There are two broad leadership styles in coaching: autocratic and democratic. Coaches are not entirely one or the other, but they typically have an inclination toward one that reflects their most common way of interacting with athletes. Let’s take a closer look at each style.
How coaching style influences the athlete
The Autocratic Coach
The autocratic coach’s style can be encapsulated in the phrase, “My way or the highway.” In other words, if you don’t want to do it their way then you are free to leave and find a new coach. This style stresses that the athletes must do exactly what they are told and give little or no input.
The autocrat is typically focused on winning at all costs (in terms of text provided). They have less interest in how the athlete grows as a person outside of sport. The autocratic coach seeks personal success through the athlete, and the athlete’s success is inherently due to them. In fact, the athlete would be at best mediocre without the coach. Only the coach knows the “secret sauce” so the athlete must do as told.
In extreme cases, this style of coaching typically relies on personal pressure, intimidating orders, and incentives to ensure that the athlete complies. While this coaching style is increasingly looked on as outdated, it still lingers in sport. And some athletes are responsive to this way of coaching.
The Democratic Coach
Then there’s the democratic coach. This coach encourages, and usually asks for, input from the athlete when it comes to important topics such as goals and objectives, race scheduling, training plans, workout details, and more. The coach listens to the athlete’s input on the training process and even encourages such feedback.
Democratic coaches see their role as guiding the athlete in their quest for high-level performance. The democratic coach is more likely to ask questions and seek the commitment of the athlete rather than issue orders. The coach and athlete are a team on a mission.
Democratic coaching doesn’t mean that the coach is taking a laissez-faire approach and the athlete makes all the critical decisions as the coach merely looks on as a somewhat interested outsider. The democratic coach is still the primary authority when it comes to all topics related to training, but unlike the autocratic coach, isn’t the determiner of all training decisions. He or she is more likely to advise and recommend rather than order.
In this style of coaching the athlete has great autonomy but still relies on the guidance of an experienced coach.
What does sport research tell us about coaching style?
Actually, not much. Of course, this is “soft” science since we’re not measuring heart rate or VO2max. But opinions gathered from athlete surveys may give us some insights into how these two styles of coaching influence the effectiveness of a coach and the athlete’s preferences and performance.
There isn’t a lot of research on this topic, especially for individual events common in endurance sports, but what does exist is informative and may help to point us in the right direction. For example, there is a study, albeit an old one from 1984 with no more recent research on the topic, showing that athletes in individual sports, especially elite athletes, are less likely to respond positively to autocratic coaches than democratic coaches.  That is a key point since we are examining how to coach endurance athletes.
Interestingly, another more recent study from 2017 reported that female athletes are more likely to accept an autocratic male coach than an autocratic coach who is female.  That doesn’t infer that female athletes prefer autocratic coaching, but rather if the coach is autocratic they’d prefer a male. So there appear to be some nuances when it comes to athletes and coaching style.
Coaching style may also affect event preparation. Both teens and athletes in their 20s were shown to experience more psychological pre-competition stress when coached by an autocratic rather than a democratic coach. [3,4] While there is no research on this, my experience has been that older athletes are more likely to accept autocratic coaching than young athletes who typically reject it. 
Where do coaches fall on the spectrum?
Few coaches are completely autocratic or democratic. There are many gradations in the experienced coach’s inventory of methods; they run the gamut from somewhat to mostly autocratic or democratic depending on what the training circumstances may be at the time of a decision. The underlying coaching style may fluctuate based on the coach’s or the athlete’s strong convictions on a given topic. A coach’s leadership style involves doing what they believe is best in addressing coach-athlete matters and is likely to change based on the topic.
However, in today’s world, athletes are more likely to respond favorably when the coach is more democratic than autocratic. Of course, there are some exceptions, but in general there are fewer unquestionably autocratic coaches today than a few decades ago.
This doesn’t mean that the athlete is running the show singlehandedly. Today’s coach is still deeply involved but realizes that success is more likely when they own their role as a knowledgeable enabler of high performance rather than a heavy-handed dictator. When a coach involves athletes in major decisions, the athlete has ownership and therefore greater motivation to succeed.
Do not take this to mean that autocratic coaching is never appropriate. The present circumstances define how the coach should respond. For example, there are times when a decision needs to be made in a timely manner and there isn’t time to involve the athlete in the process.
This is when the coach’s autocratic decision-making is critical. There are other times when the coaching style depends on the situation. The bottom line is that while democratic coaching may be more effective in working with athletes, it doesn’t rule out the need for occasional autocratic methodology.
