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How to coach: coaching behaviours

Part 2 on “how to coach” is based around a coach’s behaviours within a session (see part 1 here). How do they communicate with players? As always, it’s important to start at the beginning, by outlining what coaching is and what a coach does (in my opinion).

  • Coach: An individual who plans and facilitates the training, learning and participation of an athlete and/or a team.

  • Coaching: is a set of behaviours intended to develop skilled athletes.

If coaches are tasked with developing skilled athletes, we must define what skill is, and then define learning.

  • Skill: the ability to adapt goal-directed behaviour to the surrounding constraints.

  • Learning: a process of continually improving the fit between an individual and their environment by using surrounding perceptual information to continuously regulate actions (Renshaw et al., 2022)

How can coaches support athletes to adapt their behaviour to the emerging problems in the competitive environment? Personally, I like to think of coaching as a continuum, which is similar to the continuum of practice design (see here). On one end, the approach is very coach heavy – lots of direction and instruction. On the other end, the approach is very exploratory, and the coach’s approach is more “hands-off” – the coach can be viewed as a “learning designer” (Woods et al., 2020). The most important thing is that coaches are not fixed points on this continuum. Coaches need to be adaptable to move up and down this continuum depending on the needs of their athletes. Like chameleons, they can adapt to suit their environment at any given time – coaches can change their role even within a session. The athlete learning continuum can be placed alongside or on top to the coaching continuum. At the coach-heavy end of the coaching continuum, athlete’s will learn explicitly. Moving to the other end of the continuum, where coaches are “learning designers”, athlete learning will take place through implicit means.


Within this post, I will discuss three key coaching behaviours that can be used to impact a player’s learning: instruction, feedback and questioning, where they fit on the coaching continuum, and examples of how they can be used in various contexts. To outline my own philosophy, I view movement and skilled behaviour through an ecological dynamics rationale. Behaviour emerges when a player interacts with the various individual, task and environmental constraints. Training to enhance skilled behaviour therefore, is an opportunity to place constraints on players that force them to adapt their behaviour to still achieve the desired goal. In order for athletes to really explore ways to adapt, I believe a coach’s behaviours within a session, as well as their practice design, should allow athletes to explore. Being overly instructional as a coach can do several things:

  • Rob players of a learning moment. How can players become good decision-makers if every decision is made for them?

  • Remove the need for the athlete to think about what they are doing. By being overly instructional, coaches are not developing thinking athletes.

  • Training will become action-based, not skill based. Skilled behaviour is about perceiving specifying information and regulating actions accordingly. Athletes who are just carrying out instructions, rather than attuning to information around them will struggle when the instructions are no longer present to direct them (like a game).

  • Constrain athletes so they don't actually do what training is set for them to do. If training is designed to allow athletes to explore their own movement capabilities and different ways of solving a problem, but then the coach tells them exactly what they want the athletes to do, are athletes exploring. Here is where practice and coaching is misaligned.

A key point however, sometimes being instructional is what the athlete needs. S/he may need to be constrained by a coach's instruction. The athlete may need repetitions of action to build confidence and belief. By offering instructions during a complex task, a coach can help an athlete focuson what is important and what is not. There are other ways to do this (e.g. simplifying a task, see here), but this may not always be possible.

Figure 1. Outline of Coach Development Program within my rugby club.


Instruction

Instruction is the most commonly utilised coaching strategy (Ford et al., 2010; O'Connor et al., 2018; Partington & Cushion, 2013). However, it is important for coaches to consider the timing, nature and intent of their instructions to their athletes (Millar et al., 2011). Instruction is a form of constraint that acts on an athlete, and depending on the skill level of the athlete, can be positive or negative.

From a timing perspective, instructions can come before a task or during a task. Giving instructions prior to a player attempting a task can impact on their search for information. The value of this will depend on 1) the skill level of the learner (as mentioned), and 2) the complexity of the task. For a novice, this can really simplify the search for information within the environment and can give the player confidence to go an execute the skill with purpose. For a higher-level athlete, this can turn skill-based training into action-based training, as the athlete is simply carrying out instructions from the coach. During a task, coaches should really consider if they are positively impacting an athlete’s learning with instructions. This is particularly important to consider for coaches of young athletes. During a game (rugby, soccer, Gaelic games, AFL, cricket, volleyball), players are being exposed to so many sources of information. If a coach provides instruction during the play, athletes may have to take their focus away from the game to attend to the instruction, or they may just ignore the instruction to focus on the game. By refraining from providing instruction in the game, the young athlete can learn implicitly in the game, and the coach can observe and can plan their intervention during a break of play. This intervention may consist of instruction, feedback, questioning or silence. The important point is that learners will have a limited capacity to process information, and when there is information present in a game, are instructions from the coach helping or hindering an athlete?


