How to Tailor Your Coaching to Fit the Situation

Great coaches, looking to bring out the best in their athletes, do not usually take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, they tailor their style to the personalities and needs of their athletes.

Situational Leadership is a well-documented leadership model – developed and studied by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey – that takes a similar approach. The principles of this model would guide a coach to match their behaviors to an athlete based on performance needs.

Here is a breakdown of how this can work in the world of youth sports. 

Identifying Performance Issues

Two areas of performance that impact an athlete’s ability to develop and grow in a sport are:

  • Skill level
  • Willingness to work hard

Naturally, athletes will fall along a continuum for both of these issues.

For example, when you consider how likely they are ABLE to perform a skill, you can determine how much instruction is needed. Athletes at the beginning of learning techniques and drills will undoubtedly need a higher level of teaching and direction than an athlete who has been performing sports-specific skills longer.

Low ability = more instruction     High ability = less specific instruction

On the other hand, if you look at an athlete’s level of WILLINGNESS, you can ascertain how much inspiration will be needed in the mix. Are they fired up to learn and improve? Or will your job involve exciting and spurring them on?

Low willingness = more inspiration      High willingness = less need for inspiration

Once you have figured out what their performance needs are you can tailor your style for a better outcome.

The Four Styles

There are 4 basic approaches to coaching that can address the low and high ends of both:

  • Skill development
  • Progression in their willingness to work

Style 1 – Direction

This is where your newest athletes will thrive as they receive competent and thorough instruction. Typically they are fired up but have a lot to learn.

Coaches in this space will provide much direction and supervision so that young athletes can acquire the skills they need to succeed.

Style 2 – Coaching

These athletes also require quite a bit of directing, BUT they also need to be motivated. They are not fired up and probably not sure if they like participating in the sport.

For coaches working with this kind of athlete, it is important to explain the “why” behind drills and expectations. High encouragement and support for the athlete are critical to keeping him engaged and motivated.

Style 3 – Supporting

You might find a seasoned athlete needing this style of coaching. His skills are in place and don’t require a lot of one-on-one direction. However, maybe as a result of burnout or insecurity he needs a lot more support and encouragement.

It is essential that the coach involve this athlete in the decision-making, to keep him engaged.

Style 4 – Delegating

Team captains are hopefully in a place where the coach’s style can take on more of a delegating focus. At this point, an athlete has the required skills AND is fired up to improve and succeed in their sport.

When an athlete is here, the coach is free to hand over decision-making and problem-solving to these capable teammates.

Bringing It All Together

Have you determined these particulars about your athlete?

  1. What her highest performance needs are
  2. What style best suits her

The final and ongoing step to bringing out the best in your athletes is to ask compelling questions.

Here are a few that can open up the conversation and create a relationship of trust:

  • How do you feel about your progress?
  • What do you think works well for you in training?
  • What part of practice or games discourages you?
  • What do you want to see in your growth by the end of the season?
  • What should we focus on if we are going to reach those goals?

Always avoid questions that are accusatory in nature.

Final Thoughts

Successful coaches look at sports participation through a long-term lens. They don’t look at just the results of one or two seasons.

This mindset will always require a tailored approach that takes into account an athlete’s ability and willingness.

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