Effective Instructional Coaching Strategies - 8 Concepts That Will Enhance Your Coach-Athlete Experiences
On Monday I attended a full-day workshop in Albany in which 25 colleagues and I completed a curriculum document that we have been working on for the past 3 years. The purpose of the project is to help school district administrators and teacher align their pre-school-3rd curriculum initiatives to further support student cognitive and social-emotional development. I won’t bore you with all the details, but there was something we discussed that translates well into the sports coaching arena—instructional strategies.
The research-based topics for instructional instruction we discussed as a team yesterday are below. You can easily swap out the word ‘Children’ and ‘Student’ with ‘Athlete’ and apply the strategies below in your sports coaching context. Regardless of the group of athletes you coach and mentor, the 8 strategies below can be applied into your athletic classroom (play-based instruction may be difficult, but I’ll make a connection). They are not in a specific order. But if you think they should be put in numbered order, please leave a comment about that because we discussed that for over an hour yesterday! I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
To scaffold learning in a sports sense means to provide your athletes will small incremental steps or tasks when teaching a new skill. For example, in the throwing world, you wouldn’t expect an athlete to know how to throw the hammer without being taught a few introductory skills earlier in the training session. You might teach the thrower how to hold the hammer, how to wind the hammer, how to turn, how to release, etc.
As coaches, do you reflect on how you scaffold your instruction from day-to-day. Do you practices build upon each other in ways that are easily understood by your athletes? We cannot assume that our athletes know how to do something before we ask them to do it, right? Teaching them new skills each day build upon each other, thus scaffolding towards more difficult skills to master in the future. We wouldn’t ask a youth softball player to go up to the batting tee and just swing the bat without showing them hold to hold it, where to put their feet, and where to look and expect to make contact the first time would we?
Do you have a method or process that helps you teach athletes new skills before you ask them to perform more difficult skills?
How do you monitor athlete progress? Depending on the sport, we may rely on video analyses, weight room numbers, distances, or times. In track for example, a coach can keep track of mileage, distances thrown, or distances jumped in a given week. We can then review that data to monitor how an athlete is competing. If their times are progressively getting faster, we know that whatever we are programming for the athlete is helping them get faster. If their times are faster one week then slower the following then faster again, would you as a coach be able to determine why that may be happening?
How are you monitoring the progress of your athletes? One of the most successful collegiate coaches in American history is Anson Dorrance, the women’s soccer coach at North Carolina Chapel Hill. He and his assistant coaches would give each of his athletes a grade at the end of each practice session based on metrics he and his assistants would monitor and keep track of during skill competitions. Athlete practice grades would be posted for everyone to see. He (Anson) is very meticulous with monitoring student-athlete progress. Do you have a method for how your monitor your athlete’s progress?
Provide New Material in a Way that Support’s Athlete Learning
This can be tied in with the first bullet. When you are teaching new skills, are you providing your athletes new material in a way that supports and fosters their learning? Are you teaching your athletes new skills in a way that they can easily understand what you as the coach are asking them to do? If you are teaching a skill for the first time, are you showing them what you want them to do? Are they able to watch a video, do you demonstrate the skill, do you verbally tell them what you want to do, etc.
This really gets to how well do you know your athletes. If you notice they are struggling with developing a new skill, are you aware of why they aren’t making progress? If your athletes learn by watching a video are you only verballing telling them what you want them to do? If you know how your athletes learn best, as a coach you should be able to provide them with new materials or teach them new skills in a way that they are going to receive that information best and in a way that will enable them to be successful.
Provide Regular, Appropriate Feedback
I believe communication is the most important facet in developing and fostering positive coach-athlete relationships. Both coach and athlete need to feel comfortable communicating with each other both when things are going well and when things may not be going well. Essentially, how often are you providing your athletes with appropriate and regular feedback? If you pull them out of a game, do you walk over to them and discuss why you as the coach made the decision to take them out of the game? Or, do you let your athlete sit there on the bench or stand on the sideline without an explanation?
Model and Role Model
Do as I say not as I do is one type of coaching strategy someone can implement, although I’m not sure how successful it really is in the long run. If as a coach you are trying to create and develop a positive culture built upon a core set of values, are you able to successfully model and exhibit those core values in your own life? Looking back to our bullet about scaffolding and providing material in a way that is developmentally appropriate, are you able to model for your athletes what you want them to do? Now, as we get older as coaches it may not be realistic for us to model proper tackling technique on the football field or model proper snatch or clean and jerk form in the weight room, but is there someone on your staff that can positively model what you are asking your athletes to do? What does that look like to you?
Use Questions to Check for Understanding and Reflection
If you ask my college athletes (current or former) they will tell you that I probably ask them too many questions during practice. That is my way to check and see if they understand a concept we have been working on or one that I just taught them. Fortunately for me, they are very honest and tell me what they think about a given drill, throw, set of throws, or training session. This where I believe training journals are critical to athlete success. I ask all my throwers to keep track of their throwing volume and weightlifting sessions every day. This allows them and me to reflect on what has or has not been working in training. We can adjust training sessions based on how the athletes feel on a given day, but this concept really works when the athletes have evidence (their journal) to suggest why we should take things in a different direction.
