Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access –Sports and Coaching: Pasts and Futures [ISBN 978-1-905476-77-0]  – This wide-ranging collection of papers, which highlight the richness and diversity of studies into sport and coaching, has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute for Performance Research in June 2011. The contributors come from different disciplines and include some of Britain’s leading scholars together with a number of early career researchers.


Please cite this article as:

Jones, R. L., Bailey, J., Santos, S. and Edwards, C. Who is coaching? Developing the Person of the Coach, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Coaching: Pasts and Futures (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2012), 1-12.





Who is coaching? Developing the Person of the Coach

Robyn L. Jones, Jake Bailey, Sofia Santos and Christian Edwards




Recently, coaching research has seen a shift in focus from the usual areas of ‘what’ or ‘how’ to coach towards the ‘who’ is coaching (e.g. Jones, 2009; 2006). It is an agenda which outlines that it is not so much what is said to athletes, or even how it is said, that is of utmost importance. Rather, it is who is saying it. By way of an example, we cite the (alleged) ‘Special One’, the football coach José Mourinho, whose words lie at the heart of this research agenda. What Mourinho actually said here was: ‘The same exercise on the pitch led by two different coaches is not the same exercise; and the same words are not the same words’ (Cited in Castles, 2010). In a similar vein he also said, ‘Anyone can use my exercises, anyone can use my words, but no-one will have the same results’ (ibid). What he was alluding to here was that the person of the coach, much more so than the methods he or she applies, is a crucial element in what constitutes ‘good’ or successful coaching. So, what is it about him and others like him, which enables such outcomes? And when we say an individual is special (rather than what he or she says or does), what do we actually mean? Of course, we are not proposing to have definitive answers to these questions, or a list of the ultimate attributes of such a coach; things, in this realm, are not that easy. Rather, the aim is to engage with an issue which has been largely overlooked within coaching research and, in doing so, make more sense of its abstract, although very real, nature. A starting point is to consider the seemingly obvious statement that coaching is done by somebody. If coaching is enacted by somebody, then it naturally matters who that somebody is. In coaching then, as in teaching, a person cannot be easily separated from their craft (Nias, 1989).

Hoyle and Wallace (2008) recently used the notion of ‘harvesting mist’. Although they used it in a different environment, it has relevance here, in that there is, no doubt, enough to get hold of in relation to this issue of ‘who is the coach’, if only we were able. Part of the problem is that many of the ideas traditionally used to explore coaching are simply not sophisticated enough to enable a fruitful ‘harvest’. Considering Mourinho’s words again, the differences between coaches and coaching behaviours may not be easily observable, or even identifiable; after all, what is said and done is both reflective of who has said and done them, yet only part of the package; a case of being ‘the same, but not the same’. The difference then, must lie at a deeper level of cognition and interpretation and, hence, require tools and concepts of the requisite subtlety and complexity to uncover what it might actually be. The purpose of this paper is to highlight some theoretical work that can perhaps help develop our understanding of ‘who’ is coaching. This is done firstly by exploring some work related to ‘the self’, in particular that of role and identity theory as linked to the writings of Goffman (1959; 1963) and Agne (1998). This line of thought is developed through Garfinkel’s (1967) work on ethno-methods and shared understandings, particularly in light of the importance of creativity in coaching. Finally, some future research directions are identified and explored in an attempt to signpost how this agenda may be further developed.


Theorising the ‘Who’

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘a presentation of the self’ holds great potential to contribute towards a theorisation of ‘who is the coach’. At the core of Goffman’s (1959) notion of impression management lies that of theatrical or dramatic realisation. This refers to an individual’s attempt to present a compelling performance or impression in order to convince others of their sincerity (Jones et al., 2011). Goffman’s work then, was founded on the premise that the actions one performs are fundamentally social in nature, often driven by the need to create a desired impression of self in the eyes of others. Such actions, however, do not refer to some dark tactical scheming, but rather to insightful social sensibilities enabling one to behave ‘appropriately’ in context, thus allowing interactions to work. Indeed, Goffman (1959: 243) himself considered such performances as merely ‘the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression’. Subsequently, Goffman provides us with a relational framework to reflect on why some people are able to convince or compel others to accept their rules and ideas by sheer force of personality which seems to fit well with coaching (Jones et al., 2011; Potrac and Jones, 2009).

