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Becoming a Transformational Coach

02/13/2018, 4:45pm CST
By Sam Callan, USA Fencing Senior Manager of Coaching and Referee Education

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

– Teddy Roosevelt


This quote has been making the coaching circles for a while now. I heard it recently in an online course by John O’Sullivan of Changing the Game Project and it nicely sums up a big part of what has become known as transformational coaching. The quote resonates with me because the coach-athlete relationship has to have some level of caring and connection between the athlete and the coach. If a person knows you care about him or her first, that person is more willing to listen.

When we think of coaching, we often just think of the exchange of information from the coach to the fencer that improves the fencer’s performance. For instance, the coach teaches a lesson on parrying and the fencer gets better at that skill. This is called transactional coaching. Transformational coaching goes beyond transactional coaching that deals with the “what” and talks about the “how” of coaching. So in the example above, a transformational coach would engage the student with questions and seek his/her input.

Take a few minutes and think about your favorite or best coach. What are the qualities that first came to mind? How many dealt with learning the sport and how many dealt with other qualities?

My guess is that your favorite coach did more than just teach you the skills you needed for the sport.

There is a saying that you do not coach a sport, you coach a person. Did your favorite or best coach connect with you? Did the coach care about you? Building that connection or relationship is what often separates the most memorable coaches. Often, the interpersonal skills and relationships make the difference.

This is not to say that transactional coaching should never be used. During a bout or contest, there may need to be a clear exchange of what to do or not to do; transformational coaching principles can be applied in those settings, but perhaps with more experienced fencers.

The Four “I’s”

Jean Cote, Ph.D., is a leader in developing the idea of transformational coaching. According to Cote, coaching is about focusing on others, and not yourself, as the coach. This form of coaching involves transforming the student into not only a better fencer, but a better person who can go on and be a leader. Cote has formulated the four “I’s” of transformational coaching:

Intellectual Stimulation: As you might guess from the title, this facet seeks to create a situation where the fencer’s brain is engaged in the learning process. One example is to ask the fencer questions rather than flying in with the “right” answer. Involve fencers in the coaching process. Encourage the fencer to ask questions and empower the fencer to contribute new or alternative ideas. For example, if a fencer is giving up a lot of points, ask the fencer what is going on and what some strategies are for stopping the opponent. Let the fencer take the first stab at solving the problem and trying the solution. Humans learn quite well by trial and error. The coach can step in to help.

Another aspect of this “I” is to share decision-making and leadership responsibilities. Include the fencers in developing team rules and a positive team culture (when and where appropriate). Give fencers responsibilities that are appropriate for their ages and developmental levels.

Idealized Influence: One of the tenets of transformational coaching is to be a positive force in your fencers’ lives so they develop into leaders. To do this, a coach needs to be a role model who practices what he or she preaches. Discuss and model pro-social behaviors, which are  those actions that help others and for which you do not expect anything in return. For instance, if a coach tells a fencer to respect the referees, but during a bout the coach is disrespectfully ranting and raving at the referee, that coach is not practicing what he or she is preaching. Kids pick up on this hypocrisy and it undermines the relationship.

A coach can demonstrate this “I” by showing vulnerability and humility. One way is to admit making a mistake. For instance, if you come up with a new drill or game and it does not go well, accept the responsibility for it not working. As the coach, by owning the error you create an environment where others are more willing to admit to errors. It also creates an environment where trying new things, and making mistakes, is okay.

Inspirational Motivation: Believing your fencers and expressing confidence in them can go a long way toward transforming them into successful fencers and leaders. Find something to praise each fencer on during the lesson or group session. But make sure it is sincere and specific; “Jamie, you did much better at keeping your elbow in” is better than “Jamie, nice job out there.”

Set appropriate goals and expectations for the fencers you coach. Goals should be realistic and expectations should be developmentally appropriate. It is okay to set high expectations. Expectations can range from being on time to how fencers comport themselves at competitions.

Employ an autonomy-supportive coaching style that creates an environment that allows the fencers to give some input into the design of the lesson or practice session. A coach might provide a list of options for a lesson and let the student choose one or two. Listen openly to feedback from the athletes and make adjustments on future lessons. Coaching behaviors such as questioning, listening and paraphrasing create an autonomy-supportive environment.

Individualized Consideration: As indicated by the name of this “I,” the transformational coach provides individual feedback and recognizes different needs and abilities. Treat athletes as a people first and be person-centered, not athlete-centered. As I mentioned earlier, you coach a person, not a sport. Connect with the athlete at a personal level. Asking about the fencer’s life outside of the club, his or her academics and about other interests outside of fencing.

Call to Action and Implementation

I know that the vast majority of coaches are doing some or many of the four “I’s” already.

Look at what you are already doing and give yourself credit! Here are some tips to become even better at transformational coaching.

I challenge you to choose one of the four “I’s” that maybe you have not developed as well and work on it.

Take small steps every day. Choose one or two things to work on at a time. It is okay to let your fencers know that you are going to try some new approaches to coaching.  It might be developing more of the autonomy-supportive environment that is part of Inspirational Motivation. It might be working on admitting mistakes (Idealized Influence), but remember mistakes are okay!


Much of the information presented in this blog came from a webinar that Jean Cote presented in January 2018.

Recommended Seminar

To learn more about transformational coaching, Changing the Game Project has a one-hour course on Transformational Coaching available for $19. USA Fencing members can use the discount code USFENCING (ALL CAPS) to receive $10 off. (Thanks John O’Sullivan).


Coaching Better Every Season”: Wade Gilbert’s book also addresses some aspects of transformational coaching and is a great resource for coaches.

Choosing the coaching style that is best for your child: An article by Jeanne Goodes about transactional and transformational coaching

PLAYS at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Tons of research articles and resources on transformational coaching and positive youth sport development

Interview out of New Zealand (AUT Development):  This interview of Jean Cote, Ph.D., on transformational coaching also discusses Cote’s Developmental Model of Sport Participation

Interview with Smartercoaching: Sam Callan interviewed Jean Cote, Ph.D. about transformational coaching and the Developmental Model of Sport Participation.

Transformational Coaching with Jennifer Turnnidge: Sam Callan interviews Dr. Turnnidge on transformational coaching and other topics.

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