Provide Athlete Choice and Ownership of Learning
This concept takes effective communication skills in order to master. It takes a sense of comfort from the coach in order to ask his/her athlete’s how things are going and if changes should be made. Athlete autonomy, in my opinion, is why I believe I have experienced success as a track & field coach. I allow my athletes to tell me where they want to go and why it's important to them. We then sit down and design a path that will assist them in getting there (wherever there is). Essentially, I illuminate a path to help them reach their destination. It took me a long time to hand over the keys to this process, but I see the value it brings in giving my athletes choice in constructing their journey. When I first started coaching I thought everyone wanted to throw far and be a national champion. Each athlete has their own path, and it is our job as coaches to illuminate a path that gives them the best opportunity to be successful!
Integrate Opportunities for Play-Based Instruction
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “How am I going to incorporate this idea in insert sport here?” Well, regardless of the sport you coach, are you able to incorporate games to teach concepts?
For example, a discus drill that I’ve incorporated to teach the concept of hand placement and wrist control is to play discus bowling. If an athlete is able to roll the discus straight towards the ‘pins’ without taking a sharp turn right or left means the athlete is able to able to demonstrate the concept of holding the discus in the correct manner as well as being able to demonstrate proper wrist control because the discus more or less went straight much like a bowling ball would travel.
This is one example relegated to foundational discus development, but there are other ways to incorporate play-based instruction in other sports. Leap frog was a game we would play during the football season. Our basketball coach would set up cones and ask us to dribble between and around cones so that we could demonstrate our dribbling skills. I remember playing this game during modified and freshman basketball tryouts. On the surface this concept may sound silly and childish, but are you able to incorporate some fun activities that demonstrate to you as a coach that your athletes have mastered a certain drill or skill? If not to master, are you able to incorporate an activity that is fun and play-based that provides your athlete immediate feedback on whether they were able to successfully complete the game/skill or not?
Use your imagination, I’m sure there are plenty of ways play-based instruction can be implemented with your sport regardless of the age group and development abilities of your athletes.
The other day I posted a question on Instagram about podcast episode ideas friends in the coaching community had. I received two great questions from a graduate assistant throwing coach in the Mid-West. Her first question was about making the transition to post-collegiate throwing. Her second question was about strategies targeted towards throwers ensuring they stay on-track and accountable to their commitments (time management ideas).
I recorded the first podcast about making the transition to post-collegiate throwing. You can listen to that episode by clicking HERE.
I’ve written about the topic a couple of times, but I haven’t revisited the topic in a couple of years. Since then, some of my ideas about what is most important in making the transition to post-collegiate throwing have changed. I still advocate what I wrote a couple of years ago. You can read that blog post by clicking HERE.
In that post from a couple of years ago, I discussed four traits that I thought then and still think today are important when making the transition to post-collegiate throwing. Two years ago I wrote about:
You can learn more about Grit by clicking HERE and HERE. I wrote about Grit in the past when I met Dan Chambliss and Angela Duckworth when she spoke at Hamilton College a couple of years ago. If you are interested in taking Angela’s grit assessment, you can click HERE.
I go into more detail in my podcast episode about finding a support system. You can listen to our latest episode by clicking HERE. I also share those details below. Deliberate practice is an interesting concept. Many researchers have spent their entire careers studying the concept and how it has been applied to education, business, the medical field, music, and the arts. You can click HERE to learn more about deliberate practice and some of the leading researchers in the field.
Finally, I spoke about how athletes need to be able to self-assess their progress, reflect, make the necessary adjustments, and continue moving forward towards their goals. I think it is difficult for athletes to self-assess and reflect upon where they started, where they currently are, and how what they have done has either moved them closer to achieving their goals or not. In all honesty, this is taking a look at the reflection in the mirror and coming to terms with whether you as the athlete/individual has done everything they can to move themselves forward towards achieving their goal(s). When it comes down to it, there is only one person that can be held accountable for that success or not, and that is the person staring back at you!
Building upon these four concepts, I’ve added a couple of new beliefs about what is important to make the successful transition to post-collegiate throwing.
First, why are you making the transition to post-collegiate throwing…
Your vision and where you want to ultimately end up will dictate how committed or interested you really are in continuing with your throwing journey. If you want to continue throwing as a hobby, then you probably don’t need to dedicate a lot of time to it, suggesting that you are just interested in throwing. However, if you are making the transition to continue throwing after college because you want to qualify for a World Championship or Olympic team, then you are committed.
Understanding why you have chosen this journey will make the difference in where you go. If you were a collegiate athlete that was an All-American or National Champion, maybe you want to continue throwing because you feel as though you haven’t reached your full potential yet. Maybe you feel you have more to prove. You feel as though you haven’t reached your peak, and that continuing on with your throwing journey will help you realize a goal you have for yourself.
Figuring out your why and purpose will make your decision to continue as a post-collegiate thrower.
Second, what sacrifices are you willing to make in order to realize your dreams.
