A great teacher can spot potential, inspire and encourage us to challenge ourselves. This applies in physical activity and sport, as much as it does in the classroom.
At Leap, our aim is to improve lives through physical activity and sport. We work with coaches, volunteers, clubs and professional workforce to increase the number of active residents in Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. To achieve our goal, we need to recruit coaches who reduce barriers and make physical activity accessible to all.
It is no surprise that motivation levels, engagement and positive outcomes are dependent on the attitude and ability of those leading the group. The challenge for us was pinpointing particular skills. What was needed to achieve the dual impact of encouraging people to turn up for one session and then to motivate them to return time and again?
Our search for the answers began with a Workforce Evaluation Guidance document, provided by Sport England. This enabled us to map out existing data in terms of the skills and behaviours of coaches. We could then spot patterns associated with the coaches who lead well-attended groups.
We also encouraged our Project Leads to have conversations with coaches and participants to find out what they enjoyed about sessions. Working to keep older adults active, address inequality in access to physical activity and encourage mental well-being are three examples of our projects. The feedback provided by these diverse groups proved insightful.
What Skills does a Good Coach Need?
Until now, our recruitment process has prioritised qualifications. Coaches have to be qualified to teach their sports and activities so formal qualifications are an ‘essential’ skill set on our job descriptions. The soft skills, such as being an effective communicator and personable have been classed as ‘desirable’.
The Importance of People Skills in Participation
When using the Workforce Evaluation Guidance, we realised that the feedback from many participants often focused on the coach’s people skills. If the participant had felt welcomed at the start of the session, encouraged during the session and spoken with before they left, their enjoyment increased. This seemed to be a more influential factor than the activity being delivered.
This feedback ties into the evidence that participation in physical activity brings many more benefits than simply keeping fit. There is a social side, a sense of belonging to a group. There may be a fun element, where people can switch off from their daily routine and enjoy themselves. There is also a sense of achievement when you do something new, reach a goal or the team wins a match.
Good attendance is also a boost for the coach. When attendees discover a new passion or achieve a personal goal, the coach gets a personal reward. They feel good about providing an experience which results in positive outcomes.
The Value of Coach Collaboration
The other discovery was, no matter how great the coach and the session were, willpower is hard to maintain from one week to the next. Even if participants were buzzing post-session, other influences such as tiredness, childcare or work can make it an effort to return the following week.
In some sessions, two coaches were working collaboratively. One might take the lead during the session, the other manages the meet and greet, paperwork and in some cases, contacting participants between sessions. Our evaluation revealed that the most successful groups were those where such collaboration existed.
Implementing Change to Maximise the Impact of Coaching
Undertaking workforce evaluation has helped Leap to identify and reflect on the core coaching competencies that apply, irrespective of the sport or activity.
In line with our findings, we will alter our approach to recruitment and training. In job descriptions, we will place certain people skills into the ‘essential’ category. We will also change our interview questions, to ensure that future coaches have a good balance of sporting competence and soft skills. Future training and mentoring will have a greater focus on the sharing and development of people skills. This shift is in line with changes being made by UK Coaching.
We will also explore opportunities to replicate successful coach collaboration across Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. There will be a financial implication to pairing up, however, this can be justified if there is a positive and sustained impact on participation in physical activity and sport.
We believe that these are effective ways to boost the dual benefits of a healthier population and the resulting social and economic development.