To me, the term athlete centred coaching refers to coaches who successfully take into account both the situational and individual needs of a player in consistently making decisions that are in the best interest of the players’s personal and sporting development. This can result in a variety of approaches depending on the situation. In this article I’ve summarized reflections I’ve found useful when considering 3 different athlete centred approaches.
Working with younger/less experienced players…
Certain situations call for more directive approaches…
One such context is working with children who lack suitable knowledge to take on a more self-directed learning approach. Although it makes sense to start even these learners along the path to being more involved in the learning process from the beginning when we get the opportunity.
Working with bigger groups…
There are other occasions as well. Think about group size as a factor. As the group or team we’re working with becomes bigger it is usually appropriate to be more instructional because there’s not the opportunity for independent interaction and decision making.
Consider for a moment the time constraints regarding a large group of kids trying to decide between themselves a session activity as might be the case in a non-directive environment.
While this could be used occasionally to develop autonomy and communication skills among the kids, the time it takes for them to figure out the activity might prevent other valuable learning opportunities that could be completed more efficiently in a more directive approach.
Considerations for directive communication…
But when we take this more directive approach, there are certain things to consider in helping our players learn as effectively as possible.
When being directive, we might frequently check our athletes’ level of comprehension. We might do this by asking for understanding or we might look for situations in which our players can explain the learning to another player.
We might even do some role plays where the player plays the part of the coach and tries to instruct someone by implementing the knowledge. These methods all increase the chance that kids will listen more often in the first place!
Langer’s mindful learning…
A significant research base by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has also shown that when we’re being instructional it can be helpful to do so conditionally.
What does this mean?
When we’re introducing skills and facts it may be better not to be absolute in the way we discuss the knowledge.
It’s better, Langer has found, to introduce the information with a seed of doubt or other possibilities. She has found benefits to outcomes in learning in skill development such as piano playing, and knowledge such as school performance.
So, instead of saying “this is how to do it” for instance, you might say “this is one way to do it.” Or instead of saying “this is correct,” you might say “this might be correct.”
When we introduce information in this manner, Langer argues that rather than closing the player’s mind off, it increases their attention, their awareness to other possibilities, and engages the learner in a way that brings the learning process alive, rather than just repeating information or taking it for granted.
So next time you are sure of something you are telling your players take a moment to consider the potential benefits of presenting it conditionally.
There are also times when using less directive methods might become more appropriate. As our players become more knowledgeable and skilled they’re better placed to spend more time self-regulating their learning experiences.
Communicating with resistant children…
And what about athletes who are more resistant to our opinions?
Research in other fields has shown that a less directive approach can help with motivation. Although it may seem ineffective at the start, it is often more helpful in the long term to get resistant athletes to come to their own conclusion through assisting their reflection rather than trying to convince them of our own perspectives.
For example, we might use questioning to encourage player self-awareness (What do you think went on there?), or to develop discrepancy between their valued desires and current actions (What is it that you want and how do your current actions match those desires?)
One thing to remember is that if we can use questioning effectively rather than simply telling our athletes what we think they’ll gain knowledge more powerfully as a result.
We might use this approach to help players develop problem solving abilities (What other options did you have there?), or decision making skills (What will you do if….?). Ultimately this method can improve players’ cognitive efficiency as long as they have the appropriate knowledge to begin with.
Considerations when being non-directive…
When using questioning there are a few other things that are important to remember.
Try to formulate questions that match children’s level of learning so you challenge your athletes without overwhelming them.
And when using questioning to encourage problem solving, know the answer you want your players to work towards so you can guide them along with hints if necessary.
It’s also important to encourage players’ feeling of safety to participate when answering questions so try to provide positive reinforcement regardless of the answer (That’s a great point, I hadn’t thought of that, but what about this also…) You might also use probing to help players extend or refine their answers (Could you explain that a little more, or could you give the group an example of what you mean.)
And finally, it’s usually helpful to sum up what players have learned at the end or ask if a player could give a summary of their understanding of important learning points from the session.
The power of mirror neurons…
And don’t forget that there is one more powerful option that is often underused by coaches: Showing our athlete’s how to do it.
When we model for our players the action that we want them to learn we’re tapping into the mirror neuron system in their brains.
The mirror neuron system activates whenever we observe another person move in a way that ‘resonates’ with a motor pattern that our brain has learned previously.
So, when we see someone doing something, in our brain we do it to.
Mirror neurons’ automatic mimicry of movement explains the power of modeling physical actions. When, as a coach, we model the desired application of a specific motor skill, we’re automatically altering children’s motor program for that skill as if they completed the skill.
Your Coaching Style
In reflecting on your coaching think about the environments you coach in, the players you coach, and the developmental needs of these players.
Consider how your current coaching behaviours compare with what would be most appropriate for these players.
We are often not great judges of our own behaviour, so be brave and ask others for feedback, even your players. Because they’re in a good position to judge your behaviour, and after all, they’re the ones we’re trying to help.