Reflective practice for coaches

Plan, do, and review. That’s the basic outline of the coaching process. Most coaches love the doing part, some are good at planning, but what about the review? In my experience this is the poor, neglected child of coaching; an afterthought that might be brought up once a year in a formal evaluation setting. It is a bit like a cool down in the training environment, everyone knows it is important, but most are too busy or too tired to do it properly.

I have used the term reflective practice in the title because it implies introspection and thought about improving oneself, rather than just improving our sessions. Although the two are hardly separate in reality, I shall emphasize this for the remainder of the article and look at the ‘how’ to coach, rather than the ‘what’ to coach.

Research has shown that experiential learning is the primary determinant of developing coach expertise. We learn best from our experiences and evaluating them helps us learn from them better. In the military the term debrief is used to evaluate missions, a formal environment which can be brutally honest, in order for others to learn and for overall effectiveness and safety to improve. The airline industry also sets high standards for debriefs after accidents and shares the information worldwide to improve safety. No matter the name or format, the most important thing is that an evaluation does take place. Without any evaluation of what we have done we are in danger of doing the same thing session after session, year after year.

When should we review?

“I don’t have time to review,” cries the coach, “I’ve got to put the cones away, drive to the next venue, call an athlete’s mum, and organize the minibus for the next tournament.”

The end of training is one time to review, but there are also many other opportunities for reflection. I see three key times when we can reflect on our practice:

  1. In the session: We see an exercise is too hard or too easy for our athlete, so we adjust accordingly. The athlete is injured so we have to come up with an alternative to our plan.
  2. Post session: We think about what has just happened, and make a decision to change something for the next session. Our athletes were unable to receive the bar deep enough when snatching, so we add snatch balance as a warm-up.
  3. Post season: The more formal in-depth review. Did we meet our targets, how many players came and went, how did we manage the sessions?

In-session review

In session reflection happens immediately. The more experienced the coach, the more tools they have in their toolbox, the better able they are to adjust. The beginner coach often has their plan and sticks rigidly to it. They simply do not have the ability or confidence to change midway through the session, even if they see something isn’t working.

In team sports, the coaches have to adjust tactics at half-time; Bill Belichick is the master of this with the New England Patriots. When I assess strength and conditioning coaches on their practice, I often see an unhealthy desire to stick to the plan. The coach can see something going wrong, but is afraid to change. For some reason the Excel spreadsheet is of more importance than events happening on the ground.

Solutions to the problem can come from different sources if you are open to them. I saw a potential hazard a few weeks ago when coaching gymnastics where two groups were likely to finish in the same area. I was scratching my head about how to run them concurrently when Archie, a 12 –year old human rubber ball, suggested I change the direction of travel for one of the drills. I thanked him and went with it.

Post-session review

I used to drive home after a day of coaching, thinking about sessions and what could have gone better, what went well and who was a pain in the butt that day. I would write notes down when I got home and use them when planning the sessions for the next day.

That was before I had children. I soon realized that if I wanted to stay married, I had to relieve my wife of the nappy changing, tantrum calming, puke clearing up duties. Two hours later I would collapse in a heap, all thoughts of coaching expunged from my mind. I did tinker with electronic methods of recording and reflecting for these busy times such as electronic notes software or voice notes. This was handy for adjusting the session plan for the next day.

Things are more settled now, so I have gone back to using an A5 coaching journal to write notes down, that is a purely personal preference. You can write freestyle or use a simple checklist to evaluate your session. Printing out checklists is tedious and environmentally unsound. One possible solution is to print one copy and keep it at the front of your journal as a reminder of which questions to ask yourself.

This could include:

  • Did my session achieve its goals?
  • Did I communicate the session goals with the athletes?
  • Did I allow time for athlete interaction?
  • Did I give athletes choice?
  • Did I greet each athlete positively?
  • What do I need to adjust for the next session?

This would only take 2 minutes to write down. Your list of questions might be different, depending on what you are trying to achieve within your session.

Post-season review

This should take a bit longer and use information gathered from the previous season. I find doing it immediately after the season too soon. I prefer taking at least a week off to allow a sense of perspective. If you leave it until the week before pre-season however, it may be too late to make changes. Also at this point, introspection about your coaching philosophy is essential.

Asking the right questions is crucial, they may include:

  • Do I enjoy coaching?
  • Am I in the right place?
  • Have I balanced work, health, and family well?
  • Have I developed my technical skills?
  • Have I had satisfying personal relationships?
  • Have I resolved conflict well?
  • How can I improve on the areas above?
  • Who can help me?

I never do this in the usual working environment. There are likely to be distractions or a tendency to conform because the physical surrounds remind us of the norm. I do it somewhere different to allow time and space to think. Take your notes from your end of session reviews, plus any other sources of feedback that you have.

The coach shouldn’t be the only source of feedback, but that is a topic for another time. Hopefully this will give you enough ideas to start implementing more review into your coaching approach.