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Coaching specific groups

Coaching Indigenous athletes

Coaching Indigenous athletes

All athletes are individuals and bring different backgrounds, cultures and understanding to your coaching sessions. As a coach you are not expected to have an in-depth knowledge of every athlete’s background and culture, however there are some considerations to take into account when coaching Indigenous athletes.

Note:  The following considerations will not apply to every individual, but knowledge of them may help avoid misunderstanding and conflict.

  1. Importance of family: The family network plays a very important role in an Indigenous athlete’s life. Family approval and acceptance of you as a coach and your training program is important.  This is even more crucial if you want an athlete to relocate for their sport.
  2. ‘Shame Job’ is a term used to explain the reluctance of some Indigenous athletes to be singled out for achievement or recognition.  Even if the recognition is positive, it may be that the athlete does not want to be seen as better than their peers.  This attention can result in the athlete actually performing below their skill level in order to gain less attention or they may even stop participating.
  3. Eye Contact:  This varies between different groups of people, but in traditional Indigenous communities, looking someone in the eye, particularly elders, is extremely rude and disrespectful.  This may also follow that some younger athletes may not look a coach in the eye.  Rather than not paying attention, they may simply be showing respect for your position.
  4. Culture:  Various ceremonies can result in unexplained absences from training or a fairly vague reason for non-attendance, such as ‘family business’.  As a coach, you should respect and be sensitive to the different cultural requirements of individuals.
  5. Communication:  English may be an athlete’s second or even third language, so assuming a high level of understanding of technical terminology may result in misunderstandings.  Vary your methods of communication and use appropriate terminology for your group to minimise breakdowns in communication.  Simply asking ‘does everyone understand?’ does not always help, as many Indigenous athletes are less likely to say they don’t understand or ask questions for clarification.  Providing good demonstrations is important.
  6. Respect:  This is not always given just because you are a coach.  Particularly if you are young or female, this may need to be proved.  One way to assist in gaining respect is to have the support of someone who already holds a position of respect in the community. 
  7. Time:  The concept of time can be fairly flexible in some communities and it may take ‘time’ and education for athletes to understand that 5pm training means 5pm. An athlete turning up late may not be a sign of disrespect or lack of commitment, but simply that the concept of structured time is less important.  This is certainly something that can be worked on.
  8. Health and socio economic status:  While it may seem a generalisation, research tells us that Indigenous Australians face a number of health and socio economic disadvantages.  Indigenous Australians suffer a higher level of illness and infectious diseases, are more likely to be hospitalised, are more likely to live in crowded accommodation or be homeless and are more likely to be long-term unemployed or low income earners. Therefore, you shouldn’t assume that all athletes have had a good night’s sleep and a meal before training or games. This may be the reason for lethargic performance or lack of attention.
  9. Protocol:  When working with an Indigenous community, you need to be aware of the organisational structure of the community and protocols involved.  Permits and permission from local councils may be required before an activity can be conducted, so find out what is required first and follow the correct procedures and protocols.

While Indigenous athletes are less likely to be critical to your face, if they don’t like your coaching, they will very quickly vote with their feet and not turn up again.

Sport is an important part of all athletes’ lives.  Having a little bit of cultural sensitivity can only make you a better coach.

Case study

Ethan has just moved to an Indigenous community and is coaching the junior football team. The team is competing in a regional competition and Ethan is delighted to notice that Ben, in particular, is a real star. Ethan praises Ben’s skills and starts using him to demonstrate many of the skills and activities. However, after a couple of weeks Ben’s performance starts dropping rapidly and he is often late for training. Ethan cannot understand what has happened.

In some Indigenous groups, being singled out and identified as being better than others can be very embarrassing (sometimes called ‘shame job’) and can result in an athlete under-playing their skills or giving up a sport. Being able to ‘read’ a situation such as this and being sensitive to the different cultural needs of individuals and groups will improve a coach’s effectiveness.

Coaching older athletes

In general terms, changes occur physiologically in older athletes. There tends to be a reduction in the work capacity, heart-lung efficiency, endurance, power, strength, agility and coordination after 30 to 40 years of age.

When coaching older athletes it is important to:

  • check with the athlete regarding any health or injury issues.  A medical clearance may be advisable for some types of activities
  • include longer warm up and cool down periods
  • provide alternatives to reduce intensity of activities
  • include longer recovery periods between activities
  • encourage feedback on the intensity of training
  • encourage the individual. Fitness levels can still be improved, regardless of the current standard
  • be aware that endurance capacities slowly decrease between 25-65 years.  Greater decreases occur after 65 years
  • be aware that while strength decreases with age, it can be improved with training
  • be aware that the reasons masters athletes participate may be different to their younger counterparts.  Social reasons and health may be more important than performance outcomes to many masters athletes.

Further resources are available to assist coaches in planning training programs and understanding the needs of older athletes.

Inclusive coaching

Being inclusive means adapting and modifying coaching practices and activities to ensure every participant, regardless of age, gender, ability level, disability and ethnic background has the opportunity to participate if they choose to. Good coaches adapt and modify aspects of their coaching and create an environment that caters for individual needs and allows everyone to take part. The onus of inclusion rests with the coach.

Many people think that you need special skills or knowledge to coach participants with a disability. This is not the case. The basic skills of good coaching, when applied with an inclusive philosophy, will ensure the inclusion of all participants including people with disability becomes a natural part of coaching.

