Becoming a more positive coach: a research review

Leading coaching researchers gives us an insight into how we can improve our coaching and therefore our players’ learning. Here’s a summary of their findings.

Richard L. Light and Stephan Harvey, two of the most respected boffins in sports coaching produced an important paper Positive Pedagogy for sport and coaching, in the Sport, Education and Society journal.

In summary they say: Learner-centred (athlete, player, student centred), inquiry-based approaches to teaching games and coaching team sport are effective for:

  • improving game playing ability
  • increasing player/athlete motivation
  • providing positive affective experiences of learning.

The article offers a framework for coaches to help their transition and challenges from coachcentred to learner-centred coaching. Pedagogy is the process of teaching. Light and Harvey distinguish between positive and negative approaches to this when we work with our players.


“Positive Pedagogy” has numerous positive outcomes:

  • Generates positive emotions such as enjoyment or delight;
  • Engagement in learning;
  • The building of relationships, and a sense of belonging, meaning, and opportunities for achievement, both individually and collectively;
  • Emphasises what the learner can do.


“Flow” plays a big part in making learning positive whereby the player is in “a state of being absorbed in the experience of action through intense concentration, as the athlete is ‘lost’ in the flow of the experience. It provides a positive affective experience through which deep learning occurs, especially when the coach ‘gets the game right’” (Thorpe & Bunker, 2008).

At the same time though, from the coach’s perspective, there are times when the game you “design” doesn’t quite work, that is, you feel that it does not “flow”. If so, you either have to change some rules/conditions in the moment, which comes from experience, or you reflect on the experience after the training session ready for the next session.

A key part of positive pedagogy is the four core features of “game sense” pedagogy (Light, 2013):

  1. “…learning occurs through engagement with the learning environment and not through direct instruction (Dewey, 1916/97).” and “…the ability of the coach to manage the activities or a game to establish and retain the appropriate love of challenge is of pivotal importance.”
  2. The coach asks open-ended (How, When, When, Why, What, Where) questions that generate dialogue and promote thinking instead of telling a player what to do as “This is not an easy task for coaches used to telling players/athletes what to do.” and “This solutions-focused approach should help player/athletes learn that making mistakes is an essential part of learning…”
  3. “…the teams are given opportunities to have ‘team talks’ at appropriate times (Light, 2013)…” where “…the less experienced can make valuable contributions when encouraged by the coach.” and “It encourages empathy, compassion, meaningful relationships, a sense of connection and care for each other as well, both on and off the field.”
  4. “This must involve coaches making it clear that mistakes…are essential for learning and can be seen to provide opportunities for learning (Renshaw et al., 2012).”


Your approach, based on these ideas could be very much in line with Lynn Kidman’s “Athlete-centred Coaching” definition:

  1. Create and develop a “Team Culture”;
  2. Use ‘Teaching Games for Understanding’;
  3. Use ‘Questioning’.

This creates, develops and nurtures a very positive learning experience for players, empowers them to take ownership of their learning and environment and the performance of the team continually improves over time.

The key is to be very patient with the approach as it does take time for players to get used to, especially if they have only experienced ‘Coachcentred’ coaches, and to grow and develop relationships with them as well.


Positive pedagogy

  • Focus on the learner and the process of learning
  • Promoting deep understanding
  • Making learning authentic and meaningful
  • Players/athletes “learn how to learn”
  • Fostering a love of learning, imagination and problem solving
  • Developing active, inquisitive learners instead of passive receivers of knowledge

Negative pedagogy

  • Learning to play team games requires reaching a level of competence in performing techniques seen to be fundamental to the game before playing it
  • Teaching focused on ‘fixing’ mistakes’ deprives learners of the joy of selfdiscovery that can build self-confidence and autonomy
  • Approaches that focus on the technical mastery of sport skills leads to a lack of learner focus, engagement and motivation
  • Coaches provide large amounts of instruction, feedback and demonstrations based on the assumption that the greater the level of intervention the more learning will occur
  • A fear of failure that limits players’ capacity to learn from mistakes
  • Promoting selfishness, egotism and a lack of empathy or compassion for other learners (teammates) while also failing to teach real teamwork
  • Highlighting what learners cannot do.


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