An in-depth assessment of expert sprint coaches’ technical knowledge
Authors: Andy Thompson a; Ian N. Bezodis a; Robyn L. Jones a
Affiliation: a Cardiff School of Sport, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, UK
Publication Frequency: 14 issues per year
Published in: journal Journal of Sports Sciences, Volume 27, Issue 8 June 2009 , pages 855 - 861
Among the myriad issues addressed by current research are the sources of knowledge of coaches in terms of their implicit and/or explicit natures. What appears to remain unaddressed, however, is the arguably prior step of coaches’ content knowledge; that is, what coaches know as opposed to how they know it. The aim of this study was to partially address this shortcoming by identifying the characteristics that expert coaches associate with good sprint running technique, in addition to where such knowledge was gleaned. Seven expert male sprint coaches participated in the study, with data being gathered through in-depth, semi-structured interviews. The data were inductively analysed using the ATLAS.ti 5.2 qualitative software. Four principal constructs emerged from the interview data. These included “posture”, “hip position”, “ground contact, and “arm action’, with tacit, experiential sources, generated predominantly from conversations with respected peers, forming the basis of such knowledge. The findings are located within existing sprinting literature, before we summarize the main points made.
Keywords: Content knowledge; sprint running; qualitative research; coaching
The past two decades have witnessed a considerable growth in sports coaching research from a number of different perspectives, using an assortment of methodologies (e.g. Gilbert, 2002; Irwin & Kerwin, 2007; Jones, Armour, & Potrac, 2003). Such study has involved descriptive and critical investigations into a variety of coaching aspects, from psychological (e.g. Jowett & Ntoumanis, 2004), sociological (e.g. Cushion & Jones, 2006), and pedagogical standpoints (Jones & Turner, 2006). A branch of this work has investigated the origin of coaching knowledge, with findings generally emphasizing the importance attached to experiential, implicit sources as opposed to explicit ones (e.g. Jones et al., 2003; Nash & Collins, 2006; Potrac, Jones, & Armour, 2002). Although such investigations have assisted in the quest to expand our general understanding of coaching, what appears to remain unaddressed is the arguably prior step of coaches’ technical content knowledge; that is, what coaches know in relation to their sport as opposed to how they know it.
The aim of this study was to partially address this shortcoming by identifying the characteristics that expert coaches associate with good sprint running technique, in addition to where they gleaned such knowledge from. The significance of the work is two-fold. First, it is to better understand the principal constructs that underpin sprinting, in terms of locating coaches’ perceptions within the technical sprinting literature. Second, it is to contribute to the body of knowledge related to the origins of coaching knowledge, through better ordering, and appreciating not only what we already know but also gaps and possibilities (Jones et al., 2003). Such an understanding appears crucial in light of the recent considerable investment into UK coaching structures and related professional preparation programmes (SportscoachUK, 2007) as the momentum associated with the London 2012 Olympics gathers pace (Jones & Wallace, 2005).
Seven expert male sprint coaches participated in the study. The coaches were classified as expert or top-level based on three criteria related to experience, achievement, and qualification. First, a minimum of 10 years’ sprint coaching experience was deemed necessary. Second, each coach was required to hold a valid UK Athletics Level 4 coaching certificate, the highest UK coaching award available in the sport, or a national sprint coaching position (either currently or previously). Finally, each of the coaches needed to have coached at least two international performers. Such criteria echo others’ (Cocircteacute, Salmela, Trudel, Baria, & Russell, 1995; d’Arripe-Longueville, Saury, Fournier, & Durand, 2001; Sedgwick, Cocircteacute, & Dowd, 1997) definitions of expert coaches in relation to the time spent coaching, the achievement of a performance outcome measure (having coached athletes to, and at, international competitions), and national recognition. The participants, who were all currently coaching, were selected through purposeful sampling. Such a sampling procedure, which is defined as being non-probability in nature, involves selecting the most productive respondents to address the research aim; that is, the coaches were chosen for their particular qualities in terms of their relevance to the topic of investigation (see Patton, 2002, for a more informative discussion here).
