Autocracy vs Democracy: The Politics of Coaching


“That was a very poor session.” 

“That was one of the worst sessions I’ve seen.”


This was some of the feedback I received from a colleague after they observed me coaching a group of 14-16 year olds in the gym. Instantly, my ‘pride’ barrier shot up and I thought to myself ‘this guy doesn’t know what he’s on about, he can do one.’ But after getting over that initial red flurry, I think the thing that stung me the most was that actually, he was right. 

This was one of those flashpoints that still stick with me in my coaching career as a place that I ‘levelled up.’

The feedback prompted an eye opening exploration of self-reflection into my coaching style, and honestly really challenged me about who I was not only as a coach, but as a person. What it opened my eyes to, was that coaching has ‘authority’ on a scale of autocracy to democracy. 

At this time, what underpinned my coaching and why I enjoyed it, was mainly the fact that I could form strong connections with people, and that made me feel valued and gave me worth. Whilst this is still very much true and aligned with my coaching philosophy today, the thing that challenged me the most was that I had to accept that I couldn’t be everyone’s best friend, and not everyone is going to like me. 

This was a really significant learning for me, because it flipped my perspective of what a coach is, and why we need coaches in our lives. Previous to this, I was going about my coaching with the aim of being the ‘nice guy’ that everyone joked around with, and was the polar opposite to the stereotypical hardcore college football coach who runs you into the ground, shouting at you the whole way. Essentially, I was very democratic with my coaching style, and allowed for a lot of collaboration and input from my athletes and members.

What this feedback made me realise though, is that being the ‘nice guy’ all the time, is actually doing yourself and your member/athlete a disservice. 

Ultimately, a person steps into a coachable environment to better themselves, whether this is a 12 year old participatory athlete, a high performance sportsperson, or a 75 year old who’s just had a fall. In order for this person to improve and to better themselves, they HAVE to be challenged. People always tend to take the easy option, so to get growth from an athlete/member, you have to learn how to challenge them, even if this means being the tough guy! 

Through these learnings, I realised that as a coach, I have to be fluid on this scale of democracy to autocracy. You can’t always be democratic, as you lose control over a group, and I’ve experienced this across many age ranges. You similarly can’t be fully autocratic, as there has to be some element of giving the member what they ‘want’ as well as what they ‘need,’ in order to form rapport and a positive environment of belonging. 

The fluidity of which you decide where you are on the scale has to change on the fly, and this is the beauty of coaching. I think the very best coaches that I have seen coach, are the ones that can read the group really well and guide them towards the most desirable outcome, with a constant flow of leadership from autocracy to democracy.

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