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Business, Engagement Edition Knowing the person behind the successful coach


By: Professor Cliff Mallett •  4 years ago •  

The International Council for Coaching Excellence (ICCE) ( recently conducted a landmark study examining 14 of the world’s best coaches from 11 countries (10 sports, including 5 team sports and 1 combat sport).

The coaches represented the best of the best and were only included if they had achieved sustained success (winning gold medals and championships) across contexts (different countries, leagues, men and women) in the international arena in Olympic or professional sports. Combined, these coaches had won more than 128 gold medals and league titles!

The origins of the project are linked to the ongoing agenda of professionalisation in sports coaching and the associated need for a significant empirical base for guiding policy and practice to advance coach education and development. Consequently, John Bales (President ICCE) initiated this study and invited Professor Cliff Mallett (University of Queensland) to lead the project. Cliff and Research Associate Sergio Lara-Bercial (Leeds Beckett University and ICCE) conducted the study to profile these highly successful coaches (referred to as serial winning coaches; or SWC). This project was endorsed and funded by national coach developers from 12 countries (including Australia, UK, Germany, France). Specifically, the primary aim of the study was to learn deeply about who these coaches are as people so that we might understand why they have been able to achieve such greatness.

When we say we know someone, what do we really know? Typically, we rely on identifying some broad and consistent behaviours (traits). However, this reliance on some broad personality traits is limited in really knowing the person. Therefore, the design of this study embraced a comprehensive and unique profiling of these SWC that captured data from three layers of personality that enabled a deeper portrait of these SWC to emerge. These three hierarchical layers considered:

 What type of person are they? (e.g. what is their behavioural signature)

 What do they want? (e.g. what are they striving to achieve or avoid)

 How do they see themselves? (e.g. how they made sense of their life experiences)

Coach as Performer

Positioning coaches as performers in their own right is an increasingly adopted position. However, the contribution of coaches to athlete performance is complex and likely impossible to empirically examine with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, the athletes of SWC underscored the importance of these coaches to their performance at major international events. Moreover, athletes viewed the SWC, compared to other coaches, as special in several ways: compassion, open-mindedness, work ethic, self- awareness and persuasiveness.

Before going into further detail, it is important to note that not all SWC were the same – there were outliers amongst this group of outliers. With this in mind, it is possible to consider some of the common aspects related to this exceptional group.

The overall profile of these coaches showed that they were clear optimists and directed individuals, who showed initiative and independence. They were characterised as well-balanced people who took life in their stride and were focused on the future. Furthermore, they had a clear vision and passion to achieve those prospective objectives. These SWC had visions that were years into the future – what will it take to win in 4-8 years’ time? The athletes of these coaches highlighted the ability of SWC to effectively communicate their vision to them. The ability to reduce the complexity in how they interacted with the athletes and other personnel was also a key quality of the SWC. In pursuing this vision, the SWC were driven by personal development and growth related to themselves, their athletes, and other support personnel – in short, they were highly motivated for success. This drive for growth stimulated a strong sense of self-belief for the coach, athletes and support personnel. This commitment to learning and development was very strong as they enjoyed the challenges of the work in achieving their objectives. Overall, the data showed that they were socially competent, which provided the foundation for adaptive working relationships. That is not to say that they did not experience challenges. However, they were cognisant of the need to get along to get ahead.

In difficult times, SWC demonstrated their effective self-regulatory skills. They were reported as possessing a high degree of self-awareness and emotional regulation. The data from both SWC and their athletes supported the view that these SWC were strong on emotional intelligence (EI). This EI provided a foundation for effective two-way communication and demonstrating resilience and a sense of work-life balance. They also reported generally good physical, mental, and emotional well-being. In ‘performing’ their work, the data clearly shows that critical life events shaped the person behind the coach in this unique group of SWC. Parental influences (values; importance of learning); the desire and high self-belief to coach and influence others; the need to prove themselves (but to whom?); and calculated ‘risk taking’ were all key factors in becoming a SWC. This significant drive for success (need to prove competence; maybe a desire to be a hero) was fuelled by the subconscious pursuit of atonement – unfinished business or some form of redemption for personal perceptions of previous failures (often as an athlete but not in all cases). When these SWC were successful, they continued to pursue further success. Success seemed to be a double-edge sword – there was some temporary relief in redeeming some ‘wrongs’ of the past but it was also a reminder of these perceived personal failings. The need to prove their competence was for both self and others – I want to be great not just last year but this year as well.

