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  • Norman Brook

Developing Independent, Confident & Skilled Athletes

Richard Mayer is a South African athletics coach, runner, athletics statistician and an advocate for the Lydiard approach to running.  He recently asked this question in a running forum:

“I belong to the school of coaching that tends to make the coach redundant – if you guide your athlete well enough over 4 to 5 years, she or he should be able to do it on her/his own and only need your guidance when problems arise – However, where I do believe the coach must monitor and interact with an athlete extensively is in the crucial peaking phase – the business end of the training programme and periodisation cycle- what do other people think?”

This is my response:

One of long term aims of coaching should be to build the athlete’s awareness, their confidence and to enable them to take responsibility for themselves in training and competition. A level of awareness that enables them to make good decisions in training, in competition and in life. The confidence to act independently and to take responsibility for their own actions and resulting performance.

Coaches need over a period of time to transfer control from coach to athlete. Coaching should be athlete centred and designed to meet the needs of an athlete at the time reflecting the stage of development they have reached. The style of coaching adopted by the coach therefore changes over time as the athlete develops increased awareness, confidence and responsibility.

Coaches should want the athletes they coach to become independent thinkers and decision makers and to see their role as coaches change from being that of an instructor to that of an advisor.

The conscious competence learning model helps us think about how athletes progress as they learn and to reflect on how our coaching style should change to meet the changing needs of the athlete.

The conscious competence model has four stages:

Unconscious Incompetent –  At this stage the athlete does not know very much and they have low levels of skill.  A young beginner athlete entering the sport for the first time would most likely be at this stage.

Conscious Incompetent – At this stage the athlete understands what they need to do to perform but has still not developed the skill levels required to be competent.

Conscious Competent – At this stage the understands what they need to do to perform and has developed the skills needed to perform with competence, but they need to make a concentrated effort when doing so.

Unconscious Competent – At this stage the athlete can perform with competence without needing to think to much about it.

As the athlete progresses through these stages of learning the style of coaching they need changes.

  1. The unconscious incompetent athlete needs direction. They need to coach to tell them what to do and to explain why they are doing it. This would apply especially to young beginner athletes who do not know very much about the sport and have yet to develop their skills. Here the coach makes decisions and directs.

  2. The conscious incompetent athlete knows what needs to be done and why they are doing it, but has not yet master the skill. The athlete needs to be coached. Here the coach consults with the athlete helping to develop their awareness, confidence and responsibility, but largely leads on decisions.

  3. The conscious competent athlete knows what to do, why they are doing it and has developed good levels of skill. At this stage they still have to make concentrated effort. Responsibility has moved from the coach to the athlete who now makes the decisions in consultation with the coach who has moved from being a coach to being a mentor.

  4. The unconscious competent athlete has a high level of awareness is confident and takes responsibility for their own participation and performance in training and competition. Responsibility has been delegated down from the coach to the athlete. The athlete will consult with the coach from time to time to seek support or advice.

I would recommend all coaches to read Ken Blanchard’s classic book Leadership and the One Minute Manager.[i] Although this is a business management book, it is also essentially a coaching book that introduces the concept of Situational Leadership, explaining how to coach people at different stages of their development.


Of course, it is important to recognise that a coach may need to change their coaching style in different situations in order to meet the specific needs of an athlete. An athlete you are coaching, for example, may be at the conscious competent stage in terms of skill related drills they use in training. You then as the coach decide to introduce the athlete to a new drill. At the start the coach needs to introduce the new drill by providing direction. As the athlete practices and starts to understand and develop the skill involved in performing the drill they require coaching. Once the athlete masters the drill the coach moves to supporting them.

We need to recognise then that the coach needs to be able to direct, coach, support and delegate and that anyone of these different styles of coaching may be called upon depending on the athletes being coached and their level of competence.

Over time our aim will be to build the awareness and confidence of the athletes we coach and to progress them the stage where they can take responsibility for their training and competition. The point where coach can sit in the background with a smile and recognise a job well done.

[i] Ken Blanchard (2015), Leadership and the One Minute Manager, Harper Collins, New York. IBSN:978-0-00-710341-6

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