. These coaches, should be identified, recruited and
developed appropriately. For some sports, this essential component of sustained high
performance takes the shape of carefully designed succession plans. In most sports,
however, it seems the appointment of high performance coaches remains ad hoc,
unplanned and haphazard. Organisations seeking to develop high performance coaches are
encouraged to design talent identification and development programmes akin to those of
athletes and informed by empirical evidence.
From the perspective of the key stakeholders, an important outcome of this research
was to learn more about what makes these coaches so successful to inform both policy and
practice in the identification, recruitment and development of the next generation of high
Serial Winning Coaches
43
performance coaches. Indeed, these coach developers sought a comprehensive and flexible
profiling system for high performance coaches. The significance of a deeper understanding
of the person behind the coach was a key finding in this research. To assist coach developers
in introducing and implementing such a comprehensive profiling system might require the
support of specially trained psychologists, but could lead to the identification of potential
coaches who have an insatiable drive and who are: athlete-centred; able to create a vision
and communicate that vision; capable of leading and managing large groups of people; life-
long learners; highly resilient and prepared to take risks.
A point of special interest identified by this study is the long term potential of the
coaches and their prospect of longevity in the job. One area of interest is assessing
prospective coaches’ resilience (e.g., thick skin). In addition, those looking to recruit high
performance coaches would be advised to evaluate the coaches ability to maintain an
appropriate work-life balance for self and others in the programme. Being able to do so
allowed SWC to remain fresh and energetic, and to cultivate better relationships with their
families and the athletes themselves. Of course, as Coach 7 indicated when he said that ‘on
average I spend 200 days away from home with my athletes, but I still think I have a pretty
good work-life balance’, that balance is relative and each individual has to find what works
for them. SWC stressed the value of quality time with friends and family, time for self
around some kind of hobby and the importance of remaining in good physical shape. In
profiling prospective coaches, gaining an insight into how they manage this could prove very
useful. It may not be the make or break of hiring a coach, but it may be something that the
employing organisation can support the coach with over time for the benefit of the athletes,
the coach and the organisation itself.
Serial Winning Coaches
44
Implications and recommendations for high performance coach education and
development
From the analysis of the SWC data, the authors would like to put forth the following
recommendations to coach developers:
At the highest level of coaching, a solid educational grounding seemed to matter
for SWC. This is supported by other studies of high performance coaches (Araya et
al., 2015; Mallett et al., 2014; Mallett & Dickens, 2009; Olusoga et al., 2012). SWC
felt that their formal training accelerated the amount of on-the-job learning they
could do. So, although interpreted mostly as a starting point and foundation for the
journey, organisations supporting young high performance coaches should
encourage, facilitate and support engagement in this process of formal education.
In saying that, SWC stated clearly that they were not supportive of ‘token coach
education’ and that formal and non-formal development opportunities should be
carefully thought out and be pitched at the right level for the coach.
Coaching courses should support the acquisition of new knowledge, yet for coach
education to fulfil its role, coaches must be provided with time, opportunities and
support during or in between courses to take stock of current knowledge, digest
new knowledge and look for ways to translate it into practical applications.
Individual and guided self-reflection appears critical for this to happen. By the
admission of the SWC, high performance coaches are never the finished article. In a
way, those developing high performance coaches should make explicit attempts to
connect formal and informal learning in seamless ways. For instance through the
careful design of learning tasks that require the application of a recently acquired
Serial Winning Coaches
45
knowledge base to a specific and real situation the coach is trying to resolve (i.e.,
issue setting; Gilbert & Trudel, 2001).
In connection with the above, coach development should be embedded in the
reality of the job and appropriately supported via a mentor, a ‘more capable’
assistant, peer groups, social networks, and vast amounts of guided and non-
guided self-reflection. SWC strongly supported the value of the mentoring process,
yet stressed that throughout this process, the developing coach should retain
decision-making capability and power in order to develop accountability and
accelerate learning.
In appropriate countries, sports, and specific settings, a ‘coach loan’ system similar
to that of professional team sport players might be generative in coach
development. Emerging high performance coaches would thus be loaned out to
other organisations where the coach could ‘cut his/her teeth’ and learn safely on
the job until they are ready to come back to the institution of origin.
The development of the programme management capabilities of the coach should
be enhanced at every opportunity. SWC invariably reported that the management
of large operations and groups was a key feature of ‘modern’ coaching and that it
would become even more important in the future.
SWC corroborated the suggestion that high levels of emotional intelligence were
pivotal to successful management of elite athletes and programmes (Chan &
Mallett, 2011; Côté & Gilbert, 2009). A first step would be to support coaches in
developing heightened levels of self-awareness. Recently, Longshore (2015) has
demonstrated how mindfulness training, a technique that revolves around the
development of moment-awareness, can improve emotional control, reduce stress,
Serial Winning Coaches
46
and help build better coach-athlete relationships in high performance coaches.
Supporting coaches in understanding what makes them who they are and how they
behave via exercises similar to the strivings questionnaire (Eammons, 1998) or the
lifestory interview may be generative in fostering self-awareness. Likewise,
consistent amounts of guided and non-guided self-reflection will enhance coaches’
self-awareness and their critical thinking ability (always questioning what you and
others do and looking for a better way), which SWC remarked as key to sustained
success.
Finally, as aforementioned, SWC place great emphasis in achieving a relative work-
life balance. Coach education and development for high performance coaches
should devote time and resource to support current and prospective coaches
understand the value of this proposition and develop strategies to fulfil it.
