Submitted by Seth E. Jenny and Glenn F. Hushman

Seth E. Jenny, Ph.D., is an assistant professor within the Department of Physical Education, Sport and Human Performance at Winthrop University. He is a certified USA Track and Field coach and American College of Sports Medicine Health-Fitness Specialist. Glenn F. Hushman, Ph.D., is an assistant professor within the Department of Health, Exercise, and Sports Sciences at the University of New Mexico. There he teaches undergraduate and graduate physical education teacher education courses.


A coaching philosophy is a set of values that guide a coach’s behavior in practical instructional situations, and in overall human relationships. The humanistic coaching philosophy is an athlete-centered, collaborative, and non-manipulative process between athlete and coach, taking into account individual athlete differences and abilities, with the hopes of eventually developing a self-confident and self-regulated athlete. The aim of this case study was to investigate the coaching philosophy and methods of a successful men’s NCAA distance running coach and explore to what extent the stated coaching philosophy and coaching methods of the coach are humanistic. After data collection of coach and athlete interviews, training session observations, and artifact collection, the primary theme of coach/athlete decision-making emerged. Findings indicated that the coach’s stated philosophy and methods were humanistic in regards to having open collaborative decision-making with athletes in most areas of the program (e.g., weekly running mileage, warm-up and cool-down routines, etc.), but dictatorial methods were employed in planning interval and tempo workouts independent from athletes. This corresponded to perceptions of dependency in which the majority of athletes felt dependent on the coach for planning training schedules and effectively implementing interval and tempo workouts into a training plan. A major implication from these findings include that in areas where coaches are authoritative, athletes may not develop feelings of competence which could impact athletes’ abilities to self-regulate independently from the coach. This research was performed and submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Science from the University of New Mexico.


A coaching philosophy is a set of values that guide a coach’s behavior in practical instructional situations, and in overall human relationships (12). The principles, values, and beliefs of the coach assist in deciding how athletes are treated and the nature of the coach-athlete relationship. Having a well-articulated coaching philosophy clarifies the coach’s mind on many aspects of the coaching process, provides expectations for athletes and parents, gives the coaching staff a framework to base coaching decisions, and provides all involved a clearly defined path to follow (25).

Coaching philosophies range from autocratic (authoritarian) to humanistic and all coaches fit somewhere on this continuum (22). The ‘traditional’ autocratic coaching approach is winning-oriented, authoritarian, directing, dictatorial, and coach-centered while the humanistic approach is democratic, athlete-centered, interactive, collaborative, and empathetic (16).

The Humanistic Coaching Philosophy

With planted roots from humanistic psychology and the works of Abraham Maslow (18) and Carl Rogers (27), the basis of the humanistic philosophy is surrounded by Rogers’ (28) theory that all individuals have an innate self-actualizing tendency to develop their own physical and mental capacities in ways that serve to maintain or enhance themselves to increase autonomy and lessen control of external forces. The humanistic approach to coaching is ‘a person-centered philosophy or ideology that emphasizes the empowerment of the individual towards achieving personal goals within a facilitative interpersonal relationship’ (16, p. 174). The humanistic process utilizes collaborative and non-manipulative methods between athlete and coach (7). Compared with the autocratic style, which is characterized as a dependency culture where coaching practice would include very little athlete self-directed behavior, the humanistic coaching approach stresses a collaborative relationship between coach and athlete where the athlete does not lose control of the process.

The humanistic philosophy is person-centered where the focus is process-oriented and the athlete is empowered to be an individual through autonomy-supportive means. The athlete’s involvement in the coaching process and its related decision-making would assist in developing what Cross (7) cites as the ultimate goal of a humanistic coach – developing ‘an emancipated, adaptable, and self-confident person’ (p. 17). In other words, through the collaborative shared decision-making process, the athlete learns to develop autonomy and efficacy in regards to decisions relating to the performance process and adapts to adversity (e.g., injury, training environment changes, etc.) without being dependent on the coach.

Humanistic coaching methods provide opportunities for all athletes to make relevant decisions, provide occasions for free expression and input, encourage and support creativity in the performance process, and allow for imaginative thinking in a facilitative and non-threatening environment (14). Athletes are expected to analyze, reflect, and make crucial decisions (e.g., determining strategies, identifying reasons for performance outcomes, etc.) with the humanistic coach facilitating this through questioning as well as asking for input (15). A strong, communicative interpersonal relationship between the athlete and coach is compulsory within the humanistic paradigm.

