Reflective Practice for Rugby Union Strength and Conditioning Coaches : Strength & Conditioning Journal

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Reflective Practice for Rugby Union Strength and Conditioning Coaches

Handcock, Phil PhD; Cassidy, Tania PhD

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Strength and Conditioning Journal 36(1):p 41-45, February 2014. | DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000020


Strength and conditioning coaches have become an integral part of the coaching community. Increasingly, the coaching community is being scrutinized, with calls for coaches to: act ethically and professionally (14,22); recognize that their work occurs in relation to athletes, administrators, parents, and others; and inevitably involves power relationships (3,7). With questions being asked about how and why certain practices occur, the coaching community is beginning to question what constitutes an effective coach and to reflect on elements that may previously have been taken for granted. Our purpose is to contribute to emerging discussions occurring within the strength and conditioning coaching community on the merits of becoming a reflective practitioner. These discussions are important for those working in fields, like strength and conditioning coaching, who are seeking to enhance their profession's status and legitimacy. Cushion et al. (6) drew on work conducted in physical education contexts to advocate for reflective practice in coaching. For example, they cited Kirk (16) who argued that “educators who lack the capacity for reflective thought and informed critical judgement may be in danger not only of confirming their lowly professional status, but also of leaving themselves open to political manipulation and the subtle influence of propaganda” (pp. 155–156).


Critical thinking and critical inquiry are considered the hallmarks of many professions (17,23,25). Although there are many interpretations of critical inquiry and critical thinking, for the purposes of this article, we are focusing on critical thinking and consider it to be the “[a]bility to analyze issues logically, to challenge conventional assumptions, to consider different options and viewpoints, make informed decisions and act with flexibility, adaptability and creativity” (23, p. 2). One strategy that can facilitate critical thinking is reflection.

Advocating for professional reflection is not new (9), but it is relatively new within coaching (11). Yet, calls for coaches to become reflective have multiplied (21). Gilbert and Trudel (12) discussed the role of reflection in becoming an expert coach and in doing so provided an overview of some of the work that has occurred on reflection in the sports coaching context since the turn of the 21st century. Many models, frameworks, and descriptions have been proposed to support practitioners to reflect upon their professional practice in a range of professions. For example, in a nursing context, Duraghee (10) viewed reflection as the development of the intellectual capacity to contextualize knowledge with flexibility to meet an individual's needs, whereas in a coaching context, Gilbert and Trudel (11, p. 17) drew on Schön's concept of “reflective conversation,” to explain how “professional growth” can be gained “through experience.” A common thread in much of this work is recognition that the attributes of the professional (8) and the environment/context in which they work (20) are important determinants of whether, and to what degree, the professional reflects on their practice. Dewey (8) identified the personal attributes of open-mindedness, responsibility, and wholeheartedness as precursors to reflection. However, the professional environment also has to be conducive to reflection. In this respect, Scion (20) suggested that reflection is more likely to occur in an environment that prioritizes flexibility, acknowledges that there are multiple views on issues, appreciates the complexity of issues, and is nonhierarchical.

Schön's (20) description of an environment where reflection flourishes may not sound like a typical strength and conditioning coaching environment where a key driver for change is often “the modernist desire for certainty and for getting things ‘right’” (2, p. 146). Although certainty may be pragmatic and desirable in sport preparation, such a state has the potential to close down discussion and experimentation (2). This drive for certainty may be one of the reasons behind the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA's) contention that a coach accreditation process is one means of assuring ability. This rationale also seems to be reflected in this association's examinations that emphasize (biophysical) scientific foundations (exercise science and nutrition) and practical/applied elements, including examination questions on exercise technique, program design, organization and administration, and testing and evaluation (19). Although Chiu (5) argued that strength and conditioning professional expertise should be a continually evolving construct, he too privileged research informed by biophysical sport sciences. It is our position that if the expertise of strength and conditioning coaches is to develop, it is imperative that the profession draws on research informed by sociocultural and the biophysical sport sciences.

Practitioners contemplating social science research often ask “what do I need to do?” and “how will it improve my practice?” These questions are not surprising given that the dominant paradigm within sport research seeks to quantify biophysical determinants to improve performance. However, fewer coaches are comfortable or confident with questions that relate to why things are done the way they are or seem interested in asking questions about the likely consequences of maintaining the status quo. Reflection has become a popular focus for many sociocultural sport scientists (21), perhaps because they acknowledge that the reflective process opens up the possibility of recognizing the “social conditions that frame and influence” practice (26, p. 19).

