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Skill acquisition coach support strategies: guide by the side or critical friend

I’ve had a stimulating couple of weeks, and I’ll start with 2 questions:

  • Should a skill acquisition specialist be embedded within a particular sport program/support team, or project based (works with many different sports/teams during times of need)? In a different context, within a club or a county – should a skill acquisition specialist be embedded in with the flagship team or should they work with many different teams through a season?

  • Should a skill acquisition specialist be a guide by the side of the coach (support a coach’s decision-making process within a training session), or act as a critical friend to support predominantly the planning and reflection of practice?

My initial thought would be a skill acquisition specialist can be all of the above, each at appropriate times (i.e., it depends! (Collins et al., 2022)). But I will discuss what each means and what each may look like in different environments (and may go off on a couple of tangents too).

Coaching as a decision-making process

Firstly, it may be useful to state my own perspective and lens when considering these questions. I am viewing skill acquisition as a coach learning strategy, rather than an athlete development strategy (it is, of course, both). Many studies have been conducted on how a skill acquisition intervention can influence athletic performance (Anderson et al., 2019; Gorman & Maloney, 2016; Jamil et al., 2023; Krause et al., 2019; Maloney et al., 2018; Pinder et al., 2009). From this position, skill acquisition is a tool for athlete development, and a very useful one too.

My own work currently is exploring different methods to incorporate skill acquisition principles into coaching practice. From this position, a skill acquisition specialist is akin to a coach developer. And in many ways (in my view) the relationship between a coach and an athlete is similar to that of a coach developer (skill acquisition specialist*) and a coach. Should a coach be a “guide by the side” of their athletes? How can an athlete develop their decision-making abilities if a coach is making/guiding all of their decisions for them? Does this allow athletes enough room to explore? Maybe this guidance is necessary initially, or through difficult periods to support and athlete's continued growth. It's not either/or, but when and where is each strategy appropriate? I think a similar perspective can be applied to skill acquisition specialist and a coach.

*I don’t think a skill acquisition specialist is necessarily a coach developer, but I believe a skill acquisition specialist can play a key role in a coach’s development.

(Abraham and Collins, 2011)

I have spoken previously about how coaching is a decision-making process (Abraham, 2015), and the above image previously (Abraham and Collins, 2011). When viewing coaching this way, a skill acquisition specialist could consider how they can best support a coach’s decision-making, rather than focusing on choosing for them. A coach’s decision-making process, or evidence-informed practice, is influenced by their experiential, evidential, and contextual knowledge base in three key areas – knowledge of the individual (physiology, psychology etc.), knowledge of the sport (technical/tactical) and knowledge of learning environments (skill acquisition and pedagogy). Therefore, a skill acquisition specialist can play a key role in the development of a coach’s decision-making process.

Embedded vs project-based

Two ways in which a skill acquisition specialist can support a coach is by being embedded into a program or by being project-based (work within a sport program for a period of time). There are pros and cons to both approaches, which is why both approaches should be utilised at different times!

An inch wide and a mile deep (embedded)

A skill acquisition specialist being embedded means that they are part of the furniture. They attend every training session, sit in on all meetings, and have regular contact with all stakeholders. Lines of communication are well established and relatively straightforward. Support can be delivered immediately. A by-product of all of this is that a deeper, more trusting relationship can be developed between the skill acquisition specialist and coach due to the increased time spent working together over a prolonged period. If a coach is going to be vulnerable with a skill acquisition specialist, especially around their “bread and butter” (practice design and coach-athlete interactions), a trusting relationship is paramount. Dehghansai et al. (2020) offers some great insights into how two coaches, and Olympic coach and a Paralympic coach, viewed such embedded skill acquisition support.

A mile wide and an inch deep (project-based)

On the other hand, a project-based skill acquisition specialist is one who might work with many different coaches over the same prolonged period. A coach may request skill acquisition support and the skill acquisition subsequently is involved in the given program for the duration of the specific project (maybe 4-20 weeks). Being project based is more efficient for an organisation (like an institute of sport, where the project-based skill acquisition specialist can service multiple teams) and may potentially offer some variety for the skill acquisition specialist too, which may increase their contact points with different programs. This variety may lend itself to enhanced practitioner development by being exposed to many different problems in many different ways.

My views

To reiterate what I said at the beginning of this piece – it really does depend.

  • Take a former elite level athlete, who possesses extraordinary knowledge of the sport, and a basic level of knowledge of the individual (physiology, psychology etc.), but a novice understanding of learning environments. To support this coach, having a skill acquisition specialist embedded within their performance services may support their acquisition of knowledge of learning environments, and their subsequent application of their new knowledge.

