Coach Planning & Decision-making
It is exceptionally difficult to be a good coach. The difficulty level is generally underrated by those on the outside looking in. Everyone has an opinion on what they think coaches should do, or how they would do it themselves, but few take the time to understand the constraints and challenges that a coach must work within to understand how challenging the task is. What makes it more difficult to recognize coaches’ abilities, is that it is difficult to measure good coaching. Good coaches working with poor teams may struggle to get results (in terms of winning games, not improving players), while poor coaches with talented teams will win regularly. If it can’t (or shouldn’t) be measured by win rate, what does good coaching look like? In my humble opinion (based on a very steep learning curve since joining an academic sport coaching department), good coaches are excellent at the following process (Figure 1).
Much like a teacher planning a curriculum, coaches need to have a clear vision of the outcomes of the training program. They must have a clear vision of what the team will be able to do at the end of the training program, and what needs to be done in order to get the team there. In team sports this is sometimes referred to as a game model. The game model will be influenced by the age and ability level of the participants. There is no point superimposing a professional coaching plan on developing athletes as their needs and abilities are different. Part of the coach’s skill is assessing what the participants can do, and where he can realistically progress them to within the course of the season.
Planning needs to be “nested” in its approach. What this means is that while there will be an overall plan for the season (macro-planning), each phase of the season (meso-planning), and each individual session (micro-planning) will have its own individual goals, that will assist in achieving the overall planning outcome (figure 2). What is interesting is that this plan is in a continuous state of review and adjustment based on the progress and performance of the participants.
Doing – Coaching delivery
While planning is important to ensure that the outcomes of a coaching program are achieved, a great plan will not get you very far unless it is well executed. This means that expert coaches need to have a working knowledge of coaching pedagogy, in other words how to best deliver coaching contents so that they are acquired and retained by the participants. I won’t go into further detail about this here, as I dedicated a large part of my previous post to this concept (Tee, SSC7-FEB2017).
World famous philosopher Mike Tyson was once quoted saying “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth!” This astute observation is very apt, as very few plans survive field-testing in their original form. This doesn’t mean that all planning is intrinsically bad, but rather that the complexities of sport are so great that many of the factors that affect performance don’t reveal themselves until they are tested in competition. Performance in competition provides coaches with way markers to indicate how well they are progressing towards achieving their coaching outcomes. Inevitably, factors are revealed in competition that feed forward to adjust the coaching plan in the future.
This is where life becomes particularly difficult for the coach. In just about every coaching scenario, the limiting factor in terms of coaches’ planning is contact time. Coaches must work out what they can do with their athletes in the time afforded to them. At the most grassroots level, coaches are lucky if they can have 2 training sessions per week with their players. In professional team sports, 8 hours of on field coaching time would be a luxury in most organisations. Therefore it becomes important for a coach to be able to filter all of the feedback received each week, determine what are the most important coaching points and then prioritise these in training the following week.
The feedback that coaches receive takes many forms. At the grassroots level, it may be as simple as basic observation of the game and discussion with the players. As the level of performance increases, so does the number of information streams that the coach must interpret (Figure 3).
The coach will inevitably not be able to act on all of the feedback he receives. Therefore he must filter and prioritise the information received in order to feed it into the coaching plan for the coming week. How the coach filters this information will depend largely on how the information received agrees with the game model, and his own perceptions and experience. Once the coach has decided on how this information will affect the subsequent coaching plan, (s)he communicates it back to all of the stake holders. This communication is important as it influences the lens through which the stakeholders provide the subsequent round of feedback.
What is incredible about this whole process is that it is exceptionally dynamic. This “Plan, Do, Review” process will be repeated between every practice session, and coaches will often have to update their coaching plan multiple times per day as various streams of information are received. A more detailed explanation of how the sport scientist should fit in and contribute to this process will be the topic of a future article.
What is truly amazing is that many coaches become extremely adept at this process despite not receiving formal training on how to evaluate and interpret information. Most formal coach development courses focus on what to do in ideal situations, and don’t explore how we adapt when things don’t go to plan.
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.