When reflective questions center on the hows and whats, the focus is “largely ‘inwards’ and on the practitioners' own practice” (26, p. 19). Although this has acknowledged value, concerns have been expressed that if these are the only type of questions that are asked, insufficient attention is given to social influences on practice (26). Many frameworks have been proposed to support practitioners' reflections on their professional practice (see reviews referenced above). Rather than formalizing and describing the process of reflection per se, Schön's (20) main concern was to facilitate the development of reflective practitioners. With this in mind, we suggest that Van Manen's (24) framework could be useful to support strength and conditioning coaches to reflect on their own practices and the social context in which those practices occur. Van Manen (24) identified 3 levels of reflection (see Figure) each requiring the practitioner to ask different types of questions of their practice: technical—i.e., how well are the set objectives achieved and how efficient and effective is the application of knowledge; practical—i.e., what are the educational implications of the practice; and critical—i.e., occurs when knowledge construction is questioned, and the context in which the activity takes place is problematized. Although Van Manen (24) did not suggest a hierarchy to his levels of reflection, the questions that can be asked of practices at the various levels, from practical to critical, do require increasing levels of cognitive involvement. We are not arguing that Van Manen's framework is superior to other models or frameworks of reflection. Rather, we contend that because his framework requires different levels of cognitive involvement, it is a useful tool to develop the confidence of strength and conditioning coaches to question their own practices and engage in higher order thinking. The framework is useful because it can support coaches to become confident in asking lower order cognitive questions of their practice (i.e., technical and practical levels). Once the coaches have gained some confidence to question their practices at these levels, then they can be encouraged to ask higher order cognitive questions of their practices and of the environment or context in which they occur (i.e., critical level). We believe this extension element of Van Manen's framework enables it to be used to support existing, and facilitate the development of, reflective capabilities of strength and conditioning coaches.

Van Manen's levels of reflection are typically characterized by increasing experience and cognitive engagement with the experience.


The key thing I think is the openness to learning … coaches need to look at things on merit and understand that just because they've played the game, they don't know everything about it …. Having a passion to improve is important. Knowing that you are a part of the problem means that you can also be part of the solution (Wayne Smith, ex-All Black Rugby Team coach, 15, p. 43).

As the above quote contends, the coaching process can be driven by a passion to continually improve. Improvement can only come through understanding that there is always something to be learned from reflecting on what we know or think we know. The unpredictable nature of the sport provides an ideal platform for reflecting on strength and conditioning practices. With a paucity of applied research, we argue that understanding the value of reflecting on one's practice is important for the professional development of the strength and conditioning coach and the overall health of the profession. In this section, we provide selected rugby union strength and conditioning scenarios that would be common to many other dynamic team sports. These applied case studies highlight practical and critical level questions that strength and conditioning coaches could ask themselves and their practices. Van Manen's (24) technical level is not illustrated as this seems to be well established and supported in traditional strength and conditioning coach educational programs (e.g., NSCA, United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association, and Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand).

Strength and conditioning for team sports, such as rugby union (a continuous activity requiring multiple sprints), is challenging. For many sports, a strong link between physiological characteristics and performance is readily demonstrable, but for team sports, such as rugby, basketball, hockey, and soccer, physiological elements have to be considered in conjunction with technical skills, understanding of tactics, and decision-making abilities. This conundrum has arguably led to dominant training paradigms in the sport of “faster and stronger” and “more is better.” Since professionalization, there has been a steep increase in the volume of rugby fitness training, from low volume (3–4 h/wk) and poor compliance (∼50%) (18) to a minimum of 6–8 h/wk for all players (1). Although arguments can be made for high training volume, the strength and conditioning coach has a responsibility to consider “the personal, emotional, cultural and social identity of the athlete” (4, p. 11) and the relationship these have with overtraining, fatigue, and injury susceptibility.

