Professional Development in Strength and Conditioning Coaching Through Informal Mentorship: A Practical Pedagogical Guide for Practitioners : Strength & Conditioning Journal

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Professional Development in Strength and Conditioning Coaching Through Informal Mentorship

A Practical Pedagogical Guide for Practitioners

Grant, Matthew A. PhD1; Dorgo, Sandor PhD, CSCS2; Griffin, Michael PhD1

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: February 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 1 - p 63-69
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000033



Coaching pedagogical literature has consistently presented mentorships as a valuable significant relationship in the professional development of sport and strength and conditioning (SC) coaching (3,6,16,20,33). In particular, scholars have examined mentoring relationships within educational settings, including formal, nonformal, and informal educational settings. Formal education refers to institutional settings that facilitate and guide coaches through a curriculum of class work and formal experiences, as found within a national sport organizational certification or a university degree program (16,20–22,24). Informal educational exposures are designated as those unstructured or reactive interactions within the coaching context (6). These interactions include learning from the coaching experience (33), reflection (9,23), observing other coaches (9) and mentorship (6,8,19).

One result of these investigations revealed that coaches viewed mentorship as a significant relationship in their professional development. Gilbert and Trudel (10) relying on past research emphasizing the importance of mentorship (18) stated that “[the use of mentorship] finds legitimacy in the results of [retrospective] interviews in which coaches emphasized how much they have learned watching and/or working with a coach they respected and admired” (p. 532). Bloom et al. (3) stated that the mentorship process offered authentic, practical experiences that could not be matched by other sources such as books, manuals, workshops, and seminars. More current literature surmised that both working with or serving as a mentor were critical developmental relationships for elite coaches (8) with informal mentorship being considered more authentic, contextualized, and meaningful for coaches in the shaping of their coaching practices (14,15,18). This literature demonstrated that significant learning occurred through informal mentorship, which has been similarly reported within expertise theory (27,28).

Early research in the development of the knowledge, skills, and experiences of high-performing coaches used expertise theory (4,1,7,25,26). This body of literature used a novice-expert continuum to understand stages of development and the learning preferences therein. Results showed that beginning coaches relied mostly on connecting new coaching experiences to their formal learning from large-scale educational programs for development. As professional development continued, coaches relied on conferences, workshops, seminars, other coaches, athletes, books, videos, and mentors for continued learning on issues surrounding the coaches' sport, team, and athletes (7,27,28). In short, following their formal educational program, novice coaches learned more from experiences attached to their training (13,18) and relied on more informal learning opportunities as they developed their expertise. Studies into mentorship reflected these findings.

Bloom et al. (4) investigated the views of expert coaches on ways to develop coaching expertise. Researchers used structured and unstructured interviews to better understand the coaches' recommendations for education within sport coaching. Results found that these coaches highly valued their mentor relationships and suggested implementing mentorship within a structured, formalized program. Bloom et al. (4) in a later study stated that the expert coaches thought this type of formalized mentorship would be “the most important factor in [the young coaches] development” (p. 270). Interestingly, coaches who did not seem to have a formalized mentorship recognized how their highly valued mentoring relationship happened by chance, luck, personal persistence, or being in the right place at the right time (3,4). In other words, when these coaches were novices within their formal educational setting, they partook in an informal relationship. This helped them connect their experiences in coaching with the programmatic course work—as reflected in expertise theory. Through this hindsight, researchers were encouraged to apply mentorship into formal setting where other young coaches could experience the same type of learning-enriched education. These studies started a trend where researchers examined ways of implementing mentorships within formal contexts.

Jones et al. (16) reviewed mentoring literature from various fields to improve large-scale sport coaching curricula based on the known values associated with informal mentorships. The authors hoped to apply the critical aspects of informal mentoring relationships to a structured, mediated, and guided mentor/mentee interaction found informally through theoretic structures such as reflection (30,31), communities of practice (17), or zone of proximal learning (34). This echoed the call by Jones et al. (14) to use mentoring and reflection through situated learning (17) within continuing professional development. Within SC coaching literature, several recent studies have focused on formal learning settings (20,22).