  • Another coach who has spent the previous 10 years as an assistant coach after her playing career has worked with a wide variety of coaches (i.e., they possess a vast array of experiential knowledge), may possess a relatively good understanding of learning environments, but may need skill acquisition support to ensure they are continually staying on the right track relative to their goals, or just to cover any blind spots.

In my view, coaches (especially expert coaches) do not need intense skill acquisition support for a long period of time. I have touched on this previously (linked above). They may need initial support in the acquisition of new knowledge, and the application of such knowledge. Once they have critically acquired new knowledge, they need to be given space to explore in the application of this new knowledge.

My own vision of the role of a skill acquisition specialist as a guide by the side of the coach is like the role google maps players for a driver.

  • The driver who is new to the city will follow the directions that google maps provides. The driver can subsequently use the directions provided to acquire knowledge of his new surroundings.

  • A driver who is more familiar with the area may use google maps sparingly or may decide not to follow the instructions given and follow a better route.

Therefore, the value of an intervention is not so much about the service itself (google maps or guide on the side), it is more about who is using the service and how.

A guide on the side does not mean a skill acquisition specialist has a dictatorial role over a coach. But depending on the coach’s initial skill level, they may surrender to any suggestions from their guide due to their lack of knowledge to reflect against. Over time this input from the guide on the side can contribute to their knowledge and understanding of learning environments, provided the necessary reflection takes place. For more on reflective practice, see here.

A skill acquisition specialist as a critical friend perhaps acts more like a fly on the wall, and supports before and after a session, but not as prominent during.** Here they support the planning and reflection and allow the coach to deliver without any input or distraction. While there may be some benefits to this (it is less confrontational for the coach, and allows them freedom to explore), there are some issues. My own experiences working with some amateur coaches is that a 5-minute discussion pre-training, and a 5-minute reflection session post training is not enough to educate coaches and change practice. Coaches who lack knowledge around learning environments need more intense support than what may be provided by a critical friend (in how I have described it above).

**This is just one potential arrangement, each coach-skill acquisition specialist working relationship is unique.

In essence, a skill acquisition specialist acting as a guide by the side of the coach or a critical friend to the coach can both be valuable solutions. What determines the success of each method is the contextual and individual factors of each situation. A guide by the side type of skill acquisition specialist may encroach on the coach’s decision-making process in some situations but may be completely necessary in others. A critical friend may not provide enough of a learning stimulus for coaches to change practice, or a critical friend may challenge a coach in appropriate ways. Rather than either/or, it’s when and where, and crucially, how? And practitioners in any domain must be adaptable and responsive to the contextual variability and the demands of each situation.


Abraham, A. (2015). Understanding Coaching as a Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications for Coach Development Practice University of Central Lancashire].

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). 15 - Effective skill development: how should athletes' skills be developed? In D. Collins, A. Button, & H. Richards (Eds.), Performance Psychology (pp. 207-229). Churchill Livingstone.

Anderson, D., Magill, R., Mayo, A., & Steel, K. (2019). Enhancing motor skill acquisition with augmented feedback. In (pp. 3-19). 

Collins, D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2022). It depends coaching – The most fundamental, simple and complex principle or a mere copout? Sports Coaching Review, 1-21. 

Dehghansai, N., Headrick, J., Renshaw, I., Pinder, R. A., & Barris, S. (2020). Olympic and Paralympic coach perspectives on effective skill acquisition support and coach development. Sport, Education and Society, 25(6), 667-680. 

Gorman, A. D., & Maloney, M. A. (2016). Representative design: Does the addition of a defender change the execution of a basketball shot? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 27, 112-119. 

Jamil, M., Woolston, L., Manthorpe, S., Mehta, S., Memmert, D., & McRobert, A. (2023). Adopting a Constraints-Led Approach to Enhance Skill Acquisition for Fast Bowlers in Grassroots Cricket. Journal of Coaching and Sports Science, 2, 78-86. 

Krause, L., Farrow, D., Pinder, R., Buszard, T., Kovalchik, S., & Reid, M. (2019). Enhancing skill transfer in tennis using representative learning design. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(22), 2560-2568. 

Maloney, M. A., Renshaw, I., Headrick, J., Martin, D. T., & Farrow, D. (2018). Taekwondo Fighting in Training Does Not Simulate the Affective and Cognitive Demands of Competition: Implications for Behavior and Transfer [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. 

Pinder, R. A., Renshaw, I., & Davids, K. (2009). Information–movement coupling in developing cricketers under changing ecological practice constraints. Human Movement Science, 28(4), 468-479. 



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