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3 Benefits of Athlete-Centered Coaching (And How the Opposite Can Be Harmful!)

Coaching is about working with athletes and helping them to reach their goals. Coaches play an essential role in an athlete’s life. They need to educate the player and provide them with opportunities to grow and reach their full potential. There are multiple styles of coaching, and these styles can be thought of as a continuum. On one end, there is a coach-centered approach, and on the other end is an athlete-centered approach.


  • Coach’s goals are higher priority
  • The main focus is on winning
  • Tells the athlete what to do
  • Expects the athlete to comply with all instructions
  • Views all athletes as a collective with the same needs


  • Athlete’s goals are higher priority
  • The main focus is on player development
  • Asks the players for their input
  • Allows the athletes to develop their own decision-making
  • Views athletes as a collection of individuals with individual needs

The coach-centered approach focuses on what the coach wants to achieve and is all about the coach constantly telling the players what to do. This style of coaching doesn’t allow the players to develop their own decision making or problem solving skills. This type of coaching usually creates a negative learning environment where players are too afraid to speak up or ask questions. The athlete-centered approach to coaching aims to develop independent athletes. These athletes are capable of correcting their own mistakes and solving their own problems without having to rely on a coach to do it for them all the time. This style of coaching focuses on helping players to achieve the goals that they have set and help them reach their highest potential. Athlete-centered coaching creates a positive and safe learning environment. The coach views each of his or her athletes as individuals and caters to their individual needs. This environment helps the athlete feel safe, physically and emotionally. Athletes are people first and athletes second, and when the coach takes time to listen to each athlete and understand who they are and what they want to achieve, together they can work to develop a great player as well as person.

Some of the many benefits to an athlete-centered approach to coaching include:

  1. Improved performance during competition
  2. Improved feedback from athletes
  3. Enhanced motor learning

1. Improved Performance During Competition

An athlete’s performance during a game or race relies on the efficiency of physical, technical, and mental factors under pressure. Not only do players need to demonstrate adequate movement skills during competition, but they also need to make the quick, calculated decisions. During practice, a coach teaches their players how to respond to certain plays or what to do in specific situations. A coach-centered coach would tell the athlete what to do and move on. However, an athlete-centered coach would teach the athlete and then allow the player to reflect and ask questions. This technique allows players to take control of their learning and helps them recall this information in game situations. When players provide their input, they enable the development of tactical awareness and understanding to make informed decisions during competition.

2. Improved Feedback From Athletes

In a coach-centered approach, the coach conveys knowledge of the game to the players, making this communication unidirectional. However, two-way communication between both players and coaches is vital in order to create a strong and positive relationship. The coach must provide a safe environment for athletes to speak up as well as providing equal opportunities for every player to participate in discussion. The athlete-centered approach relies on the involvement of all players, not just the vocal ones. Sometimes it may be difficult or scary for young athletes to speak up and ask questions, and that’s okay. The coach can start off by asking the players simple questions to get the athletes thinking, and slowly start to implement discussions during training sessions. By asking a question and providing the players with time to answer, the coach creates an opportunity for the players to be active learners and to improve their understanding of the task as it relates to the game situation. “Questioning” is one of the most valuable tools a coach can use in the athlete-centered approach. This engages players on a conscious level and enhances concentration, decision making, and self-awareness. When someone is asked a question, they are forced to process information and create links to what will work and what won’t. When a player is forced to think for themselves, they learn much quicker. Here are some open questions you can ask your athletes to help them make decisions: 

  • What did you notice when you…?
  • What were some other options available to you?
  • How were your feet/hands positioned when you…?
  • What have you learnt from this?
  • What are you trying to achieve in this activity?
  • How can you create space for yourself?
  • When is a good time to make the pass?
  • What did you do on the times when you were successful?

Instead of telling your athletes what to do, ask questions and create problems for them to try and solve. The role of a coach is to guide the player to help them understand for themselves, not to think for them. 

3. Enhanced Motor Learning

When athletes understand why they are performing a specific drill or why the training session is structured a certain way, they are more likely to understand the concepts leading to performance improvements. Successful athletes are those who can actively solve problems, correctly assess what is occurring during the game, and respond with the appropriate decision. Self-evaluation and self-awareness is a vital skill for players to improve their performance. When players understand how to problem solve in training, they are more likely to recall that decision and use it in competition. The athlete becomes self-aware and is better able to understand their performance. By engaging in the learning process and experiencing the behaviours, thoughts, and actions needed to achieve a goal, the athlete can improve their motor output and increase their chance of success. 

What Next?

I’d love to hear your experience with athlete-centered coaching vs. coach-centered coaching! Leave a comment below. And if you’re looking for support in coaching your elite level athletes, check out our mastermind for coaches and parents here.

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