Magnusen and Petterson (20) examined the transference of cognitive skills, particularly political interpersonal relationships through apprenticeship. Based on practices within the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCC), researchers described apprenticeship as a formal, traditional approach that used modeling (modeling occurs when a teacher demonstrates proper behavior such as how to complete a task), scaffolding (scaffolding is a teaching technique in which an instructor models the correct behavior. The learner then completes the task with the instructor. The learner continues to practice the task completion as the instructor does less and less until the learner is completing the task on his/her own), and fading (fading is a feedback technique in which an instructor provides a considerable amount of feedback when the student is learning a new skill. As the student continues to practice, the instructor provides less and less feedback until the student is practicing and correcting him/herself during practice) as the components (stages) to instruct novice SC coaches (20). Although practical guidance for application by practitioners was provided for political skill improvement, the formality of the relationship studied, that is, novice coaches receiving financial support for participation within the program, might not generalize these findings to the larger population of SC practitioners.

Murray (22) argued for the use of communities of practice (CoP) (17) in internships for those transitioning from student to practitioner. Lave and Wenger's CoP was based on apprenticeships examined within different trades and cultures. In this application, Murray (22) hypothesized that this type of mentoring relationship—a structured, mentor-led learning environment—would fit well within a 16-week (or one semester) program at the end of a SC university program.

Both SC coaching articles, as with the majority of sport coaching research, used approaches founded in informal mentorship as potential learning experiences for formal sport coaching and SC coaching education. While scholars continue to investigate the use of mentoring within a SC coaching curriculum, informal mentoring relationships continue to be used by coaches seeking professional development outside of a formal educational program. Those coaches, however, would be hard pressed to find researchers that defined this informal mentorship or a model that lead to an appropriate, mutually beneficial mentoring paradigm. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to apply known pedagogical principles to SC coaching to provide useful strategies for establishing effective mentor relationships for professional development within an informal setting. To accomplish this purpose, this article provides a working definition and critical analysis, effective pedagogical paradigms, and practical guidelines for creating meaningful informal mentorships.


Mentoring may be defined in many ways (2). Variability of definitions seems dependent on not only the field of study but also in many cases on the coaching contexts (16). Generally speaking, mentoring could be defined as a compatible relationship, in which a mentor (nonfamilial, nonromantic person) directly influences a protégée’s coaching habitus and practices within a mutually beneficial enterprise; the mentor experiences rejuvenation and confidence, whereas the protégée gains promotion, power, and competence (2,16,19,20,35,36). The hallmarks of this relationship are trust and open communication (16). These necessary qualities of successful mentoring allow for reciprocity, mutual respect, and accomplishment—factors that set mentoring apart from supervising (13). In other words, the willingness to work together toward the goal of professional growth of the novice would create an egalitarian structure in control and power. Another differentiation in terms needed was dividing informal mentoring and formal mentoring.

Informal education, as stated above, is learning that occurs outside of a large-scale scholastic setting, such as certification or university programs. Informal mentoring, therefore, is defined as a causal relationship between a mentor and protégée with all the hallmarks of the mentoring relationship, which is not mediated by an outside source, that is, instructor, supervisor, or curriculum. The control over content and agenda is within the power of the mentor, the protégée, or combination of these two individuals. Juxtaposed, then, is formal mentoring. The qualities and characteristics of the mentoring relationship are the same; however, this relationship is established, controlled, and mediated by a program of study, university, or certification organization. This generally means that participants in this relationship are assigned partners and need to complete assignments and documentation to complete courses. In these instances, a mentoring relationship is formed and seems to fall into more of an apprenticeship or community of practices model (17,34). Therefore, to keep these terms separate and easily differentiated, formal mentorship will include the reference “mentorship,” whereas informal mentoring will remain as “mentoring”; a term that seemed more organic and unstructured. That said, the two major differences between mentorship and mentoring are where the power and control over the interactions and agenda are located.

