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Developing the Coach-Athlete Relationships


One of the most crucial factors affecting the performance of an athlete is their individual relationship with the coaching staff. In sports, it is important for each player to have a bond with their coach. Trusting and understanding relationship between the two ensures that an athlete reaches their full potential and showcases the best results possible. Despite that, a sportsman or a sportswoman often have to deal with a strict set of rules dictated by their coach. In order for them to make such a sacrifice and fully rely on the coach’s guidance, it is imperative for instructors to explain the rationale behind their decisions as well as to demonstrate actual results in terms of an athlete’s performance. The coach can do both by implementing the frameworks of reflective practice into training. This blog post is going to assess the latest scholarly research on the topic in an effort to provide recommendations to improve the training process for athletes and coaching staff.

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Defining Reflective Practice

First, it is important to define reflection, reflective practice, and these concepts’ relationship with sports management. Reflection is an ongoing practice of analyzing past events, rather than a short-term technique (Jordi, 2010). Sicora (2017) refers to it as a “powerful source for more effective decision-making and action” (p. 491). Figure 1 demonstrates the difference between reflection in action and reflection on action.

Reflection in action versus reflection on action.
Figure 1: Reflection in action versus reflection on action.

Reflective practice is the ability of an individual to use their reflective skills and appropriate reflection frameworks in order to apply them in the process of continuous learning (Davies, 2015). It is a set of strategies one can implement to identify frequent mistakes and create efficient solutions (Parrish & Crookes, 2014). A reflective approach to coaching benefits the coach-athlete relationship and produces tangible results because it challenges existing assumptions, unrealistic biases, and possible illusions. It urges an instructor and a sportsman to assess their personal behavior and attitudes. Cushion (2016) notes that “tacit or forgotten knowledge can be brought to the surface through reflection,” and the outcome of such reflection is knowledge (p. 86). Reflective coaching involves collecting information, examining the practices reflexively, and developing specific insights in an effort to gain and apply the lessons.

The strategies of reflective practice can be applied in various areas, including individual professional development, language learning, corporate training, and many others. What distinguishes this method from formal learning and knowledge acquisition is the fact that it is not the past experience, which results in learning, but conscious reflection on it (Black & Plowright, 2010). An example of modern methods of reflection includes blogging as a form of sharing and analyzing one’s experience with the hell of digital platforms.

Connecting Reflective Practice and Sports

While it is important to take a general look at the concept of reflective practice and its application in different fields, the purpose of this paper is to examine reflection in the context of sports. It is evident that reflective practice is suitable for training, which is usually rooted entirely in observation and experience. Research has demonstrated that formal education is inferior to alternative types of acquiring knowledge, when it comes to coaching practice (Vallance, 2019). Unmediated ways of learning, which emphasize practical experience, tend to have more of a lasting impact on athletes, according to Mazerolle et al. (2014). However, one might argue that experience alone is not enough to set new records and score high. Past exposure to various challenges a sportsman may experience during training has to be supported by an in-depth analysis of the mistakes (Hall & Gray, 2016). Thus, reflective practice is the most suitable medium to secure a balance between experience and knowledge. Figure 2 shows one of the possible reflective models for sport coaching.

Reflection model for sport coaching
Figure 2: Reflection model for sport coaching (Vallance, 2019).

The Impact of Reflective Practice on Performance

In terms of the impact reflective practice has on performance, the examination of the latest scholarly research related to this issue is needed. First, researchers recognize the importance of educating medical professionals using reflection in the healthcare settings (Thompson & Pascal, 2012; Leigh & Bailey, 2013; Paterson & Chapman, 2013). The development of reflective activity skills is regarded as the necessary steps to transition from a novice practitioner to an expert in the field who is able to provide services at the highest level. Cutrer et al. (2013) emphasize the importance of reflective activity in designing efficient educational strategies for improving clinical reasoning. Reflection is necessary to ensure individual accountability, avoid clinical uncertainties, and increase effectiveness of the chosen treatment plan.

As for the other fields, Zahid and Khanam (2019) have evaluated the impact of reflective practices in teaching and concluded that they positively affected the rates of student success, classroom management, and learning climate. Studies demonstrate that reflection is crucial in educating people since it provides an opportunity to assess past mistakes and resolve any of the related issues (Belvis et al., 2012; Benade, 2015; Saunila et al., 2015). Moreover, Standal and Moe (2013) have reviewed the current mass of scholarly empirical research and concluded that the development of critical capabilities was imperative in the success of physical education teachers.

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As for coaching, Rodrigue and Trudel (2018) have conducted a study, which demonstrated the help fullness of reflection strategies implemented by an instructor. Using multiple reflection approaches, the participant in their study “identified two possible explanations for the lack of effort coming from my players, two challenging technical and tactical aspects, and two possible solutions for these issues” (Rodrigue & Trudel, 2018, p. 47). Thus, it is apparent that such methods allow coaches to reflect on their individual teaching and technical skills, as well as athletes’ performance and tactical maneuvering.

