Research Findings: A Lack of Professionalisation within High Performance Coaching

Findings: Achieving Gender Equity in High Performance Athletics Coaching in the U.K.

This was a significant and recurrent theme across of all the 17 interviews. Professions have certain characteristics that differentiate them from crafts, occupations, or trades. It is not possible to make the assertion that being a high-performance athletics coach is a profession. Professions are characterised by a professional association, cognitive base, institutionalised training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control, a code of ethics and high standards of professional and intellectual excellence (Green & Gates, 2014). If the intention is to make athletics coaching a credible, valued, rewarding, and attractive profession for all, then there are significant issues to address and practices to implement. Namely, this lack of a professionalised coaching system is characterised by a lack of continued professional development (CPD) for coaches, a lack of formal appointment and recruitment coaching process (which is open to abuse), a lack of clear developmental pathways or framework for coaches, and little or no pay. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

A few of the coaches described having the opportunity to access CPD courses but one questioned whether she could call her coaching a profession:

I feel valued because I have been given opportunities to further my coaching career I suppose, if you can call it a career. (Deborah)

I have attended lots of workshops. I have always been very active on that side, so I think I have never really felt barriers around funding and being able to attend courses. (Grace)

However, most of the participants experienced a lack of CPD opportunities in order to advance their role and education:

Especially in the UK, you know, the coach education is just appalling…you know, I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked about my needs as a coach or my education as a coach. (Victoria)

Like our coach developer goes on all these courses, which is fantastic, but that’s not developing coaches! That is developing one coach. And then it’s taking the athletes and putting them in other coaches’ groups, you know, that again is developing a handful of coaches, but that is not what I would consider bringing up all coaches or bringing up coaches that want to be improved. (Mel)

One coach spoke of feeling ‘substandard’ because they did not possess a degree:

I think one of the biggest barriers is – it doesn’t appear to be quite so alert now, but it was a couple of years ago…You know, you couldn’t be a coach because you didn’t know anything about it, because you didn’t have a sports science degree. Well, no I haven’t got one, and I’m never going to get one now, it’s too far down the road for me to start doing things like that. It made me feel really really substandard, it made me feel really not worthy. But I’ve felt very much that, if you didn’t have a degree in something, you weren’t worth anything at all. That was very much the impression (Susan)

Yet, the coaches had a strong internal drive/high motivation to educate and develop themselves. They represent highly motivated and engaged coaches but do not always the same level of commitment towards their CPD from their NGB:

I’ve spent so much time in places to improve my coaching. It was fabulous, because I was an athlete steward, so I was taking athletes from the warm up track through first call, down to final call, out onto the track, but I could spend all the time when they weren’t competing up on the warm up track, watching them and their coaches. It was brilliant, what opportunity do you ever get to do that? You don’t! It’s great. So, I did that… To be honest, I love doing it, but I do it for the opportunity to be able to further my own coaching, by watching these people, that I’m never ever going to get an opportunity to watch otherwise. I even went to [name of country] and did it over there. (Clara)

I feel I have had to put a hell of a lot in, to get what I have put back. I suspect there are a hell of a lot of coaches out there who feel they put a hell of a lot in but don’t get much back, and rightly or wrongly there will be the naysayers, it doesn’t matter how much you give or feel they haven’t but I, I think it’s a challenge for our sport in general. (Grace)

The lack of professionalisation is also characterised by a lack of transparency in how both athletes are selected, and coaches are recruited and appointed. This was a recurrent theme across many of the interviews:

I think that comes down to the transparency of how do they pick athletes, how do they pick coaches? Because unfortunately, at the minute it’s who you know. (Ava)

