Bobby Knight, longtime head basketball coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, is famously quoted as saying, “To be as good as it can be, a team has to buy into what you as the coach are doing. They have to feel you’re a part of them, and they’re a part of you.”
In sports, different individuals and teams flourish under different types of coaching styles. Some athletes perform best under high expectations, others require a more hands-off approach, and still others thrive under a balanced style that calls upon team input. Successful coaches match their leadership style to players’ skills and personalities, and implement the style that works best for the majority. While every coach is unique, most common coaching styles fall into one of four major categories: democratic, autocratic, laissez-faire, and holistic.
Those interested in pursuing a career in coaching need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each style. A specialized education, such as an online bachelor’s in exercise science program, can equip future coaches with the knowledge and skills to lead their athletes through not only the competitive arena but also life.
A balanced approach that puts agency into the hands of players, democratic coaching is an empathetic style that values sportsmanship above all. When implemented correctly, it can facilitate a healthy team culture in which the coach and players make decisions together. Though the coach ultimately has the final say, the athletes also have a responsibility to find a way that works best for them.
Striking the balance between the input of multiple players and the coach’s final decision is not simple. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke University’s head men’s basketball coach and a 12-time national coach of the year, is known for his democratic leadership style, which typically includes the following key elements:
- Freedom to voice thoughts. Players give input on game strategies and practice routines, though the coach makes the final decisions.
- Growth through failure. If an athlete offers an idea that fails, it serves as an experience for both coach and players to grow together.
- Encouragement of creativity. Because players know their opinions will be heard, it encourages them to find new or different solutions to problems.
Many athletes thrive under these conditions. It can be empowering for athletes to have influence over their team’s direction and play under a coach who’ll push them to succeed in accomplishing their personal goals.
Despite its reputation as a successful coaching method, as Swimming World magazine points out, democratic coaching isn’t without its shortcomings. Because the method encourages player input but still relies on the coach to make the final decision, coaches need to implement that input fairly. If players see a coach indulging in favoritism toward certain athletes, it can damage the coach’s integrity and reputation with the team. Some athletes might then choose not to share ideas that could help improve the team’s performance.
When executed properly, the democratic style balances the coach-player relationship. The style is a steady, consistent method of coaching that neither demands too much nor too little from everyone involved, relying on mutual trust to succeed. As long as that trust isn’t broken, the democratic style is a good pick for aspiring coaches to try.
A demanding, authoritarian type of coaching style often works best situationally rather than as a consistent practice. Heavy on micromanagement and singular control over all creative and practical decisions, autocratic coaching can be effective, but in the wrong hands, it can negatively affect a team’s health and atmosphere.
Because autocratic coaches assume responsibility for every decision, little room is left for team input or innovation. Coaches must be confident that their way is always right, risking a reputation as a dictator that can compromise team camaraderie and goodwill.
In spite of its potential to go awry, this rigid coaching style isn’t without its place. In the hands of a competent coach, it can prove useful for securing team success. Pat Summitt, the most successful coach in college basketball history, was famous for her toughness, once refusing to let her team use the locker room for a month because she didn’t think the players’ performance deserved it.
She set high standards of excellence and pushed her players to reach them, with dominant results. As head coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers for 38 years, she never had a losing season, led the team to an NCAA record of 1,098 wins, won eight national championships, coached the 1984 U.S. women’s national basketball team to a gold medal, and was a seven-time NCAA coach of the year. She inspired a generation of athletes who played under her.
Strengths of Autocratic Coaching
The autocratic style requires coaches to have more experience and knowledge than their players; in the major leagues, that may not always be the case. When coaches do meet this standard, their ability to provide direction, establish routines, and execute deadlines can prove very productive in meeting certain goals. By offering structure, they remove confusion or lack of clarity within the team.
This method also liberates individual athletes from the stress of making complex decisions. With reduced ambiguity, they can focus on their target and dedicate all their energy to meeting the goals that the coach has established, and in the way the coach believes is best. For the right athlete, being given a specific role and told precisely how to fill it can elevate their level of play, allowing them to focus on their strengths without the distractions of decision-making.
Because it requires complete trust in the coach’s judgment, when it succeeds it can cement a team’s faith in that coach to make similar decisions in the future and prove that big goals are both attainable and repeatable.
Weaknesses of Autocratic Coaching
If left unchecked, sustained autocratic coaching can have the opposite effect, leading players to feel that their coach is bossy and controlling, breeding resentment and shutting down motivation when expectations feel too high.
Similarly, when players feel that their meaningful input is unappreciated, they may lose their motivation, and teams can miss out on lateral thinking that might create paths for growth and victory. The autocratic style often overlooks an individual’s expertise and creativity, hurting player morale in its pursuit of a strictly regimented plan.
Though a useful tool when used sparingly — reserved for urgent or high-stress situations — in the right hands, the autocratic style can mean the difference between defeat and advancement.
Also known as delegative leadership, laissez-faire coaching derives its power from trust and personal agency. Considered more hands-off than other methods, a laissez-faire coach essentially hands over decision-making power to the athletes, with the expectation that they’ll hold themselves accountable for training and practice.
This doesn’t mean that the coach isn’t ultimately held responsible. A healthy laissez-faire coaching strategy involves assuming the role of a team adviser or consultant, in which coaches make themselves available to players asking for help and dispense advice as requested. This coaching style puts most of its power in the hands of the players and relies on the expectation and trust that if they need anything, they can reach out to the coach as an open, reliable resource.
Because the laissez-faire method requires that athletes be self-motivated to achieve their goals and priorities, if they lose interest or don’t ask for assistance when they need it, it can fail. Coaches can only feel confident in the laissez-faire approach if they believe that their athletes possess the skill and discipline to operate without micromanagement.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Laissez-Faire Coaching
Coaches considering the laissez-faire style should weigh the pros and cons.