A semi-structured, in-depth interview with each coach was used to determine what the coaches considered to be the vital technical characteristics necessary for top-level sprinting. In line with the aims of the study, following an introductory “lead-in section’, the specific issues investigated related to which constructs, given in rank order, the coaches considered the most important to coach within sprinting, why they considered such constructs to be so relevant, and the sources of such beliefs. Here, detail-orientated probes and follow-up questions to elicit clarification were used to deepen understandings (Patton, 2002). Such a research method was deemed appropriate as it contains the flexibility to investigate given concepts. This involved exploring at a multitude of levels the discourse used by the respondents, thus allowing a focus not only on the words spoken but also on the meanings intended (May, 1999; Patton, 2002). The interview schedule, therefore, although adhering to the given aims of the research, also incorporated the flexibility to follow unique or less trodden routes of inquiry. The interviews lasted between approximately 60 and 90 min each, the variation in length being dictated by the candour, loquaciousness, and availability of the participant, and the interviewer’s development of initial rapport with each. Despite the variation, it was ensured that each interview addressed the required core topics in substantial depth. The interviews, which were conducted at locations of the participants’ choosing, were also digitally audio recorded before being transcribed verbatim. Ethical considerations in terms of securing participant informed consent and ensuring anonymity were addressed through the institution’s related guidelines.
The data were analysed inductively, albeit within the framework supplied by the study’s aims. This involved organizing and moderating the collated raw data into themes or constructs (Walker & Myrick, 2006). To achieve this task, a constant comparative method was used until data saturation was reached (i.e. a point at which no new information or constructs were observed) (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). To assist in the analytical process, the interviews were examined using ATLAS.ti 5.2 qualitative software, which allows for the management, comparison, and reassembling of meaningful pieces of textual data in creative, flexible, yet systematic ways. This involved examining the interviews for appropriate words or phrases in relation to a particular topic using the ATLAS.ti. software search engine, thus permitting the locating and coding of the data and an evaluation of concept importance to take place. Specifically, the analysis procedure contained a preliminary stage during which data were examined for concepts, themes, and areas for further exploration (Rubin & Rubin, 1995). This involved dividing the text, on the basis of frequency and emphasis, into “meaning units” or portions of data containing a single idea relating to the topic in question (i.e. what the coaches considered to be vital for good sprinting technique and how this knowledge was arrived at) (Tesch, 1990). The content of these units or constructs were then subject to a fine-grained search for commonalities and uniqueness as to their own meanings, which were, in turn, categorized (Tesch, 1990). Through such a continual comparative and progressive process, confidence in the appropriateness of the constructs’ validity was developed (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The outcome resulted in a number of higher-order constructs being established and grouped, based on the criteria of having been most cited and discussed by at least six of the seven coaches in question in relation to being critical for good sprint running technique.
Following analysis of the transcribed interviews, four higher-order constructs were identified by the coaches as being crucial to good sprint running technique: “posture”, “hip position”, “ground contact”, and “arm action”. Each of these constructs will now be explored in greater depth as to their precise meaning while being simultaneously located, where appropriate, within the existing body of knowledge. The section concludes with an examination of where the coaches garnered such information; the results are similarly analysed in terms of the existing literature.
All of the coaches interviewed identified posture as being integral to having good sprint technique. Indeed, five of the seven coaches when asked “what are the technical characteristics of good sprint technique?” offered “posture” as their first response. In probing for precise clarification, a consensus emerged from the coaches that posture referred to the athlete’s ability to control the muscles within the trunk, thus maintaining a fairly rigid position while sprinting. This rigidity, however, was not viewed to be absolute or static, but referred to an athlete’s ability to control his or her dynamic, desired body position. In the words of two of the coaches:
(Correct posture is) having the total body control to maintain the optimum sprinting action for the whole duration (of the run).
The trunk has got to be very strong, before you start thinking about the rest of the body. The legs and the arms rotate on the trunk; therefore, if the trunk is weak the rest of the sprint action is weak.
Following further discussion, two important sub-notions relating to the term “posture” were identified: “core stability” and “core strength”. When asked to elaborate what specifically constituted the “core”, all the coaches described it as being the region from the chest down to the waist (e.g. “The chest down to your waist has got to be solid, no movement whatsoever”). When seeking clarification in relation to what “core stability” and “core strength” actually meant, it was found that both terms referred to the ability to control the muscles within the trunk allowing for the preservation of an unyielding position while sprinting. This definition of “core stability” echoes that put forward by Kibler and colleagues (Kibler, Press, & Sciascia, 2006), who viewed the concept as being the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk. This, of course, locates “core stability” very close to that of “posture” itself, as it became increasingly apparent that the coaches used different terms to describe the same or very similar notions. The interchangeable use of such notions as “core stability” and “core strength” by the coaches, however, is not mirrored in the literature. For example, Young (2005) argued that “core strength” is the ability to apply force during movements, which differs from Kibler and colleagues’ (2006) definition given above. Nevertheless, the perceived significant notions of “core stability” and “core strength” were inextricably linked by the coaches to athletes achieving an optimal postural position and thus good sprint technique. The identification of primary postural and core muscles (i.e. in the trunk) as being crucial for successful physical performance is in line with the general findings of existing postural strength literature (e.g. Hrysomallis & Goodman, 2001; Kibler et al., 2006). In this respect, the coaches’ beliefs echo those of Novak and Mackinnon (1997) and Kibler et al. (2006), who concluded that major deviations from an optimal posture for a given physical task may adversely influence muscle force generation and thus muscle efficiency.