Cushion et al. (6) reviewed and critiqued informal, unstructured mentoring. Authors, citing support from earlier works, defined informal mentoring as “uneven in terms of quality and outcome, uncritical in style, and, from the evidence, serve[d] to reproduce the existing culture, power relations, and importantly, existing coaching practices” (p. 223). Because of the timing of mentoring relationships within the trajectory of coaches studied—within the novice stage—each of these disparagements seemed established and possibly enhanced by the inability of beginning coaches to identify the important from the unimportant because of the lack of experience (27). In particular, if the forged relationship located the majority of the power with the mentor, such as in a dictatorial relationship, agency and quality control could be muted or removed. This then could create a developmental pattern that only served to maintain what could be a harmful status quo within coaching (14) or invite coercive behaviors that could prove to be hurtful (36). Because of these looming critical concerns, researchers suggested that these shortcomings necessitated that mentoring should be housed within a formalized, reflective program or mentorship (6,16,33). Within such a program, many of the issues raised by these critiques would be mitigated. But then, what can those that do not have access to such a formalized program do to avoid these same pitfalls? The answer might be the same: the application of a pedagogical paradigm, namely, reflection.



Pedagogical paradigms are considered mechanisms of teaching based on theory that inform learning. Researchers within mentoring have suggested several such informative, exemplars such as reflection (30,29), communities of practice (17), or zone of proximal learning (34) for the expressed purpose of providing structured, mediated, and guided mentor/mentee interactions within formal education (16,20,22,33). Of these proffered paradigms, reflections seem most applicable outside of a formal setting.

Expertise theory, as well as other theories accounting for professional growth, details particular learning preferences at different stages of coaching development (27,28,32). At any stage, the coaches learn through the interaction of various sources. For instance, the novice may rely on formal training and coaching experience to understand a new coaching context. Even experts intermingle curricular education, informal interactions, and media to learn about their team, coaching, and athletes. It is upon this well-founded interplay of theory, education and experience informing each other that reflection is founded (14). A deeper investigation into this pedagogical paradigm could provide a framework on which an informal mentoring relationship could be built.

Schön (29,30) proposed a theoretic foundation based on a reflective conversation: a cyclical pattern of reflective practices (reflection-on-practice, reflection-in-practice) that set the boundaries for an investigation, strategizing, experimentation, and evaluation of a problem for increased knowledge-in-action. In short, a coach operates in a tacit manner until he/she encounters an unexpected occurrence or obstacle. At that point, this individual starts to mull over the situation in the moment (reflection-in-practice) or after the fact (reflection-on-practice) to realize a prospective solution and possible course of action. This process of reflection differentiated coaches in their ability to advance in their practices (10) based on the social, institutional, cultural, or organizational parameters of the sport and coaching context—the habitus and coaching practices. “Individuals may learn best through observing, doing, commenting, and questioning, rather than listening” (15) (p. 136). The influence of mentors would directly influence the negotiation and understanding of the situated environment, in which a coach is located. Furthermore, the use of this paradigm does not require close proximity when the mentor/protégée is working but could be used as a tool for conversation, discussion, and examination of coaching practices through various means, that is, phone, e-mail, or face-to-face interactions. Indeed, this pedagogical paradigm provides specific components of reflection that mentors influence.

Between Schön (29,30), and Gilbert and Trudel (10), the reflective conversation was divided into 6 components of reflection: role forms (coach's view of their role within the coaching environment), coaching issues (concerns within sport coaching), issue setting (creating the boundaries of investigation into a problem), strategy generation (making a plan to solve the problem), experimentation (testing the strategy), and evaluation (deciding if the problem was solved). Each component of the reflective process could heighten learning with the guidance of a mentor. For instance, mentors could help conceptualize and formulate the roles of the novice coach within the organization by outlining the job responsibilities for the mentees through the definition of potential areas for growth and setting limitations as needed. A trusted and respected mentor could enhance identification and framing of issues as well. Within these examples, as would be found with all six components, the mere presence of a mentor would not aid in reflection. However, when the mentor affects the protégée’s seeing and doing through activities such as being a sounding board, the positive aspects of reflection are evident (15). Moreover, this reflective process is effective in five areas of coaching.

