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The Characteristics of Coaching Expertise.

College basketball coaches Don Meyer, Mike Krzyzewski, and Pat Summit sit at the top of the overall wins column for college basketball. Meyer has a record of 923-324, a winning percentage of 74% (Official Website, 2013a); Krzyzewski has a record of 957-297, a winning percentage of 76% (Official Website, 2013b); and Summit has a record of 1098-208, a winning percentage of 84% (Official Website, 2013c). All three of these coaches have seen great success in their programs and many consider them experts in their field. Each of these coaches has similar characteristics that have made them experts, with one of the important characteristics being that they have all coached for over 35 years. This many years of coaching enabled each of them to gain knowledge, develop their philosophy, and use their experiences to teach and master their coaching techniques.

In every sport there are coaches who rise above the rest. Docheff, (2013) wrote about the leadership traits of coaching legends such as James Naismith, Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, and Bill Walsh. These coaches mastered their profession by becoming as efficient as they could be in many areas of teaching, coaching, and leadership. There are many aspects that contribute to being an expert coach, but planning and preparation are certainly vital (Baker, Horton, Robertson-Wilson, & Wall 2003; Wiman, Salmoni, & Hall 2010). These coaches were more precise in how they wanted their practice sessions to go and over time, developed a sense of intuition.

Possessing extensive, specialized knowledge allows expert coaches to draw from their many years of experience and solve problems at a superior level (De Marco & McCullick, 1997). The development of expertise in coaching is a long journey, but in order to gain such a high level of proficiency one has to partake in deliberate practice, thorough planning, and self-evaluation which leads to better problem solving skills and better outcomes for athletes. With this as a background, the rest of this paper will discuss the characteristics of expert coaches and the many attributes that contribute to being an expert coach.

Development of an Expert Coach

Thinking of coaching as a skill that needs to be developed and deliberately practiced allows coaches to breakdown the essence of what they are trying to accomplish. Bell (1997) identified the stages of expertise development as beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Beginners display struggles such as learning the established rules and procedures. They seldom feel any personal control over workplace conditions and may even lack a sense of responsibility for their own actions (Bell, 1997). The more experience one earns, the more one can begin to predict outcomes and log recurring incidents which help them become more efficient when problem solving in the future. As coaches refine their coaching practices, it becomes easier to filter out unnecessary information in typical situations and instead, focus on essential information (Bell, 1997). If a problem does arise, experts are able to address the situation with fluidity, elegance, and ease (Tan, 1997).

Gaining experience and rising to the ranks of an expert only comes with time and deliberate practice. The concept of deliberate practice is that one actively seeks to improve an activity in which they are involved. More specifically, deliberate practice in coaching allows coaches to clearly define a task with the appropriate level of challenge for the specific learner (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). This takes into account the years of development of interpersonal knowledge. Expert coaches are able to effectively communicate with their athletes, which in turn, allows them to explain difficult concepts of sport and sport skills. Some coaches have developed great interpersonal communication skills while others are required to work on those skills. Deliberate practice plays a role in that regard as well. Anyone can increase his or her coaching expertise if the time is invested (Wiman, et, al. 2010).


Expert performance has been defined as consistently superior performance on a set of relevant tasks in a specific field of human activity (Tan, 1997). The characteristics possessed by those who have been able to attain this level of performance vary depending upon the individual context and the activity. Yet, the traits inherent among experts in one field are frequently shared by those characterized as experts in another field. Consequently, the process of developing expertise is applicable to individuals across many different professions and activities.

Within the sporting context, coaching expertise has been characterized as consistent application of integrated professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge to improve athletes' competence, confidence, connection, and character in specific coaching contexts (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). Studies performed on the expertise development process of coaches revealed several commonalities among expert coaches, including involvement in sports as children, working with experienced coaches early in their careers, significant consultation with other expert coaches, and a willingness to learn from experiences as part of a continuing coaching education (Wiman, Salmoni & Hall, 2010).

In essence, extensive past experiences guide the process to becoming an expert coach. In addition, an individual's drive, passion, commitment, open-mindedness, and empathy for athletes are important personal characteristics supporting development.

