Applying evidence-based practice to coaching
“Evidence-based” has become a massive buzzword within the coaching community (I include both technical/tactical and strength and conditioning coaches in this group). It seems like every job advert I come across these days demands that candidates can demonstrate “evidence-based” planning, programming and coaching. This is not a problem in itself, but I thought it might be worth having a deeper look at what evidence-based practice (EBP) actually means.
The concept of EBP emerged from clinical medical practice in the ‘90’s. It encouraged medical professionals to integrate the latest research developments into patient care. It was introduced in an attempt to reduce traditionalism and straight-up quackery within medical care, and ensure that patients receive treatments that they can trust because they are based on reliable evidence. The concept is summarized in figure 1 below.
EBP is best understood as a decision-making process. The professional involved is required to integrate knowledge from three key sources 1) the best currently available research evidence, 2) the professional’s expertise developed over years of practice, and 3) the patient’s preferences which are often context specific. By considering all of these sources of knowledge the medical professional they makes a decision about what would be the best treatment for the patient.
So how does this apply to coaching? Well for a start, if ever there was a profession field that is subject to traditionalism, questionable practice, quackery and general mumbo jumbo it is coaching! The reason for this is that as a professional field, coaching is largely in its infancy. Most coaches report that they learnt to coach through their prior experiences as players, rather than through formal mechanisms. As a result, many coaching traditions are passed on generationally, even if there is a poor rationale for their use.
On the other hand, the body of research related to coaching is growing quickly, and there are a number of very useful resources available for coaches who care to look. There is a wealth of evidence from fields such as psychology, adult learning, communication, and others that has a bearing on coaches’ knowledge and practice. In addition research that proposes or examines specific aspects of coaching is quickly emerging. For example, a colleague recently published a preseason tackle training plan, to develop tackle technique and get players contact ready for the rugby season. The challenge with integrating this type of evidence into practice is that the contexts that coaches work in are unique and highly variable. Even if you come across a well-researched coaching technique that you would like to use, inevitably it will require adaptation due to contextual factors. These might be things like the age or experience of the players, their availability for training, facilities available, or conflicting demands. This is where the coaching expertise comes in. Coaches will use their personal knowledge and experience of what has been successful for them in the past to adapt and modify the research-based intervention to develop something that they believe will be workable in their context. On this view, although coaches should look to integrate the evidence of research into their practice, the lack of context specific evidence means that in coaching EBP is likely to be biased towards practitioner experience. This may explain why coaches prefer to learn from other coaches, rather than through formal coaching courses.
In a field where very little actual empirical research evidence exists (although this body of evidence is growing), coaches are forced to rely on experiential learning and in-practice experiments to improve their practice. While this is a demonstrably effective method of learning, it requires coaches to actively engage in a process of reflection. In fact, as Gilbert and Trudel (2006) noted if coaches do not actively engage in reflection, their experiences do not lead to improvement in their practice.
“Ten years of coaching without reflection is simply one year of coaching repeated ten times”
Gilbert and Trudel, 2006
The challenge for coaches is that humans tend to be lazy in their thinking. In many situations we default to the use of intuitive judgments or heuristics, rather than engaging in effortful, thoughtful decision-making. This can cause our decision-making to become biased and flawed.
An example of this is demonstrated in recent research with expert long-jump coaches. In this study, 12 elite long jump coaches were shown video, training records and the competitive history of a promising long jumper, and asked to provide examples of the type of activities they prescribe for the jumper as well as a rationale for why. This resulted in a wide range of different approaches being described, and generally the coaches provided ‘well, in my experience’ type answers.
In the second stage of this study, coaches were told that their initial prescription had not worked and were asked what else they would do. In this scenario, where a degree of uncertainty was introduced, the coaches reported that they would like to collect more data, consult with other coaches and became more reliant on formal sources of knowledge. Essentially the coaches moved away from being completely reliant on their expertise and moved towards EBP when they became uncertain about the best thing to do in the situation. This suggests that coaches should look to maintain a healthy amount of skepticism regarding their own practice, and continually check and challenge themselves regarding the reasoning behind their programming choices.
To summarize, coaching relies on making appropriate decisions based on both previous experience and continuously developing coaching knowledge. Coaches should aspire to be “evidence-based” in their approach, with a clear understanding of what EBP means within a coaching context, meaning:-
Coaches develop tacit knowledge through experiential learning and this represents an important information source for EBP.
This experiential learning process requires coaches to actively reflect on their practice and conduct in practice experiments to determine what processes work best in their own environments and with their own athletes.
Where possible, coaches should aim to supplement this tacit knowledge with explicit knowledge in the form of research evidence and coach development courses.
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