Coach as Leader

A strong quality of these SWC was the ability to influence others. Both the SWC and their athletes reported this positive influence on others – followship. In describing these SWC as leaders, we consider some of the main findings. Most SWC were characterised as benevolent dictators. They were ruthless, decisive, highly determined, but they unequivocally showed that they cared for their athletes as well as the support personnel. Despite keeping their eyes on the big prize, they were sensitive to the emotional needs of others they cared about. As previously stated, these SWC were deliberate and considered in their coaching performance, but they also took calculated risks (e.g. unexpected and unpractised shifts in team tactics in medal winning matches) to increase chances of success.

Several SWC were characterised by the notion of higher-purpose altruism. These SWC were driven by a higher purpose – pride of a nation; a sense of duty to the athletes and their families. These SWC understood the emotional impact of their decision-making (e.g. selection) but were focused on the instrumental outcomes associated with elite sport.

The SWC reported that over the course of their coaching career there was a shift to a more transformational approach to leadership. Specifically, the SWC embraced a collaborative approach with athletes in developing the vision and the strategies to achieve the desired performance goals. The ability of these SWC to shift towards a collaborative approach to leadership is understandable because emotional intelligence has been linked to both autonomy-supportive and transformational leadership. The use of athlete voice fosters athletes’ internal motivation and a stronger sense of identity. As a result, the athletes saw their SWC as being inspirational.

Coach as Learner

13 of the 14 SWC were university-educated with at least one degree. These SWC highly valued their university education in providing them with foundational cognitive skills to analyse and problem-solve, as well as to provide them some relevant content knowledge (sport science, psychology). The development of skills related to thinking at a higher level was considered an advantage and necessary to be successful as a high performance coach.

This formal learning was complemented by informal (e.g. self-learning; learning from athletes and other coaches) and non-formal learning (e.g. conferences) opportunities. Collectively, these varied learning opportunities differentially contributed to their development. Whilst playing the sport they now coach was considered useful, it was reported as more important in the early stages of their coaching career.

A key finding was that the SWC possessed an unquenchable thirst for learning and were avid readers. They were highly driven to know more so that they could sustain their success over time. This pursuit of knowledge was driven by their quest to be the best coach and a point of difference for their athletes’ success – not only to get ahead but to stay ahead of others in the highly contested nature of elite sport. What drove this pursuit was to leave no stone unturned in assisting their athletes to become the best they could. It is worth noting that while SWC accessed a variety of sources for learning, they retained responsibility for decision-making. So while others may have influenced their learning, in the end, what they did with that was firmly under their control.

Finally, a finding that has rarely been reported in other studies related to the significant contribution of athletes to the learning of the SWC. Athletes provided the stimuli for SWC coach growth and development in responding to the athletes’ needs.


The regular sacking of high performance coaches (approx. 25% within the Australian context) impacts player and team development, organisational growth and the financial viability of sporting clubs and teams. This issue of employment volatility is a major issue for the professionalisation of sports coaching. It is argued that a more rigorous and systematic approach to the identification, recruitment and development of high performance coaches is necessary.

Some findings from this research that might be generative in guiding policy and practice include:

 knowing why coaches have an insatiable drive for success (e.g. atonement; legacy)

 balance between personal drive (agency) and altruism (care for and service to others)

 collaborative approach to leading and managing others

 passion for learning

 visionary

 emotional intelligence/self-regulation skills

More importantly, a few considerations of the process are strongly encouraged. First, the need for a more rigorous approach to decision-making is needed. Second, an athlete voice about the impact of coaches on their development seems warranted. Third, the use of interview questions that seek to understand what drives coaches and how they make sense of their life events enables a deeper understanding of people. Finally, understanding the person behind the coach is only one part of the person-organisation fit.


Cliff Mallett is Professor of Sport Psychology and Coaching at the University of Queensland. He is a leading international scholar in high performance coaching and consults to many national and international sporting organisations as well as to professional sporting teams. Cliff was a medal-winning Australian Olympic, World Championship, and Commonwealth Games coach in track and field.

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