An aspect of Goffman’s (1959; 1963) work particularly relevant for coaching is the notion that an individual needs to sustain a respectable image in the eyes of others, which requires the demonstration of attributes valued in wider society (or within that particular situation). Similarly, recent studies in sports coaching have interpreted coaches’ behaviours and interactions as trying to construct and maintain a credible front for significant others, particularly athletes (e.g., Jones et al., 2002; 2004; Potrac et al., 2002; Potrac and Jones, 2009). This was done to obtain and maintain athletes’ respect and, subsequently, their trust and compliance (Jones et al., 2004; Potrac and Jones, 2009). Here, Goffman also asserted that, whilst looking to sustain a dignified image of oneself, one needs to express the human side of things. This is because in the quest for respect, individuals need to uphold an in-control appearance whilst still presenting a face others can relate to and resonate with (Jones et al., 2004; 2011; Potrac et al., 2002). This, of course, presents a dilemma for many coaches (and leaders in general); how to align themselves with followers through appeal to a shared history and fragility, while at the same time representing themselves as knowing, more capable experts (Harvey, 2001).

Within his works Stigma and Asylums, Goffman (1963) illustrated how the self comes to be entangled with institutions; i.e., that people are not totally free to decide the image which they present to others, as they are influenced by social rules. Similarly, coaches work within a club and a sport-specific culture that regulates and structures their daily interactions. These guidelines not only define roles but also the expectations tied to those roles (Jones et al., 2011). The impression management concept, however, also allows room for agency; what Goffman (1963) termed ‘the underlife’, which refers to the individual’s opposition against the organisation. Recent studies have demonstrated that if, on the one hand, coaches recognise the need to adapt their own conduct according to others’ expectations, on the other hand, they also strategically manipulate information and engage in calculative strategies to realise their objectives (Jones et al., 2004). Both concepts then (i.e., those tied to agency and structure) have to be honoured to give a convincing coaching performance. Still, the question of what differentiates the special, referential person remains; that is, how can the convincing be transformed into the inspiring? In partial answer, although impression management gives us insight into how individuals construct particular ‘faces’ as dictated by context and social norms, it provides more than a static understanding of others’ expectations. Rather, the emphasis here is placed on ‘the creative dance of agency’, which comes from the earlier step of carefully reading and interpreting ‘the social landscape’ (Jones et al., 2011). Such cognition, in turn, relates to the ability to see what is happening around us, to judge and to react accordingly. In this sense, Jones recently argued for the importance of noticing in coaching; the need for coaches to pay attention to and engage with the world of small realities, which have the potential to lead to much bigger things. Such gathered information holds the promise to inform and enrich our social sensibilities in addressing questions as which ‘face’ or ‘front’ to use when, where and with whom; all necessary reflections and actions  in generating respect and trust from ‘followers’.

Karen Agne

Karen Agne’s writings about master teachers may also be of help in further developing notions of ‘who is the coach’. A key tenet of Agne’s (1998: 166) argument was that ‘(children) learn by absorbing who you are to them, not memorising what you say’. Of course, this distinction is equally applicable to coaches. If we subscribe to this mode of thinking, the importance of the person that a coach projects is obvious. This is because such a person could have direct implications for all the athletes with whom a coach has responsibility; and over a lifetime, this could equate to thousands (Agne, 1998). Such thinking may be of particular relevance to coaches because of the (still?) widely held belief that the coach’s role is merely to employ procedural knowledge and skills to increase the tactical and technical know-how required by athletes to perform better (Jones, 2000). One result of defining a coach in this rather methodical way has been to interpret the necessary specifications for the position as a mix of physiological, psychological, biomechanical or pedagogical knowledge. Whilst this picture may have some merit, it leaves little space to consider who the coach is, and offers no framework from which to reflect on deeper elements of the self (Agne, 1998).

The primary thrust of Agne’s work was humanistic in nature, emphasising the caring characteristic as a key constituent in the practice of master teachers. In this regard, Agne (1998) was not the first to highlight the important role of the relational characteristics between teacher and student(s) (for other examples see Noddings, 2003: 2005, and Rogers, 1961: 1980). However, the idea that a committedness and an attitude of love had “more to do with student learning and effective teaching than anything else related with education” (Agne, 1998: 168) was indicative of a way of thinking about pedagogy dramatically different from the traditional norm. Similarly to Agne’s (1998) work with teachers, Jones, Armour and Potrac (2004) found elite coaches to invest high levels of time and energy into their work, whilst carrying out their duties in a committed, caring and conscientious fashion. Whilst the potentially problematic ‘love’ component was not mentioned, there is a clear sense that the coaches interviewed here were much more that sport specific specialists or rigid method appliers, and that their personal qualities were crucial in developing successful and productive relationships with their charges.

