18/06/2021- Coach Digest


As part of a series of articles for coaches and members interested in coaching, BF’s Head of Pathways Steve Kemp delves into the literature and research available and discusses the role of the high performance coach.

The High-Performance Coach. What do they look like? What behaviours do they exhibit?

These are two questions often posed to fencing coaches. To explore these questions, it’s worth briefly revisiting theories of learning and development.

Before I get started, I want to set out the context for this article. At a time when we might be on the verge of returning to something more normal, most clubs and coaches, quite rightly, are focused on getting back to their regular sessions. I am there for you and British Fencing will do what it can to advise, guide and support you however we can. This article may or may not be for you. The audience I’m writing this for though is those with aspirations to become coaches of the highest performers on the international stage. However, I hope there’s something in here for all of you.

Readily available literature has multiple theories on learning and how adults learn best. It is important for coaches to understand and recognise the types of learning situations – the “coach’s experience” – and how these relate to the complex and changing environment where coaches work? This can inform the balance of learning and development opportunities in the learning journey of coaches.

Types of Learning Situation

 Mediated(Formal/Non-Formal)  Formal: Coaching awards and qualifications Non-  Formal: Workshops, Seminars and Communities of practice
 Unmediated learning (Informal)  Learning on the job Self-directed reflection
 Internal Learning  Self-reflection – reorganising what you know

Trudel and Gilbert (2013) mapped how the learning situations are linked to the coaching contexts and the development of expertise.

The importance of revisiting learning theory is to recognise the learning situations and how that learning is driven by the coach, and this is driven by their known “self” – their self-awareness and self-management. This will be coupled to their Coaching Philosophy and underpinned by their values and beliefs.

The role of a high-performance coach working with an athlete is the refinement of the athlete performance to meet the demand of the high-performance environment, compared to the pathway coach who is helping develop the athlete to transition into the high-performance environment. To describe the High-Performance Coach; they have high levels of sporting intelligence and exhibit performance leadership, underpinned by knowledge of themselves and their ability to manage successful interpersonal relationships.

The behaviours that they exhibit will include:

1. They are lifelong learners, constantly curious and exploring ways of getting better. They spend significant time learning on the job. They know they are really good at some things and are comfortable that they don’t know everything. They like experts around them and welcome the challenge and insight they bring. They have the confidence to embrace change and let people grow.


2. They are the predictors of the sport in the future. They are agile to impacts such as rule changes. They develop insights on how the game will be played and what the athlete will need to do in the future. To do this they are students of the sport – constantly building their knowledge of the sport, always looking to gain a competitive advantage.


3. They are educators. They understand learning and the learning environment, with the needs to individualise those learning opportunities. That learning is often applied to themselves, using others to challenge their current thinking – sometimes confirming the thinking or causing a change in thinking and behaviour, otherwise known as “new learning”.


4. They are chameleons. They are very self-aware and seem to have an innate ability to read their situation or environment and respond in the most effective way to support and drive high performance. This most likely developed over a number of years of experience of being keen observers who think critically.


5. They are relentless. This underpinned by a clear sense of purpose, coupled with high standards – an ‘all in’ commitment and a desire to win.


6. They are benevolent. Whilst they are driven in the pursuit of excellence, they are compassionate about the athletes, the team that supports them and also themselves. They have a “people first” value and they continually seek to better understand the athletes and how they can be best supported.


Leave No Stone Unturned In The Right Way

The next section will explore what relentless and benevolent means in multi-medal winning coaches.


The relentless drive to find a way to achieve repeated medal success consists of:

1. Unwavering high standards. Mistakes yes, blunders no! Leading by example, they are always thorough and prepared. They know when to raise the level and when certain standards have been achieved. They learn from failure quickly and effectively. They drive a high-performance culture in all that they do.


2. An elevated sense of purpose and duty. They are proud when representing a nation. They know and understand what they did is bigger than them. They understand that whilst the coach will have many chances, the athlete who has given years in pursuit of their dream may only have one chance, which could be lost at any moment.


3. A desire to win. As athletes, they were competitors and quite often for various reasons they have not achieved what they set out to do. They have a sense of underachievement, an atonement to make up for past shortcomings and there is a need to prove themselves and that need drives them.


4. ‘All in’ commitment. A high-performance coach will be 100% mentally and physically present in all they do. They commit heart and soul to high performance whether they are planning and preparing, overseeing training or supporting at competitions. They deliver on all aspects of coaching, rather than cherry-picking the easy or fun parts of the job. They match the ‘all-in’ commitment levels of the multi-medal winning athlete.


5. 20-20 Vision. They have the ability to see into the future and identify what needs to happen to be successful, simplifying complexity to recognise what is important to maximise resources, planning to win and sharing the roadmap. There is a clarity of purpose in the planning for future competitions and events.



The benevolence required to achieve repeated medal success consists of:

1. A people-first approach. The high-performance coach puts the person before the athlete, creating a balance between the right challenges and support, protecting the interest of the athlete’s individual needs whilst maintaining high standards, driving levels of expectation and demand, retaining uncompromising desire for improvement and victory combined with the highest respect for the welfare of the athlete.


2. Seeking to understand. They deeply care for the athlete, having taken the time to truly know the athlete, their hopes, fear, what drives them, and what drives them to push their bodies to the limits and beyond. Continually seeking feedback from the athlete to check and challenge understanding. This coupled with empathy and shared leadership, demonstrably taking into account the athlete views and the other professionals supporting the athlete. When tough decisions are required, the high-performance coach will take into account multiple points of view using understanding, evidence and persuasion over imposition.


3. Tomorrow is another day. Learn from failure with a good level of optimism. Being tough-skinned enough to deal with defeat, arguments and disagreements whilst maintaining emotions and composure, and to be able to put aside personal emotions to support the athlete in times of stress. The ability to forgive and move on where necessary.



All these factors are pulled together into a philosophy, typically humanistic and a set of strong values and beliefs which guide informed decisions, linked to an internal compass.

Like other high performing professions, the high-performing coach resides in a different environment – keeping grounded with a sense of perspective, normality, and a positive work-life balance means that the coach can achieve a level of longevity required to become a multi-medal winning coach.

You can find more articles about coaching in our coach digest here.

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