Sport coaches are expected to impart knowledge, communicate effectively, constantly express passion, motivate, and develop the physical and psychological skills that will allow their athletes to perform optimally. This is quite the job description, and made more arduous due to the various nuances of sport such as: the competitive nature of the activity, heightened distractions, and the ramifications of success and failure. These factors are accentuated as we move from recreational and youth sport, through to highly competitive and elite environments.
It appears that coaches are adopting with increasing prevalence a more athlete-centered philosophy based on a more humanistic approach where a coach, rather than teaching, looks to facilitate learning with a focus on the athlete, as opposed to sessions being purely coach focused and driven. However, the various, and significant, pressures placed on a coach from their schools, colleges, clubs, professional franchises, families, and the media (amongst many others) often result in a coach (consciously or subconsciously) exerting substantial control over their athletes by being overly authoritative, implementing high amounts of new information, and/or engaging in superfluous communication (e.g., extreme use of "hustles"). While successful results can still be achieved, athletes often report negative effects of "over-coaching," or existing high levels of motivation being undermined by excessive attempts to "psych-up" their team, resulting in athletes not succeeding because of their coach’s efforts, but in spite of them.
It is a fine line that separates one coach from successfully guiding and facilitating learning, to another who distracts and thwarts their athletes’ ability to focus, learn, and perform. Of course there is no blueprint or guideline that outlines how many concepts to teach, how many times to communicate throughout a specific type of competition, or how to motivate each individual athlete. However, just like athletes, it is important for coaches to be reflective in their approach and performance, ensuring that their behaviour complements the athletes they work with and contributes positively to their progression through the various stages of an athletic lifespan.
Steve Hansen, coach of the successful New Zealand Rugby Team, the All Blacks, was recently quoted following a match, saying “everyone looked for the All Blacks to be perfect from the get-go and the players probably had the same expectation of themselves as well. But sometimes that's not the reality and we struggled at times with our skill execution. Usually that's an indicator that we've got cluttered minds. Then, if we have cluttered minds, it's probably because we've made them cluttered through the week giving them too much to do." This is a great example of a coach being reflective in his approach and performance leading up to competition.
It is important for a coach, much like a teacher, to plan their training sessions in regards to key outcomes, objectives, and how the information will be transferred from coach to athlete. This will help the sessions have clarity, and may avoid covering too many concepts in a particular session. It is typically more beneficial for athletes to learn several skills well, rather than picking up fragmented parts of a larger number of concepts. In addition, research has shown that athletes do not process new information on game/competition day as efficiently as they do in the days leading up to an event. This means that it is important to ensure that introducing new information on the day of competition is kept minimal, to avoid undermining athletes’ focus, again highlighting the importance of planning.
Developing our athletes’ higher order thinking and reflection skills is a strategy which is beneficial in enhancing their ability to perform without the reliance on constant direction from the coach. Athletes who successfully develop the skill of accurately, and constantly, analyzing performance and their competition, and adapting as necessary, will be exponentially more likely to achieve success. This will also positively affect athletes’ ability to perform, physically and psychologically, when their coach is unable to communicate (obviously this is more important in some sports than others; e.g., tennis vs. basketball). Furthermore, is producing athletes who can think, respond, and perform in a variety of situations, not what coaching is essentially about?
A common strategy used to produce analytical athletes is to teach, or rather, facilitate learning through the use of questioning. Instead of constantly providing direct feedback pertaining to what an athlete did correctly, or incorrectly, try asking them what happened: “what did you do that time?”, “why did you go that way?”, “why didn’t you attack?”, “what did you see?”, “what would you do next time?”, “what strategy do you think will be successful against this team?” Deliberately providing athletes with an opportunity to reflect not only develops analytical skills, but also explicitly encourages engaging in reflection. Success in sport relies on athletes making split second decisions based on various information processed by the senses, and the quicker the athlete can do this, and the less reliant they become on external direction, the more likely they are to perform as desired.