Within the confines of these coaching styles, there are other sub-roles played by the coach. These are the coach as teacher, role model, and teammate. Each is influenced by the coach’s autocratic-democratic leaning. Democratic coaches are, I believe, more likely to assume their place in these three roles. Let’s take a look at what these roles mean and how they impact your relationships with your athletes.
The coach as teacher
What’s the difference between a coach and a teacher? Aren’t they sort of the same thing? Well, in a way, yes. They do overlap in many ways. A coach may be a teacher and vice versa. But there are subtle, significant differences. One can be a good teacher without being a good coach, and one can be a good coach without being a good teacher.
A school teacher usually starts working with students who don’t have much experience with, or perhaps any background at all, in a given topic, such as Elizabethan history or algebra. The teacher determines the place to start with students and then carefully builds a base of knowledge.
The coach plays a similar role when working with athletes who are new to their sport—they start by building a base. By introducing new information or making adjustments to the athlete’s existing level of knowledge or performance, the coach is a teacher and the athlete is a student. The coach as teacher must be able to support athletes, especially novices, until they’re in a position to fully adopt the changes or make the right decisions for themselves.
There are also times when even the experienced athlete needs guidance in some aspect of their sport. This could be skill enhancement, knowledge of the rules, event strategies, unique training methods, or unusual workouts. For the experienced athlete, however, the coach is more likely to merely reshape their understanding rather than impart totally new information.
A key lesson we learned from legendary coach Franz Stampfl is that the coach’s role involves inspiring the athlete to perform at a high level by developing a deep personal relationship. Good coaches treat their athletes as unique individuals who have great promise in their sport, as in life.
Many teachers, unfortunately, have a difficult time establishing such relationships with all of their students because they are usually dealing with large numbers of students, many of whom are in need of substantial inspiration. The teacher is often overwhelmed with needy students. And try as they must, they can’t take care of everyone’s needs.
For coaches, this is a good lesson to learn about the number of athletes to work with. We’ll come back to this topic later when we delve into the business of coaching.
Another basic difference between the two otherwise similar professions is that the coach almost always has “skin in the game.” Just because the coach has made adjustments in the athlete’s knowledge, skills, or training methods doesn’t mean the athletes are on their own nor that the coach is finished.
In traditional teaching, the instructor helps the student learn in order to pass a test and then they are usually done. Of course, not all teachers work that way. Good teachers—the kind that were your favorites when you were a student—follow up with their students to help them fill in the knowledge gaps before and after the test. They take ownership. They are invested.
Coaches nearly always operate this way, while many teachers are less likely to follow up with the student. These follow-up types of teachers—and most all coaches—have taken personal ownership of their students’ performances and are committed to helping them excel. In this regard, a coach is probably closer to a master tutor, whose role is to ensure a student’s success in a given field of study.
In both fields, teaching and coaching, those without ownership are likely to contend that it is the low-performing student’s or athlete’s fault when things don’t go well, that the student or athlete lacked motivation. This type of teacher or coach is likely to use the autocrat’s dominating and threatening style to artificially produce motivation. 
Your role as a teacher of athletes must include ownership of the outcomes. This is critical to being a coach.
A case study in becoming a better teacher
There is apparently a lot of overlap between teachers and coaches when it comes to how they respond to the successes or failures of their pupils. There are also a lot of built-in differences between sports when it comes to this topic.
Many years ago I took up golf to become more grounded on how good coaches should operate by being on the receiving end of teaching. Standing on the other side as an athlete/student and working with a teacher was a real eye-opener. While I learned a lot from my golf instructors, some were better than others at helping me develop as a player.
Sometimes my coaching take-home lesson was, “Don’t do it that way.” Most of the time I received excellent teaching and it showed in my performance improvement over the course of many years. One thing I learned was that golf instructors seldom have skin in the game and they lack a coach’s daily, personal involvement in the student’s progress.
With the possible exception of professional, Tour-level golfers or school golf teams, the rest of the golfers in the world are on their own when it comes to what happens following a lesson. I found from this two-decade experience that the typical golf instructor is a very good teacher but rarely a coach.
Over the years I’ve suggested a few times to my instructors that I pay them a flat monthly fee to be my “coach.” I proposed that as a coach they check my progress daily, ask frequently about experiences in playing the game, check in regularly on my swing, offer quick lessons when needed to “fix” something, and generally be there to help me improve. I never got a taker.