Like “posture”, a number of terms, including “tall shape” and “high hip position” were used interchangeably when discussing the general construct “hip position”. When asked to clarify the exact meaning of “hip position”, a consensus among all seven coaches was forthcoming; it referred to the athlete maintaining a high centre of mass with a slight forward tilt of the pelvis during sprinting. When asked to describe how “hip position” impacts upon sprint technique, three of the seven coaches spoke of the spatial role “hip position” plays in the sprinting process. They argued if a “high” or “tall” hip position is not maintained during maximal sprinting, body parts cannot attain specific relative positions. In the words of one of the coaches:
High hips enables the knees to come up and through, and it gives the clearance for it (i.e. desired stride length and frequency), whereas if you're squatting down it brings your stomach down, which means you're running into the ground.
A second related issue identified was how a correct “hip position” impacts upon the efficiency of the lower leg muscles. This was described in terms of how a low hip position restricts the range of motion over which the lower leg muscles can apply force: “it doesn’t allow the full release of the muscle, the movement of the whole leg action”. Although agreeng with the importance of achieving a “tall running position”, one coach stressed the need for this not to occur at the expense of the athlete maintaining overall sprinting technique. In somewhat problematizing the notion, he went on to describe how some sprinters can reach a position of being too tall:
I think people talk about athletes being tall. I think you can be too tall, it almost acts like a parachute slowing them up, and they would go backwards.
The notion of “hip position”, while considered to be important by the coaches in the current study, has received little coverage within the sprinting literature generally. Hence, although Hinrichs and colleagues (Hinrichs, Cavanagh, & Williams, 1987) identified how arm action can impact upon the vertical range of the centre of mass, while Mann and Herman (1985) reported touchdown distance in relation to total body centre of mass, little work appears to have addressed the relationship between centre of mass height or “hip position” and sprint running performance. Nevertheless, the findings from this study do echo those of Collier (2002), who, in discussing the foundational concepts of sprinting stated the need to obtain and maintain an “upright posture” or “tall running position” during the maximum velocity stage. In this respect, the results also agree with Vonstein (1996), who argued that the body position should almost always be upright in the maximum velocity stage, giving the athlete the appearance of being very tall: a position established through maintaining tension in the abdominal muscles (Vonstein, 1996). Although there appears to be a slowly emerging consensus in relation to the importance of maintaining “high hips” while sprinting, more research is obviously required before the current findings can be treated as anything more than tentative.
All of the seven coaches interviewed identified “ground contact” as important for having good sprint technique. In seeking greater clarification in relation to the exact meaning of “ground contact”, all the coaches agreed that it referred to the time from the instant when the foot makes contact with the ground until the instant the same foot is lifted from the ground. A number of key sub-notions associated with “ground contact” were identified. Principal among these was “the position of the foot” at the instant of touchdown. This related to foot contact not occurring too far ahead of the body’s centre of mass, which would cause detrimental braking forces, but rather close to being under it (“So the foot, when you touch down, needs to almost be under the centre of the athlete”). This notion has previously been examined as a key indicator of sprint performance. For example, several authors (e.g. Mann, 1985; Mero, Komi, & Gregor, 1992) have highlighted the need to minimize the distance between the point of contact with the track and the athlete’s centre of mass at touchdown, with the point of contact needing to occur approximately 0.15 m in front of the centre of mass (Mann, 1985).
In addition to the point of contact, three coaches also highlighted the technical importance of “contact time” to good sprinting; the time an athlete’s foot remains in contact with the ground. For the coaches interviewed, however, the notion of “contact time” was inherently linked with that of contact power or force. Consequently, what was required was “maximum force production” over a “minimum contact time”, as the following excerpts from two of the coaches illustrate:
[Foot contact] is a combination of continuing to apply power to the ground as best you can but in the shortest possible contact, so there is no deceleration.
So, during foot contact we're talking about minimum contact time and maximum force.
