Cutting through the edu-jargon: What does it mean to be a ‘coach’? 5 attributes of great coaches

Just like the term ‘facilitator’, the ‘coach’ is often used to describe the role of the educator and leader. When used, heads nod in agreement, and then what? Do we assume that we either know what it means, or are actually doing it?  ‘The Coach’ is quite a defined role and it is worth looking at the attributes of great coaching to see how they can apply to the education sector.

I came across a post on the Melbourne Sports Institute website: “Defining and Explaining Great Coaching”. The original study by Andrea Becker in International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching broke down more than 60 attributes that emerged from athlete questionnaires of great coaching. In education, either as a leader or teacher, successful coaching provides an effective approach to developing skills, establishing culture and creating an encouraging and goal-focused learning environment.

For each area below analyse yourself as an effective coach.

1. Personal attributes of the coach

As with any leadership role, the internal qualities of the leader are what shines the loudest. In sport, great coaches display certain attributes. They have a passion for the game and are experts, always learning, always updating their knowledge. It is crucial that coaches see potential in the people they lead.

Introspectively, great coaches are real people who make mistakes and admit mistakes. They are emotionally stable, genuine, loyal and honest. Character matters and modelling behaviours such as commitment, discipline and being organised.

Coach’s Checklist:

  • Passionate about what makes a great teacher or leader
  • Ongoing learning and development
  • See potential and growth in others
  • Admit mistakes
  • Emotionally stable
  • Real and genuine
  • Consistently model desired behaviours

2. Culture of the learning environment

In sport, the coach creates an athlete-centred environment, focusing on individual growth is essential to the success of the team. This then leads to a team-centred approach, collectively creating the culture of achieving what is best collectively. Coaches are accessible, approachable and good listeners, creating an atmosphere for the athlete to flourish. The practice environment is well-planned, highly structured and game-like, it replicates the authentic purpose.

Coach’s Checklist:

  • Ensure a learner or team centred environment
  • Clear about the desired culture for success
  • Accessible
  • Good listener
  • Well-planned and executed coaching structure
  • Authentic outputs for the team/individual

3. Coaching relationships

The relationship with the team or individual extends beyond achieving the task itself. The quality of the relationship matters.

The personal attributes of the coach are the grounding for creating the relationships that underpin the success of the athlete. These relationships are both professional and personal, strong and lasting. They are built on a foundation of trust, confidence and respect. The coach takes responsibility for the team or individual performance when things go bad.

Athletes are provided care and respect and they know that the coach believes in them. Players are empowered because they are included in the decision-making.

Coach’s Checklist:

  • Believe the best for the team
  • Put relationship first
  • Trustworthy
  • Respectful
  • Caring
  • Humility
  • Empowering of the team/individual

4. Behaviours of a great coach

These behaviours extend beyond the particular focus of the players and extends to life skills. Coaches help players achieve high expectations and these qualities are very consistent with great teaching, using a variety of instructional methods and pacing the coaching according to learner need

High level coaches prepare meticulously, they are focussed on the details. Coaching is not random. Great coaches create great systems. They also own the systems and believe they are essential for success.

Most importantly is the impact of effective communication. Great coaches remain confident, calm and emotionally stable under pressure. Communication needs to be clear, consistent and honest. It is well-timed, motivating and positive.

Coach’s Checklist:

  • Whole person focus, not just task completion
  • Teach identified and essential skills
  • Vary instruction methods
  • Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
  • Implement a system for coaching
  • Effective communicator
  • Stable under pressure

The role of coach in both professional development and student learning is a broad and encompassing role. After reading this, I have come to the conclusion that it is also an essential role in any workplace or school. There are, however, a discrete set of skills to enable the team or individual success. It is easy to say “the teacher’s role is now more like a coach” and leave it there, how often have you heard that?

What if we committed to a coaching culture? This means at a school staff level, coaching becomes a significant approach to professional development, that is then embedded in the school culture and becomes a model for student learning.



4 thoughts on “Cutting through the edu-jargon: What does it mean to be a ‘coach’? 5 attributes of great coaches

  1. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed post. We have been endeavouring to build a coaching culture for several years now. We appointed two ‘learning coaches’ and based their role on Jim Knight’s instructional coaching philosophies. Many of our Exec and Heads of Department have attended workshops with Growth Coaching International and I’m about to complete their formal coaching accreditation, which will give me more skills and confidence to coach our coaches. Next year we are going to bring the concept of “collegial coaching conversations” (picked up from High Tech High) into our peer observation program. My aim is that coaching becomes a way of life for us at our school, it is just who we are and what we do. It is a powerful form of professional learning, more transformational than informational.


  2. Great post Anne. As all good posts should, this challenged me to examine my own thinking around the attributes of effective coaches and the application of coaching in a school setting. The term “coach” is indeed an oft-misplaced label. Whilst I strongly agree with the majority of the attributes you list, I have never been entirely comfortable with the sports coach example. The personal attributes, especially seeing potential and growth in others, are key. This faith in the capacity of others is crucial but can sometimes be hard to maintain. A clear coaching structure, system or protocol is also necessary to ensure a sufficiently “managed conversation” and this must be underpinned by sincerity and trust. Having said this, there are several points that jar with me. Coach as Leader: The sports coach is often seen as a leader in the very traditional sense. I don’t see a teacher coach as that kind of leader, the coachee is accountable to them but (ideally) not answerable to them in a hierarchical way. This links to the notion that “the coach takes responsibility ….. when things go bad”. In my view this undermines the responsibility that we want to stimulate in the coachee and allows the coach to ‘carry the can’ for things that don’t work out. This is often what we see in sport but not what we want in education. A final issue that you’ve made me grapple with again is the notion of coach as the person holding the answers and strategies most likely to succeed. Again, this fits the sports coaching scenario but, for me, is not what coaching is about in schools. The (blurry) line where coaching becomes mentoring or consultancy or training is a fine line. So, is an expert coach someone who is comfortable with this and is able to subtly move between roles depending on the needs of the coachee (and whilst keeping them in the driving seat)?
    As you can see, you really got me going on this. Thanks for the provocation!


    1. Thanks, Chris.
      Great points. I have also had some points of difference with the parallel to sport coaching, but as this is something of a learning curve for me I have taken it as my starting point for the learning journey I am undertaking. More analysis and thinking is definitely required. So thanks for your provocation!


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