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Reflections on supporting reflective practice

“Upon humble reflection of such a question” - Morris et al. (2022)

Morris et al. (2022) highlights how valuable reflection can be, and how important humility is to a powerful reflection process. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, or “embracing an ethos of not knowing” opens practitioners up to new possibilities and can be really valuable practices for coaches to grow and develop.

However, this humble reflection that Craig speaks of is not necessarily common practice, potentially for a number of reasons. Do coaches know how to reflect or what to reflect on? Maybe it isn’t a question of being humble enough to reflect, but its about being able to reflect? Do coaches have space to be explorative, unsure or vulnerable? Do coaches have the knowledge and understanding to identify alternative practices?

A personal example

Throughout my MPhil research, I have been analysing a lot of training session. 3 key metrics that I have been coding have been playing form, training form, and inactivity (O'Connor et al., 2018). Focusing specifically on inactivity, this can be divided up into between-task inactivity (transition time from one activity to the next, drinks break etc.) and within-task inactivity (time on task, or active learning time (Eather et al., 2019)). Without going into detail on the practice sessions I have analysed, it is obvious that coaches should aim to minimise inactivity time – no lines, no long breaks, and no lectures (from the coach). As a result of my research, this is something I am much more attuned to when I view other training sessions.

In essence, my research has guided my attention to inactivity time, and I now have something extra to reflect against. But crucially, this reflection must be done critically. From an enjoyment perspective, obviously players would enjoy being involved in an activity rather than looking at others. From a learning perspective, actually playing the game is more conducive to development than watching the game. So as much as possible, increasing activity time (preferably playing form activity) and decreasing inactivity time should be encouraged.

But is it as simple as more activity is better? One of the roles of a coach is to support player learning. What if a training form activity provides the right stimulus that a player needs to develop? (I am very aware of the differences between drills/training form and games/playing form – link here) How can inactivity time support learning? Can allowing players opportunities to watch other players succeed (modelling) potentially enhance their learning? Can inactivity periods offer players an opportunity to reflect on their performance (Schön, 1992), or interleaving (Yan et al., 2023))? Do inactivity periods allow coaches an opportunity to speak and deliver feedback, or ask a question to guide the attention of certain players, without stopping a session?

(These questions above are genuine, not rhetorical. And I am not suggesting coaches should do excessive training form activities or include inappropriate inactivity periods.)

Reflection is an important step in developing practice and it can help create new information for future practice – see the reflective feedback loop below (Stodter & Cushion, 2017). However, a crucial subsequent step is the critical application of these new insights. Simply, while my attention has been drawn to a key aspect of training (i.e., activity:inactivity), it is never as simple as more activity is better. In many cases, coaches may need to try and increase the amount of activity time they deliver in practice, but there are other times when coaches may need to be more intentional about supporting players on their learning journey. Strategic inclusion and use of inactivity time may support that intention. Cognitive science principles (Taylor et al., 2023; Yan et al., 2023), alongside ecological dynamics principles (Chow et al., 2019) may be able support coaches in their deliberate design of practice activities and getting an appropriate balance of activity and inactivity in their sessions.

Supporting reflective practice

[Reflective practice] involves practitioners using processes to examine their performance and increase personal awareness so that they create opportunities for growth and development.” (Coghlan & Brydon-Miller, 2014).

Two key questions that arise from my personal anecdote above:

  • Do coaches know what to reflect on?

  • Do coaches have an adequate body of knowledge to reflect against? Both from an empirical and experiential perspective (Greenwood et al., 2012)?

One of my current roles is to support coaches in an amateur rugby club, and my primary aim is to help coaches reflect on their practice, to better guide their subsequent planning and decision making. Helping coaches deliberately reflect might have to involve supporting them on what they are reflecting on (guiding their attention), and what they are reflecting against (developing their body of knowledge, empirically or experientially, making sense of their experiential findings).

I have read a small number of doctoral theses, one of which is Andrew Abraham’s “Understanding Coaching as a Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications for Coach Development Practice” (link here) (Abraham, 2015). When I have a clear understanding of what coaching is (i.e., a decision-making process), I can (try to) best support coaches in making decisions. A coach’s practice is based on decisions which draw on a blend of three domains of knowledge: 1) understanding the performer and their needs (physiology, biomechanics etc.); 2) understanding the sport; and 3) understanding of pedagogy and skill acquisition (Abraham & Collins, 2011). I have touched on the varying responsibilities of coaches in previous posts (see here and here).

