Tensions in the sociocultural identifications of sports coaching

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Sanna Erdoğan
University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland


(Shutterstock/BearFotos)

Introduction

My research is fueled by two significant observations that deeply resonate with me. First, the sports community in Finland has been grappling with the challenge of coach recruitment, particularly in volunteer-based coaching roles. Second, coaches at the competition level are often perceived as a homosocial group that perpetuates power imbalances, hindering equality. Daily conversations with men and women coaches brought these issues to life, and my motivation for the PhD research was these shared struggles and aspirations. They inspire my ambition to explore the factors that limit some coaches from reaching their full potential.

These initial insights sparked my academic curiosity and shaped my research methodology. I aim not only to understand how combat sports coaches define the competence required to qualify as a competition-level coach but also to pave the way for a more inclusive and diverse future in sports coaching. To achieve this, I am examining existing practices and collectively formed concepts that influence coaches’ pathways: how to become a coach and what possibilities there are for different positions as a coach. The study focuses on the sports club level at combat sports (judo, wrestling and boxing), where coaches are voluntary workers.

My research is built on a feminist research framework. This framework considers how and by whom knowledge is produced and valued and involves a commitment to marginality and power differentials, seeking justice for people, communities, and organisations often outside the dominant paradigms (Davis & Craven, 2020). I am investigating how different axes affect female and male coaches’ pathways and what factors support or prevent individuals from being coaches. I also examine oppressive and unjust power structures between people or groups, analysing how coaching practices are internalised. With an intersectional framework (Collins & Bilge, 2016), my analysis concentrates on multiple social obstacles, expectations, and narratives used in the culture of combat sports. This theoretical framework, together with feminist inquiry, provides a robust analytic tool that helps to scrutinise the socio-cultural diversity of experiences and identifications that qualify individuals’ positions within sports culture.

Following feminist methodology, the study includes the author’s voice recognizing the significance of reflexivity.

The data consists of eight (8) focus group discussions (n=23 men and 11 women) and ethnographic observations from training sessions (n=34, 50,5 hours). Following feminist methodology, the study includes the author’s voice recognizing the significance of reflexivity (Haraway, 2004). I have 15 years of experience as a coach educator in various sports disciplines. Combat sports are the most familiar sports for me, premised on my 20 years of participation as a boxing coach. At the moment, I am trusting in not knowing (St. Pierre, 2019), allowing me to find a way to conduct the study.

In the following, I will briefly overview three themes from my study chosen for this paper: masculinities in sports culture,practical traditions of coaching, and respect for winning. I discuss these preliminary findings that influence the possibility of being a coach. The sections describe the admired or current coaches and coaching possibilities, leading to suggestions for obstacles to achieving a coach position. This feature article ends with a conclusion and a discussion of my research contributions.

Masculinities in ‘sticky’ sports culture

The current and past workforce of coaches affects the environments of sports clubs and the image of a coach. The image of the coach is often linked to males and masculinity, both physically and ideologically. (Schlesinger et al., 2021.) The traditional image of a coach is based on masculine behaviours such as authority, strength, muscularity and demanding character. Such manners construct the unconscious formation of coaches’ identities consistent with homologous reproduction (Burton & LaVoi, 2016). The gendered resemblance creates an environment where coaches are comparable in their knowledge of masculine attendance. Inherited beliefs, cultural meanings, and standard practices shape the formation of a coach, and current male coaches have the power to define the best way to coach (Hovden & Tjønndal, 2021).

During my ethnographic fieldwork, I became familiar with the noticeable male-dominated culture of combat sports, where the training methods remain authoritarian and stagnant. Tradition-based training practices are organised in a humble and silent environment, leading to a situation where both women and men coaches prefer an authoritative coaching style. Social hierarchical order defines who can decide how to organise training practices and what kind of knowledge is considered reasonable (Cushion & Jones, 2014). Unspeakable practices categorise those with privileged expertise and those who need to learn the social settings of coaching manners. My ethnographic data reveals how accepting the existing practices and following the current rules makes it possible to be a coach, which can be described as a metaphor for gluey. The idea of stickiness (Ahmed, 2004) combines impression and lived experience. Stickiness consists of how subjects are positioned by others and how people are attached to the structures. This includes understanding bodies as carriers of a history of sticky impressions. When interpreting the body, people believe they can estimate what has gathered onto its surface: stickiness is a part of the effects or impressions that stick to bodies. (Ahmed, 2004.)

In this sense, behaving in masculine manners is sticky in the combat sports environment. It accounts for power based on historical traditions and lived experience. Both women and men coaches emphasised their belief that a coach must be demanding when discussing the coach’s role in the focus groups. The normativity is stuck to the atmosphere where a coach is presented with autocratic and harmonious activities (Wacquant, 2004). In my view, a male-dominated culture is noticeable in authoritarian, stagnant training methods and monotonous practices, where authority and social reality are enacted in socio-historical structures. A coach’s activities are tied to established patterns and structures, creating a feeling of security, predictability, and permanence. Coaches consent to act like others and share the same values and feelings of belonging. Furthermore, accepting the existing practices and following the current rules promotes being a coach.