Hatton and Smith (12) described 5 types of reflections found specifically in education but could also be applied within a coaching context. These are technical examination of behaviors and skills, descriptive analysis of best possible practices, dialogic weighing of viewpoints and opinions, critical thinking about ethical and professional practices, and the combination of reflections when action was occurring. Each of the first 4 reflections denotes an area that could lead to better teaching and coaching. However, it is the combination of these that garnishes attention as creating a more meaningful knowledge of coaching and enhanced practice (15). Furthermore, “reflection, regardless of the forms it [took], [was] a useful concept in the discussion of mentoring as it enable[d] an examination of practice and, in particular, the considered taken-for-granted assumptions that influence[d] to occur” (p.136). A mentor/protégée relationship focuses on investigating and discussing problems that prompt these types of reflections and is viewed as an in-depth pathway to greater professional development within coaching. Two factors affect the amount and depth of reflection: control and agency of the mentoring relationship.


Young et al. (36) developed a model of mentorship that depicted 3 general patterns of control and power between mentors and mentees that gave insight into the fundamental nature of mentoring relationships. The first pattern involved a responsive mentor. A responsive mentor allows the protégée to control (direct/guide) the agenda of thorough questions, problem presentation, and expression of concerns. The mentor is available to help and support the mentee, however, understands that at times the novice needs to be independent. Second, a mentor might be interactive with the mentee. An interactive mentor is an egalitarian who views responsibility with parity. The mentor and protégée in this pattern are peers with each having a distinct value and providing a contribution for the benefit of the other. Finally, a directive mentor controls the relationship. A directive mentor takes charge of all aspects of the relationship, which includes creating an agenda, directing experiences, encouraging correctives, modeled strategies for emulation, and offering strong feedback. In a sense, this mentor is the master teacher and the trainee. In the study by Young et al. (36), most of the mentors were responsive in nature.

When considering the patterns of mentoring of Young et al. (36), all 3 could be found in an informal mentoring relationship or a formal mentorship. Of the three, however, the responsive and interactive mentors seem best suited for reflection and application for informal mentoring. In these instances, the protégée totally or partially controls the agenda and interactions as well as directs the competences learned. If an issue arises, the mentee has the control, power, and agency when discussing, exploring, strategizing, experimenting and evaluating solutions and learned skills to ask specific questions and seek guidance of the more experienced mentor. The distinction between the 2 patterns is found in how the mentor might help the protégée. A responsive mentor might only answer questions and give opinions when an issue arises. In this manner, the mentor does not direct any outside activities or asks for tasks to be completed, even if this more expert person thinks those actions would add insight or hone skills. An interactive mentor, however, is generally in a position to add to a novice's knowledge through insisting the protégée take part in assignments that can enhance learning. In either case, these patterns are congruent with informal mentoring, which becomes clearer when comparing these patterns with key features of mentoring.

Johnson (13) distinguished between a supervisory relationship and mentoring by 2 critical characteristics: (a) “reciprocity and mutual respect” and (b) “accomplishment of an identity transformation, as the protégée moves from neophyte to colleague” (p. 129). Both responsive and interactive mentoring patterns allow for interchange of ideas and admiration when the mentor and mentee work toward the growth of the latter person. Thus, the interactive mentor pattern might heighten reciprocity because of more equitable interactions. With a definition for informal mentoring and an applicable pedagogical paradigm of reflection explained, a presentation of practical guidelines based on this information might provide an outline for establishing an effective informal mentoring relationship.


As stated above, informal mentoring was considered a critical component of professional development for elite coaches (3,11). Many of these coaches looked back on their informal mentoring relationships and express thankfulness, as well as acknowledge fortunate circumstances when finding and forging this meaningful relationship. Therefore, the following practical guides can be recommended to assist SC coaches outside a formal educational setting in creating effective mentoring experiences.