However, Cross (6) suggests that only as the athlete becomes more experienced should the coaching decisions (e.g., setting realistic goals and objectives, making training decisions, etc.) become more collaborative between the coach and athlete. He suggests that this collaborative decision-making is more applicable to senior (i.e., college-age) athletes, as opposed to young and immature age groupers (i.e., elementary and secondary-age), highlighting that elite athletes know themselves much better than the coach. Hogg (12) mirrors these notions by describing how coaching practice should evolve from a more authoritarian approach with young athletes to a progressive power sharing relationship with older athletes, leading ultimately to independence for the very mature athlete. This incremental ‘empowerment’ of the athlete is shown in Figure 1.

De Souza and Oslin (9) report the following four major benefits to a ‘player-centered’ (i.e. humanistic) approach to coaching: 1) increases player engagement through being involved in decision-making, which provides them ownership, 2) increases communication between the athlete and the coach and teammates, 3) increases feelings of competence by having control of their learning, and 4) increases motivation through increased feelings of competence. Moreover, several studies indicate that athletes may prefer being coached within a democratically-administered or humanistic paradigm (8, 13, 24).

Themes of the humanistic coaching philosophy are apparent when many distance running coaches self-reported their own philosophies. Franz Stampfl, coach to the first sub-four minute miler Roger Bannister, was quoted as saying: ‘[a distance running coach] may know all there is to know about tactics, technique, and training, but if he cannot win the confidence and comradeship of his pupils, he will never be a good coach’ (23, p. 318). Jim Nichols, cross country coach at NCAA Division III Ithaca College and former coach to the United States World Cross Country junior and senior teams, describes his methods as taking ‘care of the athletes’ (10, p. 6009) through communicating with them every day and summarizes his philosophy with a question for his athletes: ‘If you are not trying to be your best as a student, as a person, as an athlete why are you here?’ (10, p. 6009). Bob Larsen, former NCAA Division I cross country and track coach at UCLA and coach to 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist Mebrahtom Keflezighi, simply states his coaching philosophy is to ‘help each individual to grow in every aspect of their life’ (10, p. 6010).

Few studies could be found which have empirically researched coaching philosophies. These studies involved varying data collection methods. These studies utilized coach only questionnaires (26), coach only interviews (19), coach and athlete interviews (1-2), written coaching philosophy statements (3), and online surveys (21) to investigate coaching philosophies. Given this evidence, self-report techniques were commonly utilized as the primary source of data collection in all of these studies. Many authors caution that coaching practice may not always correspond to the coach’s self-reported philosophy (11, 16-17). Moreover, no studies could be found investigating distance running coaches’ philosophies.

A gap in the literature exists which empirically researches the philosophies of distance running coaches and the methods in which these philosophies are implemented. Past research on coaching philosophies has relied on self-report techniques and none of these studies involved distance running coaches. Furthermore, though literature exists supporting that athletes may prefer being coached through a humanistic philosophy and several distance running coaches purporting philosophies in line with humanistic ideals, no study could be found that has explored distance running coaching philosophies through the theoretical lens of humanism.

Purpose and Guiding Questions

The goal of this case study was to explore the coaching philosophy and methods of a successful men’s NCAA Division I distance running coach and describe to what extent the stated coaching philosophy and coaching methods of the coach are humanistic. The research questions that guided this project were:

  1. What is the coaching philosophy of the participantmen’s NCAA distance running coach?
  1. To what extent is this coach’s stated coaching philosophy humanistic?
  2. To what extent are this coach’s coaching methods congruent with a humanistic philosophy?


Design and Pilot Study

A qualitative approach was necessary due to the exploratory nature of a personal coaching philosophy which allowed for the researcher to build a complex and holistic illustration through analyzing words, reporting detailed views of informants, and conducting the study in a natural setting. Lyle (16) notes that more naturalistic, field-based studies of successful coaching practice are required. A single-case design was used as this case was both unique (i.e., the participant coach was ‘successful’) and representative of the men’s NCAA distance running environment (31). Moreover, the single case allowed for in-depth rich, thick description of the phenomenon from multiple data collection perspectives. A pilot study was performed to strengthen the credibility of the qualitative process of the study. Interview questions, participant athlete sampling, and observation techniques were all piloted and strengthened.


  1. Purposeful criterion sampling of the participant coach occurred in order to meet the desired criteria of the study to inform the guiding research questions and central phenomenon (5). The participant coach was the current head coach of a successful men’s NCAA Division I cross country running team in the west region of the United States. ‘Success’ in this study equated to the coach having distance running athletes and teams qualify for the NCAA national championships. Accolades of the participant coach include: NCAA Division I national men’s cross country coach of the year; 4-time region and 25-time conference men’s and women’s cross country coach of the year; 2-time men’s conference indoor track coach of the year; coached 17 men’s and women’s distance running NCAA Division I All-Americans. Additional background information is listed in Table 1.

