The Art and Science of Coaching - Focus on the How!
“You haven’t taught it, until they have learnt it!” is one of the mantras accredited to iconic American basketball coach John Wooden. Wooden was a man who understood coaching. He understood HOW to get his players to do what was required to be successful. He was an innovator, not in terms of revolutionary tactics and techniques, but in terms of getting his players to execute elements of game play with savage efficacy. He is widely regarded as the best basketball coach of all time.
I have been aware of John Wooden, and particularly this quote for a number of years, but recent experiences have caused me to re-examine its value. I recently emigrated to the UK to start working in the Sports Coaching department at Leeds Beckett University. Prior to this move, I had worked as a sports coach and strength and conditioning coach at various levels for 15 years. I thought I was a good coach with a good amount of experience. Then I was thrust into an environment where I was surrounded by real coaching experts (both experienced practitioners and academic theorists). I quickly realized exactly how much I didn’t know about my supposed area of expertise. At least I have begun descending Mount Stupid, and at some stage in the future I may even start climbing the slope of enlightenment (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Graphic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive-bias in unskilled individuals.
So in what particular area did I realize I was so inadequate?
Broadly speaking, coaching can be divided into three areas –
WHAT we coach - The contents of our coaching sessions.
WHO we coach - The characteristics of our participants.
HOW we coach - Our actions while coaching.
In my experience, we as coaches are overly focused on the WHO and WHAT parts of this equation. WHAT is represented by the curriculum of activities we have to complete. We know that if we want to be successful in a running event, our training is going to consist of running of various distances and intensities. WHO dictates how we will modify this curriculum based on the athlete we are presented with. We all know that we prescribe training differently based on age, gender, experience, competition goals etc. These are programming functions, they help us decide whether we are doing the right things with our athletes.
HOW is different. HOW is less about what the athletes need to do, and more about what the coach does. HOW governs what athletes forget and what they retain. HOW is about how sticky the message is. HOW determines what the athletes do when you’re not around. HOW determines whether what you have practiced can be reproduced in a different environment, or under pressure.
teachers refer to the “HOW” as pedagogy. It means “The method and practice of teaching”. It is the skill teachers possess to present information in a readily understandable, digestible and retainable form. It is the reason why we send children to school rather than just giving them the text book to learn. Teachers (should) make learning easier.
Coaches should also make learning easier, but for the most part we don’t. Every coaching course I’ve ever been on has focused on what players/athletes should be doing. Very rarely does anyone discuss what the coach should be doing. We often get competitive trying to show off who knows the most about coaching, but we seldom critique each other on our delivery which is arguably more important. Coaches wear the number of hours they work per week as a badge of honour, we are workhorses, but we rarely stop to consider if we could be more effective.
What if we could make our athletes better, simply by paying more attention to what we say, and how we say it? What if we could save our athletes hours of practice by improving our message? Recent research in the field of motor instruction and cueing have shown that this is exactly the case. By choosing your words carefully when instructing athletes, you can have profound effects on their physical performances! Nick Winkelman has written an excellent review of this topic which I won’t bother to repeat here, aside from to provide a quick cheat sheet (Figure 2). This research clearly illustrates that it isn’t enough to just prescribe the correct exercises. The way in which you speak to you athletes and the specific words you choose will determine how successful the outcome is.
Figure 2 – Instructional characteristics that contribute to more powerful cueing.
A further way to change athlete outcomes without working harder is to consider the type of feedback athletes receive. In an infamous study, described in Frans Bosch’s recent book, discus throwers were divided into two groups; one that received feedback from their coach and a second that received feedback in the form of the exact distance they threw on each repetition. The cautionary result of this study was that the group that received tape measure feedback outperformed the coaching feedback group. In a similar study, athletes that received immediate feedback on their power output during jump squat training out-performed a group on the exact same training program that received no feedback. These studies illustrates the body’s ability to self-organise to achieve improved outcomes if the correct feedback is provided.
Ultimately it is the responsibility of the transmitter of a message to ensure that it is received. We should not simply broadcast our coaching messages and leave it to our participants to interpret them to the best of their ability. Instead we should carefully package the information we would like to share, ensuring that it is accurate and effective. A few well chosen words can mean the difference between the coach teaching and the athletes learning.
Abraham, A., Saiz, S. L. J., Mckeown, S., Morgan, G., Muir, B., North, J., & Till, K. (2014). Planning your coaching: A focus on youth participant development. In C. Nash (Ed.), Practical Sport Coaching (pp. 16– 53). Abingdon: Routledge.
Winkelman NC. Attentional focus and cueing for speed development. Strength & Conditioning Journal 2017, Jan 9;Publish Ahead of Print.
Bosch F. Strength training and coordination: An integrative approach. 2015.
Randell AD, Cronin JB, Keogh JW, Gill ND, Pedersen MC. Effect of instantaneous performance feedback during 6 weeks of velocity-based resistance training on sport-specific performance tests. J Strength Cond Res 2011, Jan;25(1):87-93.