The Art of Coaching

In the following post I’ll share a few thoughts on what I have really been focusing on when working with a variety of athletes of recent times. It is really beneficial to have knowledge of the underpinning science that is the foundation of our profession, but it is the coaching that requires years of focused commitment through dedicated practice. I think it is vital to be able to demonstrate, explain, and instruct, and  see the following points part of the process.

Stages of Mastery

Coaching Process 1

The above diagram, I believe, can be tailored towards coaching or the athlete. As a coach, we aim to take athletes on the journey from being unconsciously incompetent to being unconsciously competent, this is especially the case with young athletes who lack the motor skills and coordination, and also develop at varying rates. But as coaches we must also commit to an apprenticeship of aiming to master the art of coaching, we can’t expect athletes to want to learn if we ourselves don’t commit to providing the best service possible through continuous education.

Organization

Ask yourself, what is the objective of the session? Explain what the goals/layouts of the session is/are – is it speed? Acceleration? Multi directional, Strength or Power? Preparation is key in order for the session to run smoothly. I plan all my sessions, but I know for sure when I pay attention to every detail possible, they run far more efficiently than when not. It is important to consider equipment, is there enough racks/DB’s for the whole squad? Is there enough space so that you can oversee all of the groups? Coach to athlete ratio – can you take control of a large group, or because of such large numbers, is the session delivery and content being sacrificed at the expense of getting everyone through the session?

Plan the execution and execute the plan!

Organization Examples

The picture gives an example of field based movement coaching organisation scenarios, but can also be used when dealing with large groups, using body weight exercises or KB’s/DB’s/MB’s for example. I apologise for my poor stick diagrams!

Circle orientation: good for cool down, to reinforce coaching points from the session – so brings a feeling of unity with a group. Can also be used at the start of a session to address the group and set the tempo for the session. Negative is that you’re always going to have your back to someone.

Parallel Orientation: can learn from each other, however people are not mirror image so it gets confusing, for instance if you perform a lateral drill to go to the left, some individuals might get confused as to which left you’re referring to.OrientationMulti-Line Orientation: for big groups, may be good when working with really large numbers, but as you can see, limits the coach as to where he/she stations themselves in order to provide feedback and coaching points. Again you can’t always see all the athletes either.

Single Line Orientation: probably the most common orientation and easy to get coaching points across and give feedback

Session Flow

Session flow links in with organisation, how many sets/how long does it take? Is the session planned adequately time wise (sets, reps, rest) in order to provide the stimulus for adaptation? It also links with equipment layout, are all the required equipment (racks, platforms, assistance exercises) within the same area in the gym, or will the athletes have to go from one end to the other to get something? This is key when working with groups back-to-back
and must be planned to run smoothly.

Verbal Instruction

Verbal instruction is key to provide clear instructions that explains the task. The instructions must be clear and concise, providing 1-2 focus cues to build athlete awareness, limiting unnecessary information to avoid “over-coaching”. This is obviously best done before the set commences, rather than feeding point during the set. It can be beneficial to start and finish instruction with what you want vs. what you don’t want, just to clear any misunderstanding from the athletes point of view.

Visual Instruction

Visual instruction is key when teaching new skill. It is very important to say the correct verbal instruction, but if you can back that up with proper execution of a visual instruction, then you’re onto a winner. When demonstrating, beware to orient yourself so everyone can see, this links in with the type of session orientation you have chosen, as certain ones will limit what the athletes can see. Therefore, you can repeat the visual instruction in multiple locations if necessary (front on & side on), and finish the explanation with exactly what you want them to do. Leading by example by performing a good demonstration can really set the tempo for the drill.

Error Identification/Correction

Identify the critical moment(s) and/or performance errors throughout the training session. I think there are too many coaches who try to correct too many errors at once. I’m sure I have been guilty of this myself, but my coaching style has always been to focus on progress, not perfection. I’m not saying proficient technique isn’t important, it is, but depending on the level of athlete, I filter errors which are top priority. I always ask, what is the major limiting factor to performing this exercise correctly? Then I’ll try to hone in on that for the session. I think this links in with verbal ‘over-coaching’, if you give the athlete too many things to focus on, you’re suffocating them with information overload and probably negating the desired outcome.

Feedback

Feedback of the skill involves three forms of communication: 1) visual; 2) auditory; and 3) kinaesthetic. Each individual athlete will have a preference for one of these methods and if all three are combined in a demonstration, the coach is more likely to enhance communication with all of the athletes and enhance learning.
Visual learners improve learning when there is a lot of visual input and requires clear demonstrations. Coaches can play back videos of the athletes own, and others’ performances in order to improve performance.
Auditory learners retain information more when listening to instructions and advice, such as discussing problems, tactics, and strategies.
Kinaesthetic learners prefer actual physical practice, shadow activities through physical movement, such as reinforcing posture for acceleration during a wall hold.

The timing of feedback can also be crucial to skill development. If novices are used to over coaching, then they will expect feedback all the time, even sometimes after every rep. I prefer to give delayed feedback to  beginner-intermediate athletes, as they need to feel the coordination the movement requires in order to progress, rather than having them to focus on coaching points. They are probably having a hard enough time trying to perform the skill, and the last thing they need is a coach giving them further instruction after every rep.

Instantaneous feedback can be used with more advanced athletes as they are more towards the autonomous stage of learning. At this stage the athlete has a stable movement pattern with or without errors, therefore can process internal & external information regarding performance to a greater degree than less skilled athletes.

Feedback can be provided to the group (global feedback), or locally (individual feedback), linking in with how many people are in the group and the orientation. When providing a visual and verbal instruction at the end of the drill would require global feedback if there was something needing to be reinforced across the group. Whereas local feedback can be provided to an individual if the drill was organised into a waterfall start for acceleration, for example. And the level of athlete would determine whether the feedback is delayed (end of the acceleration) or instantaneous (during the acceleration).

Feedback should be used for correction and positive reinforcement, I always like to give feedback on what is good, what can be improved, and finish with why it will help what is already good with the performance.

Cueing

Similar to feedback, cueing reinforces the movement pattern and provides one focus point for the next repetition, limiting over coaching “paralysis by analysis”. Internal cues have a  coordination focus on aspects internal within the athlete, i.e. tilt your pelvis when performing a SL RDL, imagine a rod from the heel – shoulder, don’t break that when performing a pillar bridge and a common one would be push the knees out during a squat. External cues have a coordination and performance focus, i.e. push the ground away when accelerating, jump through the roof when performing a jump, or push the hips back against the wall when performing a RDL.

Similar to providing feedback, global cues (projecting common corrections to whole group) can be done at the start of an exercise, whereas local cues provide individual corrections – allowing the coach to be engaged with the athletes.

For more information of feedback, cueing, and coaching in general, I recommend the work of Nick Winkelman. Nick is Director of Training Systems and Education at Athletes’ Performance in Arizona and currently pursuing his PhD at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions with an emphasis in coaching science. Two articles in particular on the NSCA website are very good reads: What We Say That Matter Part 1 and What We Say That Matters Part 2

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