Athletes. Random purposeful sampling methods of five men’s distance runners under the direction of the participant coach occurred within the case to add credibility and remove selection bias (5). Humanistic coaching philosophy prescribes an incremental empowerment of the athlete based upon athlete age and, more importantly, experience level of the athlete (12). Therefore, it was essential to interview athletes with varying levels of experience with the coach. One athlete with one, two, and three years of experience each, as well as, two athletes with four years of experience with the coach were randomly selected. Participant athletes’ background information can be seen in Table 2.

Data Collection

Sources of data collection in this study included coach and athlete interviews, training session field observations, and artifacts. Data was collected until a saturation point was reached where regularities emerged and new information attained was far removed from the guiding research questions (20).

Coach and athlete interviews. Two semi-structured interviews lasting approximately one hour each of the coach were conducted across the peaking (i.e., championship) phase of training. Similarly, one semi-structured interview lasting approximately 45 to 60 minutes each with five different athletes occurred. Interview questions focused on the coach’s philosophy, ambitions, decision-making processes, and coach/athlete interactions.

Observations. The researcher spent two weeks observing a successful men’s NCAA Division I cross country running team located in the west region of the United States during their peaking training cycle leading into the national championships. Eight overt naturalistic field observations occurred. The researcher utilized Thomas’ et al. (29) narrative method of recording and describing the coach/athlete interactions and observations as they occurred in short-hand note form and later elaborated upon the notes within 24 hours to improve recollection. The observations primarily included descriptions of training events, quotes by the coach and athletes, training methods used, interactions of the coach and athletes, and general impressions perceived by the researcher.

Artifacts. Artifacts are what people make and use (5). In this study, artifacts collected and used to help determine aspects of the coach’s coaching philosophy included the team handbook and training session planning schedules sent via email to the athletes.

Researcher’s Role

The researcher, a former NCAA Division II distance runner, took on the role of ‘observer as participant’ as he participated in some of the easy and long run training sessions with the team as these typically do not have much coach/athlete interaction. Unquestionably, however, the participation was secondary to the role of data gatherer and researcher (20). As was the case with the pilot study, the observer as participant role appeared to enable the athletes to act more naturally during observations and interviews as they related to the researcher as a fellow distance runner. Additionally, the researcher made a conscious effort to display reflexivity throughout the study and was aware of the biases, values, and experiences he brought to the research during all data collection and analysis through keeping a researcher’s journal (5, 20).

Data Analysis

The collected data was then transcribed verbatim. Confidentiality of participants was achieved through the coding of names (e.g., ‘Athlete 1’, etc.). The researcher employed the computer assisted qualitative data analysis software Atlas.ti version 7.0 (Scientific Software Development, Gmbh, Germany) to assist in organizing and categorizing the data into themes.

The qualitative data analysis strategy used included open coding, axial coding, and then selective coding as prescribed by Creswell (5). First, the qualitative data was analyzed through open coding where the data was coded for its primary categories and themes. Next, axial coding commenced where major open coding categories were identified as the core phenomenon and then the data was re-analyzed around these core phenomenon. Finally, selective coding transpired where findings were generated through the interrelationships of the major coded categories or themes.

Trustworthiness of Data

To assist with credibility, triangulation was employed. The use of multiple data sources provides a greater likelihood a researcher’s conclusions are valid (29). Data triangulated included the coach interviews, athlete interviews, training session observations, and artifacts collected. Furthermore, randomly selecting the athletes assisted in strengthening the credibility and dependability of the study’s findings (4). Finally, an external audit transpired with a content matter expert in the field of humanism and coaching philosophies. Audits by a content matter expert with no connection to the study assists in increasing credibility as they assess whether or not the findings, interpretations, and conclusions are supported by the data (5).

Results and Discussion

The aim of this case study was to explore the coaching philosophy and methods of a successful men’s NCAA Division I distance running coach and describe to what extent the stated coaching philosophy and coaching methods of the coach are humanistic. Coach/athlete decision-making emerged as the prominent re-occurring category.