“Minimum contact time”, then, should not occur at the expense of maximum force production. Hence, there was agreement among the coaches that foot contact needed to be “fast”, but not so quick as to sacrifice the appropriate force generation: “from the pulling from the front, all the way through the pivot to when you push out the back”. The notion of athletes striving to produce greater forces over shorter periods of time has also received the attention of researchers (Mann, 1985; Weyand, Sternlight, Bellizzi, & Wright, 2000). Here, work investigating the role of “contact time” (Mann, 1985) has indicated that elite sprinters spend less time on the ground in comparison to sub-elite sprinters. This difference has been attributed to elite sprinters producing forces at a greater magnitude, thus allowing them to enter the subsequent flight phase earlier than their sub-elite counterparts.
The final sub-notion to be discussed in relation to ground contact was the “movement pattern of the foot”. Here, coaches looked for a rapid hip extension and knee flexion before and during ground contact in order for the athlete to pull the foot under the body, thus generating powerful forward drive, what one of the coaches referred to as “clawing back the track”. However, early research by Mann (1985) found that even at the point of contact, an athlete’s foot would still be moving forward relative to the track, causing detrimental braking forces. Better sprinters were considered to be able to minimize this forward motion and the subsequent associated braking forces through a combination of greater thigh extension and shank flexion at the instant of touchdown (Mann, 1985). Although the notion of “clawing back the track” echoes that of existing research (Mann, 1985), related work has also highlighted that such an unnatural movement pattern puts athletes at increased risk of hamstring injuries especially during the early part of ground contact (Mann & Sprague, 1980).
The final construct to be identified was “arm action”. The role arm action plays in sprint running is a contentious issue among sprint coaches (who believe it plays an important role) and sports biomechanists (who question if it does), with a general consensus between the two groups proving elusive (Young, 2006). Perhaps not surprisingly, then, all seven coaches interviewed agreed that the action of the arms plays a vital technical role during maximum velocity sprinting. For example, two coaches noted that:
I believe that the arms are critical. To synchronize an optimum movement pattern the arms and knees have to be in total synchronization … the arms have to work efficiently.
I put a lot of credence on just that one part of the physique - fast arms, 90 degree arms, don't unlock them. So I think there's probably no other better part of the body to get them to focus on.
The coaches were then asked to identify what they believed to be the specific role of the arms in the running process. A function identified by five of the coaches was that the arms offer “balance” to the sprinter. One coach described the arms as a necessary “balancing factor” that helps stabilize the trunk, thus working in tandem with correct posture. This balancing role of the arms has been investigated by sports biomechanists (e.g. Hinrichs et al., 1987). In contrast to the coaches’ beliefs, Mann (1981) and Mann and Herman (1985) argued that the arms are of little importance in sprinting, other than that they somewhat help the sprinter to maintain balance. Again, then, more work is required in relation to the arms before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
When discussing the technical points of an optimal arm action, all of the coaches’ responses centred on four key aspects: “open arms”, “90 degrees arms”, “synchronized arms”, and “big range”. When asked to clarify these terms the consensus was that the arms should be swung exclusively in the sagittal plane, not across the body. The elbow angle should be maintained close to 90° of flexion, while the movements of both arms should be the same, although opposite in direction; that is, they should be corresponding and complementary. These findings are mirrored within the limited sprint coaching literature (Jarver, 1984). Two of the coaches further highlighted the need to attain a “big range” with the arms. This related to large shoulder flexion and extension angles during maximal sprinting, while the total range of shoulder motion should be close to 90°. The coaches also argued that an increased arm range of motion could improve lower leg mechanics, including stride length and knee lift, an interesting claim that remains unsubstantiated within the existing literature.
The source of coaches’ knowledge
All the coaches cited experiential sources as being the most influential in terms of their knowledge development. These included discussions with colleagues and more senior coaches in particular, in addition to observing other athletes and coaches in action. In the words of two of the coaches:
The best resource for developing coaches is other coaches who produce at a performance level … it's sitting around a table listening and pinging ideas off each other. You can just nick a few things sometimes and put it into your practice.
I learnt from what my coach showed me and from being an athlete. I also looked at how other people compete and coach and what they do; that's how I got my knowledge, that's how I learnt.
This knowledge provided the basis for much active experimentation, or personal trial and error, by the coaches to find out what worked for them personally: “you just have to suck it and see really”. Current knowledge, therefore, was not static but dynamic and was developed through a continual process of trialling observed examples in practice and reflecting upon the outcomes.
Coaching courses meanwhile were looked upon with mixed views. For example, one coach declared that “I’ve been very dissatisfied with coach education in this country”, while another similarly stated that “all they [i.e. coaching courses] do is teach you how to be politically correct; they don’t teach you how to be a coach, end of story”. The general problem in this regard was the perceived irrelevancy of the content in addition to the largely didactic method of delivery. On the other hand, three of the coaches did cite professional programmes’ usefulness in introducing new ideas to them. For example, one coach stated that:
I'm quite happy to spend three days on a course and then maybe something will just ping in my mind … I never thought of that, that's good I'll try that.
