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What Makes a Great Athlete? 4 Insights for High Performance Coaching

A high performance coach encouraging an athleteWhile the conventional wisdom may say that someone is a born athlete, a close look at coaches’ role in their players’ development reveals that athletes are also made. High performance coaching is a method for developing players’ emotional wellness alongside their physical prowess. Whether teaching a complex football pattern or mentoring interpersonal skills like empathy, trustworthiness and dedication, effective coaches invest themselves in their players, and in return, the players give their best to the team.

The result of these relationships is players who are often better-adjusted to daily life and driven toward success. It’s difficult to say for sure whether strong coaching bonds make someone excel at sports, but one study of Canadian Olympic athletes concluded (based on self-reports) that the “top two contributors to medal winning or personal best performances were the quality of the coach-athlete relationship and the athlete’s self-awareness.” This speaks to a need for qualified coaches with a combination of real-world experience and research-supported strategy for seeing their players succeed.

The need for high school, college and professional coaches means you can specialize in the level that aligns best with your interests. If you’re a mid-career coach considering further education to advance in your field, a degree from a cutting edge, evidence-driven master’s program can set you apart from other job candidates. Graduates of the University of Florida’s MS in Sport Management pursue rewarding roles helping athletes in all areas of their lives.

Four Insights for High Performance Coaching

If you’re considering an advanced degree in a sports-related discipline, University of Florida’s specialization in High Performance Coaching as part of the online Master of Science in Sport Management can qualify you for a frontline role in athletes’ development. Understanding what goes into high-performance coaching can help you make a well-informed decision about continuing education. Here are some insights into four fundamental ways that winning coaches help their players:

Emotional intelligence “contributes to the arsenal of leadership qualities necessary for a coach to produce consistent high-performance in self and others.”
— Jonathan Chan and Clifford Mallett, sport science researchers

1. Develop a Sophisticated Understanding of Human Behavior

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to identify one’s own feelings and desires and empathize with others’ experiences. Sport science researchers Jonathan Chan and Clifford Mallett posit that EI “contributes to the arsenal of leadership qualities necessary for a coach to produce consistent high-performance in self and others.”
The University of Florida’s M.S. in Sport Management with a specialization in High Performance Coaching prepares coaches to develop their players’ skills using the DISC model, which includes dominance, influence, steadiness, conscientiousness.

  • Dominance refers to how individuals contend with problems (i.e., facing them directly or indirectly, using certain skills, etc.) Coaches can instill dominance by encouraging players to be curious about the world and analytical about the problems they face in it, whether that’s at a track meet or in daily traffic.
  • Influence is a measure of someone’s level of introversion versus extroversion, meaning it gauges whether people draw influence from being around others or from being alone. High-influence people may appear more outgoing and sociable. However, introverts also thrive on connections, they just need to recharge by being alone.
  • Steadiness is the pace at which someone completes a task or progresses toward a goal. This trait is crucial for learning athletes because it teaches them to take losses in stride and continue making measurable progress toward predefined goals.
  • Conscientiousness gauges the extent to which someone prefers rules and structure. Players low in conscientiousness, for example, may need more one-on-one attention from their coach to keep focused.

The DISC model rates individuals on a scale and categorizes the scores as high or low. This means someone who, for example, is high in dominance, will likely be more assertive about what they want and take greater risks in pursuit of their goals. High performance coaches help their players identify important traits like these and apply them in their lives.

2. Encourage Athletes to Exhibit Good Behavior

Frequent controversies over athletes’ off-the-field actions show how important it is for coaches to reinforce positive behavior, such as being humble, respecting others and contributing to the greater good. All of these traits constitute good character, which is an essential quality for successful athletes, according to respondents in a 2019 survey of college coaches. Self-awareness helps athletes understand what drives them and make consistent progress toward the goals they hold important.

Self-awareness starts with knowing what you do best and where you can improve. Awareness can progress to understanding what resources you need to excel at your goals, how you can respond to setbacks and what effect your improvement efforts have on yourself and others. Developing this awareness allows athletes to nurture teamwork through mutual respect and weather losses without feeling emotionally defeated.

Coaches foster this ability in their players by having a strong foundation for it in their own lives. Earning an advanced degree in sport management from UF helps aspiring coaches develop interpersonal awareness through a blend of hands-on experience and in-depth research. Graduates go on to an array of careers providing critical guidance and support for athletes at all stages of development.

3. Establish an Environment Conducive to High Achievement

Besides devising the lessons and understanding the best methods for learning, high performance coaches also have to set the stage for their athletes. Creating a productive learning environment includes tangible measures like providing the right equipment, plus making sure players feel supported, get the rest and nutrition they need, and so on.

A well-structured learning environment lets coaches set standards and expectations, then observe how effective their lessons are. In a July 2022 article, Paul Larkin et al. state that maintaining a solid learning environment means “knowing your athletes’ capabilities and their needs and deciding what to prioritize in the upcoming practice session.” High performance coaches understand the need to apply this concept beyond practice sessions; they maintain the right conditions for learning in their personal interactions, at public events and any other scenario where they’re modeling behavior for their players.

4. Teach Athletes to Motivate and Push Themselves

For times when their coach is not nearby blowing a whistle and providing instruction, athletes need to be able to think on their feet and make positive decisions.

There will inevitably be times when players are on their own and must apply their coach’s lessons without their direct involvement. High performance coaches do their best to equip their players with technical know-how while also fostering their self-sufficiency to encourage positive decisions in any circumstance.

Intrinsic motivation, or the self-guided drive to succeed, is a critical trait for high performance coaches to instill in their players. For times when their coach is not nearby blowing a whistle and providing instruction, athletes need to be able to think on their feet and make positive decisions. Psychologists Stefano Di Domenico and Richard Ryan note the positive connection of intrinsic motivation to flow, or “experiential states of total absorption, optimal challenge, and non-self-conscious enjoyment of an activity.” Since flow also correlates to improved performance, the implications for intrinsic motivation is clear—it helps players win.

These are just a few of the tactics high-performance coaches focus on for shaping champions. The principals that tie them all together, such as commitment, integrity, and perseverance, plus expert knowledge of the game, are some of the qualities coaches learn about and master in an M.S. in Sport Management with a specialization in High Performance Coaching.

About UF's Online M.S. in Sport Management

The online Master of Science in Sport Management from University of Florida readies students to take on complex financial and administrative challenges in the world of sports. The comprehensive sport management curriculum can help you develop your skills as a multifaceted, multi-talented professional who is ready to break into the field of sport representation.

Through core courses that include Sport Marketing and Management and Leadership in Sport and electives such as Sports Sponsorship, Sport Psychology, and What Drives Winning Leaders, you will gain in-depth knowledge of the business of sports.

Athlete Development was created especially for those who want to work directly with athletes to successfully balance the demands of their sport with the demands of living a lucrative and productive life off the field.

High Performance Coaching is intended for students who wish to pursue positions in managerial coaching or athletic administration, showing them how to foster the best performances in athletes.

Sport Law teaches lawyers and administrators about legal principles that can have important applications in the world of athletics, including insurance, real estate finance, insurance, and fair competition.

Director of Racquet Sports is ideal for racquet sports enthusiasts seeking leadership roles. Whether you aim to run a racquet sports business or oversee a country club or league, this concentration equips you with vital skills in sport management, program development, sport marketing, budgeting, human relations, and more.

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