Coach/Athlete Decision-making

Within the humanistic paradigm athletes are encouraged to make decisions collaboratively with the coach as the coach facilitates athlete self-regulation (14). Decision-making within the coaching process is shared incrementally with the athlete as he or she gains experience so that the athlete eventually achieves a sense of control (12). Utilizing a shared decision-making philosophy between athlete and coach, it is hoped that the athlete develops self-efficacy and autonomy in relation to the performance process and is able to adapt to adversity (e.g., injury, training environment changes, etc.) without being dependent on the coach. The athlete’s involvement in the coaching process and its related decision-making would assist in developing what Cross (7) cites as the ultimate goal of a humanistic coach – ‘an emancipated, adaptable, and self-confident person’ (p. 17). In this study, coach/athlete decision-making sub-themes emerged in the process of planning the training program and athlete autonomy.

Collected supporting qualitative data will be provided for each theme which will then be analyzed in regards to the extent in which it does or does not parallel the humanistic coaching philosophy. In this analysis the pseudonym ‘Coach’ will be used for the participant coach as well as ‘Athlete’ with an assigned code (e.g., Athlete 1, etc.) for the participant athletes.

The process of planning the training program. A humanistic method of program planning would be individualized and collaborative between the athlete and coach allowing for athlete input in the process. When asked whether training is planned independently or with input from athletes, Coach stated, ‘In cross [country], there’s not a lot of input [from athletes] until the end. Because in the beginning I know certain things are going to lead to certain things.’ Coach further expressed an authoritative stance regarding tempo workouts, calling them ‘the bread and butter of our life,’ and said, ‘[The athletes] can have an opinion about the ten mile tempo and they can voice their displeasure, but it will not change…I know if you can run 52:30 [for 10 miles] and talk, you’re going to run well.’

Athletes described the training planning process as somewhat collaborative. Training planning primarily surrounded the individual athlete’s daily and weekly running miles across the season. Athlete 3 described the collaborative process of planning his training by saying:

I sat down with [the assistant coach] and I saw [Coach] in passing…I said I wanted to run this many miles for this week, ‘What you think?’ And she said, ‘It’s a little high. Bring it on a little lower.’ So as far as the overall mileage goes they’re not going to force you to run 90 miles if you’re not feeling well. So they have a very loose plan of what they want you to run. So I’m going to be building based on what they told me to do. But as far as your daily mileage goes, it’s kind of up in the air. I mean, they would like you obviously not to…take three days off and try to get the rest of your week’s mileage in four days. But they try to get you to have…a medium long run, a long run, two workouts and then just moderate runs the rest of the week.

Similarly, Athlete 4 discussed his level of involvement in training planning by stating:

At the meeting [the assistant coach] asks me if I have any questions about [the plan] or if I’m comfortable with it. And we’ll go over that and if I don’t feel comfortable with it, like [if] I don’t have a day off for four weeks,…she [may say], ‘If you ever need a day off during the week, take it. Let me know and document it on your log.’

It surfaced that this type of ‘mileage training plan’ was created for primarily less experienced (i.e., freshmen) runners and for those who desired a plan. For many of these athletes the training plan was presented to them and then they were provided an opportunity to provide feedback to the coaches on the plan. Athlete 4 went on to say, ‘I mean it’s not like I can completely change [the plan], but if I have concerns I’m allowed to voice them.’ These athlete assertions relating to planned mileage for primarily easy and long run workouts were supported during training session observations as the athletes would congregate and Coach would simply say, ‘All right. Let’s go guys!’ And the team would begin their run without Coach notifying them how far to run.

Athlete input, individualization, and autonomy regarding weekly training mileage. It emerged that, particularly with more experienced athletes, Coach provided autonomy regarding how many miles to run each week and let the athlete decide how best to attain that mileage across each week. This humanistic process also allowed for individualization for each athlete so that they could do what they perceived as what was best for them. Athlete 2 stated:

Mileage is more up to you with [Coach]. He wants you to do as many miles as you can. So if you can only handle 70 miles a week without getting injured, he wants you to do 70 miles a week. He doesn’t want you doing 50 [miles] because you’re scared of being on the red line. But if you can do a 100 mile a week he’s never going to stop you. He’ll say, ‘If you can do 100 miles a week, week-in and week-out, good.’

Athlete 5 commented on Coach’s athlete-centered stance regarding weekly training mileage when he said, ‘Generally [Coach gives us flexibility in] the miles we run per week…[Coach] knows some of the guys don’t respond well to the higher mileages, and he doesn’t really try to force that upon them.’ Athlete 3 stated he ran about 70 miles per week his freshman year, 80 miles per week his sophomore year, and 90 miles per week his junior year and felt this progression was designed in collaboration with Coach and himself. Athlete 3 further explained:

The [interval and tempo] workouts are very structured and…we can’t really play around with those too much. But as far as your mileage goes, [Coach] is willing to talk to you about your mileage. But otherwise you’re on your own. He doesn’t tell you, ‘Today you need to run this much,’ which…takes a little stress off of the athlete as far as feeling the need to run a 100 mile week…or feeling they’re being pushed to run low mileage where…that’s not how their body works.

