A critical examination of social media for professional development in sports coaching

Sports coaches are social beings working in a constantly changing sports world and they are generally aware of the importance of professional development and learning in a variety of different ways (Cushion et al., 2010; Jones, Armour and Potrac, 2002). Coaching development literature identified a preference of sports coaches for informal learning, especially self-directed learning experiences and communication with other coaches (Stoszkowski and Collins, 2015).

Social media sites offer endless opportunities for informal learning processes, social learning and can be a tool for self-directed professional development (Harvey, Carpenter & Hyndman, 2020). Greenhow and Lewin (2015) argue that the participatory aspect of Social Media is able to integrate formal and informal education.

These modern communication tools are characterized by interactivity and easy access for a large number of users, enabling fast, permanent, time-unlimited digital exchange and communication through social interaction, collaboration and participation (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). A distinction is made between open, interactive and participatory platforms, such as social networks (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn), photo and video portals (e.g. Instagram, TikTok), blogs and microblogs (e.g. Twitter), as well as forums and wikis. The so-called participatory web thrives on the creation and co-creation of content by users, which is referred to as user-generated content (Boyd and Ellison, 2008). Content is embedded in social contexts, which can be created, commented on, changed and forwarded in multimedia form (Greenhow & Lewin, 2015).

Social Media have not only changed people´s personal communication with each other, but they can also guide and influence social developments and behavior. In the context of education, social networks and other tools have transformed and evolved the relationship and interactions between educators and learners and opened up many new potentials and opportunities for communication, as well as professional development and learning (Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman, 2020).

The research identified in the area of social media use for professional development in sports coaching is limited and often equates physical education teachers and sports coaches, so an extension of the literature review was made. The term sports coaches and physical education teachers will be used as a synonym. The literature review includes research from the last ten years and looks at physical education teachers and sports coaches as both educators and learners at the same time.

The main focus of the identified research has been on how they use social media for professional development and learning, what positive and negative effects it has on their work and what challenges social media brings for them (Carpenter and Krutka, 2015; Goodyear, Parker and Casey, 2019; Harvey and Hyndman, 2018).


Sharing ideas and establishing networks

Social media activities of coaches pursue different goals depending on their coaching role and workplace, but a common reason why they engage and interact with social networks is to share their ideas and connect with other coaches through an easily accessible digital tool (Pill, Harvey and Hyndman, 2017). The microblogging platform Twitter has emerged as a space for informal learning processes (McPherson, Budge and Lemon, 2015). It is mainly used by sports coaches for expanding their personal networks and connecting with like-minded fellow coaches to exchange information and ideas (Carpenter and Krutka, 2014). Establishing social networking online and creating a professional learning community on Twitter through creating hashtags and sharing resources has emerged as an informal learning space for sports coaches with a positive impact on practice (Goodyear, Parker and Casey, 2019; Harvey, Atkinson and Hyndman, 2020). Twitter is a platform where sports coaches interact and engage from two different perspectives at the same time. They participate in informal learning processes not only as learners but also as educators. The public sharing of ideas and experiences, the subsequent professional engagement, and the possibility to discuss issues is suitable to promote reflective practice and to improve the pedagogical training quality of sports coaches (Goodyear, Casey and Kirk, 2014; Harvey, Atkinson & Hyndman, 2020). Coaches can start, encourage, follow or only engage in discussions, dialogues or collaborations with others and design their own concept for their personal professional development through social media (Walker, Thomas and Driska, 2018).


Emotional support through communication

Accessing resources and sharing ideas and thoughts with fellow coaches on Social Media not only enhances professional skills, but can also serve as emotional support. Discussions, receiving feedback, asking for advice and solving problems together in the professional learning community are of great importance for the personality development of a sports coach (Goodyear, Parker and Casey, 2019; Kinchin and Bryant, 2015). Psychological characteristics such as self-efficacy and self-confidence as a coach can be strengthened through the use of social media and the support of the professional learning community. Social support and communication with other coaches help to make decisions in the best interest of the athletes and other involved parties (Carpenter & Green, 2018; Pill, Harvey and Hyndman, 2017). Researchers have found that an international and diverse online social network without hierarchies prevents social isolation of sports coaches and supports mentoring and a closer bond to the profession as a sports coach. Emotional support is of great importance for identification with the job (Carpenter and Krutka, 2015).


