Understanding the influence of coaching practice through an emergentist theory of action

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That coaches are expected to influence others appears axiomatic. However, prevailing positivist research findings propose a relatively simplistic relationship exists between coach behaviour and athlete ‘outcomes’, misrepresenting coaching as a linear, rationalistic, fully controllable endeavour. Recent interpretivist inquiry has offered more richly detailed analysis of how coaches think, feel and act in the face of coaching’s inherently social ambiguities, pathos and emergent novelty. Among this work, the metaphor of the coach as orchestrator has usefully permitted a more nuanced understanding of the pervasive tensions between structure and agency constituted in the coach’s role and how these are managed in their everyday working lives. To date, this research has been undertaken, almost exclusively, from the coach’s perspective, meaning less is known about athletes’ and other stakeholders’ experiences of and engagement with orchestrated practice. The significance and novelty of this study therefore lies in its exploration of the influence of orchestrated coaching practice on others (i.e., athletes) as complex interactions between structural and agential entities. A methodological bricolage of participant observation, semi-structured interviews and stimulated recall interviews was adopted to address the research questions as part of a critical realist ethnography of a representative-level cricket squad in the UK. Critical realist modes of data analysis were employed: retroduction – identifying the parts of an entity and their causal power; and retrodiction – understanding how causal powers and mechanisms interact to produce events. The analysis draws upon theories of orchestration (Jones & Wallace, 2005, 2006) emergentism, norm circles and the causal power of social structures (Elder-Vass, 2007, 2010) as heuristic devices to critically explore how, when, why, to what extent, and under which circumstances coach and athlete (inter)action both shaped, and was shaped by the norms of the context. An emergentist theory of action implies that our behaviour is neither explained deterministically (i.e., through structure), or a matter of unfettered agency (i.e., under solely our conscious control); instead, both social structure and conscious reflexivity play a role in causally influencing our action. Examples of (inter)actions of both coaches and athletes, and how these were influenced by both dispositions and conscious reflexivity are presented that point to both the intended and unintended consequences of coaching practice and suggest that its influence (among other entities) is often heterogeneous. The findings have important implications for both coaches and athletes to understand, in more explicit terms, how their action is both shaped by, and itself continually shapes social structure. Moreover, the emergentist theory of action presents a useful framework for stakeholders in coach learning (coaches, researchers and coach educators) to further problematise and critically reflect upon the enactment and implications of coaching practice.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2019


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