Engaging with uncertainty in athlete development – orchestrating talent development through incremental leadership | A summary

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Christian Thue Bjørndal & Lars Tore Ronglan
Department of Coaching and Psychology, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


In this paper, we discussed our research findings showing that many coaches, sport science students and practitioners do not facilitate or manage processes related to player development in ways that are suitable in complex systems.

Athlete learning and development cannot be determined in advance

Athlete learning and development are complex processes, and this makes outcomes difficult to plan or predict. Worryingly, many athlete development systems both in Norwegian and international sport federations, are based on normative, stepwise, and linear understandings of learning and development. This also applies to the popular ‘Sports Policy Factors Leading to International Success’ model and the ‘Long-Term Athlete Development Model’. The aim of our study was to substantiate the criticism and offer a more flexible and realistic approach.

We found little research which explored how coaches identify, facilitate and steer processes of athlete development. This research gap is a problem because popular performance development strategies in elite sports are about strengthening control, observation and discipline. These approaches can lead to people losing ownership of their own development, and to athletes being injured, burned out, or worse. A poor understanding of what kinds of training are appropriate and important can have negative effects for athletes, including the over-extended use of monitoring and strict coaching regimes that include little athlete involvement.

Success in sports development can be achieved in different ways, and even controlling practices can have positive effects. However, good player development is always a question of what values ​​people believe are right. We believe that coaches need to be aware of how to facilitate player development in ways that are reflective, ethical and effective.

Orchestrating athlete development through incremental leadership

One way to think about the challenge of finding the right kind of leadership and coaching skills in systems that are complex and uncertain is to understand coaches as orchestrators of talent development. Good leadership is context dependent, and good leadership is relational. The concept of orchestration reflects the fact that coaches never do have full control. Instead, they have only varying degrees of influence over athletes and others involved in talent development. What coaches do have is an overview of what is happening around them and of the individuals and teams they are working with. It is important for coaches to understand that people involved in talent development have divergent and conflicting values, interests and goals. The concept of orchestration offers a practical way of thinking about coach leadership in sports, because coaches manage complex social relations  and contexts, and are constantly cooperating and negotiating with others, where balancing different (and sometimes contradicting) needs and interests is key.

Can coaches orchestrate processes of athlete development better? Focusing on small steps is one way of achieving better outcomes. Small wins can help to lower the psychological challenges people experience when facing complex problems. Step changes can be a form of ‘incremental leadership’ and help to facilitate more effective ways to diagnose problems. They can also help to create more effective gains and encourage innovation. A development strategy based on incremental small wins can be realised through a series of concrete outcomes. These might, for example, be the completion of a training cycle or helping an athlete to reach an individual milestone. Some wins may only be of moderate importance. Others may grow in importance over time and eventually lead to significant developmental outcomes. The key to successful reliable experience-based learning is the ability to be pragmatic and practical. Small wins also contain small failures, and these small, intelligent failures, in turn, can enhance learning. Positive small wins may raise enthusiasm and energy, and help to stimulate reflection and encourage learning.

By focusing on small steps, coaches will be able to become more aware of the ever-changing dynamics of sport coaching praxis that relate to individual athletes and to the wider group, and help to ‘nudge’ processes in desired directions. Incrementalism is therefore a conceptualisation of a type of leadership that is not predetermined or plan-dependent. Instead, it is based on a bottom-up approach, a response to what is happening here and now (and in the immediate future). This approach is better suited to the planning, coordination and facilitation of athlete development, and the challenges and complexities that athletes and coaches encounter. Coordinating training and competition loads across multiple club, school and sport association settings is complex. Small wins can help to focus on priorities and to balance the different (and sometimes diverging) needs of teams and groups. They can also help coaches experiment with different and new ways to practice and train.

Improved coaching, improved athlete development

Coaches who want to apply a model of incremental leadership must: (a) establish good principles (not just rules) to govern by, (b) reflect on what values ​​they stand for and who they want to be as coaches, (c) continually notice what is happening around them, and (d) work together with athletes to find different ways to solve problems and improve training processes.

Coaches should be competent at planning, but what is even more important is that their plans form a flexible framework for athlete development. After all, the needs of individual athletes are also changing constantly. We need coach education programmes that focus on a coach’s personal values, and how they are expressed in practice (what values “do” to athletes and how they impact them). Coach education needs to include an examination of the dilemmas and anxieties shaping the everyday reality of sports, and help coaches to experiment with more effective ways to train and practice.

Many of today´s popular teaching programmes are based on pre-determined, prescriptive athlete development models. Training plans, athlete development ladders and models can be useful, and even inspiring. But they should never be used by coaches as the basis for facilitating and steering processes of athlete development. Talent development requires flexible, adaptive and non-prescriptive ways of thinking. It requires new ways of working with the developmental processes in youth sports. We can encourage and develop new, innovative ways of learning by focusing on the small wins and failures of everyday life in sport.

Copyright © Christian Thue Bjørndal & Lars Tore Ronglan 2021

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