Coaching across the spectrum of styles

??There are many different styles of coaching. A coach might be direct, quiet, or use guided discovery. Coaches might be stronger with some styles than others and they may revert to that style by default. Athletes might learn better with a one style or another. And some tasks also demand a certain style: explaining where the fire exits are using a free exploration style before you start coaching a new group will simply waste time. A direct style is best suited for this. Where the style of the coach, athlete, and task line up match, good things can happen. Where they don’t, conflict or disappointment may result.

There is a lot of debate about learning styles? out there, and the purpose of this article is not to get into that. This is a broader conversation about style. Coaches who understand the different styles and can use more than one or two will be better equipped to coach their athletes. And, as I show below, rarely will one style suffice. Good training sessions touch on styles across the whole spectrum.

Understanding style

The graphic above shows the 10 different coaching styles and how they range from coach controlling to athlete controlling. It is important to realize that there is no ‘best style’ or ‘worst style’. Each is situation-, task-, and person-specific. Even the most experienced athletes will benefit from coach-controlled styles when learning a new task and novices can benefit from being allowed to make their own decisions and explore even in their first session.

To put it another way, sometimes the athletes just need to shut up and listen and sometimes the coach needs to shut up and observe. The coach is responsible for organized the session and that can include some, ‘Me to shut up time’. That doesn’t mean they aren’t ‘coaching’ . . . it’s just a different style. Similarly, thinking that athletes should solve all the problems themselves through guided discovery and exploration is naive. This can leave the inexperienced, or those lacking in confidence, floundering or confused.

The styles can be used in conjunction with each other to get a desired outcome. I shall give an example from gymnastics.

Case study: coaching styles in a gymnastics session

In one training session for gymnastics I might use a variety of coaching styles depending on what we’re trying to accomplish.

Direct – Safety is paramount in this high-risk sport. My direct approach at the beginning is to explain the directions of travel and areas of work and to listen to the command, ‘Stop!’ I then either use free-exploration (more experienced gymnasts who can work on their own skills) or problem-solving for novices.

Free-exploration – The other end of the spectrum has the advantage of giving autonomy to the gymnasts to practice their favorite skills. But we use this sparingly depending on the athlete’s level. We often use free exploration in the warm ups, but it is unsuitable for novices in a warm-up as they have a limited repertoire of skills and will just do the same thing over and over. This can make free-exploration more of an intimidating experience than a learning experience.

Problem-solving – As we get into specific skills, I might turn to problem solving and say something like ‘First, move down the hall using hands and feet, second, land your feet in a different position from your hands.’

Without a demonstration or further explanation, they start to perform the task. There are multiple solutions to the first part, slightly less for the second part, but the gymnasts are doing the exploration.

Inquiry – Once that task is underway, I can then use the inquiry style to check understanding and develop a greater feel for moving and weight bearing on hands. ‘How did you solve this?’ ‘Which was easier, left or right?’ ‘Did you land on one or two feet?’

Cooperative – This may lead into a cooperative learning task where the gymnasts work in pairs (their choice). This could be to answer some of the questions previously asked, or to develop a routine which involves moving on hands and has to go left and right. This stops the automatic reaction of almost every girl who asks: ‘Can I do a cartwheel?’

That question indicates they have one skill in their brain and try and use that to answer every question. The cooperative learning task is one where I stand back and observe and help if needed: only intervening if they are off-task. Such as jumping or rolling instead of moving on hands.

Direct – So far we have taken about 20 minutes of the lesson and I have done little ‘direction.’ The gymnasts have been heavily involved in their own learning and decision making. I find that now is the best time to introduce a ‘Skill of the day’ because they might be ready to listen more attentively as they slow down a bit. I can either go back up the scale to guided discovery or down the scale to direction depending on the level of competence and the skill involved. For something like a headstand, I would use direction: ‘Follow these steps, you need to form a triangle shape with your two hands as the base and your head as the apex.’ I would then demonstrate and observe as they followed the progressions.

I use direction for this task because there really are only two ways to do a headstand base, (more variety can be introduced with the legs later) and children try to throw themselves up into the headstand and hope for the best. This is both dangerous and unproductive.

Guided discovery – For other hand balances I can use guided discovery. They are lower risk than the headstand and there are many more successful solutions. The outcome that I want is for gymnasts to realize that balancing in a tuck position with short levers is easier than in an extended position where the levers are further away from the body. I can give different hand positions, one leg bent, one leg straight, sat on a bench, on the floor, to the front or to the side. All this time the gymnasts are working on strength and balance without getting bored.

The following week, (only to protect their hands and wrists which will be tired by now) we could do either a task style circuit where the gymnasts practice some of the skills that they learned previously or a mastery style where we break down the components of a skill and they can assess whether they can attempt the whole skill or not.

Task – The task style might use a station approach with athletes rotating among 4 stations with different tasks along the same theme:

  • Station 1: Frog balance, 3-10 second holds for a total of 30 seconds, partner to time.
  • Station 2: Headstand practice, tuck only, as above.
  • Station 3: Donkey kicks 5 in tuck, 6 moving left to right.
  • Station 4: Lever off the bench: tuck, pike and straddle, 3 of each for 3 seconds, trying raise legs above bench height.

These are low level skills that provide some strength training and variety and can be done in pairs to promote cooperation.

Mastery learning – With mastery I am looking to assess competence (or peers do) before moving onto more advanced skills. For example a circuit for handspring vault might be:

  • Strength: Frog balance for 20 seconds.
  • Handstand shape: hold for 3 seconds before falling to back lie, keep arms extended.
  • Vault competency: flank vault with legs straight and feet together (a lower level skill where the feet come to the side rather than over the head).
  • Handstand pops: being able to do two of these in a row with both feet off the floor.

These are more finite, measurable outcomes that give the gymnasts and myself a set of agreed criteria that help prepare for the whole skill. They can be peer reviewed or I can do it. The advantage of having these types of activity in the class is that I don’t have to be everywhere at once. It just requires some advance preparation. I can then be available to support and help the more dangerous skills.

Individualized – Finally we have the individualized style that develops a relationship between the coach, athlete, and perhaps other partners. A jointly agreed learning outcome is decided and then a series of learning tasks, tests and objectives are used to develop the athlete along their journey. This may include cognitive tasks inside/outside the coaching environment such as film review, opponents study or even the history of the event. Specialist coaches may be bought in and they may use any of the styles mentioned previously. This is labour intensive at the start because it requires a lot of thought and planning.

Putting it all together

I hope to have illustrated some examples clearly enough so that you can transfer them to your own environment. I don’t use every style, every week. Nor do I use every style with every athlete that I coach. Even writing this article I have reflected on some gaps that I can fill with certain groups. There is never just ‘one-way’ of coaching and I steer clear of gurus saying that the latest research says you have to do X. By expanding your coaching repertoire you are better able to aid all of your athletes and potentially more as you adapt and improve what you do.