Narratives from the past are the most effective way to exclude people who do not have the possibility of sharing these events personally.

My data readings suggest that men coaches’ tradition is to keep the status quo and shape their bodily impression of masculinity. The more masculine behaviour is performed, the more enduring it becomes. Gendered norms, which legitimise appropriate representations of femininity and masculinity, limit opportunities to exceed socially constructed gendered habitus or express feminine or masculinity otherwise than expected (Metcalfe, 2018). My study shows how these values are strengthened by male combat sports coaches, who have been coaching since 1980. Especially in boxing, history is present daily, walking around telling stories, proposing training practices, and, more importantly, telling stories. Narratives from the past are the most effective way to exclude people who do not have the possibility of sharing these events personally. Relationships with unconscious habits, thoughts, and cultural behaviours keep representing the idea of a coach, marginalising everyone who does not meet the criteria.

Burden from the practical traditions of coaching

During the focus group discussion, it became evident that competition-level coaches tend to have former experience as athletes before becoming coaches. The traditional development path for coaches is a structure built on linear progression that is considered the most effective (Blackett et al., 2017). Engaging the most common path from athlete to coach effectively reproduces practices in combat sports clubs. Taking a step from athlete to coach happens inside the same environment with the familiar routines and existing shared understanding of behaving. Starting as a coach, you do not step into the gym as a ‘new’ person; you continue representing previously learned know-how. The way to act, teach, behave and perform is already stuck in you as shared cultural knowledge (Ahmed, 2004). The landscape for coaching is built on personal experiences inside culturally shared normativity.

Additionally, following the path from athlete to coach advances similar training practices. My study reveals how combat sports have maintained an extraordinary structure in the training sessions, where a coach is physically actively involved with sport-specific skills. Learning by doing has reached the most prestigious learning method in combat sports. This has created a prominent admiration for practical knowledge in coaching practices. Furthermore, teaching by doing is considered an effective way of coaching pedagogy. In the group discussion, an overly used description of a ‘good’ coach is a person who can use declarative knowledge in skilful and competent action in the sporting context. Knowledge is produced in the intertwined power mechanics, reproducing power relations by defining ‘normal’ or ideal meanings, thoughts, bodies, and feelings (Foucault, 1997).

The power relationships conceivably influence coaches’ positions and negations of the assumptions of the ‘right’ kind of knowledge (Markula & Pringle, 2006). Procedural knowledge appears to be a powerful strategy for maintaining respect for current coaches’ competence. Communication and decision-making processes are made through personalised and informal conditions, unconsciously supporting the present coaching style (Schlesinger et al., 2021). In the focus group discussions, embodied knowledge is considered an obligatory criterion for coaching in some sports clubs. The training session structure is scaffolded on coaches’ physical competence, and the power of practical knowledge legitimises a coach’s position. An extensive socialisation activity in coaching relates to the distribution of enduring values and an ideology that guides behaviour following given expectations (Cushion & Jones, 2014).

Normalising power narrows people’s thinking and opportunities embedded with the assumptions of perfect attendance, which is decisive in complying with specific sports requirements.

The different forms of implicit rules govern the possibility of coaching and general assumptions of knowledge and competence that are assumed to occur in coaching. The ‘truth’ in coaching practices is hidden regarding the most sport-specific competencies that can be observed and imitated. Normalising power narrows people’s thinking and opportunities embedded with the assumptions of perfect attendance, which is decisive in complying with specific sports requirements (Markula & Pringle, 2006). Hence, coaches are recognised if they represent their knowledge with physical movements. Alternatively, my study indicates that anyone who does not meet the socially shared idea of a coach’s competence is probably excluded from coaching.

Culturally shared respect for winning

Overall, people within sports admire anyone who can compete and succeed at a high-performance level. Commitment, talent, and hard work are generally known when achieving high-performance sports. Athletes’ bodily competence addresses combat sports straightforwardly: you win or lose. By winning, you get respect; by losing, you are forced to admit that the other person was better this time. This fair rule makes it understandable and vivid that respect is tied to appreciation of success. Appreciation is justified by the hard work and commitment only a few people can engage in. Champions are highly valued in sports, and organisations believe in the possibility of benefiting from their knowledge (Chroni et al., 2021).

Considering the lack of international success in combat sports, a high-performance athlete or former athlete is a role model demonstrating that participating in championships is possible. The nature of combat sports fundamentally signifies the athlete’s body as a champion. Informants narrate how the medals from competitions are considered bodily competence that is impossible to accomplish in any other way. Appreciation of bodily know-how has created an ambience where competence in sport-specific knowledge is the most respected (Cushion & Jones, 2014). The competence gained from international competitions can not be compensated, and retaining talent within the coaching staff creates an unquestionable path from athlete to coach (Chroni et al., 2021). The hegemonic appreciation creates an atmosphere where previous sport-specific physical competence is privileged, and bodily competence is taken as a guarantee of a coaching position. Career success is established by the dominant performance narrative that privileges traditionally masculine demands and values (Jones et al., 2023).

