Is theory really that important?

As fitness professionals, we have to pass many exams and complete many worksheets in order to gain the qualifications we need to practice. But what do we do with the knowledge gained from these once we start working? Do we bother using it at all? How does it all fit together? Do we actually need it to do a good job?
In 2009, Jean Côté and Wade Gilbert had an article published in the International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching in which they ask a couple of extremely important questions: What is coaching expertise? How can you differentiate an effective coach from an ineffective one? Whilst their ensuing discussion specifically related to sports coaching, the parallels with fitness coaching and personal training are self-evident.
They suggested these questions could be answered, in part, by looking at coaches’ knowledge; for example, they claimed expert coaches are characterised by extensive knowledge. So what, I hear you say, that is patently obvious! But what is it exactly that they know more of? Can they list more muscle names in Latin, perform many more exercises on different types of equipment, or recite the steps accurately in Krebs cycle? Côté and Gilbert (2009) give us some guidance here, stating coaches need professional knowledge, interpersonal knowledge, and intrapersonal knowledge to be effective. We shall look at each in turn.

Professional knowledge
Professional knowledge can be characterised as being either declarative or procedural. Declarative knowledge refers to concepts and facts (or ‘knowing that …’), whereas procedural knowledge refers to the stages or activities necessary to perform a task (or ‘knowing how to …’).
Côté and Gilbert (2009) suggest professional knowledge is made up of three elements:
1. Sport-specific knowledge; for example, the large body of specialised knowledge required to deliver gym-based exercise (if working in a gym environment).
2. Pedagogy – the ways in which we convey information to our clients and improve their performance. It can include our teaching style, feedback and assessment, for example – how we deliver the gym-based exercise session.
3. Coaching ‘sciences’ – including anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, psychology, etc.

Interpersonal knowledge
Fitness professionals do not work in isolation; you need to be able to build rapport and maintain relationships with clients, groups, and other fitness and health professionals. Success often depends on your ability to interact with others. Interpersonal knowledge and skills help you to communicate well with a diverse mix of clients.

Intrapersonal knowledge
This refers to your ability to reflect on your professional practice, relationships, and behaviours. Introspection and reflection are needed to translate your work experience into enhanced skills and knowledge. Intrapersonal knowledge also refers to ethics and the principles and values you hold, as well as your openness to learning and emotional literacy.

Although extensive professional knowledge is a necessary aspect of coaching effectiveness and expertise; by itself it is not sufficient. Success as a fitness professional is not about the number of exercises you know, how much anatomy and physiology you can recall, or the number of disciplines you are proficient in (although it helps!).

To be truly effective and to maximise the experience for your clients, you need to be able to connect with others in a respectful and meaningful way, to reflect upon, review and revise your own professional practice, and be open to continued learning and development.

Whilst the nature of knowledge is hotly contested, this model from Côté and Gilbert is simple and intuitive, and can help you become a better professional. Next time you choose a development activity, remember that it is not just performing more exercises or learning more theory that is important – don’t forget teaching skills, communication skills, and reflective skills too.

Reference: Cote, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An integrative definition of coaching effectiveness and expertise. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 4, 307-322.

Blog post by

Dave Lee

Dave Lee

Dave Lee is the co-founder of Amac, he continues to write and produce all our courses and you might even find him teaching you.

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