The ghosts of Harry Wilson, Peter Coe and Jimmy Hedley guide Matt Long and Darren Reevell along he continuum of push-pull coaching
At an England Athletics Conference half a decade or so ago, organised by Scott Grace, respected south coast based coach Steve King offered a memorable anecdote about the late, great Harry Wilson.
The story was about how the diminutive Welshman, who passed in 1999, guided the 1980 Moscow Olympic 800m champion Steve Ovett from his early teens to the ultimate glory on the global stage.
With some degree of affection, King recalled how Wilson’s mode of coaching had shifted from prescription to the youthful Ovett whilst he was a junior with Brighton and Hove AC, towards a role where as an ‘advisor’ later in Ovett’s career, his role would be one of carrying Ovett’s tracksuit top over his shoulder as the great man warmed up on the international circuit before breaking numerous world records over both metric and imperial mile distances.
During the latter part of his illustrious career, it was said that Ovett needed no more than a ‘word of encouragement’ here and a ‘pat on the back’ there. The old master Wilson had adapted his coaching style to suit both the biological, psychological and intellectual development of his long-term athlete.
‘Push’ versus ‘Pull’
The above anecdote opens up a discussion about difference between what the coach education literature has termed ‘push’ coaching on the one hand and ‘pull’ coaching on the other.
In taking the pivotal work of Downey (1999) as a framework (see below), rather than seeing the ‘push’ vs. ‘pull’ methods as two binaries, it may be healthier to consider that coaches, like the aforementioned Wilson, can move along a continuum, constantly adjusting their style to the said athlete throughout their careers.
Let’s take a look at the above continuum. It stretches from the directive modes of ‘telling’ and ‘instructing’ on the one hand, all the way through to the ‘listening’ and ‘reflecting’ non-directive modes of coaching on the other. So in simplistic terms, think of it as shades of grey rather than black and white.
The coaching continuum
Where a coach sits on the above continuum is a combination of several factors. Firstly, it depends on the chronological, biological, training, competition and emotional ages of the athletes concerned.
The less mature the athlete the more a coach may feel the need to be a prescriptive, ‘telling’ kind of coach who leans towards the ‘push’ end of the spectrum’. This of course is entirely understandable.
On the other hand when young athletes develop, greater empowerment may be advisable with the role of the coach evolving into one of allowing the said athlete to find out answers while being guided (hence guided discovery) or being counselled with solutions being ‘pulled’ from the athlete.
Change and disorientation
One of the issues with the progression along the continuum articulated above is the fact that athletes don’t just have static preferred ways of being coached. They mature cognitively and intellectually and the relationship between athlete and coach changes as we have articulated with the example of Ovett and Wilson.
This being said, cognitive change is an inherent part of the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) and with change comes disorientation if not anxiety.
The first author, for instance, has noted in his own coaching the bewilderment which sometimes occurs when an athlete in their late teens who has gotten used to being ‘told’ what sessions to do, is encouraged to take more responsibility for their own development by working with the coach to co-produce the said session.
Many athletes simply prefer to be ‘told’ as there is a certain ease in receiving prescription- a certain comfort blanket in not having to think through the philosophy of the coach and to anticipate what the coach would say to progress a session from week to week and so on.
Coaching and cultural capital
Plenty has been written in the coach education literature about the diverse ways in which athletes learn- notably one think’s of Fleming’s (1985) classic VARK model which differentiated between visual, auditory, reading (and writing) and kinaesthetic (doing) learning preferences.
To add balance, the coach education literature has provided us with the likes of Downey’s (1999) aforementioned coaching continuum.
This tells us where a coach is located on the spectrum which is invaluable but what is sometimes overlooked is that far less has been said in coaching pedagogic discourses about why coaches lean towards certain modes of coaching.
A sociological perspective
To understand the why question posed above one perhaps needs to look beyond coach education discourses to the broader academy. In taking a sociological approach, the more directive modes of coaching seem to carry what the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu in his marvellous book Distinction (1984) termed ‘cultural capital’.
In simple terms the ‘telling’ coach might find him or herself being more highly valued in the cultural field of our sport. Again the first author feels that this may well be a generational things amongst the coaching fraternity.
He works with an esteemed figure who has the best part of 60 years in coaching and witnesses the lean towards the directive style which he uses in his work.
This may be a combination of the way in which the award winning coach has been socialised through coach education courses in decades gone by and the fact that he has the cultural capital of having coached a world record holder, earning him the right to ‘tell’.
The third variable would be that the coach alluded to works with athletes predominantly in their teenage years who understandably gravitate towards wanting to be told.
So why do coaches who lean towards a more directive style perhaps embody more cultural capital in our sport? The insight provided by feminist discourses (see Walby, 2011) would indicate that in terms of gender role stereotypes the ‘telling’ and ‘directive’ are subliminal signifiers of what David Mech in his 1970 classic The Wolf, termed ‘Alpha Male’ characteristics.
Often the lean towards alpha masculinity can be used to mask deep seated insecurities and this may explain why some coaches reach for the dryness of this lifeboat to avoid the stormy uncertainties of other less directive modes of working with athletes.
So in essence the push-pull continuum has to be seen in the context of what Veronica Beechey (1979) would have termed ‘patriarchal ideology’.
We as coaches are socialised into modes of coaching not just on coach education courses but we learn how to coach in ways which are a microcosm of wider power relations in society.
In following this logic, conversely more ‘non-directive’ modes of ‘pull’ coaching are perhaps less valued in terms of the cultural capital in our sport. Why? Well qualities like active listening (Friston et al. 2021) which lead to the potential co-production of training sessions could be characterised as signifiers of more ‘feminine’ qualities in gender role stereotypical terms.