The Relationship between Reflective Practice and Sport Performance

Apart from discussing the impact of reflective practice on the overall sport performance, it is crucial to examine the relationship between reflection and performance by identifying the factors, which the effectiveness of the reflection process is dependent upon. These include time-efficiency, motivation, and creativity, all of which contribute to the effectiveness of reflection and its impact on coach-athlete relationships. First, it is crucial to look at the link between reflective practice and coaching development. The reflection strategies equip practitioners with the methods of combining theory and practice in order to navigate the ambiguous coaching environment more easily (Neil et al., 2013). However, time is a crucial factor, which determines whether reflection is truly meaningful or not. It takes hundreds of hours to reflect on the experiences of each player in the previous seasons, which makes the process of ensuring that reflection is structured correctly difficult. Thus, many coaches view reflection as a supplementary technique rather than an integral part of training (Cropley et al., 2010a). In addition, in order to build a stable relationship with each of the athletes, they have to customize reflection approaches to suit every individual’s learning style.

The second crucial issue in the context of incorporating reflection into training is motivation, which refers to the willingness of an instructor to commit to reflective practice. The effectiveness of reflection strategies is dependent on the ability of a coach to intentionally allocate time to their application (Cropley et al., 2010a). Huntley et al. (2014) mentioned a study, which aimed to assess how high coaches regard the practice of reflection. The majority of instructors have placed reflection relatively low on the priority list. Therefore, their reflective efforts were rushed and poorly structured, often lacking in details. Cropley et al. (2010b) note that reflection is “an appropriate mechanism to help to help practitioners develop the self-understanding required to build working alliances in sport psychology relationships” (p. 191). Despite that, studies demonstrate that most coaches systematically undermine its importance (Huntley et al., 2014). Moreover, they fail to recognize the need to engage with each athlete individually and reflect on their personal experiences in order to address each sportsman’s past mistakes and issues, which may threaten their success.

Lastly, creativity is another key factor, which influences the effectiveness of reflective practice. In essence, reflection is a creative process, which stands in opposition to the traditional methods of technical rationality in training (Kurz et al., 2017). Instructors need to have an ability and appropriate skills to analyze the scenario reflexively and respond efficiently. While technical rationality can be applied by novice practitioners, expert coaches must utilize creative strategies to maximize their ability to start critical conversation and develop solutions based on the acquired insights (Love, 2017). In addition, the effectiveness of the reflection strategies implemented depends on an instructor’s creative freedom to go beyond their managerial duties (Fumoto, 2016). Each of them should have their own unique reflective approach, which would become a part of their coaching philosophy.

Recommendations for Coaches, Athletes, and Sport Scientists

It is apparent that the possibility of coaches becoming efficient in reflective practice is almost non-existence because the use of reflection strategies requires instruction and training. Research demonstrates that coaches start to prioritize reflection once they are taught of its primary principles although coach education programs still fail to include lessons on reflective activities into their syllabus (Callary et al., 2014; Lefevbre et al., 2016; Milistetd et al., 2014). Senior instructors who recognize the importance of reflection and its impact on performance should advocate for the inclusion of said lessons into the coach education programs. Thus, more coaches would learn of efficient use of reflective strategies (Winfield et al., 2013). There is a common misconception that reflecting requires little to no effort or simply wastes time. Incorporation of reflection lessons into the coach education program curriculum is going to showcase reflective activity as a crucial mechanism of an effective practice session. The study by Roberts and Faull (2013) has shown the positive impact facilitation of reflective practice could have on the development of coach-athlete relationships. Therefore, athletes should start discussions regarding reflective activity.

Apart from the aforementioned benefits, sportsmen need to recognize that the active engagement of their coach in the reflection process will increase their individual performance. As for scholars, they have to conduct more research regarding the effectiveness of reflective practice in order to contribute to the development of reflection courses for coaching staff. Expert instructors, top athletes, and academics can come together in an effort to create new well-structured programs for coach education, which would include lessons on applying and customizing reflection strategies.

On a more informal note, Figure 3 demonstrates a list of 3 tips for navigating the process of reflection in coaching.

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3 tips for reflection in coaching.
Figure 3: 3 tips for reflection in coaching.


To summarize, reflection is a crucial part of the learning process for athletes. Through a systematic and well-structured analysis of their past mistakes, they gain new insights and apply them into practice. Thus, it is imperative for coaches to possess the necessary skills to apply reflection strategies. In addition, an instructor must maximize the effectiveness of reflective activities by customizing them to suit each athlete’s learning style and personal preferences. The coach’s decision to allocate time, resources, motivation, creativity, and other personal resources to the reflective process determines its effectiveness. Coaching staff, athletes, and sport scientists have to collaborate in order to ensure lessons on reflective practice are included in coach education programs’ curriculum.


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