Common to all of the studies cited in the section above is the notion of care. Agne (1998), Noddings (2003, 2005) and Rogers (1961, 1980), might all loosely define caring as action(s) oriented towards the needs of the ‘other’, or a displacement of self towards the ‘other’. In particular, the following passage from Agne (1998: 172) provides an interesting insight into the types of characteristics that a caring coach might exhibit:

Caring is the orientation of those who tend to express a high sense of self efficacy and who are internal in their locus of control. That is, people who care usually believe that they are personally capable of attending to another and making a difference. They choose to depend on their own initiatives to solve problems in these efforts, rather than to mainly rely upon others. Caring people are less inclined to blame others for failure in these initiatives or to blame factors outside of themselves or their control.

What is striking here is that the characteristics described seem well related to high functioning coaches. Inherent is the belief that it is worth caring, because, through their engagement, it is possible for coaches to make a difference even within the complex and difficult situations in which they often find themselves (cf. Jones and Wallace, 2005).

The major problem associated with caring as a way to explore the beliefs and attitudes of coaches, is the extreme subjectivity of the concept. Of particular importance is the wide range of things that coaches might care about. In a recent assignment set on an undergraduate coaching module, students were asked to deconstruct the half-time coaching behaviours of a well-known English football manager. The ranting and abusive behaviour would certainly not (at first glance) meet the requirements of caring as envisaged through the eyes of the authors cited above. Nevertheless, the commitment and passion were clear for all to see. The manager definitely cared, but it seemed likely that what he cared about (at least in the instance caught on camera) were the players’ attitude and commitment, the fans, and, perhaps, external perceptions of himself. It seemed that, at that moment, the players’ well-being was low on his list of cares. Caring for and about whom and what, then, appear far from being straightforward issues. Perhaps important within this context, is that athletes see or sense that a coach cares for them and their success; perceptions which give justification to actions which otherwise would be viewed as abusive and simply not put up with. Hence, coaching behaviour, such as that described above may be tolerated and accepted by athletes, and even lead to good results. However, if, as Agne (1998) suggested, it is the attitudes and behaviours of coaches that are learned, and not particularly the words they say, can this type of behaviour ever be justified? Issues of emulation were explored by Hardman, Jones, and Jones (2010) from a virtue ethics perspective. They broadly agreed with Agne’s (1998) suggestion that athletes absorb the person of the coach and not the words. However, they further problematised this notion, identifying the haphazard mode of transmission:

…the coach may have very little control over which aspects of their behaviour or character register with children, and so emulation may mean that children will copy unintended and unappealing behaviours which may, in turn, come to be habits of character. The coach, in executing his or her professional role cannot, therefore, be separated from the character of the person in that role (Hardman et al., 2010:  350-351).

Consequently, Hardman et al. (2010: 352) were minded to pose questions about coaching, the first of which is crucial to notions of who is coaching; that is ‘what kind of person should a coach be?’ In grappling to address this issue, Hardman et al. (2010) suggested that as embodied beings, coaches are not able to consciously compartmentalise themselves as technicians when they adopt their coaching role. In doing so, the authors positioned the coaching persona and person as being intertwined and cannot, nor should be, separated. As a result, and again following Agne (1998), it was contended that it is beneficial to see (and research) coaches as persons who are defined by their values, integrity and character (Cassidy, Jones, and Potrac, 2004).

Harold Garfinkel

To date, the work of theorists such as Goffman, as well as Bourdieu and Foucault have been used by Jones and colleagues as sensitising frameworks to better understand the interactive, relational nature of coaching. One social thinker whose work has yet to permeate the coaching science literature is Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel’s early work, although ridiculed in some quarters for being ‘peculiar’, has nevertheless had an influential bearing on much of the subsequent sociological literature (Warfield Rawls, in Garfinkel, 2002). Linked to the workings of Erving Goffman and his ideas on the interaction order, Garfinkel’s writings coalesced into a sociological sub-discipline known as ethnomethodology (Heritage, 2006). The work was concerned with the pool of shared knowledge and reasoning procedures that members of a society use to respond to the circumstances in which they find themselves (Garfinkel, 1967).