But, at one point I was fighting battles all the time and it didn’t make it very enjoyable. And I realised that my athletes were being, what’s the word, they weren’t being given opportunities because of me…Even though the things I was fighting for were for them, for transparency in selection criteria, for their right to be part of the team or their right to be included here. Our right to understand how you get on the talent programme or development programme. There was nothing out there to say why certain people were getting asked certain things and others weren’t, so I was just asking difficult questions, but in the end my athletes were being penalised for it, so I stopped asking those questions. But funnily enough, when your athlete becomes more successful, they then do become part of the programme, you get to find these things out, because they share it with you. Whereas when you are starting out, they don’t share it. I don’t know why it needs to be top secret, why can’t you allow everybody to know what you and your athlete need to do to get onto a development squad and talent squad. Why is it top secret? It can only be secret if they are covering something up. If they are not, then it needs to be transparent. (Lisa)

But I do think as far as team management and team coaches and jobs and things like that, no, there is a lot of discrimination… I think [the NGB} have to be transparent. They have to be transparent; they have to go on experience, the best person for the job, but they have to be prepared to justify their decisions. In the same conversation I had with the gentleman who told me I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting a team coach post, in that same interview I said ‘can you answer me this, why when you select a team, do you not put down the team management names and the team coaches names at the same time. Because if I was selected, I would want everybody to know, because I would be very proud of the fact that I had been selected.’. And he said, ‘oh we’ve never thought of that.’. So that is something they could do, they could make everything transparent, when you get the GB team selection announced, why are the team coaches not underneath it. (Georgina)

It is not obvious about how you can put yourself forward for it. Because it is again, it is like a closed shop, and I just happened to be in [place name] on the right day, mention it to the right person and they said ‘oh actually now is the time when people are applying to do the application for team management’. There is no way you can find that information from any [NGB] website.And they said they are trying to be more transparent and I thought – well you’re not achieving it! (Olivia)

I don’t really know how [the NGB] operate[s]. (Charlotte)

It’s the way they do it. [The NGB] are not open with things, they do it very underhandedly…somebody owed a favour to somebody and that person got in, so that’s how they did it. They kept him, kicked me out, but kept a female coach who was a friend of a friend of theirs, so she got in. I saw the pattern… Someone comes in as a coach and brings his wife in and says I’ll only do it if my wife gets this part…I’ve seen that happen, rather than there being a proper process. (Emma)

I think that is something I have taken from being an athlete, I have realised that… It’s about who you know and you find out. (Deborah)

When asked whether they were aware of how to apply for roles in team management, many of the coaches either did not know the process to apply for team management positions or felt that the positions went to ‘chosen ones’. This is supported by those that were ‘part of it’ or ‘in it’ (‘insiders’) being aware of the process:

There isn’t a process. It’s whoever happens to be flavour of the month. That is as simple as that. I was once told at one point ‘we don’t appoint anybody who doesn’t work for the [NGB]’. So, no there isn’t a process, and you can’t apply. (Georgina)

No, I’ve not a clue. Not a clue in the world. Not a clue about how the process works, not a clue how people are selected. I have a feeling that the two times I have been picked, I have been last in the line. Just because of the timing of when I have been asked, which seems to be very late in the day. I don’t know what the system is, or for lead coach etc. I don’t know how they are selected, on what merits, I’ve no idea. No, I don’t know, or whether I was the token female, I’ve no idea. (Charlotte)

Only because [name of male] who is really great, he asked me what I wanted to be involved in. I don’t think, unless I have a good relationship with [name of male] I wouldn’t have known, because I don’t think it’s very clear what the process is…It’s not super clear what their criteria is either, it just seems to be who is friends with the Team Manager at the time. (Margaret)

I am only aware of it though because I am part of it. (Amy)

In addition to a perceived lack of CPD opportunities and transparency in how coaches are appointed, some of the coaches commented on a lack of a professional and development pathway for them:

There needs to be a pathway for them, and there needs to be a pathway for coaches. Period. It needs to be transparent. (Charlotte)

There wasn’t really any professional pathway for coaches. So, I thought I might have more opportunities if I moved to [name of country], so that’s what I did in…and I just came back and just started coaching and trying to make my own pathway (Lisa)

I don’t think that it is understood too much what is expected from the NGB. I think that the desire to create a professional sport has absolutely swamped the grass roots level of understanding of their role and their career path should they want one. I think that the bridge between grassroots and elite high performance is incomplete. (Clara)