The fake side of Social Media

Social Media can help sports coaches with their professional learning and improve their practice in many ways, but the use of social network platforms has negative aspects, too. Due to the possibility of all users creating content, the amount of shared information, ideas and concepts is permanently increasing and there is hardly organization or moderation of online discussions (Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman, 2020). The majority of the user-generated content won´t get fact-checked or validated and resources are not given, which raises the question of whether the content on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram even has much educational value (Friesen and Lowe, 2011). The quality of content and a lack of transparency what intention the social media activities of the content creators have, can cause doubts in the reliability and credibility of Social Media as a learning environment. Friesen and Lowe (2011) argue that social networks were created for commercial and profit purposes and not educational tools, so professional learning through Social Media must be critically reflected.

Furthermore, Social Media is an open space and publishing content, discussing and sharing information is not private. Therefore, Gleddie et al. (2016) argue that Social Media causes great pressure to live up to one's role as a sports coach and to always be exemplary and a role model on the internet. It is questionable whether the content in the social networks corresponds at all to real everyday training or whether the content creators idealize their concepts, experiences and approaches in coaching their athletes (Fox and Bird, 2015; Gleddie et al., 2016). Professional learning includes honest feedback, evaluating success and failure and reflecting openly and without boundaries. The lack of privacy of social networks can prevent learning processes and not reflect the totality of experiences in professional activities.


Research is as blurry as Social Media content

Social Media for professional development in sports coaching is slowly becoming a research subject, but there are no clear and unambiguous empirical insights into the actual benefits of Social Media for professional development in sports coaching (Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman, 2020). Investigations into video and photo content on platforms like Instagram and TikTok have not really been done yet to discuss the benefits, challenges and difficulties for professional learning. TikTok and Instagram in particular have an enormous reach and many interactive and participatory features for delivering user-generated content. With sports coaches learning better through engaging with other coaches, sharing their experiences and requiring a holistic and interactive learning environment, the use of Social Media as a platform for professional development and learning will be of way more importance to establish a life-long learning philosophy for the future (Cushion et al., 2010; Parker and Patton, 2017). Nevertheless, the existing literature research shows that social media platforms are already becoming spaces for self-directed professional development and learning for sports coaches and researchers have stated positive aspects and benefits from using these social networks. However, to get a clearer picture of the research subject, further studies with different methodological approaches are needed to promote professional learning through Social Media.


Some personal reflections


From consumer to learner

I have had an account on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn and probably a few more for the past 10 years, but I´ve actually never really been active on them. I logged in daily and scrolled through my newsfeed mainly consuming memes or videos of cute animals. Four years ago, my perspective changed when I decided to commit my professional career completely to being a coach. I started following other strength coaches to learn more about training and coaching different athletes. Connecting with like-minded and fellow coaches, that I can learn from and grow my coaching philosophy and skillset was the easiest and cheapest approach for professional learning (Walker, Thomas and Driska, 2018). The seeds for a life-long journey of professional development and becoming the best coach I can be were sown.

I did them all: Every certificate, workshop and course there is for strength & conditioning and weightlifting in Germany. The definition of professional development and learning for me was formal education, mainly lectures and I did not reflect on other learning methods to gain knowledge and skills for my profession. Bausmith & Berry (2011) identified that the traditional understanding of professional development is learning by listening in seminars or lectures. The practical application and transferability of knowledge is neglected in these formats. Learners are expected to be able to transfer and apply theoretical knowledge into practice on their own.

Even though I did all the certifications and seminars I had a lack of self-efficacy to apply new knowledge to my practice and did the same old training programs and session designs again and again. Meanwhile, I was “consuming” exercise videos on YouTube, watched Instagram stories about sports scientific topics and signed up for blogs and newsletters in an unreflective and passive way. I actually did not read a single one I have signed up for. The potential of actively engaging in Social Media and actually being social has only unfolded by starting to interact with other coaches, comment on videos, photos or captions and finally sharing my own generated content. I stopped just consuming all the information without reflecting on them and being aware of learning opportunities by actively engaging in the published content of other sports coaches. But with having accounts showing my actual name and pictures I was very insecure about joining Facebook groups and discussing with much older and more experienced coaches. I did a lot of research, then proof-read every reply or statement several times before I commented under a post or tweet. Gleddie et al. (2016) criticize coaches having a lack of authenticity on Twitter because they tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves to present only the positive aspects of their profession and development. Looking back, I can relate to that not only by overthinking every interaction and move I do on Social Media, but also by not sharing any failures or wrongly planned training sessions even though I would have needed helpful feedback and evaluation of my practice. Being a female coach in a male-dominated workplace and profession I had the feeling to idealize my coaching skills on Social Media to not give anyone a reason to criticize me as a coach or doubt my qualifications. I probably lost a lot of valuable feedback and opportunities to grow and learn from others, but based on the experiences I have made being a woman coaching men I decided to only share content that is not controversial or has the potential for getting negative reactions.

