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Erkka Westerlund: Human-Centered Coaching - What and Why?

July 10, 2024

Erkka Westerlund is a respected Finnish coach and sports influencer known for his ability to create winning teams and develop young players. He has coached for several decades at both domestic and international levels, achieving, among other things, multiple World Championship medals. Westerlund's coaching philosophy emphasizes a holistic approach to considering the individual and continuous learning. The goal of this interview was to delve into the world of human-centered coaching and enhance understanding of athlete- and player-centered approaches.


Thank you, Erkka, for the opportunity to exchange thoughts on coaching. You have talked a lot about player-centered or athlete-centered coaching and the changes in coaching methods. How do you think coaching has changed over the course of your career, and why do you see this player-centered coaching as important?

Erkka Westerlund is a coaching professional and expert by experience.

I have increasingly talked about human-centered coaching. Of course, it doesn't matter whether it's player-centered, athlete-centered, or human-centered; it's about the person we work with.

The underlying idea is how we can learn and develop better and how we can help future generations move forward. It's about learning and development when we talk about sports. The starting point, in my opinion, is that over decades, our conceptions of humanity and learning have advanced significantly. My views are based on these developments. If we think very simply, we have had quite a mechanistic view of humans in coaching. The trend is now more humanistic and holistic. It's more modern - after all, the whole society has changed. This is essential to consider in athlete development.

I myself worked for 30 years with the coaching style of that time. Previously, we focused more on developing the athlete's physical attributes and individual skills. Or rather, we didn't really coach the person directly.

I think the emphasis has shifted from that, and our understanding has increased. We don't just coach sports; we coach the person. This is the most important thing: the athlete is no longer just the target of coaching; our goal is to make the athlete an active thinker, actor, and doer. The aim is to harness the athlete's internal resources, especially mental resources. We don't push the athlete forward from the outside; we want the athlete to start pulling from the inside, wanting to learn and develop. This approach also improves learning efficiency.

Your perspective highlights the importance of joy in sports. How do you see it yourself?

The intrinsic value of sports is to bring joy, enthusiasm, and pleasure. We don't do sports for some other reason but because it's enjoyable in itself. We want to move, and sports bring good things to people and society, but the best intrinsic value of sports is precisely that joy and enthusiasm.

Is it then possible that we still don't fully understand humanity or the path to developing top performers? Pressure and fear can be present, leading to certain behaviors.

I think this is at the core. We have had a winning and success-oriented approach in sports, which brings external pressure. Of course, success is the primary goal in top-level sports, but it is the end result. The crucial thing is how we get there: through learning and development. A holistic perspective on sports is important. Sports are part of a person's life, and the lessons learned through sports help in life.

Sports and life intertwine, and through sports, we can express ourselves and succeed. It is a wonderful time in life, and sports can teach a lot for life. It's important for young people to understand that this is a great phase in their lives. We should see the big picture and not become too focused on sports. There will be disappointments and failures in sports, but they are good growth opportunities.


What should clubs do differently to advance human-centered coaching more quickly? How to implement athlete-centered coaching - or rather human-centered coaching?

If we get to the core and simplify things, I see the most important task of sports as supporting human mental growth and finding motivation. The coach's main task is to help the athlete find their inner motivation. What do you want to do now and in the future? I want to emphasize that the athlete should think and reflect. Coaching motivation starts with coaching thinking.

The New Direction of Coaching (Erkka Westerlund - Cultural Change in 2019 slightly edited).

When considering training, it should include opportunities for the player to use their thinking, make choices, and decisions. The goal should not be for the athlete to just follow given instructions without their own reflection. The athlete should reflect on their actions and how things went.

It's also important for the coach to recognize which athletes already have internal motivation and which do not yet know what they want. These two groups require different approaches. Ideally, there are development-minded athletes to work with. If the athlete doesn't know why they are involved, the coach's task is to clarify their thoughts. We need to help athletes find what they really want to do rather than trying to keep them involved forcibly.

The strength of Finnish sports and ice hockey has been in the substance of sports. This will not change in the future either. However, I see that human growth is a significant development opportunity. We should be the best in the world at developing people and thus improving collaboration. Good collaboration depends on individuals, and here is a great opportunity to grow as individuals to be ready for good collaboration. This is important even if it is not immediately understood. We have a big task in supporting people's mental growth and education.


This approach must be a great resource for all other learning as well. When a person's inner desire and sense of security increase, it opens up a vast potential for all other learning?

Exactly. And when we think about the role of sports in society, I believe its significance will grow significantly. People's physical condition has clearly declined, affecting their functionality, which is becoming questionable. It may not be sufficient, let alone the mental side. Nowadays, you hear a lot of news about young people experiencing anxiety and so on. This is an even bigger task than maintaining physical well-being. We need to help people cope with life's challenges and difficulties. Life offers various moments, and there will be disappointments. But we need to keep moving forward.


When talking about skills, what thoughts come to mind?

Self-awareness in sports is a key skill, says Erkka Westerlund.
Self-awareness is a key skill in sports as well.

One important skill is self-awareness. It's important for the athlete to learn to know themselves, their strengths, and weaknesses. This is the foundation of mental growth. Self-awareness is essential for development.

Another important aspect is thinking skills. The athlete needs to develop their thinking and readiness to observe the environment and react to it. In coaching, we should support the athlete's thinking development. The world of coaching should shift from monologue to dialogue. This enables reflection, which is crucial for development. One must be able to critically examine themselves and their thinking.

The coach should not provide ready-made answers but ask questions to stimulate the athlete to think and reflect themselves. This is an essential part of everyday coaching. The coach should consider: Am I conducting a monologue or a dialogue? Am I getting the athlete to think and reflect on things themselves? Participation is key. The athlete should be involved in planning, execution, and follow-up. Previously, the athlete was not involved in these stages but carried out assigned tasks.

There is research data on this. Self-Determination Theory (Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci) emphasizes strengthening the sense of autonomy, which comes from participation. Without this sense of autonomy, it doesn't develop. The theory also includes the experience of competence and relatedness.

We need to find ways to improve coaches' skills and coaching management skills to work with people. We currently have a significant need for coaches who help other coaches develop. It took me 30 years to understand that every coaching situation is also a learning opportunity for the coach. You can learn even more than the athlete. This we have not fully internalized.

The demands of the game have changed so that players need to be able to observe situations better and require the ability to make independent and quick decisions. This indeed requires the skills and changes you mentioned. What changes are needed in the sports field for human-centered coaching to become more common?

Respect for others is essential in team sports.

A person is always part of a larger whole. Authoritarian behavior where someone from above dictates what to do is disappearing. Now we should create trust and mutual understanding with another person. No outsider will tell us how to act anymore. We should agree together on how we act and what goals we set.

Today, two big things come to the fore when working together: agreed goals and agreed ways of working. We should focus in clubs on how we work together. Value all the people we work with and meet everyone respectfully. The atmosphere should be helpful. We are moving towards a human-centered and community-oriented culture of operation. This requires shared goals and agreed ways of working. Transitioning from authoritarian leadership to human-centered operation, however, requires a cultural change.

Thank you very much, Erkka Westerlund, for the interview and the deep reflections!

More Information:

Interviewer: Toni Eskola
Images: Erkka Westerlund