This individualization of weekly training volume may facilitate individual athlete performance as each athlete would be doing what they perceive is best for them.

No athlete input when planning interval and tempo workouts. However, it emerged that while collaborative coach/athlete training planning primarily concerned individualized weekly mileage goals, all athletes stated that ‘hard’ interval or tempo workouts were not planned collaboratively and specifics of these workouts were not known in advance by the athletes. Weekly training times and locations were emailed out by the assistant coach for the upcoming week typically on Monday afternoons across the season. The athletes simply knew the routine that an interval workout would occur approximately every Tuesday and tempo workouts every Friday (on weeks without a weekend race). Weekly mileage goals should then be attained after adjusting to what mileage was achieved during these more intense workouts.

Coach stated the athletes ‘typically will have an idea’ of the specifics of interval and tempo workouts due to the repetition of the training schedule. For example, Coach said, ‘They know that on Fridays, if we’re not racing, it’s going to be a [tempo] 10 miler.’ Athlete 2 discussed this non-collaboration of ‘hard’ workouts when he commented, ‘A lot of [Coach’s] workouts are quite repetitive but they’re just the ones he’s been doing for years and he’s quite hard to deviate.’ ‘We were programmed to know that Friday’s a tempo day and Tuesday’s a workout day – a track workout,’ stated Athlete 3. Moreover, at all interval and training session observations the athletes did not know the workout in advance when asked by the researcher. This indicated no athlete involvement in planning these more intense training sessions.

Athlete 2 cited a lack of communication regarding track interval workouts as an area where Coach should improve. He stated some athletes may ‘think their training is just being free-styled, like you just show up to the track…Just show up when he tells you and he just knows what you’re doing type-thing.’ In other words, athletes may feel training is made up on the spot by Coach because the athletes are not informed of the ‘hard’ workouts in advance. This may affect the level of trust they have in Coach’s training plan, possibly affecting their mental states heading into races. However, Athlete 3 thought not knowing the ‘hard’ workouts in advance may be beneficial. He said:

I don’t stress about workouts, but I think there’s a lot of people who think ‘this is a really hard workout’ and they’ll not get any sleep the night before…So I think if you stress about it too much then you’re not going to do so well and that’s why [Coach doesn’t] make [it] so apparent what the workout is going to be.

It appears there are pros and cons to not knowing the entire training plan in advance. However, in this case study, the athletes were not given the choice to be privy to this information, thus yielding this part of the coaching process not humanistic.

Athlete dependency on the coach. The humanistic philosophy supports athlete self-directed behavior so that dependency on the coach is minimized (16). In response to whether Coach thought his athletes were dependent on him in any way, he stated, ‘I think what they would do is…not stick with one [training] philosophy…I think what [the athletes] would pick is the easy stuff as a whole if they wrote their own training.’ He did not feel his athletes could effectively write their own training schedules. Conversely, the majority of the athletes did not feel dependent on Coach regarding scheduling weekly mileage amounts. Athlete 3 stated:

I write my own schedule now as far as which days I run what mileage…As far as my weekly mileage goes, [Coach] will tell me ballpark figure 80 to 85, 70 to 75 miles-type of thing. So I would feel very comfortable writing my own workouts and stuff.

However, while it appeared that the athletes did not feel dependent on Coach to plan and implement their weekly mileage, many felt a need to be given the more intense interval and tempo-style workouts from him. Athlete 4, a senior, said:

To a certain extent when it comes to workouts I feel dependent on [Coach] to put me in the right [interval or tempo] workout at the right time. But [mileage] training-wise I’m pretty independent with that just based on how my body is feeling or how my mileage has been going from week to week…

This corresponds to other collected data in which Coach provides autonomy to athletes in scheduling their weekly mileage, but does not involve his athletes in ‘harder workout’ (i.e., interval and tempo) training program planning.

More input from athletes regarding training at the end of the season. It emerged that Coach was more willing to accept athlete input regarding training toward the end of the season. This primarily surrounded modifications to track interval workouts. Coach stated, ‘Only towards the end [of the season], if they don’t like what’s going on – if they are like, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know about this,’ then that’s when we tweak.’ It appeared Coach was dictatorial in regards to ‘hard’ workout training (i.e., interval and tempo) up until the peaking/championship phase of the season whereupon his methods then became more collaborative. Coach was more willing to accept input from athletes during this phase of the training cycle where the conference, regional, and national championship meets occur. While the humanistic coach would collaborate with athletes across all phases of training, Coach may allow for more athlete input nearer the end of the season to take special care of the mental and physical states of his athletes to try and do what is best for them leading into the most important races of the season.