Coaching Experts

Two unmistakable coaching legends who were, and continue to be, regarded as experts in their fields are Vince Lombardi, former Green Bay Packers football coach, and John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach (Docheff, 2013). Along with Docheff, (2013), De Marco and McCullick (1997) suggested that these two coaches were experts because of the many years of experience they had in their field of work. Additional to the many years' experience, Lombardi and Wooden were not mere experts because of their sole victory or league championship but rather because of their consistent superior performances that their teams had over their many years of coaching (Tan, 1997).

Besides the fact that both Wooden and Lombardi played at high levels of competition, thus accumulating many hours of experience, their previous coaching experience prior to their prominent coaching stints helped them in gaining more subject knowledge, which is said to be the heart of coaching expertise (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). Before reaching their coaching prominence, both Lombardi and Wooden were able to gain valuable experiences and develop their coaching knowledge at various levels as well as with different organizations (DeMarco & McCullick, 1997). The 19 years that Lombardi and 15 years that Wooden experienced at different levels supports the "10 year rule" that Simon and Chase (1973) originated in their study of expertise in chess.

Young coaches everywhere work hard to improve their ability to develop well-trained and highly skilled athletes. Along with the skills and hard work, coaches must be determined with a strong sense of persistence. Baker, Horton, Robertson-Wilson and Wall (2003) suggested that a 10-year commitment to high levels of training is the minimum requirement to reach the expert level. Others have suggested the aforementioned 10,000 hour rule (Simon & Chase, 1973), which simply stated, is deliberately practicing specific skills for 10,000 hours. The belief is that once a person has reached the 10,000 hours of practice, they would have gained enough experience to consider themselves an expert (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). It is still uncertain that expertise is achieved by reaching either of these feats, but it is certain that improvement comes from the commitment and dedication of doing one's best consistently over a period of time. To be clear, the 10-year rule has been clarified by Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer (1993) that it is not just the ten years of training, but more importantly, the quality of those ten years of training along with deliberate practice.

Characteristics of Expert Coaching

When examining what it is that helps individuals excel, one can point to certain characteristics. Like with Lombardi and Wooden, Tan (1997) pointed out, "experts make a significant investment in learning all that they can about their subject, and they often seek out others' views on pertinent topics" (p. 31). Cote and Sedgwick (2003) explained characteristics of expert coaches as: "planning proactively for training and competition, creating a positive training environment, facilitating the athletes' goal setting, building the athletes' confidence, teaching technical and physical skills effectively, recognizing individual differences in the athletes, and establishing positive personal relationships with each athlete" (p. 40). Furthermore, Manross and Templeton (1997) cited six characteristics of expertise as planning thoroughly and completely, focusing on individual student performance, developing automaticity of behavior, giving creative feedback, attaining command of subject matter, and using reflective practices.

In pursuing excellence as a coach, experience has proven more valuable than any other personal trait or specialized skill. Yet, it is this wisdom collected over the course of a coaching career that configures the unique skills of the expert coach. Despite the vast quantity of personal attributes prevalent among expert coaches, research has identified automaticity and relationship building as two integral traits possessed by expert coaches, which distinguishes those who have mastered the art of coaching from everybody else.

Professional Knowledge

Professional knowledge is the knowledge that a coach or teacher brings with him or her from their years of experience and years of study in the field. According to Gladwell (2008), the 10,000 hour rule is currently the most popular theory used in reference of an expertise framework. Gladwell stated, "The emerging picture from studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert--in anything" (p. 40). One reason that these hours and years of experience become so important is because a coach will be able to look back at different situations he or she has faced and learn from the ways they have handled those situations. The less experienced young coaches will have to make decisions based on limited knowledge, reflect upon how the decision works out, and learn from that decision.

The experiences that veteran coaches have accumulated over time will allow them to make quick easy decisions that will be right for their teams. During those many years of experience, veteran coaches will have simply had more opportunities to gain greater subject knowledge. Veteran coaches will have attended more coaching clinics, worked more camps, read more books and articles, and socialized more extensively with other coaches in their field. All of these experiences strengthen coaches' knowledge base, better their coaching style, improve ways for their players to learn techniques and tactics, and strengthen player perform is game situations.