Take a good look around at the people with whom you interact on a regular basis. This does not mean daily basis, but include those SC coaches with whom you see at meetings, conferences, or competitions, if you travel with teams. Make a list of those persons whom you respect and with whom you can have a meaningful mentoring relationship. Remember, when assessing possible mentors, the characteristics, hallmarks, and qualities of a successful mentoring relationship are trust, open communication, reciprocity, mutual respect, and accomplishment (16,13). To forge this type of relationship, an SC coach must find a person with whom they are compatible. This means that the mentor and mentee should have common interests and goals (35). If the mentee seeks an elite position within SC coaching, it would be imperative that he/she finds a mentor who has knowledge and/or experience of how to accomplish that goal. Also, the mentor and mentee in this situation should have similar attributes, including personalities, abilities, socioeconomic status, and personal behaviors (35). This might more easily allow for open communication and exchange of ideas because of a possible shared outlook and background. This does not mean the only match would be found in all these factors aligning, but these factors have been reported as considerations for compatibility in mentoring relationships (35). Further, the novice must seek out a person who is compatible, rather than accepting an assigned “mentor” from the coaching staff who acts in a supervisory manner. Supervisors might not view their relationship as potentially having trust, open communication, reciprocity, mutual respect, and accomplishment, but focus more on orientating the new coach into the environment.


Once a person has been approached about being a mentor, the 2 of you need to establish the relationship arrangement. In other words, to establish an effective informal mentoring relationship, as described in the guidelines above, some sort of structure must be established. This does not mean adding formality and thus eliminating the informal status. Informal mentoring is considered causal in nature and is not mediated or controlled from outside the relationship. Informal mentoring could have explicit expectations or delineate types of interactions that are still relaxed or nonchalant. This would be especially true with a responsive mentor who would wait until the protégée needed help in overcoming a coaching issue. A conversation forging the structure of the relationship might not occur early on, but once the novice recognizes the competency of the mentor, a relevant talk should ensue.


Power is a key element within the structure of any relationship, whether tacit or explicit. A successful mentoring partnership requires the instituting of an agreed on control and power dynamic. As described above, mentors who worked best within informal mentoring created a relationship that provided the protégée with partial or complete control, power, and agency (36). In a responsive pattern, the mentee establishes reflective learning through questioning or seeking advice. In an interactive pattern, the same interactions could be started by the mentee; however, the mentor could ask the protégée questions about practices or the completion of tasks for experimentation. Therefore, after finding a mentor, talk through the relationship pattern that works best for you, whether that is interactive or responsive.


Key to building an effective informal mentoring relationship is reflection. Although this reflection might be more often you thinking through your current practices, the mentor's advice and insights should help as a sounding board for your ideas to innovate and improve your instruction. Additionally, this pedagogical paradigm helps to reduce or eliminate the reproduction of the existing culture, power relations, and/or status quo within SC coaching practices by challenging those taken-for-granted assumptions or seeking solutions for coaching issues that arise within SC coaching practices (6). Four recognized areas of reflection for the improvement of practice are (a) technical examination of behaviors and skills, (b) descriptive analysis of best possible practices, (c) dialogic weighing of viewpoints and opinions, and (d) critical thinking about ethical and professional practices as well as a amalgamation of any or all of these topics (12). Although reflection might begin within a formal education setting, the novice must continue to use and develop his/her skill.


Finally, patience is needed in building a successful mentoring relationship. To locate and establish an informal relationship with someone who is respected, trust-worth, open, reciprocal, and accomplished takes time. Follow the guides above and you can benefit from this critical relationship for professional development (4).


Current sport and SC coaching literature demonstrated the importance of mentoring relationships in professional development. This type of interaction early within the coach's career allows novice coaches the opportunity to connect their more formal training with the new coaching experiences for a more applied and contextualized education—the most valued learning revealed by beginning coaches. Combined with the possibility of a mentor becoming a long-term advisor, the impact of an informal mentorship during or closely following a formal education could greatly aid professional development. Although these outcomes provide protégées with a tremendous catalyst for professional growth and increased expertise, researchers also warned against potential pitfalls. Without reflection identifying the coaching issues that reveal problems with the underlying assumptions of coaching and question current practices, the risk of informal mentoring is the passing of the taken-for-granted norms and extending the status quo to the next generation. These criticisms prompt expert coaches and coaching scholars to begin to investigate how to add formal mentorship to large-scale educational settings. These scholars also acknowledged the fact that this was not the end of informal mentoring. However, they grapple with the addition of mentorship to curricula, no literature guiding coaching who were outside or did not have access to formal education to find and enter into an effective informal mentoring relationship was found. The current article presents informed guidelines for these practitioners in SC with the hope to successfully use this valuable educational tool.


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    strength and conditioning; sport coaching; mentoring; expertise; reflection; coaching

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