Contextualising your practice – meeting the needs & expectations of the stakeholders in your context

For once! I’m ahead, thanks to lockdown 3 in England. Given me a lot of time to get on with the masters studies and get ahead! Something I don’t think I have ever done as a student!

Anyway! with the bit of spare time gives me the chance to write another blog! I thought long and hard about this topic this time, thinking what would be most helpful to my readers to take into their own context! Then it hit me, ‘Contextualisation’ .

I first came across the word last year in one of the masters modules, we were tasked with creating a ‘contextualised’ GAME model. To you reading this, you might understand straight away what this means, but to us at the time we really struggled with it. So, lets start from the beginning!

What is a context and what on earth is contextualising?

By Definition, Context is described as “the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, ect (The English Dictionary, 2020). Moreover, Contextualising is defined as one ‘putting a linguistic element or an action in a context that is characteristic or appropriate for that context’ (The English Dictionary, 2020).

The coaching context

So, in the coaching environment, the context is the environment that you coach in. That might be junior grassroots, semi-professional open age, or academy youngsters and so on. To go further, your context will include what age & gender of the players your working with, their ability level, their background ect! The organisation your coach is also present in defining your context, is a club, a company, an academy? – furthermore what type of club are they? What do they stand for? What is their philosophy? I can keep going on with this, you get the picture!

I think we can all define our own context, as coaches we can explain the environment in detail, describing everything to the constraints were under from the political side of the organisation, to the type of players and characters we have in the group. This is great! Its very important to know our ‘context in full’, or as full as we can! Generally, from my experiences, coaches are very good at ‘understanding their context’

In Sports Coaching, the context is quite simply the environment that you coach in!

So this is where the ‘contextualisation point’ comes in!

This is where I think a lot of us fall down! We work hard with our planning, work to consistently improve on our delivery, and we spend a lot of time reflecting! And that’s brilliant, something I think non-coaches don’t give us enough credit for!

But, have you every heard that term ‘working hard in the wrong places‘, I think potentially this statement applies here! This is where the phrase ‘contextualising’ or ‘contextualised’ comes in!

I see it all the time on twitter with Game models being the prime example (and that’s not me being big headed and saying everyone is wrong, just an example!). All of these GAME models I see are so well ‘built-up’, they display tactical decisions/actions in so much detail! They are brilliant! But, they are often based on the tactical decision/action that a professional first team footballer will make, or shall we say, have the ability to make, and not the decision that lets say an U8’s player will or can make. This is the problem!

These game models are not ‘contextualised’. From what I see, they don’t consider the developmental level of the players, therefore coaches place too high expectations on the players! But as we discussed earlier, the context is not only the players! What about the club? Do these game models meet the expectations of the club/organisation? If the clubs philosophy is to play long ball, but your model is based on playing possession based football, then are those club expectations being met? Does this cause problems?

GAME models are usually the prime example of a lack of contextualisation, this GAME model presents decisions that first team players make, but yet as coaches we often forget this, and attempt to teach coaches these same tactical principles!

Now look, I’m not here to drown on about game models, I am saving that for my book! But their are examples of this in practice too. I can remember being 17 in my first role and the manager of our U10’s team telling me he wants the players to do one of Liverpool’s first team sessions that he had seen on YouTube! Great idea, but the problem was this wasn’t contextualised to the players capabilities, and evidently, they couldn’t meet his expectations, because they were 10 year old boys! Which lead to him getting rather frustrated at what he was watching that day.

And listen, it’s not just us as coaches that are guilty as this, some parents are too! When we see them screaming at the sideline, trying to provide instruction to their kid and the other kids what to do, when they are confronting you around why your U9’s team isn’t top of the league with an unbeaten run! They are not considering the context, and do not have the ability or understanding to contextualise what they are seeing Mourinho on the ‘tele’ in the Tottenham Hotspur documentary to what you are doing in your role!

So look, ‘contextualising’ its pretty important in our role, but why?

Lets bring in the theory! What does the academia say?