Planning for inclusion

The acronym CHANGE IT provides a tool that can be used to help modify the activity to meet the individual needs of the participant:

Coaching style — e.g. demonstrations, or use of questions, role models and verbal instructions

How to score or win

Area — e.g. size, shape or surface of the playing environment

Number of participants involved in the activity

Game rules — e.g. number of bounces or passes

Equipment — e.g. softer or larger balls, or lighter, smaller bats/racquets

Inclusion — e.g. everyone has to touch the ball before the team can score

Time — e.g. ‘How many … in 30 seconds?’

When preparing a coaching program, examine what, if anything, needs to be adapted or modified. In other words, what or how the participant can:

  • see (predominantly relevant to participants with vision impairment)
  • hear (predominantly relevant to participants who are deaf or hearing impaired)
  • move (predominantly relevant to participants with a physical disability)
  • learn, recall or reproduce skills (predominantly relevant to participants with an intellectual disability)
  • perform tasks and activities (relevant to all participants).

There are very few disabilities or medical conditions that completely preclude participation in sport. people with disability take part in sport and physical activity for the same reasons as other people; to improve fitness, develop new skills, increase social contacts, and to have the chance to achieve and receive recognition.

Qualities and skills of an inclusive coach

Patience: Recognising some participants will take longer to develop skills or make progress than others

Respect: Acknowledging difference and treating all participants as individuals

Adaptability: Having a flexible approach to coaching and communication that recognises individual differences

Organisation: Recognising the importance of preparation and planning

Safe practices: Ensuring every session, whether with groups or individuals, is carried out with the participants’ safety in mind

Knowledge: Utilising knowledge of training activities and how to modify them in order to maximise the potential of every participant

Tips for coaches working with participants with a disability

  • People with disabilities have the right to participate in sport. They are very capable of being involved and can tell the coach what they are able to do.
  • The basic principles of coaching apply when coaching participants with a disability. Provided the coach is prepared to accept each participant as an individual.
  • The needs, strengths and weaknesses of individuals will differ. The coach should assess each person’s aspirations, needs and ability and plan a training program accordingly.
  • It is not necessary to acquire extensive knowledge of the disability. The coach needs to understand how the impairment affects the participant’s performance and be able to plan and deliver a training program that best suits the participant.
  • Effective communication is essential, especially for participants who have sensory or intellectual disabilities.
  • Do not under-estimate ability. Set realistic and challenging goals as you would for all participants.
  • Medical conditions, such as diabetes, epilepsy, asthma and heart disease, should not preclude people participating in sport. Sensible precautions should be followed and the coach needs to be aware of the coaching implications of the person’s condition and what to do in case of an emergency. (Important note: not all people with disabilities have medical conditions such as those mentioned above. In addition, some people without disabilities may have one of the above medical conditions. Do not restrict your medical screening to people with disability!)

Pygmalion effect

Coaching – the Pygmalion effect and self-fulfilling prophesies

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor, who fell in love with his sculpture of a woman. The “Pygmalion effect” says that our expectations of others influences how we interact with them and, in turn, influences their subsequent performance – good and bad. The Pygmalion effect is often at play in coaching!

Central to the Pygmalion effect is the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the expectations and perceptions that coaches form about their athletes serve as prophecies that ultimately determine the athlete’s level of athletic achievement. This expectation-performance process has four steps:

  1. Coach develops expectations for each athlete
  2. The coach’s expectations influence his/her treatment of individual athletes
  3. The way that the coach treats individual athletes affects the athlete’s performance and rate of learning
  4. The athlete’s behaviour and performance conform to the coach’s expectations

Step 1 - Coach develops expectations for each athlete

Coaches make judgements about their athletes and form their expectations generally using three types of information: Person cues (e.g. gender, body size, racial or ethnic group), performance information (e.g. physical test results, past performances, others coaches’ comments), and psychological characteristics (e.g. estimations of coachability, self-discipline, maturity). Coaches vary in terms of the sources and weightings they use and while some of these expectations are processed cognitively, others are quite subconscious.

Step 2 - Coach’s expectations influence treatment of athletes

While it doesn’t always happen automatically, the expectations formed by coaches have the potential to affect their behaviour. Pygmalion-type coaches behave differently regarding high and low expectancy athletes. This is generally in relation to the frequency and quality of interactions, quantity and quality of instruction, as well as the frequency and type of performance feedback given.

Step 3 - Coach treatment affects athlete performance and rate of learning

The coach’s behaviours in the previous step then maximise the development of high-expectancy athletes while limiting the achievements of low-expectancy ones. Low expectancy players who are consistently given less effective and intensive instruction, and minimal active time in practice drills will not show the same degree of improvement as their high-expectancy team mates who are given optimal learning opportunities. So the coach’s original expectation determined rather than predicted the level of achievement. It is not just physical achievement that this effect relates to – it can also affect psychological growth (self-concept, perceived competence, intrinsic motivation, level of competitive trait anxiety) over a season.

Step 4 - The athlete’s behaviour and performance conform to the coach’s expectations

This behavioural conformity is an important step because it reinforces to the coach that their initial judgements were accurate – they think they are astute judges of potential! This can then intensify the coach’s Pygmalion tendencies.

Possible actions

There are a number of checks that you can do to make sure you’re not falling prey to your own expectations and judgements of potential! For example:

  • consider the sources you use to form early expectations of athletes
  • realise that early assessments of potential may be inaccurate and may need to change
  • design activities that provide all athletes with opportunities to develop skills
  • use skill improvement to evaluate and reinforce individual athletes
  • interact frequently with everyone
  • respond to skill errors with corrective instruction, and
  • be aware of the time each athlete spends in non-skill activities.

Final thoughts

It should be acknowledged that not all coaches are Pygmalion-prone and not all athletes allow their coach’s behaviour or expectations to affect their performances or development. This variation suggests that those who are aware of and understand the self-fulfilling prophesy can avoid some of the negative effects.

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