'The fundamental role of the coach is to help individuals improve their performance: in other words, help them learn.'

Best practice methodology in coaching is an age-old discussion, with research and industry consistently debating which method and style is most effective and what is the optimal amount of feedback a coach should provide. The purpose of this article is to define the principles of the art vs science debate in elite coaching, and formulate and assess the effectiveness of both strategies.

When considering the definition of coaching, John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance, suggests it is about unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them (Whitmore, 2006). This idea encapsulates the role and responsibility of the coach and holds particularly true for a coach at an elite level. At this point in their career, athletes have already achieved a level of skill mastery through the learning to play, facilitation/specialisation phase of skill acquisition and have a sound comprehension and understanding of the specifics of the relevant sport. Coaches need to take on a role that is about formulating a strategic plan to optimally shape the athlete, team or organisation for elite performance. These plans need to be based on weekly results that lead to the end state of a premiership, tournament or competition win; in this instance the coach becomes the facilitator of learning.

Coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the 'here and now' rather than on the distant past or future (What is coaching, 2017). With the management of sport as a consumable product of modern society, the sporting market has become a saturated business with a win at all costs mentality; a modern-day colosseum. From a business point of view, billions of dollars are invested in the setup, conduct and management of sporting leagues and organisations with winning as the major determination for business success. The second order effects of this include minimal time for individual/team coaching, education, or professional development in order to set the organisation up for long term success.

Coaches can use the art of coaching to push physical, mental, emotional and spiritual boundaries in order to develop a fitter, faster, stronger individual or team that is robust and resilient (Nash, Sproule & Horton, 2011). The science, on the other hand, is about managing the physiological aspect of the athlete and controls the training loads, parameters and shapes the 'how much'; it is essentially evidence-based training. Put simply, the art constitutes the human element while the science is concerned with the data and programming to optimise an athlete’s physical preparation for competition. Regardless of their approach, a coach has several periods throughout the year to develop player outcomes in different ways. For example, a coach has the pre-season to potentially look at developing strength and conditioning, as well as build on leadership, resilience and holistic athletic values. During the season the coach is potentially looking at rehabilitation, load management, recuperation and recovery in order to ensure maximum talent development from the first game to the last (Vaughan, 2018). Even if different strategies are employed at different times, within these phases the coach must maintain the overall focus of winning a premiership, competition or tournament while also considering how to facilitate a player’s learning, and ability to grow.

A Coach's Dilemma – Art vs. science in coaching

Within the coaching framework, the distinction needs to be made between teaching someone and helping to facilitate their learning. The fundamental role of the coach is to help individuals improve their performance: in other words, help them learn. Coaches who tend to get more out of players appreciate that while individuals will often find the answer to their own problems, they may at times need the answer given to them. The dilemma for the coach is facilitating the learning outcome with an appropriate mix of science and art. What the approximate mix looks like is highly debated, thus both perspectives need to be analysed individually.

What is the Art of Coaching

According to Nash, et al. (2011) training sessions are the embodiment of the coach’s art and reflect how they believe the athlete’s skills can best be developed. Training is the mechanism by which the coach brings all the elements of effective practice together and is the point at which they impart their craft to the subject, be it a squad, a team, a unit, a team-unit, or an individual athlete. The art of coaching is based on an interpretation of the athlete’s learning deficiency with the intent being to correct that deficiency in a holistic way. The coach’s strategic plan to facilitate performance becomes essential to the athlete’s learning curve. Consequently, the art of coaching can be labelled as a subjective process. According to Williams (2006) decision making is at the very heart of an elite coach’s practice because the onus for deciding how best to structure practice and provide effective instruction rests, by and large, with them. It is the coach who decides what type of practice the athletes engage in and when or who provides instruction. When a coach plans a session, they consider the players’ strengths, weaknesses, abilities and talents as well as the demographic character and personalities within the organisation. They will also plan with an intent to exploit the opposition’s weakness.

Benefits of using the art of coaching

Humans rely on the senses to touch, taste, smell, see, hear and feel. The sensors provide feedback based on external stimuli that enable them to make judgements and decisions. Given physical parameters, the art of coaching enlightens the athlete on the best way to use the senses and where to focus their attention. It also empowers the human brain and enforces the will to win. A winning mindset can be developed in a free but secure environment. Science cannot analyse, monitor or regulate the willingness and desires of an athlete or team. Measuring success and how far they will go to succeed is fundamental to the art of coaching. The psychology of winning when understood at the elite level can be used by coaches to push individuals, groups or teams to increase resilience, mental fortitude and build robust teamwork and leadership qualities. The ability to ‘endure’ the art allows an athlete to have an adaptive response to extreme change and the continual ebb and flow of sport (Nash, et al., 2011). The more exposure the athlete has to these situations, the more habitual it becomes, which in turn creates stability, ideally improving performance outcomes.

The negative aspects to the art of coaching

The art of coaching is about ‘the feeling’ and has no boundaries. Coaches have the ability to push players to the extreme: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This is the fine line that coaches run the risk of crossing, resulting in physical injury, mental and emotional stress or strain and break-up of team cohesion, values and relationships. Without the arc of scientific boundaries, the conduct of training has no dimensions or scope for evaluation. At the elite level of coaching, everything needs to be governed in order to provide analysis to develop best practice. When looking at the professional development of coaches who use an art-based approach, being provided mentorship or seeking advice can lead to interpretational errors and misleading guidance.

What is the science of coaching?