Focus group discussions emphasise that coaches with previous athlete-based experience are accepted, valued, and respected with unchallenged normative silence. Alternatively, appreciation is possible to achieve by coaching athletes to championships, too. Succeeding comes as a personal privilege, leading to situations where it is essential to be the coach behind the success. That increases motivation to stay in a position as a competition-level coach. When winning competitions increases the respect towards coaches’ competence, reasonable motivation to be a coach is to coach winning athletes. This may encourage current coaches’ workforce to stay in sports, train better athletes, and gain respect from winning competitions.

Drawing from the experiences shared in group discussions, the situation develops a social inequality. A pedagogically capable coach with decades of coaching experience is ignored compared to someone who has achieved international success as an athlete but has no formal coaching education. Interpreting informants’ experiences trying to use declarative knowledge in coaching relates to feelings of undervalue and social exclusion. Sports coaches adhere to one another through social interactions, looking for appreciation and thriving for success. Hegemonic respect for medals narrows people’s motivation to be coaches if their drive is to teach new skills and concentrate on the learning process between competitions.

Conclusion

Following feminist research, this paper sheds light on the power structures addressing internalised coaching practices. The study reveals combat sports environments assigned with inherent belief systems, values, cultural patterns, and collectively shared knowledge. Based on these assumptions, the current structures maintain coaching as masculine manners, legitimising appropriate representations and limiting opportunities to exceed culturally shared gendered expectations. Current hegemonic practices silently reproduce a taken-for-granted stagnant culture. A competitive environment and respect for champions are the scaffolds to justify the hegemonic appreciation of success. Consequently, coaches’ evaluation is based on embodied knowledge reproducing attainable competence.

Understanding the passion for sports requires scrutinising interpersonal, disciplinary, cultural and structural aspects.

Unorthodox to feminist inquiry, my study examines women and men coaches’ possibilities to step into the coaching road. Potential data readings suggest that the current climate relies on coaches who can tell successful stories, show medals from competitions, and perform with sport-specific skills. The operating conditions are established by the current ‘accepted’ teaching and learning styles, masculine behaviour, and embodied competence. The dominant culture endorses coaches who can perform physically through bodily knowledge, indicating the invisibility of coaches’ differences in sports coaching. There might be a limited understanding of multiple ways of planning, facilitating and managing diverse training practices in sports clubs. These restrictions can influence the possibility of volunteer-based coaching and motivation to be a coach, regardless of gender.

To summarise, the factors influencing the formation of coaches’ positions, such as cultural meanings and practices, areintertwined and mutually constructed. Understanding the passion for sports requires scrutinising interpersonal, disciplinary, cultural and structural aspects. Creating an appreciation for various forms of knowledge would support diverse recruiting processes. Completing the PhD study will give more insights into strategies that produce everyday meanings, engage cultural practices, and develop a shared understanding of coaching styles. A more comprehensive analysis scrutinises power structures in combat sports, revealing whose coaching pathways are achievable. The work of feminist scholars on improving equity and critical studies of men and masculinities can contribute to the study. Some reflections on resisting the current coaching majority are needed, examining if changing repeated cultural beliefs of ‘the best coaches’ is possible.

So what?

A growing number of studies develop recommendations for improving the expertise of coaching better athletes. Scholars are interested in better understanding how to coach more efficiently and produce successful athletes. Usually, coaching philosophy concentrates on a coach’s relationship with the athletes, teaching methods, and ethical values. Athlete-centered coaching has been developed over the last decades, focusing on how coaches can coach more individually, holistically, effectively, and ethically. What would happen if current athlete-centered coaching changed to coach-centered learning?

I emphasise that we can see something ‘unseen’ if we look at how the coaches would like to develop individual coaching philosophy—not repeating the one maintained in the sports club for the last hundred years.

By this, I mean concentrating on building an understanding of the multiple motivations that are driving people to be a coach. I encourage developing a coaching philosophy focusing on coaches’ development and passion for being good coaches. That requires scrutinising the coaches’ ambitions as coaches, not persons relating only to the athlete’s performance. I am not suggesting that a coach can be a coach without an athlete. I emphasise that we can see something ‘unseen’ if we look at how the coaches would like to develop individual coaching philosophy—not repeating the one maintained in the sports club for the last hundred years.

Following this idea hopefully gives insight into hidden potential in the coaching force. Contemporary actions can always be contested and changed: whenever there is a power, there must be counter-power, too (Foucault, 1977). Drawing from a feminist perspective and activism, I seek change using ‘counterpunch’. Hopefully, it has the potential to reshape our understanding of qualifications and power dynamics in sports coaching, offering a brighter future for the sports community—at least to those who are feeling marginalised at the moment.

Copyright @ Sanna Erdoğan 2024


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