Interpersonal Knowledge

Another important component of coaching expertise is interpersonal knowledge. Gilbert and Trudel (2012) stated, "interpersonal knowledge refers to the ability to connect and communicate with athletes and other stakeholders" (p.21). Coach and player relationships have a huge impact on the success of a program. Players need to know that they can trust the coach and vise versa as trust and mutual respect are of fundamental importance in coaching high achievers (Jones & Spooner, 2006). When coaches give positive feedback to their players, constantly trying to make them better instead of belittling them, the athletes will trust the coach because they know the coach has their best interest in mind. When coaches connect with their players they are able to understand how particular athletes learn and how they handle problems.

Intrapersonal Knowledge

Gilbert and Trudel (2012) stated, "intrapersonal knowledge refers to self-awareness and introspection" (p. 21). According to De Marco and McCullick (1997), "Expert coaches appear to be more aware, analytical, evaluative, and corrective of their performances. Driven by the desire to improve their own coaching practices, expert coaches often watch themselves on game and practice video" (p. 39). Some coaches find a peer coach to observe and critique them in order to get feedback and improve their coaching (D. Carpenter, personal communication, September 2013). Since one of the most important characteristics of expert coaches is the drive to improve oneself and one's coaching skills (De Marco & McCullick, 1997), coaches must continually find growth and improve upon and change techniques in order to continue movement towards the desired level of expertise.

Automaticity: Processing Information Quickly & Efficiently

Expert coaches possess extensive, specialized knowledge that results in their ability to be highly perceptive and superior problem solvers (De Marco & McCullick, 1997). They possess a rare capability to distinguish meaningful and pertinent information from less important information before generating the correct response. Experts make decisions that, at times, appear to defy logic or explanation, but still represent superior solutions to professional problems (Bell, 1997).

This concept of automaticity is a unique skill developed by the most gifted coaches through decades of learning experiences within the profession. As coaches progress and become more proficient, instruction becomes so familiar that their intuition and 'know-how' become prominent. The benefits of automaticity are vast both in scope and value. By making the coaching process 'automatic', expert coaches are able to concentrate on the issues that demand more of their attention (De Marco & McCullick, 1997). Less experienced coaches frequently get distracted from the task at hand because of the lack of routines they have failed to implement (Bell, 1997). Scholars have classified several characteristics that distinguish the expert, including: having greater task-specific knowledge, interpreting greater meaning from available information, storing and accessing information more effectively, and having the ability to make decisions that are more rapid and more appropriate (Baker, Horton, Robertson-Wilson & Wall, 2003). Each of these characteristics is a component of automaticity, signifying its strength as an indicator of coaching expertise.

Building Relationships With Athletes

Knowledge of the sport and coaching experience are undoubtedly crucial components to developing coaching expertise. However, one can possess decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge regarding a sport and still be an average coach. The aforementioned UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is often labeled as the premier coach in the history of sports. Within his famous pyramid of success, Wooden provided 15 blocks representing common characteristics of effective sports coaches. The base of the pyramid is composed of five coaching qualities (love, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and balance) Wooden believed to contribute to positive coach-athlete relationships (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). Studies on coaching expertise have found that many high performance coaches agree that this emphasis on relationship building is the foundation of effective coaching.

Another block of Wooden's pyramid, empathy for athletes, has been established as a characteristic that facilitates coaching development (Wiman, Salmoni & Hall, 2010). Skilled coaches feel a strong personal involvement in, and responsibility for, the successes and failures of their athletes (Bell, 1997). Expert coaches demonstrate personal accountability for player learning problems and believe they do, or should provide the solutions. On the other hand, the apex of Wooden's pyramid consisted of only one block. This block of 'teacher' was the core of Wooden's philosophy and the attribute that defined his coaching expertise the most (Gilbert & Trudel, 2012). Wooden and other successful coaches have recognized the importance of relationship building and embracing their role as teachers. An emphasis on these two characteristics separates the experts from the non-experts, regardless of knowledge and experience.

Planning and Preparation

Expert coaches simply plan and prepare for the known and the unknown more than coaches who are less successful, which is an extremely important factor in coaching. Great teachers create a clear, thorough picture of what they are going to do in a lesson, who they are going to teach, and what is needed in order to teach (Manross & Templeton, 1997). There is only so much time that can be spent practicing during the week so one must make the most of each and every practice. By planning ahead, 'going with the flow' is eliminated, and deliberate practice is experienced. Planning and preparing reduces, and in best cases, eliminates wasted time. Even with a structured plan or agenda adjustments or changes to the plan can easily be made if necessary.