Feedback

From a coach behaviour viewpoint, feedback refers to augmented feedback. Augmented feedback (AF) is information provided to the learner from an external source, which supplements or replaces task-intrinsic feedback (Petancevski et al., 2022). Feedback a coach can provide can be general or specific. General feedback could be “well done”, or “good work”. It can be useful at times, and can provide encouragement for an athlete to continue to explore. Specific feedback could be “good speed on that pass”, “nicely received on the back foot”. When implementing a feedback intervention, there are numerous things to consider:

  • Expertise of the player.

  • Complexity of the skill.

  • Feedback frequency.

  • Feedback timing.

Identifying the right way and time to provide augmented feedback to an athlete is complex. General feedback can be vague and does not provide the learner with detail on what they did well or what they need to improve on. Specific feedback is more detailed, but can cause players to become too conscious of their movement, especially if the feedback is internally focussed. For complex tasks and un-skilled learners a higher feedback frequency is recommended, with the opposite for simpler tasks and skilled learners (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). By providing feedback less frequently, it is likely the learner was able to attend to the intrinsic feedback generated, allowing them to develop their error detection and correction abilities (Petancevski et al., 2022). For a comprehensive review on augmented feedback, see Petancevski et al., (2022).


Questioning

Questioning as a coaching strategy means the coach must shift from being a director to being a facilitator and guiding the learning process. Coaches can assist the learning process by using questions to guide discussions and a player’s thought process. Questioning can promote problem solving ability and critical thinking, provided questions are suitably constructed (Harvey & Light, 2015).

A suitably constructed question is dependent on the initial skill level of a learner. Questions can vary from closed (yes/no answer) to open, and from lower order (recall of information or checking for understanding) to higher order (lots of thinking and deeper understanding). When facilitating a group discussion, a coach knowing their group can be useful to ensure a smooth flow from of information from player to player. Lower order questions can be directed to the players who have a lower understanding, and their answers can be used to develop higher order questions for some of the advanced players.

Depending on the timing of a questioning intervention, there can be different intentions with questions:

  • By asking questions prior to a task (in place of instruction), coaches can encourage players to explore and find a solution to the problem they face. This way, players can be fully attentive to information in their environment and regulate their actions accordingly – they can practice and develop skilled behaviour.

  • By asking questions after a task, (in place of feedback) coaches can promote the reflection process within players, empowering players to take ownership of their own learning. Crucially, this encourages players to self-evaluate so they do not become dependent on their coach’s input.

For a deeper dive into questioning, see Harvey and Light (2015).


PEAQ Framework

Ed Coughlin (@DrSkillAcq on twitter) has developed a framework from coaches to keep them focused within a session (see below). PEAQ is an acronym for key coaching and player behaviours: praise, affirm, explore and question. PEAQ is a framework I encourage coaches to use, alongside the tag line of “Let the players play! We are coaches, not commentators!”





References

Ford, P. R., Yates, I., & Williams, A. M. (2010). An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviours used by youth soccer coaches during practice: exploring the link between science and application. J Sports Sci, 28(5), 483-495. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410903582750

Guadagnoli, M., & Lee, T. (2004). Challenge Point: A Framework for Conceptualizing the Effects of Various Practice Conditions in Motor Learning. Journal of motor behavior, 36, 212-224. https://doi.org/10.3200/JMBR.36.2.212-224

Harvey, S., & Light, R. (2015). Questioning for learning in game-based approaches to teaching and coaching. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 6, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/18377122.2015.1051268

Millar, S.-K., Oldham, A., & Donovan, M. (2011). Coaches' Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature and Intent of Verbal Instructions to Athletes. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 6, 503-514. https://doi.org/10.1260/1747-9541.6.4.503

O'Connor, D., Larkin, P., & Williams, A. M. (2018). Observations of youth football training: How do coaches structure training sessions for player development? J Sports Sci, 36(1), 39-47. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1277034

Partington, M., & Cushion, C. (2013). An investigation of the practice activities and coaching behaviors of professional top-level youth soccer coaches. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(3), 374-382. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01383.x

Petancevski, E. L., Inns, J., Fransen, J., & Impellizzeri, F. M. (2022). The effect of augmented feedback on the performance and learning of gross motor and sport-specific skills: A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 63, 102277. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2022.102277

Renshaw, I., Davids, K., & Sullivan, M. (2022). Learning and performing: What can theory offer high performance sports practitioners? Brazilian Journal of Motor Behavior, 16, 162-178. https://doi.org/10.20338/bjmb.v16i2.280

Woods, C. T., McKeown, I., Rothwell, M., Araújo, D., Robertson, S., & Davids, K. (2020). Sport Practitioners as Sport Ecology Designers: How Ecological Dynamics Has Progressively Changed Perceptions of Skill "Acquisition" in the Sporting Habitat. Front Psychol, 11, 654. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00654

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