The role of the sport psychologist
Sport psychologists can play a leading role in supporting high performance coaches
and those recruiting and developing them. With regards to recruitment, sport psychologists
are well placed to support a more comprehensive profiling process, recommended earlier,
to promote an effective coach-organisational fit. Along these lines, sport psychologists can
play a significant part in supporting sporting organisations define more clearly who they are,
their philosophy and vision, and the kind of people they need to maximise adaptive
outcomes for all actors within the sporting context.
When high performance coaches are considered (and consider themselves) as
performers in their own right (Gould et al., 2002), it is easy to see the potential role of sport
psychologist in supporting the development of coaches. However, an agentic coach should
drive this coach-sport psychologist partnership. Based on the results of this study we see
Serial Winning Coaches
47
two major areas where sport psychologists can make a contribution. First, sport
psychologists can support coaches to achieve deeper levels of self-awareness. This process
of self-awareness augmentation can lead to coaches gaining a deeper understanding of who
they are, what drives them, and what triggers certain feelings, emotions, reactions and
behaviours. It can also help coaches recognise possible issues earlier and the potential
consequence of different ways of dealing with them before they happen. It may also
improve the ability of the coach to understand athletes better and be able to empathise
with their needs and wants. Positioning coaches as performers is central to coaches
understanding themselves and reflecting upon how they act and subsequently impact on
athletes. An antecedent of leading others is firstly, knowing thyself (Chan & Mallett, 2011).
Enhanced self-awareness has the potential to mediate many positive or adaptive coach and
athlete outcomes: e.g., stress reduction and coping; emotional regulation; higher levels of
emotional intelligence; and increased management capacity.
Second, we have shown how throughout the data collection process, SWC
emphasised the need to achieve an adequate, yet relative, work-life balance. Sport
psychologists can help coaches recognise the need for this balance and then work with
them to support them to find this balance. Given that the SWC tended to believe this is
something they had learnt over the years and, in some cases, the hard way, this may be
especially helpful for young aspiring coaches who may be more inclined to spouse an ‘all-
out’ or ’win or bust’ theory of success.
Guided self-reflection, personal counselling/coaching, rest and regeneration diaries,
and mindfulness training might be just a few of the ways in which sport psychologists can
support the development of high performance coaches. Perhaps working with coaches, in
Serial Winning Coaches
48
preference to athletes, might be more beneficial to the coach-athlete-performance
relationship.
Recommendations for Future Research
On the basis of the findings from this research study, we propose some ideas for future
research. First, more research is required to continue to build an empirical base in knowing
coaches better. This research is important to assist coach developers and sports
psychologists in supporting the learning and development of high performance coaches.
Indeed, improving the quality of coaches will importantly contribute to more than successful
performance outcomes it will contribute to the holistic development of young people,
which is a key purpose of sport (Côté & Gilbert, 2009). Second, we support the
complementarity of ideographic and nomothetic approaches to knowing a person in sport
settings (Coulter et al., 2015). McAdams (1995) three-layered approach to knowing a person
integrates multiple data sets from different epistemological frames that provide a more
comprehensive portrait of people that gives a deeper understanding of people and their
behaviours. These integrated accounts of coaches might be extended to include data from
additional and relevant layers that also shape personality development. For example,
examine the relational dynamics between key actors in the sport setting as well as the
socio-cultural context in which they operate (e.g., ethnographic accounts) to gain a deeper
understanding of the whole person-in-context (Sheldon et al., 2011).
Serial Winning Coaches
49
Acknowledgements
First, we acknowledge Mr John Bales, President of the ICCE, who initiated the idea of the
SWC project. Second, we recognize the support of The Innovation Group of Leading
Agencies of the International Council for Coaching Excellence (ICCE) that commissioned this
study. This group brings together select national coaching agencies from all over the world
to advance coaching in key priority areas. In a few instances, these national leaders
conducted the interviews in their respective countries. We acknowledge the IGLA members
for their contribution: Mr Christoph Dolch (Trainerakademie Köln, Germany); Mr Adrian
Bürgi and Mr Mark Wolff (BASPO Switzerland); Mrs Lorraine Lafreniere (Coaches Association
of Canada); Mr Frederic Sadys (INSEP France); Mr Graham Taylor (UK Sport); Mr Ian Smyth
(Leeds Beckett University); Mr Arjen Von Stoppel (NOC*NSF Netherlands); ???
(Olympiatoppen Norway); Mrs Darlene Harrison (Australian Sport Commission); Mr Chris
Bullen (High Performance Sport New Zealand); and Mrs Desiree Vardhan (SASCOC, South
Africa). Third, we acknowledge the contributions of Doctoral student Tristan Coulter (The
University of Queensland & Queensland University of Technology, Australia) and Professor
Jefferson Singer (Connecticut College, USA) for their introduction to McAdams’ work and
advice on integrating multiple data sets from different epistemological frames in knowing a
person.
Serial Winning Coaches
50
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... Elite sport coaches have been shown to demonstrate a recognizable set of dominant Big 5 traits. Mallett and Lara-Bercial (2016) reported that serial elite winning coaches reported low levels of neuroticism and high levels of conscientiousness and extraversion. These underpinning traits, which were supported by additional reported interactions with athletes, illustrated that elite coaches are clear optimists and directed individuals, with a go-getting approach. ...
... Numerous studies to date have identified that conscientiousness is an important trait for coaches and athletes alike in order for combined and/ or individual success at elite level (Cook et al., 2021;Mallett & Lara-Bercial, 2016;Hardy et al., 2017;Yang et al., 2015). However, it is the functionality of conscientiousness within the coach-athlete relationship that has been identified in this study. ...
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