While Coach stated he primarily dictates training early in the season, he explained how he operates through more shared power and negotiation toward the end of the season through adjusting interval workouts late in the season from athlete feedback. Coach stated:

I’d be willing to bend on changing an interval-type workout at some level – the type of interval doesn’t matter as long as the volume is there. And if [the athletes] want it to be a shorter interval, I’m going to kill the rest to make it 30 seconds so that I can get what I want.

For example, Coach might change a planned workout of six 800 meter repeats with 60 seconds rest between each to twelve 400 meter repeats with 20 seconds rest. The total volume of ‘hard’ running is 4800 meters (a little under three miles) for both workouts, but the recoveries are drastically different for each. Athlete 5 supported Coach’s assertions when he stated, ‘Sometimes…[Coach] will…give us two workouts and say, ‘Well what would you guys like today?’ And that’s not super often, but occasionally…It’s definitely more toward the end of the season – even if it’s just a pre-race workout.’ Coach explained his reasoning for allowing more athlete input on interval training toward the end of the season by saying, ‘At that time of year the whole goal is not to fuck them up. You know, overrun. Do something too much because we’re not getting any better.’ In other words, Coach’s prime concern at the end of the season is preventing injury and staying sharp as enhancing fitness is not a prime concern at this point in the season.

Athlete autonomy. At the heart of the humanistic philosophy is the notion that individuals have an internal drive to self-actualize and increase autonomy while minimizing the control of external forces (28). It emerged that Coach provided his athletes with autonomy and opportunities for independent decision-making in several areas of the coaching process. This allows for athletes to self-regulate, individualize, and make decisions in respect to what they perceive as being best for them.

First, it was evident in all of the training session observations that Coach provided autonomy in regards to individual athlete warm-up and cool-down routines. The men’s team athletes performed dynamic stretching and warm-up exercises independently and on their own with no direction from any coach. At all training session observations it appeared that all athletes knew what to do and had a special dynamic routine for themselves. After training sessions some athletes performed static stretching while others did not. While athletes were directed to perform easy running before interval and tempo workouts, all other aspects of the warm-up and cool-down routines seemed athlete self-directed.

Next, resistance training sessions (i.e., circuits of bodyweight ‘core’ exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups) were observed to be autonomous at training session observations. Athletes were directed to perform core for a set amount of time (i.e., 10 minutes), but the sessions were done in an unregimented fashion where athletes performed ‘core’ exercises in small groups with only the assistant coach nearby supervising. Athlete 4 stated, ‘In the beginning of the season [the resistance training] is very consistent as a team…, but as the season winds down towards the bigger races we kind of dwindle as a team and usually we’re doing it on our own.’ It seems that as the season nears its end Coach permits more athlete autonomy regarding resistance training and it becomes less coach-led.

Finally, the athletes were provided autonomy in deciding whether to initiate contact with university athletic support personnel such as the athletic trainer, sport psychologist, or physician. Coach’s cross country team handbook included an ‘injury prevention / rehabilitation’ section and it stated the following:

Training at a high level puts everyone at a certain risk of injury. There are some simple things you need to take responsibility for if you wish to train and compete at this level with a low incidence of injury…You need to take care of your body and report to the training room on a daily basis for rehab/treatment.

The statement clearly puts responsibility on the athlete and encourages autonomous proactive decision-making behavior regarding seeing ancillary university support medical staff. Athlete 5 stated, ‘Like the trainer and the sports psychologist, you can just sign up directly to meet them…even the doctor is like that too.’ This autonomous behavior was evident at training session observations where athletes were seen approaching athletic trainers on their own, oftentimes asking them to ‘work’ on their back, for example. Athlete 4 described how he is autonomous and proactive with injury prevention and how communication is made regarding his treatment to Coach:

I go see [the trainer] on my own…I go pretty much every day just for maintenance and to roll myself out. I’ll put a golf ball…on my arch and stuff and just stretch on the power plates and take an ice bath. So general stuff like that, I don’t tell [the assistant coach] or [Coach]…But if I’m struggling with pain I’ll tell them before I go and then usually [the trainer] will talk to [my coaches] after…That way [the trainer] communicates with the coaches to let them know what’s going on with each athlete.

However, if an athlete wanted to see the massage therapist, which only the cross country and track team athletes has access to, appointments were required to be made through Coach. Coach explained this:

It’s just massage therapy that would go through [the track and cross country coaching staff]…I think the reason [the medical staff doesn’t] have anything to do with it is they don’t want all 480 [university] athletes to want massage. So that’s why the massage therapist sets up right [in the track office].