Legendary coach Wooden was a master of planning and preparation. For every practice a schedule was created. It is said that Wooden spent more than an hour preparing for each practice and he precisely planned each detail so players were constantly active either working on drills or shooting free throws (Baker, Horton, Robertson-Wilson, & Wall 2003). Important practice time was never wasted with players standing around while waiting their turn to engage in a team drill.

Experience and Time

Planning and preparing to the best of one's ability will in turn produce better experiences. Planning meticulously and then noticing where parts of the plan need to be adjusted is part of building on experience. Wooden kept notebooks on drills, practices, lectures, and play diagrams (De Marco & McCullick, 1997) that accumulated over the many years that he spent coaching. Throughout his coaching experiences he collected extensive lists of what worked and what did not work.

Imagine a coach planning great practices, drills, and techniques. The next step is fine-tuning all of the plans, drills, and techniques so they (the coaches) are better through the commitment of experience. By doing these things to the best of one's ability, for instance 10,000 hours, it is likely that great success is a possibility.


Young coaches almost always enter the profession eager to push their teams to the limit in order to earn victories. Does getting the victory, however, mean that they are expert coaches? Past experiences, knowledge of the game, relationships with players, and the development of oneself are all contributing factors of making a coach an expert. There are many different areas and levels of expertise but in order to reach the expert level, coaches need to put forth the time and effort to improve their knowledge, their relationships with players, and themselves to get to the desired level. De Marco and McCullick (1997) stated, "Expertise is not something with which someone is born, nor is it something that results from the simple accrual of years on the job. Experience is a necessary prerequisite for developing expertise, but coaches need to learn the lessons from their experience to become better coaches. Regardless of their current level of expertise, all coaches can improve their coaching skills" (p.39-40).

Little evidence has been found to suggest that expertise comes primarily through heredity or as a birthright (Tan, 1997). Thus, expertise is something that can be developed over time. However, it is important to recognize that simply accumulating knowledge and experience isn't alone sufficient to becoming an expert in coaching or any other profession. Gaining experience in the field may be the most important tool in developing coaching expertise, but efficiently applying it is essential. Furthermore, utilization of past experience should not only be limited to X's and O's or practice routines. Rather, it is critical that coaches are also constant learners and pursue the most effective ways to reach their athletes. Much of this is accomplished through building strong relationships and allowing the past experiences of oneself and others to serve as guidance.

In any profession, becoming an expert takes time and hard work. Planning and experience are just the tip of the iceberg in what it takes to become excellent at the coaching profession. Nevertheless, by mastering planning and preparation for practice, drills, and techniques, a novice coach is off to a good start. Then adjusting those things due to good or bad experience, one will definitely be on their way.

The reflection process shown by Lombardi and Wooden during their coaching days, is also described by Tan (1997) in which, "experts objectively and honestly assess and identify their shortcomings and knowledge deficiencies, with a high degree of precision" (p. 33), leads to the belief that experts are often open minded. As described by Wiman, Salmoni and Hall (2010), "the issue of open--mindedness seems rather critical as it can facilitate the coach's learning in a variety of ways (e.g., the coach is willing to learn and willing to accept assistance from others)" (p. 5859). Without the open-mindedness and the thirst for knowledge of Lombardi, Wooden, and other legends, coaches may never reach their prominence. Both coaches had experience in both playing and coaching before hitting their stride, and as Dodds (1994) stated, "expertise demands both experience and effectiveness, but neither alone is sufficient" (p. 162).


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Brad Strand, Ph.D., Professor, Dept. of Health, Nutrition & Exercise Sciences, North Dakota State Univ., Fargo, ND

David Benson, Physical Education Teacher, Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, Fargo, ND

Ronald Buck, Graduate Asst., Dept. of Health, Nutrition, & Exercise Sci., North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

Weston McGill, Graduate Assistant, Mayville State University, Mayville, ND 58257

David Smith, Physical Educ. Teacher & Head Football Coach, Northwood and Hatton Public Schools, Hatton, ND
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Author:Strand, Brad; Benson, David; Buck, Ronald; McGill, Weston; Smith, David
Publication:VAHPERD Journal
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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