High-Performance Coaching

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

In this article, we will examine high-performance coaching. From here, we will look at specific coaching behaviors and how they affect performance. Today, we see the word “coaching” being used in many different fields. Whether you are a coach in sport, business or even in a leadership role, the word “coach” describes a way of interacting with people. Coaching is a specific type of behavior. Many leaders use coaching-type behaviors. We see these behaviors in leadership models such as transformational leadership theory (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). The purpose of this article is to look deeper into specific high-performance coaching behaviors and how these coaching behaviors affect performance.

First, let’s look at the definition of COACHING and then HIGH-PERFORMANCE COACHING:

COACHING -> Leaders attempts to improve performance by facilitating the acquisition of new knowledge, skills, and competencies.

I have highlighted the words that I think are most important for us to examine for the purpose of this article. Please read through the entire definition and then take a second to reflect on the words highlighted. If we take the first definition of coaching, the keywords highlighted are knowledge, skills, and competencies. If you remember from the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory, this theory says that the key elements needed in a person’s life to nurture intrinsic motivation are autonomy, belonging and competence. These elements lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation leading to a self-determined individual. The C within the ABC’s of Self-Determination Theory is competence when developing knowledge and skill.

• HIGH-PERFORMANCE COACHING -> A systematic application of collaborative, individualized, solution-focused psychological practices by leaders to enhance individual, group, or organizational performance. It is intended to support individuals in better regulating and directing their intrapersonal and interpersonal resources to attain goals and help individuals to maximize strengths through self-directed learning. (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017)

The words of importance highlighted here are: systematic application, enhance performance, support individuals, attain goals, help individuals, maximize strengths, self-directed learning. Out of these words, support, goals, help and self-directed learning are keywords/skills for our attention. These words speak to the A and B of the ABC’s within Self-Determination Theory which is the need for (A) - autonomy (goals, self-directed learning) and a sense of (B) - belonging (support individuals, help individuals).

In the field of psychology, we are interested in creating theories and frameworks from knowledge acquired that help us better understand and predict behavior. Keeping the Self-Determination Theory’s framework in mind, let’s next look into specific coaching behaviors.

Regardless of the employment area, the literature on all high-performance coaches has similar behaviors. Those behaviors are: observing and performance analysis, ask effective questions, facilitate goal setting, provide developmental feedback and motivational feedback (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). These specific behaviors have been proven in research to offer psychometrically sound, brief, and easy ways to measure high-performance coaching behavior. This framework was developed through the workplace, leadership, and sport coaching literature (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017). What are these specific behaviors?

1. Observing and Performance Analysis
1. Plays close attention to what the athlete does
2. Carefully observes athlete’s skills
3. Carefully watches athlete doing the skills and drills
4. Analyzes athlete’s performance

Observation as a coaching behavior key. Try stepping back and taking a researcher’s eye to practice. Training as a researcher, one of my assignments in graduate school was to go into an environment that we were familiar with and sit back and observe. This allowed us to see the familiar environment through a different lens and from a different perspective. I challenge you to do the same. Step back, slow down and intentionally watch interactions and skills being practiced. What do you observe? Be specific on what you observe. Write down what you observe and think. Later allow yourself time to process what you have observed as it relates to performance analysis.

2. Effective Questioning
1. Encourages athlete to think about how they can improve performance
2. Encourages athlete to question the way they do things
3. Encourages athlete to make suggestions on how they think they can improve performance
4. Asks the athlete’s opinion on how they can improve performance

My graduate school professor would often remind us that, “It is twice as hard to LISTEN as it is to talk. This is why we have two ears and only one mouth.” Take the time to ask the right questions and then being PATIENT enough for the reply. PATIENCE can be very challenging yet extremely important and effective in helping our athletes perform. Coaches need to create space for their athletes to answer questions. Great teams I have been part of, have done this at team events, dinners and on bus rides when practice times did not allow for the time and attention needed. Effective questioning allows the athlete to understand and digest what they are learning. Effective questioning allows the development of a key piece of autonomy (ownership). Two challenges: 1. Think about a specific athlete and create a list of questions that get at helping them perform better. 2. Create a question list that addresses the four items listed above.

3. Goal Setting
1. Monitors athlete’s progress toward goals
2. Helps athlete set short-term goals
3. Helps athlete identify targets for attaining goals
4. Helps athlete set long-term goals
5. Provides support to an athlete to help attain goals

Coaches, hopefully, are usually pretty good at goal setting. They have meetings with their athletes at the beginning of the season, meetings (individual/team) throughout the season and reflection/summary/team input at the end of the season as well as setting goals for the off-season. I would encourage you to continue to improve on the five areas listed above. Continue to talk to your athletes about the process of success. Continue to build the vision for them on where we are going and how each individual in practice and training is responsible for helping us get closer to the end goal.

4. Developmental Feedback
1. Makes sure athlete understands what they need to do to improve
2. Gives athlete advice on how to improve their skills
3. Offers advice on what the athlete needs to do to improve
4. Shows the athlete how to improve their skills

Feedback is critical information that helps individuals understand how they are performing and what changes, if any, need to be made. Coaches have a lot of different ways in which they give feedback. Coaches employ different tools to give that feedback. Key factors for feedback are the development of skills and strategies that align with your athlete’s and team’s goals. Developmental feedback provides athletes with direction, builds self-awareness, allows for self- reflection, and performance improvement. In the organizational psychology literature, it has been found that developmental feedback is aligned with intrinsic motivation which enhances learning and improvement. What this is saying is that developmental feedback helps build intrinsic motivation in your athletes which helps them be more engaged in the learning and focused on improvement.

5. Motivational Feedback

1. Tells athlete when they do a particularly good job
2. Sees that the athlete is rewarded for good performance
3. Expresses appreciation when an athlete performs well
4. Gives athlete credit where credit is due
(The five topics listed above were adapted from Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).

There is a lot of research that highlights the importance of positive feedback and/or behavior that is reinforced or rewarded by the coach. Motivational feedback recognizes when the athlete performs well or does something well in training or competition. Providing genuine positive feedback about an athlete’s development and progress help coaches recognize improvement, build autonomy, and competence within their athletes. Coaching research shows that these autonomy-supported environments have been related to self-determination, persistence, and motivation. Autonomy-supportive coaching behaviors are important in helping our athletes perform and succeed (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).

In closing, the purpose of this article was to look deeper into specific high-performance coaching behaviors and how those coaching behaviors affect performance. These behaviors are: Observing and Performance Analysis, Ask Effective Questions, Facilitate Goal Setting, Provide Developmental Feedback and Motivational Feedback (Wagstaff, Arthur, Hardy, 2017).


Wagstaff, C., Arthur, C., Hardy, L. (2017). The development and initial validation of a measure of
coaching behaviors in a sample of army recruits. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 30: 341-357, 2018.

Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology, 49 (3), 182-185. Doi:10.1037/a0012801

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry, and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.