Developing Expertise in Coaching: Learning from the Legends

By De Marco, George M.; McCullick, Byan A. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Developing Expertise in Coaching: Learning from the Legends


De Marco, George M., McCullick, Byan A., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


He believed that football was the vehicle through which his players could best be prepared for life. For him, coaching was truly a vocation to which he felt a deep calling. "He had the will of a perfectionist, the mind of a fundamentalist, and the heart of a father," recalled Father Guy McPartland (O'Brien, 1987, p. 71). These words used to describe Vincent Thomas Lombardi - a young football coach and science teacher at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, during the 1940s - reveal the essence of one of the greatest coaching legends of all time. Vince Lombardi successfully integrated his limitless coaching expertise with an ongoing commitment to the personal development of his athletes. Alive in his legacy as a master pedagogue, taskmaster extraordinaire, and for more than just a few, as a surrogate parent, Lombardi and other legendary coaches guide our understanding of the development and application of the skills, knowledge, and perspectives emblematic of superior coaching.

The characteristics of expert coaches will be discussed in this article, drawing upon examples of several expert coaches. Based on prior research on coaching effectiveness, coaching expertise, and expert performance in other domains, a profile of expertise in coaching has emerged. Contemporary research and biographies of expert coaches are integrated into discussions of the five distinct characteristics that comprise that profile. At the close of this article are suggestions that coaches can use in the development of their own expertise.

Characteristics of Expert Coaches

* Expert coaches possess extensive, specialized knowledge. Gathered from their many years of experience, expert coaches possess and draw upon vast and diverse amounts of information about their sport and their athletes. Examples of this characteristic can be seen in the careers of Lombardi, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, and current University of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summitt. As players and coaches, their lives reflected an unremitting and enduring commitment to their sport. For Lombardi, the earliest beginnings of that commitment can be seen in his years as a player, first at St. Francis Prep in Brooklyn, New York, and then as a member of the Seven Blocks of Granite, at Fordham University, in the Bronx, New York. His coaching career, which began at St. Cecilia High School, included a return to Fordham University, and subsequent apprenticeships as an assistant coach at West Point and with the New York Giants. The knowledge Lombardi used in his coaching began accumulating long before his Green Bay Packer success (O'Brien, 1987).

Wooden's career was characterized by a similar, long-term commitment to gaining expertise. He began his eventual coaching career as a player, first as an Indiana high school standout and later as a collegiate player at Purdue University, where he was an All-American. And, like Lombardi, long before Wooden's rise to national prominence at UCLA, he coached and taught at the high school level, first in Dayton, Kentucky, and then in South Bend, Indiana (Wooden, 1985).

For Pat Summitt, a similar journey exists. Her playing career, which began when she was a grade-school player in Clarksville, Tennessee, led her to the University of Tennessee at Martin, and eventually to membership on the first women's Olympic team in 1976. She began her coaching career as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and eventually became the head coach. Her career highlights have been an NCAA championship and appointments as both an assistant and a head coach of the U.S. Women's Olympic Team (Lay, 1989).

Having gained many years of experience by serving in multiple roles within their fields, each of these coaches developed extensive knowledge about all aspects of their sport. Few coaches could claim more knowledge about football than Lombardi or more knowledge about basketball than Wooden or Summitt. …

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