It seems with all other ancillary support personnel the athletes can make autonomous decisions whether to seek treatment or not further facilitating self-regulated behavior consistent with humanistic coaching methods.

Several of the athletes perceived positives to being provided autonomy in the program which aligned with the humanistic philosophy. Athlete 5 stated what he felt were Coach’s principles and values which underpin the coaching program by noting:

I think…[Coach] is trying to get people…[to] learn how to train by themselves. I think he really wants us to understand that part of it – like where he doesn’t need to be on us all the time…There are people that he kind of rides too…some younger guys…I think he just kind of wants us to…[realize that] you have to work at everything in your life and I think that [Coach is]…just trying to build us in that way. Because, obviously, not everyone is going to be professional runners and I think he wants us to grow up a little bit.

It seemed Athlete 5 was referring to Coach facilitating a holistic development as people, not just athletes. Furthermore, it seems Coach may be more authoritative with younger and less experienced athletes in line with Hogg’s (12) notion that as athletes gain experience more decisions are provided to the athlete within the humanistic paradigm. Athlete 1 referred to a positive result of being provided autonomy in attaining his weekly mileage without a strict schedule to follow by noting:

I had a schedule before [attending this university] that I kind of followed strictly. I think it’s nice though that because I was kind of maybe following [it] too strictly, not listening enough to my body maybe, which I think it’s a bit nice when you don’t have a schedule…[where you can] change this or that depending on how you feel.

Similarly, Athlete 4 said he can adjust his training based upon how he feels and use his own judgment regarding making same-day decisions for daily running mileage:

Based on how you feel you can kind of make a judgment yourself…Because everybody’s going to be different…We all know what we’re responsible for and if were not feeling good and we cut it short we’ll tell [the coaches] and they’re generally pretty understanding.

Athlete 5 described Coach’s methods by noting how he provides athletes freedom and autonomy and allows them to discover their personal limits as a runner. He stated:

I would say democratic fits [Coach] pretty well…He’ll give you as much freedom as you want, but…he’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself…He lets you play around with your training a lot…He’s not going to be riding you about how much you’re running every week. He’s going to make sure you’re running obviously, but I think he also gives you enough freedom sometimes where you’re going to have to play with your own body and maybe burn out. But, I think that’s part of his coaching philosophy. I think he wants people to see that…you’ve kind of got to find what works for you.

Athlete 2 noted that Coach’s methods have encouraged his feelings of the importance of self-regulation and autonomous decision-making without the coach being present and its results on athletic performance:

[Coach] has made me realize that being an athlete is a lifestyle. It’s not something that a regular guy can just live the regular guy lifestyle and then show up to practice when told to and do it…Practice starts at 10 PM the night before when you’re in bed and everybody else is out partying or whatever. So [Coach] made me realize that.

While there were perceived positives relating to providing athletes with autonomy in making program decisions, potential drawbacks were also evident. This particularly surrounded Coach providing athletes autonomy in how best to attain their goal mileage for the week. Athlete 2 felt Coach takes a reactive stance regarding athlete weekly mileage when he stated, ‘[Coach] will expect you to do mileage and he’ll never talk to you about it unless something starts to go wrong’ (i.e., ‘you’re not doing as good as you should be’). Athlete 5 noted:

[Coach] struggles with some of the younger guys…I think because he gives them a lot of freedom and they kind of abuse it. They don’t train…They’ll show up to practice, but running 45 minutes every day…you’re not going to be beating a lot [other teams]. I mean some of these guys that are running 120 miles a week in other [NCAA Division I] programs.

Regarding athlete behavior, Athlete 1 stated, ‘[Coach] doesn’t try to parent you a lot unless you really need it.’ It was observed at training session observations the issue of not dictating daily mileage became apparent with one particular athlete. This athlete was a junior and was on the cusp of making the traveling varsity squad all season. At one training session Coach pulled this ‘up and coming’ athlete aside and told him that if he would follow the mantra of ‘work hard. Run every day,’ he could be great. Coach later snidely joked with this athlete that he needed to run more frequently to improve, even on Mondays when the team does not meet for official practice.

