Coaching in the Background

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I’m Dr. Wade Gilbert, coach education advisor to Human Kinetics ("The Coach Doc") and Editor-in-Chief of the International Sport Coaching Journal.

Spend enough time around competitive sport and you will undoubtedly encounter the ‘puppet-master’ coach. You know the coach, the one who is constantly hollering and gesturing at the athletes as they are trying to perform or learn a skill. ‘Puppet-master’ coaching is a form of over-coaching. Over-coaching occurs when coaches intervene too much by providing excessive feedback and too much instruction. This ultimately overwhelms athletes and dampens the natural enthusiasm they bring to their sport.

Set a goal this year to make your coaching less visible. A simple and time-tested way to quickly improve your coaching, and create more effective coach-athlete relationships, is to avoid the tendency to over-coach. Spend more time observing and listening to your athletes and less time intervening. In training, give athletes enough time and personal space to practice the techniques and tactics that will help them succeed against their opponents. In competitions, trust your athletes and given them enough freedom to perform what you taught them in practices. This is what I mean by ‘coaching in the background’.

The word ‘background’ is typically defined as “a position that attracts little attention” ( This is exactly how most championship and hall of fame coaches describe their role. For example, Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, references legendary coach John Wooden as an example of selfless coaching. Athletes of current day championship coaches such as Bill Belichick similarly describe their coaches as selfless helpers who create the conditions for success and then step out of the way. This approach works because it shows that the coach is more concerned with the athlete’s needs instead of their own selfish desire for attention or recognition.

Ask any athlete to reflect back on what motivated them to first get involved in sport. I guarantee they won’t say ‘because I wanted to be coached’. They will tell you about their love for the game and their desire to play and improve their skills in a fun environment with their friends. Coaches don’t attract young people to sport, but coaches most certainly can and do turn people off of sport, particularly when they over-coach.

Behavior observation research with coaches shows that effective coaches spend most of their time ‘in the background’ observing their athletes. For example, some studies show that effective coaches spend 80% or more of their time during practices silently watching their athletes. A visitor to this type of practice might wrongly conclude that the coach was not doing their job, and that very little coaching was taking place. Successful coaches spend most of their time observing so that they can make informed and effective judgments about how and when to provide efficient and meaningful feedback to their athletes.

A short online video of Olympic weightlifting coach Anders Lindsjö during a training session provides a vivid example of ‘coaching in the background’ in action ( Notice how coach Lindsjö makes himself less visible by spending most of his time silently observing the athlete practicing the skill. Also notice how coach Lindsjö then uses the natural pauses in the training to ask for – instead of give – feedback. There is a consistent pattern of brief instruction, observation, ask for feedback, followed by a few simple cues. This cycle is repeated throughout the training session. The coach is ‘in the background’ providing support and guidance as needed.

Make an effort to move your coaching to the background this year and you will realize more positive and trusting relationships with your athletes and greater improvements in training and performance. As an added benefit, you will find that you are more relaxed and focused while coaching, and that coaching is more enjoyable.

A list of sources used to prepare this edition is provided at the end of the written transcript.


Allen, J., & Ritchie, D. (in press). ‘Let them get on with it’: Coaches’ perceptions of their roles and coaching practices during Olympic and Paralympic Games. International Sport Coaching Journal []

Becker, A. (2013). Quality coaching behaviors. In P. Potrac, W. Gilbert, & J. Denison (Eds.), Routledge handbook of sports coaching (pp. 184-195). London: Routledge.

Cushion, C. (2010). Coach behavior. In J. Lyle & C. Cushion (Eds.), Sports coaching: Professoinalisation and practice (pp. 43-61). Edinburgh, UK: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

Erickson, K., & Gilbert, W. (2013). Coach-athlete interactions in children’s sport. In J. Côté & R. Lidor (Eds.), Conditions of children’s talent development in sport (pp. 139-156). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

Lemov, D. (2014, December 5). Annals of coaching: A brief reflection on selflessness, ego and John Wooden. Retrieved from

Nainby, S. (2015, January 9). An interesting look at coaching methods of Anders Lindsjo irrespective of whether you care about OL – coaching the snatch [Twitter post]. Retrieved from

Reyes, L. (2015, January 8). Bill Belichick takes same approach no matter the game. USA Today. Retrieved from

Turnnidge, J., Côté, J., Hollensteina, T., & Deakin, J. (2014). A direct observation of the dynamic content and structure of coach-athlete interactions in a model sport program. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26, 225-240.

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