At one point I was even considering adding golf “coaching” as an option on TrainingPeaks to streamline the process. What I learned is that golf instructors aren’t ready for that. The highly involved and comprehensive proposal I described was counter to how the instructors saw their roles. They were—and, for the most part, remain—strictly teachers, not coaches or even tutors. They are good at teaching, but they have no skin in the game.
This is the important ingredient for the successful endurance coach who also has teaching skills. While you must be a good teacher when that role is called for, you must always take ownership of your athlete’s results to be a good coach. Both are necessary.
The coach as role model
Leonard Scotten was my high school coach in Greenwood, Indiana, nearly six decades ago. To this day he is still my model for what a coach should be. He was passionate about sport, but never took it too seriously. For his student-athletes he emphasized the “student” part. He wanted all of his athletes to grow not only as athletes but also as people. He never demeaned an athlete or a student, and he treated us all with respect.
In turn, we all had great respect for him. He helped us to perform at exceptionally high levels for such a small, farming community school. My graduating class had 72 students, yet we regularly competed against the much bigger metropolitan schools in Indianapolis. He was an exceptional coach and teacher. As I now look back on my time on his teams as a teen, it’s amazing to me that he was a very young man—only 22 when he started coaching at Greenwood. He is, to this day, the wisest first-year coach I have ever known. He has been my coaching role model for 60 years.
I suspect you had a coach somewhere back in your younger days who was much like Coach Scotten. Many of us got into coaching because we participated in sport under the guidance of a very learned and exemplary coach. If you had a coaching role model like this, then you are also very fortunate. And I’m sure you understand how much this person was an influence on your life and on your decision to become a coach. This is the type of coach we all strive to be—good, successful, and happy.
Because a coach is one of the most influential people in an athlete’s life, it can be a heavy load. There is an awesome weight to bear when people come to you for guidance in how to participate in sport and wind up learning how to live their lives.
You’re in the public eye more than most folks in other professions. And you are hopefully looked up to and are a role model for many, especially your athletes. No coach, however, is perfect. None of us will ever be. We’re human and every one of us makes mistakes. The key is to take responsibility for our mistakes and shortcomings and, once realized, work to correct them.
There are unspoken standards we are expected to live up to, especially when we coach young athletes. It starts with the relationship between the coach and the athlete. The relationship must be professional and begins with respect. If you exhibit respect for athletes, they in turn will show respect for you as their coach.
This starts with being truthful. Lying to an athlete, even a little bit, is a sure way to lose their respect. You must also respect the rules and accepted practices of the sport. Cheating or bending common operating procedures in any way will likely come back to haunt you.
Your behavior around others, not just your athlete, also plays a significant role in the athlete’s perception of you as their coach. You are expected to be a person of high character. This can be diminished by an overemphasis on winning instead of performing at a high level. It’s better for both you and the athlete to lose with honor than to win without it.
Be careful with how much you talk about winning. You’re not coaching a result; you’re coaching a process. Should the athlete produce the best possible performance on race day, then you both have succeeded regardless of who gets on the podium. All of this certainly implies a tremendous burden for you to carry as a coach, but it’s necessary if you are to be considered a role model for the athlete.
Just as you expect the athlete to seek improvement, you too as a coach must strive to grow in many ways, including your assistance in the management and growth of the sport. This may involve joining professional organizations for your sport, teaching classes for coaches or athletes, and assisting the sport’s governing body in other ways when possible. Besides striving to improve your own coaching, you should seek to improve coaching and performance across your sport by volunteering when needed to assist the national federation or local governing bodies.
The coach as teammate
You need a team of professionals and assistants to help you coach the athlete. I’ll get into the details of this team approach in the Craft of Coaching series. But for now, let’s just see what this team approach means to you as the coach.
Your athletes and you will come to rely on those who make up the team of experts to assist in their growth and eventual performance success. All of the team members and the athlete look to you as the team’s leader. You’ve brought them together and rely on their input to assist you in helping the athlete perform at a high level. As the team’s leader, you are there for only one purpose—to help the athlete succeed.
As the coach, you’ve defined the course of event preparation relative to the athlete’s goal; determined the athlete’s physiological, psychological, biomechanical, nutritional, equipment, and training needs to achieve that goal; and requested input as needed from the team of experts you’ve assembled.
None of this is about you, and yet it wouldn’t have come together without your expertise and diligence. You’re also a teammate—albeit the most important one. But just as with Coach Stampfl, it’s not about getting pictures of you when an incredible world record is broken; it’s about the athlete’s performance achievement. And just as with Stampfl, you should realize that this is part of what makes you a successful coach.
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