Such ideas, however, were generally gleaned through talking and networking with other experienced coaches. Some content knowledge was, nonetheless, considered constructive, although the relayed information had to be treated as loose guidelines to be engaged with and not absolute “truths” to be of any use; that is, it had to be individualized or contextualized by the coaches to be relevant (“you need to mull it over in your mind first before you try it”). A similar conclusion was drawn in relation to extrinsic written (i.e. handouts) and, in particular, video materials presented on the attended courses. Although recognized as valuable resources, there was specific awareness by five of the seven coaches that the information given had to be thought about and engaged with in the context of their own coaching.
These findings echo those from previous work (e.g. Cushion, Armour, & Jones, 2003; Jones et al., 2003), which suggested that coaches’ experiences predominantly inform how they coach. Although perhaps not surprising, such a position is problematic from a number of perspectives, not least of which is the accuracy of coaches’ content knowledge in terms of the theoretical underpinning of what they know. Such experiential learning ranges from observing their own and other athletes in action, to informally talking to other coaches about a variety of sports-related issues. The limited credence given to coach education programmes by some of the coaches in the study also reflects previous work, particularly when such courses were heavily tutor-led or overly theoretical (e.g. Potrac et al., 2002): “You don’t want to be sitting in front of someone who is dogmatic, lectures are no good”. Such courses were considered as lacking a certain amount of real-world relevance (“… it’s not what I do”), a feeling that was exacerbated if the delivering tutor was perceived as having less experience, or being less expert, than the coaches on the course. Such a finding, however, rather than condemning such courses as totally inadequate, also calls into question the receptiveness of elite coaches to explicit forms of knowledge. This is particularly so in relation to biomechanical knowledge, which, due its heavy theoretical underpinning, often renders familiar concepts strange and troublesome (Jones, 2006). This, then, somewhat echoing the call of Nash and Collins (2006), would appear to be a fruitful area for future inquiry; that is, to explore how coaches engage with new knowledge and why they think some segments of information are useful while others are not.
The main aim of this study was to ascertain the significant technical characteristics of top-level sprinting as considered by expert coaches. From the interview data gathered, four principal constructs emerged -“posture”, “hip position”, “ground contact”, and “arm action”- all of which were considered integral to high-quality sprinting technique. Such findings support, conflict with, and remain largely unsubstantiated by the limited existing literature on sprinting. For example, although the general backing given to posture by the coaches is supported by the work of Collier (2002) and Hrysomallis and Goodman (2001), no agreement was forthcoming in relation to a definition of posture itself. Similarly, although some work has examined the function of “posture” in sports activities, little or no research has investigated optimal posture characteristics, especially within sprint running. The same could be said of “hip position”, which although acknowledged as significant, has no scientific literature to support the contention regarding the impact on and connection between centre of mass height and sprint running performance.
The notion of “ground contact” offered the greatest similarities between the coaches’ responses and sprinting literature, although for some of the coaches the link between contact time and the force exerted during that time was a problematic one. Perhaps the most contentious construct of the four was “arm action” and the role it plays in sprint running. This was not in respect of the lack of weight given to the arms during sprinting by the coaches, but rather to their precise role and to the fact that such an emphasis was questioned in the literature. Here, some of the coaches underlined the arms’ balancing function to the motion of the legs. Others, however, believed that the arms also play a role in dictating leg speed, arguing that the arms can be used to drive the legs, a claim that currently remains unsubstantiated in the literature.
Despite the arrival at principal constructs, a primary finding of this study has been to highlight that gaps still exist detailing the exact role particular variables play in the sprinting process, both individually and collectively. A space also appears to exist between coaches’ knowledge and that related to the academic study of sprinting, usually housed within the sports science discipline of biomechanics. In many ways, this is not surprising given that coaches appear to continue to rely on experiential as opposed to extrinsically presented knowledge - a further significant finding evident in the current study. What appeared to be of value to the coaches in this respect was not only the perceived limited relevance of the content presented in coach education programmes, but how that content was delivered (in that informal group discussions were considered most beneficial), in addition to the apparent expertise of the person delivering it. Such results point the way for future investigations, particularly in terms of exploring and evaluating more personal pedagogical approaches such as mentoring to coach development (Jones, Harris, & Miles, in press). Nevertheless, we hope that this study has gone some way to develop an interface where both practice and theory come to inform each other in a mutually beneficial way (Irwin & Kerwin, 2007).