The science of coaching can be viewed as a factual process, informed by raw outcomes to support objective, evidence based decision making. Vaughan (2018) as part of the player development project, highlights the science of coaching as the use of methods, technologies and tools as a means to predict and control sports training and performance. Video analysis, data, equipment, GPS, and bio feedback are the tools that are utilised to simplify the sport. They are designed to reduce the complexity of human movement and include the technologies that turn complex decisions into key performance indicators (Vaughan, 2018). Using science as an educational pathway teaches the importance of factual evidence which emphasises the theory of coaching rather than the experience of coaching. (Smith & Smoll, 1997).

The benefits of using scientific coaching

The use of science in coaching enables the organisation to develop, monitor, periodise and control the athlete, team or squad. Science provides an objective data pool, it creates boundaries which acts as a force multiplier. Supported by reliable and valid sports science, coaches are able to minimise the risk of injury as training loads, speeds, distances, nutrition and prehabilitation etc are managed. The second order effect of this is the longevity of the player. If a sporting organisation can prolong the career of a talented athlete, the chance of success increases. Science also provides measurable outcomes that can be evaluated, assessed, reformed and reimplemented. The benefits of this is the ability to create periodised programs throughout a pre-season, in season and post season, thus providing the utmost care to the athlete.

The negative aspects of using the science of coaching

Gilbert and Trudel (2004) conducted a review of coaching incorporating sports science over a 30-year period. They discovered a dearth of published studies that considered coaches who exhibited exemplary styles or practice. It was identified by Jones and Turner (2006) that only a very small number of coaches had gained their expertise through coach-education programs. Many coaches had in fact decided that formal qualifications offered little value and played no role in the development of their knowledge as elite coaches (Armour 2004). In an interview with Michael Maguire, former NRL premiership winning head coach of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Maguire stated:

'The modern game is bound by scientific constraints, how far a player runs, how fast they run, how many hit ups etc. The coaching education programs, books and data can only tell you fact, but learning and being mentored from other professionals' experiences helps you develop solutions to potential situations. Art in coaching is about building a relationship and trust with your playing group. Science cannot help you build a relationship, building a relationship based on trust is critical. As a head coach I need a player to trust me to take him to somewhere he has never been in order to strive for excellence. I need to be able to read his body language, his mood, his hunger to succeed'.
– Maguire in a personal communication, 2018

The practical application of experiences allows coaches to build a toolbox that ultimately provides industry ready solutions. Science limits the outcomes to factual evidence-based training; it does not allow or take into consideration the human element in the willingness to succeed, the desire or want for more and the passion to push boundaries beyond that of what science can offer. The emotional, mental and physical battles that are endured during a competition do not get tested to the full extent in a scientific based program. Science gives an athlete a known outcome, a pre, during and end state, providing a very controlled environment.

The evolution of a sport and the continual growth of coaching can only be documented at a certain speed. Therefore, the sport that is played this season is never the same style that is played next season. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to provide cutting edge, latest trend scientific education pathways to elite coaches. The current science-based education programs cover fundamental development for sub-elite coaches that provide a platform for success but not cutting edge current industry practice for the elite tier of coaches. According to Irwin, Hanlon and Kerwin (2004) elite coaches maintain that existing coaching programs are not sufficient to further their development, whereas pathways embracing interaction with senior coaches and mentors are viewed as being far more productive.

Solutions to the problem

According to Mackenzie (1997), the art of coaching comes when the coach has to analyse the scientific data and convert it into training programs to help develop the athlete. The analysis process relies heavily on the coach’s experience and knowledge of the event/sport and the athlete concerned. This suggests that the best means of mixing the art vs science is for the coaching staff to conduct a demographical analysis of the playing cohort, allowing the coach to utilise the art for forming relationships and gaining trust while pushing their athletes physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The scientific coaching aspect can then provide the support, parameters and boundaries that a coach can utilise as a guide for enabling the art. Maintaining a holistic approach to coaching is a force multiplier therefore the use of art and science in a periodised, contextualised format empowers the knowledge and ability of elite coaches (Magness, 2018). According to authors Richard Martin and Kenneth Mickelson, when they explored the dichotomy of specialist vs generalist, they found that the generalist represented the art of coaching while the specialist represented the science. Traditionally, the two themes are at opposite ends of the scale, but Martin and Mikkelsen argue that we do disservice by plotting them in such a way. Instead, as they outline in their book, it should be more like an infinite loop. 'As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialise, sometimes we generalise, regardless of where our preference lies' (Martin & Mikkelsen, 2016, as cited in Magness, 2018, para. 22). 

The key concept to take away from Martin and Mikkelen’s theory is that fluidity is paramount in shaping the generalist (art) and specialist (science) within an organisation. The organisational objectives may dictate that one area requires more attention than the other, however, it is essential that the components of art and science complement each other and are intertwined.

In the simplest analogical form, a car can get you from A to B (science) but how fast, smooth, comfortable and which way you get there is dictated by the driver (art): in this case the driver is the coach (Wright, 2017). The coach follows the science and artistically brings it to life by motivation, by control, by presence, by building relationships and trust...the human element.


When offering consideration to the most effective coaching method, both the art and science need to be comprehensively considered. This research has detailed both realms, including benefits and areas of concern. The fact that a sport requires human participation suggests art is essential, but strategically the sport itself requires science. To be a successful coach the orchestration of artistic development and scientific variables is a key factor. A coach’s demographic assessment and breakdown of the organisation, athletes and staff can be used to determine how much science vs art is required. A successful coach has the ability to balance and interpret factual evidence with artistic value. Engagement, communication, relationships and trust epitomise their skill and art as a coach. Whilst the guidance of evidence-based data, resources, equipment and modernisation form the parameters within which a coach works, the success of the coach in elite sport is assessed through athlete/team performance and their ability to achieve the desired outcome.