Transformational vs. transactional coaching

Anyone who studies leadership has heard the terms transformation and transaction used to describe types of leaders. They identify the relationship that exists between leaders and followers, coaches and mentees, and even teachers and students in some cases.

There are varying definitions for transactional and transformational but the essential difference is the length of the relationship, thus dictating the substance, direction, and sometimes the quality of interactions between leader and follower. This is not the only defining characteristic of the two terms but it helps in understanding the scope of what is possible within each type of relationship.

When we apply these terms to the relationship between sport coaches and their athletes we begin to understand what is possible when young athletes are paired with knowledgeable coaches and given enough time to create a truly transformational experience.

A transactional relationship in sports is usually short, lasting for a season or even just for a major competition. The coach and athlete each have distinct roles and goals to achieve. Even though the ultimate goal is to have the athletes perform as well as possible both the coach and athlete may have personal goals at stake in the relationship. The coach, for example, may enhance his reputation by having his athletes perform well so his motivation in helping the athletes is to better his career.

The transactional relationship works best with older or elite level athletes. The athlete and the coach both have something to gain from this relationship so the idea of the coaching and performance existing as transactions is both normal and productive.

A good example of a transactional relationship occurs during the Olympic Games. National coaches are chosen to prepare athletes and manage the team during the competition. This relationship is short usually lasting only a few months.

Transformational coaching, on the other hand, informs our vision of stereotypical sport coaches; coaches who inspire, motivate, and are frequently credited with changing the lives of young people. Coaches are transformational figures.

The point of the transformational approach is to do exactly as the name suggests, transform the athlete into something different. In our case it may be a better athlete but because the long-term relationship begins when most athletes are young we also expect the relationship to create a better person.

This is why it is critical that the quality of the coach not be limited to technical expertise alone.

The signature of the transformational relationship is time, lots of it. The coach as mentor idea comes from the transformational approach. Without adequate time for the coach/athlete relationship to develop it remains in the transactional mode. Neither the coach nor the athlete has enough time to build a mentor/mentee relationship.

But with time the athletes, and sometimes the coaches, are transformed into something they weren't before. The coach is not engaged in a simple transaction, he's helping athletes become more than what they were. Personal growth is the centerpiece of transformational coaching.


The purpose of each approach is different. The transactional approach has a narrow focus that tries to achieve goals within currently existing boundaries using skills the athlete already has. In the Olympic example the coach manages the performance plan and helps the athlete combine existing skills into performing at the very edge of his ability.

A transformational coach is working with athletes who still need to develop skills, both physical and psychological, that will eventually lead to achieving whatever might be considered as the athlete's full potential, thus the focus for the transformation approach is broad. It often encompasses areas not related to sport at all but rather enhances the athlete's personal growth.

Conflict develops when transformational results are expected from transactional situations and vice versa. Transactions are quick and obvious, goals are clear and specific. The athlete is using skills that he already has.

Transformation, however, takes a long time and the payoff may be years away. Transformational goals, if they exist, are not specific but the athlete is learning not only how to be an athlete but also expanding their personal identity. This will eventually shape the kind of man or woman they become.

Sport development is a transformational process

Long-term sport development requires the transformational approach. Although coaches need technical training in their sport, at the beginning level technical knowledge is secondary to the coach's ability to guide youngsters through the sport, to be able to create a passion for the sport, and to provide the time athletes need to actually become athletes.

Transactional situations, though periodically necessary throughout an athlete's career, will never produce an athlete with the same robust qualities that the transformational approach can.

Kick starting sport development means creating ways to make youth sport experiences transformational rather than mere transactions. Time and quality coaching are the keys to creating athletes.