As originally suggested by Jones (2006), there is a recurrent theme in the literature on ‘the need to acknowledge the context, the environment and the domain the coach operates in’. Actually, the ability of the coach to do this is and ‘the extent to how they can change and adapt their actions to the ‘ever-changing context’ (Turner et al, 2012) is the trait of an expect coach‘ (Abraham & Collins, 2011, quoted in Jones, 2006).

Furthermore, Jones (2006) states, ‘coaching doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a coaches practice will always be shaped and influenced by the context within which they work’ (P8).

Robyn Jones book is a great start for further reading around this area!

Cassidy & colleagues (2004) describe the coaching context as one ‘that is usually so complex and of a dynamic nature, that is doesn’t allow for such clean treatments. Furthermore, Jones (2006) suggests the coaching context is ‘multifaceted, constantly in a state of flux and demands coaches to continually make decisions in a variety of continent situations which they themselves are influenced by’.

Evidently, this research implies that making decisions within the coaching context is quite difficult!

Coaching environments encompass pedagogical, social, and sociopolitical contexts that require decisions to be made, where possible against the ‘external criteria,’ on how to interact with and influence (and be influenced by) various stakeholders (Abraham et al 2015). Essentially Andy is saying here that we have to make decisions aligned to the context, which seems pretty straightforward right?

Not always!

In their work, Jones (2006) discusses the traditional ‘misguided rationalistic thinking’ of coaches, in which they seek or use solutions to certain problems, without a consideration of the ‘endemic nature of the coaching context’. The problem with this traditional coaching ideology, is that it ‘creates more problems for coaches than it solves’. (P10).

This ideology has also been described as a characteristic of a ‘proficient’ coach (see the diagram below) in Schempp & Colleagues (2006) work on coaching stages. As you can see, a competent coach ‘begins to see and notice similarities across events and is able to connect solutions from previous similar events to current ones’.

But what is the problem with this?

The problem, is that although these solutions solve the same or similar problem, by not considering the context as Jones says, this can cause several further problems.

Let’s take the example that my friend Ben Bell would give here, 1 and 2 touch limits as a constraint in coaching. This constraint, is usually put in place when you have a team that doesn’t pass the ball to each other, and therefore this constraint forces players to pass the ball. Problem solved? Context dependent.

This may be an appropriate solution for my Womens First team at Ilkley Town, where we want the players to move the ball quickly to maintain possession and attack the goal (a principle in our game model), but we use this rule because we believe using this principle will help us to win the game! At first team level, our primary goal is to win the game of football.

But lets take an example of the same problem for an U8’s boys team as Ben would use. By implementing 1 and 2 touch passing here, we are taking away the opportunity for players to dribble and practice ball manipulation. This is often why when you watch a local grassroots side where the coach tries to play a possession game that they usually are great passers of the ball, but they can’t do anything else with it.

A young Sam Holmshaw delivering a session designed for 8 – 12 year old footballers to students aged 18 – 22 on the BSc Sports Coaching course. In this practical we had to create a session designed to improve a players passing ability. The session I delivered may well have achieved this, but my actions, behaviours and language certainly wasn’t appropriate for the age group I was coaching!

So you can see here, by using the same solution to the same problem, it works in one context, but in the other creates further problems. And this for me really demonstrates the importance of aligning what we are doing to the context we are in, by the process of contextualisation.

We have to make sure our actions, behaviour and language we use are contextualised to the context and the players we are working with!

The use of language is something that I am currently researching into as apart of my MSc dissertation. Another thing we as coaches are at times guilty of (and I include myself in this as the other examples here!) is we copy what we saw Jose Mourinho do in the spurs documentary. We use the Jargon that Jose uses with the senior players, (i.e lets perform a gengenpress lads) with our U8’s grassroots team (again I’ve done that exact example myself), but then get confused and frustrated when the kids don’t understand what we mean. Again, here we need to use the contextualisation process, maybe we could say ‘ok boys so when this player gets the ball I want the 3 nearest players to run towards them and try and win the ball as fast as you can!’

If your reading this and thinking ‘OMG that’s me’, then don’t fret, we are all guilty of this! Coaches often learn through observation, and replicate what they see! Which is why this has become such a problem in the sports coaching profession.

So what do we do? How do we begin to contextualise our practice?

Well, first we need to recognise who we are coaching, and where they are at on the age stage continuum!