This volume emphasis in rugby fitness training is contestable, and strength and conditioning coaches are likely to encounter some player resistance. In particular, veteran players who have endured seasons of training on becoming “bigger and stronger” may feel that they know their optimal weight and how their bodies respond best to training. To avoid feeling “bulky” and to minimize the cumulative fatigue and musculoskeletal soreness associated with training, such players will often seek to negotiate optimizing their training load. Van Manen's (24) practical level of reflection guides a strength and conditioning coach to consider the individual athlete and their specific situation and responses to conditioning. A strength and conditioning coach reflecting on this challenge might start by asking:

  • How do I work with the older athletes who have played the game for many seasons and have a well-established training history?
  • How much could a player reduce his/her training and yet still optimally perform?
  • How could this be achieved while accounting for the player's training preferences and consideration of other family and lifestyle commitments?

The critical level of reflection (24) might stimulate strength and conditioning coaches to think more widely about strength and conditioning practices as they relate to performance and to challenge or question some of the traditional assumptions. Although fitness is highly prized, a reasonably common practice in professional rugby is a coach electing to start a highly skilled athlete returning from injury, who is below pre-injury fitness levels, rather than an uninjured, fit, yet less skilled player (13). A critically reflective strength and conditioning coach might ask the questions:

  • If speed, strength, and fitness are so important, why does a coach now overlook fitness and start the detrained athlete? What conditioning messages do these actions send to the rest of the team?
  • What are the ethical responsibilities of a strength and conditioning coach when a deconditioned player is required to return to play prematurely?
  • What could returning prematurely mean for the player's longer term health and their performance and how could a premature return threaten their career progression?

Another example where critical reflection could be applied is to question the meaning of team fitness testing. There is a potential for the role of testing and monitoring to become a confused yet routine part of the sport. To illustrate this, Brooks et al. (1) describe a training camp undertaken by a national rugby squad, involving 25 sessions per week averaging 45 minutes per session. In this camp, 52–55% of the training was conditioning. The camp was deemed successful because players increased body mass while decreasing skinfold measurements. In this situation, a strength and conditioning coach reflecting critically might ask the following:

  • How do these anthropometric changes relate to player performance?
  • What effect do these test results have on the athlete, their ability, or their confidence to perform?
  • Where could these tests be placed in the training cycle to minimize harm and still provide useful monitoring information?

There is the possibility of accepted team conditioning processes being reconsidered and reconfigured when someone asks why a high in-season training volume is imposed or why that injured player is permitted to return at 90% fitness. By employing critically reflective questioning, particularly by asking “why?,” the strength and conditioning coach can be encouraged to consult other experts and explore the available research evidence. This process may in turn help the strength and conditioning coach to identify any discrepancies between theory and practice and to begin to conceptualize alternative methods of practice.


A challenge for those working with strength and conditioning coaches is to know how to nurture and support them to become more reflective of their practices. Often when professional development initiatives are enacted, they are done so within formal coach education/development programs with associated assessment protocols. Although Gilbert and Trudel (12) and Cushion et al. (6) have provided some suggestions as to possible ways forward for sports coaching generally, the value of formal professional development/education programs and their influence on coaching practices have been debated at length. For example, over 3 decades ago, albeit in an education context, Zeichner and Tabachnik (27) described 3 different schools of thought regarding the impact of formal teacher education programs on the development of teachers. They were skeptical of claims that “the effects of the university are ‘washed out’ by school experience” (p. 10) and instead questioned the role teacher educators play in maintaining the status quo in schools. They contended that by teacher educators “focusing on how things were to be done without asking students to consider what was to be done and why, the university initiated discussions … tended to encourage acquiescence and conformity to existing school routines” (p. 9). This has relevance to the discussion in this article. If it is desirable to develop strength and conditioning coaches who have the capacity to critically reflect on their practices and the contexts in which those practices occur, then those working with the coaches to support and nurture their development also need to reflect on what, how, and why they are doing what they are doing.


In principle, the reflective process is simple; in practice, it can be far more complex. Although there are many frameworks, models, and descriptions of reflection, in this article, we used Van Manen's (24) framework to demonstrate how reflection might be used to support a strength and conditioning coach to ask reflective questions about the how, what, and why of professional practices. We argued that such reflection encourages critical examination of the “certainty of practice.” In the article, we posed scenarios and reflective questions, using the context of rugby union, to provide examples of, and possibilities for, practical and critically reflective questioning. We have argued that strength and conditioning coaches would benefit by embracing sociocultural research and make use of it to complement the biophysical underpinnings of their practice. This argument is equally relevant to those who are responsible for designing professional development opportunities for strength and conditioning coaches.


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professional practice; professional development; critical thinking

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