I have been open with our coaches that I will be supporting around their understanding of pedagogy and skill acquisition, rather than providing any technical or tactical insights. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, that’s what I was brought into the club to do. Rather than be another “what to coach” resource, the purpose of my involvement is to challenge and develop coaches on HOW they coach. Secondly, an understanding of learning environments is largely absent from coach education. Take this extract from Abraham and Collins (2011) (p.15):

“There is little doubt, however, that many coaches have made use of research in the parallel domains of physiology, psychology and biomechanics e.g. strength and conditioning, fitness, periodisation, technique analysis, mental skills and nutrition (Abraham et al 2006). In so doing, coaches have attempted to make judgements and decisions (Martindale & Collins 2007) that are more objective and less prone to the vagaries of trial and error or other ‘weak’ problem solving approaches (Anderson 1987). However, there are real and empirically justified concerns that similar advances haven’t been made in breaching the theory-practice gap in skill acquisition and learning (Abraham & Collins 1998b; Collins et al 2003; Morgan 2006; Potrac et al 2000; Potrac & Cassidy 2006; Vickers et al 2004; Williams 2006)."

The tide is turning slowly in some spaces, with many people doing some great work (Ashford et al., 2022; Askew et al., 2023; Nash et al., 2023; Nash & Collins, 2024; O'Sullivan et al., 2023; Otte et al., 2024; Selimi & Woods, 2024) among many others. This shift is something I want to be a part of – supporting coaches to design better learning environments for their athletes. In essence, my current role involves supporting coaches in reflecting on their pedagogical and skill acquisition decision-making and developing their knowledge in this area to reflect against.

To give one example, in rugby, unopposed strike plays for backs, or unopposed team runs is one of the most culturally ingrained practices in rugby. Have coaches ever considered why they do this? What are the trying to achieve with this?

When debriefing with a coach, we unpacked how valuable this practice was. To stimulate thought, I asked questions like:

  • “How many mistakes did players make with their running lines?

  • “What determines a mistake in this context?”

  • “What makes it difficult on game day?”

I was trying to highlight to the coach how important it was for opposition to be present so attackers can regulate their movement off the movement of defenders (and vice-versa, the continual coadaptation process). Being on the same page is clearly important, but coaches need to identify the key elements that players need to attune to so they can successfully execute on game day (Ashford et al., 2023). The same authors described the SCOPE acronym to highlight key information presented to players – score, context, opportunities, plays, execution (read article for more information).

After this conversation, the coach in question then spoke with other members of the coaching team, and they came up with a fresh idea of rather than walking, jogging, then running through the plays unopposed, they can have the seconds be defense for the firsts during each stage and then swap. And this reinforces my core contention when working with coaches – coaches want what is best for their athlete, they just may need support in identifying what best practice is (and best practice is contextually determined).

How can coaches be supported to engage in reflective practice?

Within our club, coaches take time to plan their sessions and communicate it within their own coaching group before a session. This illustrates their great commitment to their coaching practice. To supplement this, I have tried to encourage coaches to reflect after a session, either individually, as a coaching group, or both. To do this, I have shared a series of questions that coaches can ask of themselves or of each other:

  • What was the aim (this should be clear from session plan)?

  • What did you do (any deviations from the plan)?

  • How did players respond?

  • What else could you have done - the answers to this question may lack depth for inexperienced coaches?

  • What does this mean for your next session?

These questions are inspired from the Big 5 (Collins & Collins, 2021). The aim is to support continuous experimentation, adaptation and refinement until knowledge in practice is adopted (Stodter & Cushion, 2017). This reflective feedback loop is important to unpack -  I don’t have answers for individual coaches. My aim is to create conditions for them to explore their own practice with the aim of developing their coaching practice and self-awareness.

Downsides to reflective practice

Reflective practice is hard. A study by Nash et al. (2022) identified how coaches have negative views of reflection, and these were highly experienced coaches:

The football coach said: 'I do not like to reflect, I like to do…that is why I got into sport!' This position was supported by the volleyball coach, who stated: 'I keep hearing about how important reflection is to coaching but I have never reflected—no-one has told me how to. I just do not get it.' The rugby coach thought: 'You have to overthink yourself when you reflect and I do not have the patience for that. I like to take action, sort things and make decisions—that makes things better.'”

If experienced coaches feel like this, would it be more or less difficult for more novice or less experienced coaches?

Sometimes I would describe reflective practice as “seeing things in a different light”. And to follow this – once you see different perspectives, it’s hard to unsee them. This, while obviously being advantageous in many aspects, particularly around growth and development, may carry unintended consequences:

"around the time the decision to really engage in critical thinking (i.e., progress from multiplicity to relativism) occurs, so too does a drop in confidence in one’s ability to do ‘the job’ since they become more aware of the uncertainty in their practice."  (Collins et al., 2012)

Simply highlighting and questioning coaches on their practice, even if done in an emotionally intelligent way, can cause a lot of emotional disturbance (Taylor & Collins, 2022). Being reflective can lead to enormous growth, but if not checked, it can be debilitating. Coaches can feel like they are doing nothing right. Supporting coaches through this uncertain journey is something I place a high level of importance on. I want to stimulate coaches to reflect deeply, but I also want to support coaches through that reflection process to ensure they come out as better coaches.

