Are You a Copy-Cat or Critical Coach?


Commentary by Dr. Chris Zehntner, Swimming World Contributor.

Have you ever caught yourself saying something in your coaching practice that was straight out of the mouth of a former coach, a mentor or someone that you admire?

If so, then this is an embodied practice, something that you have subconsciously internalized and incorporated into your coaching practice. During our development as a coach we come across many shaping forces, some from the coaches that worked with us as athletes, some from mentor or colleague coaches and some from those we observe (Zehntner & McMahon, 2014) through the media (television news or movies).

How can we figure out what we have internalized and where it came from?

Reflection on practice is the process of looking at your actions (in this case coaching practice) so that you can participate in a process of continuous learning. This is something we are encouraged to do through the formal part of our coach education. I am sure many of you think about the effectiveness of swim sessions, season plans or dryland exercise. Reflective practice can also be used to consider what forces shape our beliefs, attitudes or even the mannerisms we express as a coach.

Why is it important to reflect?

Thinking critically about those forces that shape our practice is a way of investigating and reflecting on our coaching practice so that we can see how we came to be the coach that we are. Critical thinking is a social scientific method that seeks to detect bias, or practice with unsubstantiated evidence. This can help a coach to determine the credibility of information by identifying underlying assumptions and can help distinguish between fact and opinion.

Why do I need to do that? I hear you ask.

Most coaching practice is based on empirical knowledge that is developed through observation and experimentation. The issue with this is that research tells us that coaches value the skills and knowledge of our mentors and successful colleagues over what they learn in formal coach education (Zehntner and McMahon, 2014). So, as we go about the business of filling our coaching tool kit we may be internalizing practices that can be described as ‘taken for granted’ or ‘common sense’ approaches (Taylor and Garratt, 2010). We take it for granted because we value so highly the practice of more successful others. The danger with this is that some practices can be damaging for athletes’ health (emotional, physical and mentally) and can compromise their autonomy (Sterling & Kerr, 2014). To illustrate this point, have you heard or even said something along these lines;

“If anyone in this lane breaks stroke [or fails to do anything as described] the whole lane will repeat the set”

Now consider this from the perspective of Article 33 of the Geneva convention, with specific reference to the use of collective punishment (ICRC, 2014). Intuitively we know that this practice is wrong, but why does it still happen? The critical and reflective coach would speculate that it has much to do with the way that coaches like to achieve athlete compliance through subtle social influence rather than overtly dominant practice.

The subtext or hidden meaning in the above statement is more like; “Do as I say, or everyone in the lane will hate you”.

That may be what we are trying to achieve, but how did we come to use such an approach in our practice? It was likely a strategy we first experienced as a participant in sport, or perhaps it was overheard being used by a respected other. Such an approach embeds in our subconscious and without so much as a second thought, it can emerge in our practice.

So, while much of what we internalize from those coaches around us has some basis in empirical knowledge and will have a positive impact on our athletes, the opposite can also be true. We need to be mindful that floating among the gems of coaching wisdom are damaging practices that need more critical thought.

So, how can I avoid being a copycat?

To be aware of the forces that shape us as coaches, we must examine both our personal coaching practice and look at new ideas through a critical lens. The first question we need to ask is;

‘Whose knowledge, and whose point of view, is represented in the knowledge

being (re)produced in the training session’ (Cassidy, Jones & Potrac, 2009)

We also need to think about;

Who benefits from this, and to who is it harmful?

Do we really know the truth about this?

Are there alternate perspectives and if so what is the alternative?

Finally, we can consider if we will we will take up this practice, modify it or reject it.

While that might work where a coach has full autonomy to be the coach that they want to be. However, what should occur if you are working within a system that expects certain standards of practice?

That answer might come from a strategy that was developed for the training of flight crews. In the 1970’s a number of air disasters prompted a new approach to crew training. Flight crews are characterized as hierarchical and the Captain traditionally held much of the power over decision making. Consequently, in extreme situations, this approach resulted in the rejection of alternate perspectives and submissive practice of the co-pilot and others in the cockpit. The now global standard of crew training (crew resource management) fosters a culture where authority must be respectfully questioned in order to enhance the quality of decision making (Helmreich, et. al., 1999). This approach values all the perspectives and experience in the room and if adopted, could encourage new coaches to become active in their development of knowledge.

So, the challenge we have in the development of exceptional coaching practice has two complementary lanes (did you see what I did there?). First, we need to ensure that coach education is not too prescriptive by opening discussion around alternative perspectives. Second, we need to discourage beginning coaches from passively accepting taken for granted and culturally accepted knowledge, an example of this is the assertion that distance specialists must swim at least “X” miles per week to become world class. To do this, we need to foster critical thinkers capable of creativity in their coaching practice through the respectful questioning of taken for granted assumptions.

Dr. Chris Zehntner is a researcher at Southern Cross University, Gold Coast, Australia. His research centres on sociological aspects of sport coaching, athlete welfare and coach education. Chris is also a Silver license Australian swim coach, he started coaching swimmers in 1996 with the Nightcliff Dolphins in Darwin, NT. 


Cassidy, T., Jones, R., and Potrac, P. 2009. Understanding sports coaching: the social, cultural and pedagogical foundations of sports practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Helmreich, R.L., Merritt, A.C. and Wilhelm, J.A. 1999. The evolution of crew resource management training in commercial aviation. The international journal of aviation psychology, 9(1), pp.19-32.

International Committee of the Red Cross. 2014. Geneva Conventions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 27 Oct. 2018].

Stirling, A. E., & Kerr, G. 2014. Initiating and sustaining emotional abuse in the coach-athlete relationship: An ecological and transactional model of vulnerability. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 23(2), 116–135.

Taylor, B., & Garratt, D. 2010. The professionalisation of sports coaching: Relations of power, resistance and compliance. Sport, Education and Society, 15(1), 121-139.

Zehntner, C., & McMahon, J. A. 2014. Mentoring in coaching: the means of correct training? An autoethnographic exploration of one Australian swimming coach’s experiences. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 6(4), 596-616.

— All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.