But if you don’t give them the opportunity or train them, how are coaches going to progress? There needs to be a pathway for them, and there needs to be a pathway for coaches period. (Emma)

These issues present a picture of a role that cannot be considered a profession in its current form. A further feature of a profession rather than a trade, an occupation, or a ‘serious leisure’ activity is that individuals are recognised and rewarded appropriately in their roles. The issue of pay was a significant one in all the coaches’ stories and represented one of the most recurrent themes within the research. If the move towards professionalising coaching is the aim, then how coaches are rewarded and paid appropriately must be addressed. In a system that recognises, in financial terms, the value of other support staff (e.g. the medical team), it is surprising that the coaches are not rewarded in similar ways. This sends a clear message that NGBs ascribe little value towards coaching and coaches. Many of the participants found this disrespectful and disheartening and were very aware of the (poor) value placed on them by their organisations. As well as the impact on the coaches in an affective way, it also tangibly means that some coaches are unable to commit to events and activities because they simply cannot afford to, hindering their own and their athlete development and performance in the long-term. From both the number of quotes and the depth of responses, it is evident that pay is a significant issue in the matter of retention and progression of coaches:

I think he was trying to get UKA to part with a £50 voucher for M&S as a gesture of thanks for the coaches who were out there but couldn’t get the go ahead to do it! And that sums it up really! [Laughter]. You know, you’re paying the physio, the Doctor. You know it’s silly to get excited over a £50 voucher, how ridiculous! But you know, it would be something! (Grace)

My first impression was the same. It’s not about finance, but the Doctor gets paid, the physio gets paid, I was shocked. I am literally thinking, well at that time of year, I could be really busy, I can’t afford to do it. And then the principle as well, it’s disrespectful, so I said no I can’t do it. (Amy)

I was asked really really early on by [NGB staff]: “Can you go across to [name of place] and do this talent whatever, and I went ‘yeah sure’, it’s going to cost you {XXX amount]”.I said to her ‘I’m a sports consultant, I am a professional’. She said ‘oh, we pay £100’, I said ‘you know what [name], there’s a 16 year old lad in my garden doing labouring for my extension and he is on £140 a day, I’m sorry but I can’t do it for £100 a day. So, then I didn’t do anything for ages and ages. Over time, because I worked for [one NGB], they pay different rates… They have a set rate [but] if they want someone in particular, they will pay more money for them. So, I have done lots for them. (Lisa)

Just about team coaching. You know there is no selection process, it’s who will do the job they way they want it to be done, with less hassle. You probably know they don’t pay their team coaches, but they pay everybody else. So when they did as me to be a team coach in [name of country] for the European Team Champs, at the time I said great, I don’t know why it has taken you [number] years to select me as a coach, but I said I am self-employed, I have to take time away from work to do this, how much are you going to pay me? They said, ‘oh no it’s a voluntary role’, I said ok, I am not a money grabbing person, I am happy to be a volunteer on your team as long as everybody else is a volunteer. And they said, ‘oh no everybody else gets paid, just not the coaches’. So I said that is really disrespectful its really devaluing coaches, however I said I would do it this time, but if you want me to be a team coach in the future then I would need to receive some payment. Of course, I didn’t get picked [because of] that. I did raise it with [names], and it didn’t get anywhere. Even just a £100 a day to say, you know what, we think you are valuable, but they won’t. (Lisa)

So, if they are going away to be a team coach, they are having to take annual leave and lose income…and then to be told that we might not even pay your expenses you know to the airport or something! Physios are paid, Doctors are paid and obviously the GB support staff who are part of the organisation are paid, so why wouldn’t you pay the coach? To me, that’s potentially a barrier for everyone, and potentially and even greater barrier for women who aren’t privileged to work in the organisation. It doesn’t say much about how the organisation values coaches! The message is almost you should be proud to do it to represent your country…And so therefore the reward of going on a team is great and fantastic and you wear your kit with pride. But I don’t think it says much about how we value coaches if we go about it that way. (Grace)