Then, at the last track workout before the national championship meet, the non-traveling team members performed a one mile time trial. One of the athletes said the time trial was performed to check the fitness of these athletes and to make sure those athletes were taking their runs seriously. This ‘up and coming’ athlete won the mile time trial in 4:16. Afterward, Coach pulled him aside and told him he better be running more than five days a week. It appeared Coach was suspicious that this athlete was slacking on his training outside of official practice sessions. Coach was also seen speaking to other men’s team athletes and asked them about this athletes training. Coach then told the athlete, ‘If I find out you are only running five days per week you won’t travel with the team.’ These occurrences displayed that providing some athletes with ‘too much’ autonomy could be detrimental to performance if these athletes do not make the decision to do the training on their own.


The participant coach appeared to be humanistic in several areas regarding coach/athlete decision-making. First, the process of planning weekly running mileage was collaborative, individualized, and provided autonomy to individual athletes on how best to attain these mileage aims. Moreover, the coach allowed for athlete input regarding on-the-spot training decisions if the athlete was injured, excessively fatigued, or desired more recovery, particularly regarding interval workouts nearer the end of the season as championship races approached. Next, also consistent with the humanistic philosophy, autonomy in decisions regarding warm-up and cool-down routines, resistance training sessions, and whether to contact ancillary university support staff (e.g., athletic trainer, sport psychologist, etc.) were afforded to the athletes by the coach.

Conversely, the major area relating to coach/athlete decision-making which did not ascribe to the humanistic philosophy pertained to the coach not involving athletes in planning interval and tempo workouts. The coach was most authoritative in his stance regarding tempo training and no athlete input was allowed in this area. This corresponded to perceptions of dependency on the coach in which the majority of athletes felt dependent on the coach for planning training schedules and effectively implementing interval and tempo workouts into a training plan. In conclusion, findings indicated that the coach’s stated philosophy and methods were humanistic in regards to having open collaborative decision-making with athletes in most areas of the program (e.g., weekly running mileage, warm-up and cool-down routines, etc.), but dictatorial methods were employed in planning interval and tempo workouts independent from athletes.

Applications in Sport

While not all aspects of the participant coach’s philosophy and methods may favorably and effectively transfer to other individual athletes, teams, and settings, a prime implication of this study’s findings is the potential to shed light on what coaching philosophy and methods may be the most effective for men’s NCAA distance running as a successful coach in the discipline was examined. Studying the philosophies and approaches taken by ‘successful’ coaches assist others in developing effective philosophies (30). This study provides further insight into men’s NCAA distance running and coaching and may assist in helping coaching education programs, coaches, and athletes gain a greater awareness and appreciation of coaching philosophies and styles, all of which could help improve performance. Also, this study was unlike previous research because it was the first to employ multiple methods of data collection utilizing training session observations and artifact collection in addition to coach and athlete interviews in the research of coaching philosophies.

A major finding in this study regarding coach/athlete decision-making related to the participant coach not collaboratively planning interval and tempo training sessions with athletes, which appeared to correlate to a perceived athlete dependency on the coach for planning and implementing these types of workouts effectively into a training plan. Based on the findings of this study, it seems that if a coach does not involve athletes in the whole coaching process and its related decision-making, dependency on the coach in areas where coach/athlete collaboration is not performed may be inevitable. One of the major benefits to a player-centered/humanistic approach to coaching, as reported by De Souza and Oslin (9), is increased feelings of ownership and competence through athlete involvement in decision-making. In areas where coaches are authoritative, athletes may not develop feelings of competence which could impact athletes’ abilities to self-regulate independently from the coach.

Additionally, it was found that the participant coach provided athletes complete autonomy in warm-up and cool-down routines. Traditional team environments include warm-up and cool-down routines socialized and ingrained by senior-led drills. In this case, it appeared past personal experience for each athlete directed what each individual did and all athletes performed their own routines independently. Due to the team in this study having several international athletes with diverse backgrounds and presumably different ideas on warming up and cooling down, providing autonomy in these areas may have promoted a feeling of comfort and self-confidence as these athletes were allowed to do what felt most effective for them which may reduce anxiety before hard training sessions or races. Coaches implementing this humanistic method should merely be sure these exercises are beneficial and not contraindicated for athlete performance and recovery.

Limitations and Recommendations

Future research could capitalize on the limitations of this study through investigating a larger sample of coaches and athletes to improve this study’s transferability to other distance running coaches. Extending the observation period for the entire duration of a season would also further strengthen the credibility of findings so that a coach could be observed in several different coach-related situations. Moreover, follow-up studies might explore gender or NCAA competition levels through comparing the similarities and differences between the distance running coaching philosophies of men’s versus women’s or NCAA Divisions I, II, and III coaches. Lastly, an analysis of how athlete performance may be positively or negatively impacted by humanistic coaching methods might be valuable.


The authors would like to thank the participants of this study for taking time out of their busy schedules to partake in the research.


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