I have gained a lot of self-confidence by seeing that many other strength coaches on Social Media have the same experience as me, that their training is comprehensible and similar to mine, and that I actually do my job as a strength coach pretty well and achieve good results. This learning process would not have happened without me personally acknowledging that informal education is driven by communication and actively engaging in a learning community online has a lot of benefits for my personal development. I do not need a formal certificate or license for everything I learn.

Furthermore, Social Media pushed me to think outside the box because I have deliberately chosen to communicate mainly with coaches in different sports, other sports systems and being located in a variety of different countries. I found great mentors that I can relate to and that have encouraged and supported me in my professional development. Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman (2020) state that support and mentorship outside the own local bubble, in which sports coaches normally move, can make them feel more connected to their profession. Since I am an active learner on Social Media and discussing different topics with other strength coaches, I found a lot more motivation to set goals for my professional development and it brought me closer to my profession. I am feeling confident enough to not only be a learner in the Social Media world, but also change the perspective and become an educator in the context of professional development.


From learner to educator

As an educator on Social Media I am in a different role than just being a learner and I post self-generated content to contribute to the professional development of other sports coaches. Social Media is an easily accessible way to share philosophies, approaches, ideas and concepts and get into a dialogue with other sports coaches (Carpenter and Krutka, 2014). I have found a niche as a strength coach, where from my own observations a lot of other coaches, parents and other people involved with sports and health still lack knowledge and I have gained valuable experiences over the last years that I want to share. I coach weightlifting to kids and Social Media users, parents, physios and even fellow strength coaches still react with a lot of prejudices and myths on videos or photos with kids lifting (light) weight. Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman (2020) understand, that people are skeptical about Social Media for professional development because the open direct nature of it might undermine the rationality and expertise of qualified educators. Social Media content is rarely regulated or vetted; therefore, a lot of misconceptions, myths and simply wrong content is flooding the social networks (Fox and Bird, 2015). It is very difficult for learners to distinguish between “good” and “bad” content. This is why I have to reflect on my own content that I want to share on Social Media for educational purposes and how I gain the trust of my followers, fellow coaches and prospective learners. For building up my Twitter and Instagram accounts I have to evaluate first how I present myself and my knowledge in an engaging, exciting and participatory way. Research says that the majority of Social Media users with an educational aspiration want to feel emotional support and share ideas (Goodyear, Casey and Kirk, 2014; Pill, Harvey and Hyndman, 2018). So, the content I want to share should take the reasons why sports coaches engage in professional learning on Social Media platforms into account and always leave space for discussion and further communication. From my personal observations on Instagram, those accounts that actively want to add value to professional development and put a lot of effort into creating graphics and engaging videos often do not have the success that the educators would wish for. Pure knowledge is in many cases not what learners look for on social network platforms, they go on Social Media not to read theoretical content, but rather engage with content that develops their competencies and capabilities to be an effective coach for their athletes (Harvey, Carpenter and Hyndman, 2020).


Putting it all together and being critical

Social Media gives me the opportunity to grow as a sports coach from two different perspectives. I am a constant learner and at the same time share my knowledge and expertise to be an educator for other coaches on Social Media in the field I´m working in. Being critical and reflective is essential to gain benefits of Social Media in the context of professional development. I, as a sports coach, have to define my markers of credibility not only for the content I post on Social Media, but also evaluate the accounts that I follow and learn from. I have to critically assess who I follow, what content I only “consume” and what content I actually learn from and can use for my practice. Furthermore, I have to decide which educational content I follow closely and consider for further thinking and reflecting and which content I just follow for networking reasons. Here´s an example: My own Social Media professional development plan includes identified areas I want to improve in (e.g. biomechanics of throwing) and therefore, I will select certain Instagram and Twitter accounts based on credibility and reputation and follow those for a predefined period of time and get as much input as possible. Afterwards I will reflect and evaluate the learning community that I followed and the whole learning process.


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