How do we do this, well their are plenty of models on human development and how it changes from childhood to the teenage years to adulthood. NGB’s also provide lots of age/stage expectations for players in the junior game. Here is an example of the foundation phase expectations I created for The Holmshaw Academy from this literature and resources, check our slideshow on our website here for a demonstration on this!

Once we have an idea of the player expectations, then we can complete the first stage of contextualisation, of finding out where the players are actually at, by assessing them on these expectations (see the image below of an example of this from my last role with Old Centralians).

How do we do this?

Well, this can be done via a needs analysis of the players using this external criteria. This can and is usually done through observation through various methods (field notes, performance profiles, skill checklist, physical tests, psychological behavioural checklists). I’ll add a few examples of these at the bottom of this blog!

For the ‘final stage’ if you like to contextualisation, all we have to do is look at this information, and ask ourselves ‘its that suitable to the group’.

Perceptual Judgement & Decision Making – Planning ahead the decisions and actions you will make in your practice

Take our game model for The Holmshaw Academy! A tactical principle for our first team or performance phase is ‘create space in between the lines, play the ball through the lines to maintain possession of the ball’. Now this is appropriate to the tactical understanding, technical, physical, psycho-behaviour and social traits we expect a first team player to hold. But an U8 player at the foundation phase doesn’t have the same traits! So instead we contextualise that tactical principle to ‘find and create space’ based on the expectancies of what a player is capable at 8 years old.

And it’s the same for when we are planning what constraints we will use (i.e 1 or 2 touch) and the language we will use. We have to plan ahead on what is developmentally appropriate! Ofcourse, this all comes back to the ideology of Perceptual Judgement & Decision making. If you are unfamiliar of the concept I direct you to my previous blog on this!

“Lots of people can have experience, but only some seem to have expertise (Nash et al, 2012). One defining factor is the deliberateness of that experience, ‘the disciplined training of the mind’, and it is this deliberateness that planning (and reflecting for that matter)” can offer!

(Abraham et al, 2014, P18)
“The disciplined training of the mind” PJDM prevents us from naturally using coaching behaviours or actions that worked in the past, instead we plan ahead ‘how we will think and act’ (Abraham et al, 2014)

“Planning seems to be an important component for changing many behaviours. . . . it is useful to plan how you will think and act. Plans are prescriptive descriptions about what to do and they prevent habitual responses that may not work”.

Halpern 2014, p. 21

Without going deep into the concept of PDJM, if anything this blog really highlights the importance of planning, but more so than just the activities, as Halpern states here planning how we will think and act, and actually what we say. Trying to make the decisions we make as aligned to the context as possible, and using PJDM to train our mind to be disciplined in what we do within that coaching session.


To summarise, it is very important to be aware of and understand the context you are coaching in, after all understanding the context is a knowledge domain of the expert coach (Abraham et al, n.d), as is understanding the athlete, sport, process and practice and how (in which where all mentioned here!). If you are a coach looking to consistently get better at coaching, then its important to try and begin contextualising your coaching to your practice. The traditional idea that you coach the same with any age group in any setting in my opinion in nonsense! its non-existent! It has to be! We have to learn and adapt how we act, what we do and what we say to players/athletes in different contexts and environments. That in my opinion, is the beginning of performing effective coaching!


Abraham, A., Sáiz, S.L.J., Mckeown, S., Morgan, G., Muir, B., North, J. and Till, K., 2014. Planning your coaching A focus on youth participant. Practical sports coaching, p.16.

Abraham, A., 2015. Understanding Coaching As A Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications For Coach Development Practice (Doctoral dissertation, University of Central Lancashire).

Cassidy, T.G., Jones, R.L. and Potrac, P., 2008. Understanding sports coaching: The social, cultural and pedagogical foundations of coaching practice. Routledge.

Halpern, D.F., 2014. Critical thinking across the curriculum: A brief edition of thought & knowledge. Routledge.

Jones, R.L. ed., 2006. The sports coach as educator: Re-conceptualising sports coaching. Routledge.

Schempp, P.G., McCullick, B. and MASON, I.S., 2006. The development of expert coaching. In The sports coach as educator (pp. 163-179). Routledge.

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