The impact is that coaches, both men and women, are forced to choose between roles and priorities. The issue of pay is problematic for all coaches because it means coaches have to take time away from other paid employment to fulfil coaching duties. For some, it means a difficult choice of having to turn down coaching opportunities because it is a role for which they are highly motivated and passionate. This lends evidence to the argument that the issue is not because women do not want to coach or think they are capable enough (as it is often heard in organisations) to put themselves forward for coaching opportunities but rather, they have no choice because it is not a financially viable role:

I think family is a huge part of it and for me, all I wanted to do was to be an elite coach, until I got married and wanted to have children. And then the reality of I am actually going to have enough money to have a house, you’re going to have to have another full-time job and it’s just impossible. And there is no way to make a full-time income in athletics unless you are employed by the national governing body, and there’s only one full time role in [name of event] in the UK. I have tried it, a lot of people have tried it and even at the elite level full time athletics coaching doesn’t make you money, you have to do other things. Unless you are employed by the NGBs. I think money is a huge amount of it. (Margaret)

You just expect it to be the paid members of staff that will get asked these things. Which I guess is fair enough, because it’s a big ask. I mean going to the Commonwealth Games for team staff I was away for nearly a month and that was all unpaid. All your expenses are paid, but that took me a long time to financially get back on my feet after that. If you think you’re just not going to get paid for a month! And I am self-employed so you don’t get holiday pay or anything, you know so, there are certain things you have to say no to. And it’s not because you don’t want to do it, it’s because they are expecting you to take time off work…Financially I cannot justify this…I think that’s a big thing for a lot of coaches, for team staff stuff, men or women…if you are going away for two weeks in the summer and you’ve got a family, even if you’ve got no children, I’ve got a husband and then you are saying to them, well we can’t go on holiday now, because I am using my holiday time for this, it isn’t part of your job. You are losing money to do it. There is a shelf-life to it because you can only do it for so long, you can’t justify it anymore. I think that’s why I was pushing that you should get some sort of small payment. Just to make it viable if you are self- employed. It’s a real difficult one, but I think that’s massively why there’s not as many women staff. (Deborah)

But one of the reasons that I started to move away from coaching at that time was the fact that it was costing a huge amount of money, and I just couldn’t continue to justify the expense. (Victoria)

It’s not about finance, but the Doctor gets paid, the physio gets paid, I was shocked. I am literally thinking, well at that time of year, I could be really busy, I can’t afford to do it. And then the principle as well, it’s disrespectful, so I said no I can’t do it. Then they came back to me and said we are really struggling we have no one to do this role, and we really want a female for insurance.


Because it was [name] first time, I literally just said look I will come. I did it for [name] to be honest… I loved it. I could tell that I genuinely helped those athletes. I said to them that if they wanted me to do it next year, I can’t do it for free. And then they agreed to pay me. (Amy)

If you’re the main breadwinner in a home, I can’t imagine – I wouldn’t be able to live…the comfortable life I live, if it was just me. So, I think, that’s nothing to do with being a female, that actually more to do with the fact that coaching’s very difficult to live off, professionally. (Kate)

The athletics system in the UK is one that rests on volunteering. Coaches are expected to be the most knowledgeable and skilled professionals in a volunteer capacity. They are central to the system and yet, they are not rewarded as such. This is an issue that appears to be worsening within some NGBs rather than improving:

I don’t know, the system needs to be changedI don’t know what will happen now, but in the past, Great Britain benefited from winning medals that were delivered by volunteer coaches. And the management of Great Britain benefited from them financially, where receiving bonuses, receiving percentage of whatever funding was at the time, and the lowlevel coaches received nothing. I actually had a bonus from [the NGB] last year [for a small amount of money]. Well I took it…But otherwise yeah [it] feels like we are working to pay their salaries, basically…the financial side of it [has] just gone completely down[hill]I have done workshops for [the NGB]. They always want you to do workshops and speak, the problem is they don’t pay. (Sophie)

The issue of pay may present a greater issue for women coaches because they are outside of the organisation and of powerful, informal networks. The following section outlines a further and serious impact of a poorly regulated, non- professional coaching system.