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2 key principles for coaches

Coaches behave in a certain way because they believe it is a suitable and effective method to achieve what they want to achieve. For example, a coach may govern by fear in an effort to motivate their athletes. This may work in the short-term, but it is likely to cause issues in the long-term. Specifically in terms of skill development, coaches might restart a rep, or redo a play if athletes do not execute in the manner that they are expected to. See the video below for an example. While a coach did not tell these players specifically to redo the reps, this behaviour is likely driven ultimately from chasing the perfect execution, which trickles down from the top (i.e. coaches). I make this assumption because I have heard coaches advise players to "find the perfect rep* and copy that each time." As I stated in my previous posts on variability:

My thought process around coaching was repetition-based and action-focussed - I believed that in order for a player to get good at an action, they must repeat it. However, my thought process has very much changed - I now believe if a player wants to develop a skill, they must learn to adapt it.

*there is no such thing as perfect solutions, only functional ones - did the solution work in a given situation?

Focus here on the player on the far side of the net, to the right of the screen. The feed isn't where he wants it, so he catches the ball and throws it back to start again, missing out on an opportunity to be adaptable.


I believe everything in coaching stems from two beliefs: 1) failure is bad and 2) a coach's role is to solve problems for their players. I have written much about these two concepts previously, and this post will repeat many messages already shared (optimal challenge point, failure rate, adaptability, variability, skilled intentionality, exploration), but they are messages worth repeating in my opinion. Two things I believe coaches need to do:


1) Reappraise relationship with failure

If you look at any development session - this can be an undersage game or even a training session for high-performance athletes. If it is done right and players are suitable challenged, mistakes will be present. Athletes on the field will make mistakes, and they will be in the wrong position at times, and they will make poor decisions. This is all part of the process. As uncomfortable as it will be at times to watch, this is the learning process. Embrace it.


As discussed previously, errors are your guiding lights as a coach. Errors, the number of errors, and the type of errors, inform coaches if the session is pitched at the right challenge for the group. To put it simply:

  • Player making no errors - task is too easy.

  • Player having no success - task is too difficult.

  • Effort errors (i.e. player not engaged) - potentially too easy or too hard.

As discussed relating to the video above, and in relation to skillful performance, athletes have to adapt. One way to ensure that athletes adapt is to infuse variability, or repetition without repetition (repeating the outcome, not the solution). Variability can come in many forms. One of the most organic ways to infuse adaptability into training is to include opposition. This way, athletes are always coadapting to each other. Think of a dyad (1v1 scenario) in any team invasion sport (Gaelic football, hurling, rugby codes, AFL), an attacker will try to exploit a gap left by a defender, if the defender closes space in one area, the attacker will try to exploit the space elsewhere. This coadaptation is constantly happening between every 1 on 1 battle within a sporting contest, but also on a team level. If a team is implementing a high press, then the opportunity exists to play over or in behind. If a defending team is overloaded on one flank, then the opportunity is there to go around on the other side. This, in essence is skilled intentionality, my favourite part of sport.


2) Revaluate their role: from problem solver to problem setter

If a coach believes their job is to solve problems for their athletes, then it makes sense that their approach is instruction-heavy. I believe that may be true some of the time, but I don't believe that instruction should be the most commonly utilised communication strategy utilised by coaches. One example where instruction can be a suitable strategy is on match day, where a team need to get a result, and the coach has access to statistical information or a different viewpoint of the playing field that players on the field may not be privy to. This is a prime scenario for a coach to instruct their team to act in a certain manner. Another example could be in the coaching of the contact area with young, novice players in rugby. Being instruction heavy, to ensure safety is a completely suitable strategy for coaches.


However, coaches wear many hats, and have many roles. One other such role is that of a problem setter. If a coach looks forward to a team's next game, they may want to set tasks for their playing group that will replicate the problems they will face. Or it may be about challenge points, and the coach may want to set his playing group (or just one particular player) a difficult problem, to force them to adapt and explore functional solutions.


The identification and discovery of functional solutions highlight an important point. Each player has unique individual characteristics - anthropometrically, mentally, physically. With this in mind, a functional solution will look different for every individual. As much as a coach would like to, they can't possible give each athlete a solution, because they don't know what it is. This is the importance of letting the athlete figure it out.


When viewing a coaches role through this lens, it is clear that instruction is not a suitable strategy. What is the point in setting a group a challenging task, to encourage them to adapt and explore ways to navigate the task, only to be told what the (or a potential) solution is. It is completely contradictory! When viewing the coaches role as a problem setter, the coach can go about guiding the attention of a playing group by asking them specific questions: "what do you notice about our shape?" "where is the space we can exploit?" "what do we need to be aware of in this position?" Deeper exploration can come through approapriate questioning (see more on questioning here).


Summary

Reappraising their relationship with failure would probably be the biggest change I would encourage with most coaches. Failure, if managed and planned, can provide valuable information for athletes and coaches. Agile coaching is also an important concept. Context is so important with the coaching strategies that a coach implements. Being clear on the intention of a task or a session is critical to ensuring coaching behaviours align with the aim of that task or session.

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