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As the old adage says, there are those who teach and those who do. In the world of sports, there are both great athletes and great coaches. But is it possible to be good at both? Do the best athletes make good coaches?

Highly skilled athletes demonstrate excellence in their sport, but may find it difficult to communicate how it is that they can do what they do. Very often, top performances occur in a state of flow that is nearly unconscious, meaning that an athlete may not clearly remember what led to their performance. Consequently, the athlete may find it difficult to teach this to another person (Beiolck, 2010).

As broadcaster and retired British Olympic sprinter Katharine Merry wrote in a blog in 2009, competitive experience and sport knowledge are not one and the same. Good coaching, as she states, allows athletes to understand themselves and to feel empowered to follow a roadmap intended to help them in accomplishing their objectives.

Elite athletes may struggle to:

  • Understand the keys to motivating athletes less proficient than they were;
  • Provide clear explanations and instruction;
  • Listen and communicate clearly;
  • Remain patient, fair and consistent.

However, returning to British sprinter Katharine Merry, she suggests that there are some great coaches who have been able to meld years of experience as players with years of coaching and as such, undertake a successful transition. And indeed a number of formerly elite athletes both here in Canada and internationally have done so: top figure skaters Brian Orser and Shae-Lynn Bourne, Olympic champion track athletes Glenroy Gilbert and the Brazilian Joaquim Cruz, and notably French soccer star Zinadine Zidane who was recently appointed as Real Madrid’s head coach are among those top performers who are today coaching through the lens of lived experience. Another less well-known retired elite runner recently led the University of Syracuse men’s cross country team to their first NCAA championship since 1951. Chris Fox has been coaching at Syracuse for ten years and was himself an accomplished professional distance runner for nearly two decades. In a recent interview he stated: “I bring back my experiences, both good and bad, and talk about them to shape some of the thoughts I want to instill in the guys.”

As Hoogestraat, et al (2014) contends, elite sport experiences are invaluable but must be tempered with a sound base in coach education if one is to bridge the divide between top athlete and becoming a coach. Although some elite athletes may have difficulty parleying their experience into coaching, a number of them have succeeded in doing so and clearly, being at the top has helped to inform their ability to guide and bring out the best in aspiring athletes. Good coaching, it seems, hinges on:

  • Being able to get to know and understand athletes as individuals;
  • Being flexible and open-minded;
  • Being a good communicator;
  • Being a student of the sport;
  • Caring genuinely about the welfare of athletes, and;
  • Being able to balance ambition with patience and careful planning.

Ultimately there may be those who do and those who teach, but in the arena of sports, perhaps experience and knowledge need not be mutually exclusive.


Beiolck, Sian. “The Best Players Rarely Make the Best Coaches”. Psychology Today blog, August 16, 2010. Accessed online, January 18, 2016.

“Chris Fox – November 2015”. An interview. Accessed online, January 20, 2016.

Hoogestraat, Fran M., Phillips, Michael B., Rosemond, LaNise. “Do Elite Athletes Automatically Make Elite Coaches?” Olympic Coach, Vol. 25, Issue 1, 2014.

Merry, Katharine. “Do Former Athletes Make the Best Coaches?” BBC blog, April 9, 2009. Accessed online, January 20, 2016.

About the Author

Jason has proudly represented Canada at 4 Paralympic Games, winning 5 medals in middle distance track events against other blind runners. He has been a member of the national Para Athletics team since 1998, and away from the track, has sought to promote inclusive physical activity so that more people with disabilities might catch the physical activity bug. Along with his guide runner, Josh Karanja, Jason hopes to represent Canada at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.