Despite the progressive gains made by ‘waves of feminism’ (Rampton, 2015) and the greater visibility of women in public life, we still live in a patriarchal society and women in athletics coaching may thus find themselves marginalised despite the brilliant work of our governing bodies and others to try and take positive action in order to redress the imbalance in power.
The sad fact remains, however that because the qualities associated with non-directive ‘pull’ based modes of coaching are subliminally associated with women as a sex, they may be devalued in cultural terms. As a white, middle class male, for example, the lead author has at times felt as if he has been censured (Sumner, 1994) by other male athletes when trying to co-produce sessions with them.
Worryingly, these can be mature senior athletes. Questions like ‘Don’t you know what schedule to recommend?’ can result in outright protestation, such as, ‘Why can’t you just tell me what to do?’.
The lead author has often likened his own coaching style to be akin to the counselling role which he undertakes in his ‘second life’ (Bahktin, 1984) voluntary work visiting the sick and the elderly in his role as part of his local hospital chaplaincy team. This is a role dominated by women. ‘Counselling’ is of course labelled (Becker, 1963) as a ‘softer’ skill- once again more ‘feminine’ in its traditional stereotypical depiction.
The point is we as coaches, athletes and significant others in the sport need to look to wider structural issues of gender and age which go way beyond the remit of track and field, in order to understand how we behave and interact with each other trackside.
Valuing diversity in coaching
One of the issues which needs greater consideration in the ‘push-pull’ coaching debate is what style of coaching is best for the coach him or herself. The lead author has for instance worked periodically with numerous younger coaches in their 30s who lean towards a ‘push’ style.
One of the reasons for this is that they have run in major championships securing England and Team GB honours. These former athletes turned coaches have the cultural capital in terms of the credibility and experience to be able to ‘tell’ athletes what to do.
Of course they would be foolish not to use the cultural capital of their experience. It then cyclical, because developing athletes will naturally tend to gravitate towards those with this kind of cultural capital and ask them ‘How did you make it?’. ‘What training did you do?’.
The first author as club level runner who achieved a county vest at his best does not have nor pretends to have this kind of capital. Often such a disclosure may disappoint the athlete looking to be guided be ‘someone who’s been there, done it and got the tee shirt’ as one athlete once told the first author.
The athlete who chooses to work with the coach who lacks experience of top flight athletics has to learn that there are no ‘quick fixes’, or ‘magical schedules’ and often has to work through the cognitive disorientation of being asked by the non-directive coach – ‘How might this session benefit you?’ or ‘Why are you doing that particular drill’?
The asking of a question can be uncomfortable to the athlete so used to being ‘told’ before the athlete begins to re-orientate him or herself to this previously unexperienced mode of coaching.
Learning from the greats
This article began with the affectionate recalling of the evolving coaching relationship between the late, great Harry Wilson and the awesome Steve Ovett. At this point, it’s worth signposting to two other modern UK greats.
Double Olympic champion Sebastian Coe was coached by his father Peter. Coe senior would certainly have leaned towards a ‘push’ mode of coaching with the young teenage Sebastian when they lived in Sheffield and Coe junior ran for Hallamshire Harriers.
At the philosophical level, Peter Coe’s training as an engineer and subsequent coaching style would have been characterised by Aristotle as a combination of textbook style ‘episteme’ (theoretical knowledge) and ‘techne’ (technical knowledge).
As a club level cyclist but non runner, Coe senior’s approach was distinct from the ‘phronesis’ (relational process of self improvement and practical wisdom) of Harry Wilson and Steve Cram’s coach Jimmy Hedley. Unlike Peter Coe, both Wilson and Hedley competed as runners, the former reaching international standard for Wales and the latter starting out as a sprinter.
Pragmatism and guided discovery
As an ‘organic’ (bottom up) coach, Hedley the pragmatist would encourage Cram to learn through what would nowadays be termed the ‘guided discovery’ of trial and error. The long history of this inductive approach can be traced back to the work of educational reformer John Dewey in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
So whilst Peter Coe’s deductive approach worked from the theoretical premises of ‘first principles’, for Hedley, his inductive reasoning would from specific empirical observations of athletes upwards to beginning to make sense of the patterns which he would be witnessing trackside.
In lacking the cultural capital of an elite athlete, Hedley would encourage a young Cram to take mentoring rather than coaching advice from the likes of Olympic medallists Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod, who could offer the kind of experiential insight into racing at international level which he himself as coach could not.
Like Wilson, Coe senior and Hedley empowered Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram to take more ownership of their training as they matured in their mid to late 20s. When Seb took his second Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984, Peter reportedly had little input when Seb travelled to be Stateside and Hedley was not in Seoul when Cram competed in his third and final Olympic Games in 1988.
Questions for self-reflection
1. Where do I sit on Downey’s(1999) continuum of push-pull coaching?
2. What am I doing to shift myself along this continuum when my athlete(s) develop so I can remain faithful to the principle of athlete-centredness?
3. What cultural capital can I bring to my coaching style? Am I someone who has practical experience as an elite athlete to pass on or am I someone who ‘pulls’ the answer from an athlete who may well be far more talented than myself?
4. How can I learn from the way in which great coaches like Harry Wilson, Peter Coe and Jimmy Hedley adapted their coaching style over the years spent with their respective athletes?
Matt Long is both Midlands Road Running and Cross Country Mens Team Manager and Midland Masters Mens Team Manager (contact email@example.com). Darren Reevell is the England Athletics Regional Coaching Lead for Endurance (North), England Anglo Celtic Plate 100k Team Manager, and the England Athletics Lead for Ultra Running. The input of England Athletics Coaching Workforce Manager, Paul Moseley, is credited.