- Promotes growth. For players with personal agency and drive, the freedom to push themselves can lead to personal growth as athletes and people.
- Facilitates quick decisions. Because coaches don’t need to be consulted, athletes can rely on their instincts and intuition to make on-the-spot decisions.
- Encourages innovation. When athletes recognize their responsibility to overcome obstacles, they may experiment with new ideas and practices.
- Low accountability. For players with less personal agency, an environment with minimal oversight can lead to lazy or selfish behavior.
- Uninvolved behavior. The laissez-faire style can lead some players to care less about the culture and consistency of the team, focusing on their own needs instead.
- Poorly defined roles. Sometimes players don’t know what’s expected of them, nor what they can ask of their coaches. If coaches do a poor job of outlining the process, it can undermine their usefulness as leaders.
Laissez-faire coaching has a reputation as a risky style, but as with any form of leadership, it can be successful in the right hands. Some athletes thrive under laissez-faire leadership; it’s up to the coach to identify when to use it. A team of strong-willed, high-agency players can make it work, but if the players show signs of needing extra help or guidance to stay motivated, coaches may need to switch styles. If a coach refuses to switch styles when necessary, it could lead to a team that lacks discipline, focus, and consistency in their performance.
Holistic coaching embraces the whole person, recognizing that every athlete is a human first and a player second, and prioritizes growth accordingly.
On the surface, this may seem poorly suited to achieving optimal athletic performance, but in coaching the person rather than the athlete, a coach can affect players’ entire lives for the better. Recognizing that each player may have commitments to school, family, work, and other pursuits, a coach who cares can have a far-reaching, positive influence on the lives of players.
What Holistic Coaching Means for Players
A positive holistic relationship can be powerful to players. Knowing that they can turn to someone who is not only a reliable leader on the field but also a resource for navigating daily struggles can empower athletes in ways that other coaching styles can’t. With coaches who act as positive role models and exhibit productive behaviors, athletes know that someone with more wisdom and experience is on their side.
When players feel understood, have room to discover themselves and their motivations, and are encouraged to try new things, that cultivates a confidence that they can bring with them to their sport and their team. From there, confidence and energy can spread to their teammates, boosting the team’s performance.
A holistic team acknowledges that it works best when all team members know what they bring to the squad, and when one of them is struggling, all of them need to help that person overcome the obstacle. This can turn a team into a tightly knit community, even becoming like a family.
What Holistic Coaching Means for Coaches
Coaches who hope to guide a team with holistic coaching methods need to first be worthy of leading others. Their values, morals, and priorities need to reflect what they intend to instill in their players — contradictions and hypocrisy can be the downfall of this type of leadership. Nobody wants to take wisdom from people who don’t live by their word.
In some cases, this means creating habits and teaching lessons that may not be apparent until later in an athlete’s career, sometimes not until they’ve moved on to a different school or coach entirely. A coach who uses the holistic approach must acknowledge and encourage this, even if they never see the results or the full potential of that athlete.
Honesty, empathy, kindness, humility — these are just a few of the traits coaches need if they want to positively affect others and create an uplifting sports environment.
Other Coaching Styles
While coaches can often be categorized into the common approaches of democratic, autocratic, laissez-faire, and holistic coaching, there are other coaching styles that emphasize different skills or priorities in player development and what they hope to achieve.
Defined by its strict adherence to regulations and rules, bureaucratic coaching is less suited to individual coaching and better for working with large teams. Generally, coaches employ a bureaucratic coaching model when they must adhere to procedures put in place by their school or organization. Bureaucratic coaches aren’t expected to be as innovative, as their decision-making power is limited. However, forcing creativity within those limits may lead to new strategies that wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.
This coaching approach fosters self-awareness among athletes, encouraging introspection, development of coping mechanisms, and elimination of unwanted stress. When done well, mindful coaching reduces stress and anxiety in players, leading to a sense of peace and increased focus. Through this clarity, coaches can help their players better visualize goals and how to reach them, as well as connect with their teammates for improved performance.
An iteration of the holistic approach, developmental coaching identifies opportunities for individual growth and promotes internal development in the long term. Helpful for athletes who have hit a plateau, this style encourages sowing seeds and learning lessons in the present that will produce positive results later on. Patience and the promise of eventual returns can create success for developmental coaches.
In truth, there are as many coaching styles as there are coaches. Each coach should take what they find useful from different styles to discover what helps their teams grow, meet goals, and perform successfully.
Players should also acknowledge when a coach’s style isn’t suited to them, and either approach the coach about their concerns or find a coach whose style is more conducive to their growth. Coaches can’t always realize every strength of every player. Understanding that there’s no perfect coaching style can help both players and coaches acknowledge that if something isn’t working, a different style can be an improvement.
Discover Your Type of Coaching Style
When considering the kind of coach you hope to be, your leadership preferences and personality will dictate whether you’re drawn to the balance and empathy of the democratic style, the firmness of the autocratic style, the passive reliability of the laissez-faire style, or the broad guidance of the holistic coaching style.
Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science offers a strong foundation in team psychology, coaching tactics, and best practices in the fitness industry. With classes such as Adaptive Physical Activity, Applied Nutrition, Performance Coaching Strategies, and Personal and Community Health, the program is designed to give students the latest industry knowledge and practices, showcasing an understanding of human performance, physical integrity, and an awareness of the ever-evolving fitness technologies.
Maryville’s flexible online schedule lets you take hold of your future at your own pace and on your own terms. Learn more about how the online bachelor’s degree in exercise science can start you on the path to your dream career today.