Using Data to Support Transformational Coaching

“Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.” – Suhail Doshi, CEO, Mixpanel

In the increasingly omnipresent world of sports analytics and sabermetrics, data are all around us—and most often this data focuses on performance outcomes. InSideOut coaches and ADs see the value and power of data as a transformational tool. Whether it is qualitative information gathered through observation and conversations or quantitative data culled through surveys, statistics, or other methods, data has the power to improve our understanding of athletes, and therefore positively impact coaching.

St. Anthony Village High School (SAVHS) and St. Anthony Middle School (SAMS) conduct a student interest survey every two years. Minnesota schools are required to complete this survey to determine student interest in athletics and activities offerings. At SAVHS and SAMS, we take advantage of this opportunity to survey our students on a number of areas beyond interest in athletics and activities offerings.

Using Google Forms, in the spring of even years, all students in grades 8 through 12 are surveyed. In addition to traditional questions posed which ask about student interest, the survey also asks about student connectedness to school, the importance of sportsmanship, what place winning holds in high school athletics, and the role of character education in sport. While the examples of poor sportsmanship and bad character sometimes seem to outweigh the countless positive moments, it is important to remember our efforts are paying off and large dividends are continually paid. Our surveys provide us with concrete, quantifiable data supporting the fact that our student-athletes get it: high school sports hold a greater value than what is shown on a clock or scoreboard. Students believe sportsmanship is very important, character education is a valuable part of co-curricular athletics, and there are important measures in school sports beyond winning.

The most striking data collected, however, may be what attributes students consider the most valuable in a coach or advisor. For the past eight years, from a list of 12 options (plus an option to add an ‘other’), students have identified the same three coaching traits as the most important:

  1. Motivating and encouraging
  2. Competent (skilled)
  3. Approachable

Put together, this is the definition of a transformational coach! Our athletes are looking for someone who knows what she or he is talking about, is encouraging, and that they are able to talk to without the barriers of a transactional relationship. This is the art of coaching: weaving a delicate balance of hard and soft skills. It is blending the X’s and O’s with the WHYs.

When reading through the list of coaching attributes athletes find most valuable, there wasn’t an “aha!” moment for me. The “aha!” moment was the realization we are not doing enough with this information beyond acknowledgment. Most coaches understand that motivation/encouragement, competence, and approachability are important to coaching. Coaches are acutely aware that knowing is one thing and doing is another. This truth extends beyond our athletes and includes each of us. We all have room to grow in doing—having mechanisms to collect valuable data should help us improve our coaching methods.

As administrators and coaches, we spend hours producing and analyzing data as we pore over statistics, break down video, and evaluate performance benchmarks. We need to expand our framework of what using data means to go beyond the X’s and O’s and to capture WHYs. There’s an old saying that a leader without followers is just a person out for a walk. Today’s transformational coaches lead toward athletes’ individual and collective needs. Properly using data can help us get there.