Garfinkel’s writings on ethno-methods (or social rules) shed light on the shared understandings we have that make interactions work (to ensure we know what each other are actually speaking about). What is of importance here is using our background knowledge (‘what we see’ with ‘what we know’) to ‘fill in’ the meaning of what people say and do to create the orderliness of social life (Garfinkel, 2002). Without such a shared understanding, no functional social interaction would or could occur. However, only respecting and adhering to such understandings is not enough when we are exploring ‘special selves’. Rather, as touched upon earlier, as well as having an awareness of such rules or understandings, an individual must also recognise the need to innovate and experiment in order to move things forward – in essence, he or she must see things in another way. The message here is that we need to look beyond the obvious; to loosen the ethno-methods, or the rules, that can make us rigid in our thinking; in the words of Law (2006), ‘to imagine things in other, more imaginative ways’. Such thoughts and actions influence others’ views of us as innovative and ‘real’ individuals. Here then, a degree of everyday idiosyncrasy is required and respected. Such a notion could explain how coaches, manipulate and utilise their ‘social competencies’ to maintain and improve relationships with athletes (Lemert, 1997; Jones et al., 2011).

In the coaching context we believe that Garfinkel’s work offers interesting possibilities for an increased understanding of social relationships and subsequent interactions. For example, in a coaching session recently witnessed by one of us, the coach moved beyond the usual embodied practices, deviating from customary behaviour. Through structured improvisation (Bourdieu, 1986), he chose to get the players to think about their performances through the use of a quirky metaphor drawn from a non-sporting context. A key construct to this display of cultural entrepreneurship (Jones et al., 2011) was the coach’s adherence to the rules of social participation, but not exactly as expected; what Lemert (1997) might call a flourish of independence. Further, the success of the coach’s behaviour lay not in how or what was said, but who the players perceived to be saying it; another coach adopting a similar strategy would likely not have been received as well. Such displays both reflect and contribute to a coach’s persona; a persona which must be constructed carefully over time (Jones and Wallace, 2005). The coach’s personification here as somebody ‘out of the ordinary’ allowed him to engage in creative behaviour, which simultaneously enhanced the players’ perception of his special status. However, at all times, the performance was still recognisable as occupying the given coaching role. Using Garfinkel’s [ethno] methodological approach to explore the complex interaction of such encounters, not only allows for an understanding of the social procedures that are shared (between coach, athlete and significant others), but also those which resist and transgress context, giving rein to spontaneity, creativity and respect.

Such thinking bears a resemblance to the work of Kleinman (2005) in relation to attention paid to detail – the minutiae. Kleinman suggested that art can be created by high practitioners (coaches) in any field, there being no boundaries to the forms creativity can take. Similarly, Stahl (2004) hinted that all practice can aspire to art (creativity), as a universal exists which supports the creative in all practices. Some believe such productive independence can be created ‘from the outside in’; that is, through the language we use and what we say about ourselves. In this respect, and giving further credence to agency, we become the self of our stories. This is not a matter of being utterly unique (Mead, 1952), but rather developing greater sensitivity towards the self in role, resulting in considered performance images that can lead to ‘possibilities of change’ (McCarthy, 1996: 144). What we are arguing for here then, is the need to break free from the ‘constitutive rules of everyday behaviour’ (Goffman, 1974: 5), thus reconceptualising the coaching role from something that merely happens to something that demands sincere engagement with contextual social dimensions that allows us to see past the edges of our own vision (Ely, Vinz, Downing and Anzul, 1997).

A developing research agenda: Concluding thoughts

Having presented some notions that we believe hold the potential to better understand ‘who’ is the coach, it is important to provide some examples of how these can be materialised within a coaching research agenda. At Cardiff Metropolitan University (UWIC) we have and are attempting to grasp this notion of ‘who’ is the coach by investigating questions such as ‘What power structures are at work?’ ‘Why do coaches think what they do works’? ‘How do they evaluate it’? ‘What types of social exchanges do coaches engage in? And why’? One way we are trying to address these questions is through ethnographic work incorporating a visual methodology. The purpose, of course, is to shed light on ‘who is coaching’ through capturing images of coaches while coaching; that is, the looks on the faces, the smiles, the scowls, the engagement evident, the ‘full’ involvement (and so forth) which somewhat represent the persons evident here in the midst of their everyday actions. The images presented below represent a small sample of the data gathered; a line of inquiry which we believe holds much potential in the on-going quest to better understand coaching practice.



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