Final thoughts

Reflective practice has been and continues to be a massive part of my own development. And I am fortunate to have a number of kind souls who invest time with me to support my sensemaking. I hope to have a similar influence on coaches I work with.

I am making my way though “The Reflective practitioner: How professionals think-in-action” (Schön, 1992, image above) for the second time. It really is incredible and would encourage anyone interested to read it. Not the easiest (hence why I am going through for a second time) but very worthwhile.

If I have written anything that resonates, I would love to chat. If anyone disagrees, or feels I have not captured the essence of reflective practice well enough, please reach out too.


Abraham, A. (2015). Understanding Coaching as a Judgement and Decision Making Process: Implications for Coach Development Practice University of Central Lancashire].

Abraham, A., & Collins, D. (2011). Effective skill development: how should athletes' skills be developed? In D. Collins, A. Button, & H. Richards (Eds.), Performance Psychology (pp. 207-229). Churchill Livingstone.

Ashford, M., Cope, E., Abraham, A., & Poolton, J. (2022). Coaching player decision making in rugby union: exploring coaches espoused theories and theories in use as an indicator of effective coaching practice. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-22.

Ashford, M., Taylor, J., Payne, J., Waldouck, D., & Collins, D. (2023). “Getting on the same page” enhancing team performance with shared mental models—case studies of evidence informed practice in elite sport [Original Research]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5.

Askew, G. A., Pinder, R. A., Renshaw, I., & Gorman, A. D. (2023). Supporting Coach Learning in Paralympic Sport: Rich Environments for Innovation. International Sport Coaching Journal, 1-8.

Chow, J. Y., Shuttleworth, R., Davids, K., & Araujo, D. (2019). Ecological dynamics and transfer from practice to performance in sport. In N. J. Hodges & A. M. Williams (Eds.), Skill Acquisition in Sport (Third Edition ed., pp. 388). Routledge.

Coghlan, D., & Brydon-Miller, M. (2014). Reflective Practice. In The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research (Vol. 2, pp. 675-678). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Collins, D., Abraham, A., & Collins, R. (2012). On Vampires and Wolves -Exposing and Exploring Reasons for the Differential Impact of Coach Education. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 43, 255-271.

Collins, D., & Collins, L. (2021). Developing coaches’ professional judgement and decision making: Using the ‘Big 5’. Journal of Sports Sciences, 39(1), 115-119.

Eather, N., Jones, B., Miller, A., & Morgan, P. (2019). Evaluating the impact of a coach development intervention for improving coaching practices in junior football (soccer): The “MASTER” pilot study. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38, 1-13.

Greenwood, D., Davids, K., & Renshaw, I. (2012). How Elite Coaches' Experiential Knowledge Might Enhance Empirical Research on Sport Performance. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 7(2), 411-422.

Morris, C. E., Davids, K., & Woods, C. T. (2022). On the wisdom of not-knowing: reflections of an Olympic Canoe Slalom coach. Sport, Education and Society, 1-12.

Nash, C., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2023). Expertise in Coach Development: The Need for Clarity. Behavioral Sciences, 13(11), 924.

Nash, C., & Collins, D. (2024). Drivers for change: reflective practice to enhance creativity in sports coaches. Reflective Practice, 1-13.

Nash, C., MacPherson, A. C., & Collins, D. (2022). Reflections on Reflection: Clarifying and Promoting Use in Experienced Coaches [Original Research]. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.

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.

O'Sullivan, M., Vaughan, J., Rumbold, J. L., & Davids, K. (2023). Utilising the learning in development research framework in a professional youth football club [Original Research]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5.

Otte, F., Davids, K., Rothwell, M., Wood, M. A., & De-Mountfort, J. (2024). Coach to learn and learn to coach: synergising performance and development in the athlete-coach-environment learning system. Sports Coaching Review, 1-25.

Schön, D. A. (1992). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1st ed.). Routledge.

Selimi, E., & Woods, C. T. (2024). Enskilment into the coaching landscape: towards a situated approach to coach education in Australian football. Sport, Education and Society, 1-14.

Stodter, A., & Cushion, C. J. (2017). What works in coach learning, how, and for whom? A grounded process of soccer coaches’ professional learning. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(3), 321-338.

Taylor, J., & Collins, D. (2022). Navigating the winds of change on the smooth sea - The interaction of feedback and emotional disruption on the talent pathway. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34(4), 886-912.

Taylor, R. D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, R. (2023). Contemporary pedagogy? The use of theory in practice: An evidence-informed perspective [Perspective]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 5.

Yan, V. X., Sana, F., & Carvalho, P. F. (2023). No Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: Cognitive Science Principles Can Guide but Not Prescribe Educational Decisions. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 0(0), 23727322231218906.



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