This is an idea I encourage you to really think about. If you were the athlete that was on the cusp of becoming an All-American or National Champion at the collegiate level, but didn’t just quite make it, think about everything you went through to get to that point in your athletic career. If you don’t have a strong purpose as to why you want to continue on with the post-collegiate journey, you may find yourself surrounded by more obstacles than you initially anticipated.
Think about it like this for a moment. In college, you had all the luxuries you may have ever wanted. You probably had access to a gym/training center. You had access to a sports medicine team. You probably also probably had access to all of the implements you would ever need to throw. You also had medical insurance provided by the college/university. You also probably had a coach. Now that you are a post-collegiate, you lose access to some of these amenities. If you transition to a career, you’ll need to think about how you will find balance between your career and throwing.
This is where you’ll really need to think about how much you really want to achieve your post-collegiate goal(s). I was teaching full-time, enrolled in graduate school full-time, coaching, and trying to compete as a post-collegiate thrower. I put a lot of obstacles in front of myself. I somehow managed to throw over 10m farther as a post-collegiate from the time I graduated in 2004 and to when I hit my last personal best in 2008. I was not a collegiate All-American. I was barely the best thrower in my conference, but when I graduated I realized I had wasted so much time as a collegiate athlete that I wanted to see what I could achieve as a post-collegiate. I was determined to give myself an opportunity to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Trials. Even with all the life barriers around me, I thought I could make.
Did I sacrifice a lot, not really. I was teaching full-time. I earned my graduated degree in one year. Reflecting back now, I probably didn’t think I was really ever going to throw 70m, so I had a back-up plan. I wanted to move to a different area to surround myself with other likeminded individuals, but I didn’t. I held back. Partly due to what my family would think. Partly due to the significant other I had at the time. But mostly because I was afraid.
Making the sacrifice doesn’t mean that you need to move someplace, live in your car for a year, and only train. That may be a bit on the extreme side. Yet, you do hear of Olympic medal winners that moved to a certain location to train with a coach and did indeed live in their cars for an extended period of time. But in all honesty, you do need to think about what you are willing to give up in order to achieve your goal(s).
Are you willing to move someplace to train with a coach or a particular training group? Are you willing to hold off on a career until you feel as though you’ve given yourself the best opportunity to be successful with your post-collegiate throwing? Are you willing to give up time spent with your family, friends, and significant other to travel to meets, complete training sessions, or go find a circle and throw? These are some of the initial questions I would ask myself if I was thinking about making the transition to post-collegiate throwing. Making these sacrifices doesn’t necessarily ensure you will accomplish your goal(s). Making these sacrifices may put you in a better position to reach them, but I think you also need a support system to do so.
Third, do you have a support system around you that is nurturing, supportive, and understands why you are continuing with your post-collegiate throwing career? This may be the most important factor of all-certainly one of the most important factors when it comes to the mental aspects of throwing. Are you surrounded by individuals that are as interested in your success as you are? Do you have family and friends around you that support your goals and why you want to achieve them? Do you have friends that understand your travel schedule, training schedule, and throwing schedule? Do you have a significant other that supports you in this endeavor?
Answering yes to these questions will make the transition easier. Speaking from experience, answering yes to most of these questions won’t always ensure your success, but it will give you the peace of mind to know that others in your circle understand why you are doing this and most importantly that they want you to achieve your goals as much as you want to achieve them for yourself.
For anyone making the transition to post-collegiate throwing this year, I hope what I’ve discussed here brings you value and shines some light on what might otherwise be a murky endeavor. When you sit down and think about your purpose in post-collegiate throwing, ask yourself if you are committed or interested. Answering that question first will help all the puzzle pieces fall into place a little easier!
About 16 years ago to the day I began my first student teaching placement in Pine Valley Elementary School. I was placed in Mr. Saxton’s 4th grade classroom. As was customary back then, all students that were student teaching would have the opportunity to visit the classroom they were going to be placed in that fall during the first week of school. I was very fortunate to be placed in Mr. Saxton’s classroom. At that point, he had been an elementary teacher for 15 years. I was nervous, excited, anxious, and concerned all at the same time for very different reasons.
A lot of my close friends were also student teaching that fall 2003 semester. For some reason though, many of those friends that were also varsity athletes decided that they wouldn’t be able to compete in their respective sports and student teach at the same time. Essentially, they quit their sports because as they said, “needed to focus on their student teaching and didn’t have enough time for their sport.” I couldn’t believe it. These were some of the best student-athletes on campus at the time, and for real reasons they only knew, decided they couldn’t balance athletics and student-teaching. Reflecting back on that time in my life, if I wasn’t able to student teach I probably would have failed out of SUNY Fredonia. I made it through student-teaching in both the fall and spring semesters and accomplished all of my athletic goals and then some during my senior year. I did so because of three things I incorporated that I didn’t specifically do before.
October, 2004 senior picture taken for the SUNY Fredonia website. This picture was taken on my first day of student teaching.
1. Structure and Routine
For the first three years of my collegiate experience, I did not follow a routine that was going to lead me to having academic success. I didn’t study that much. I went to class on occasion. I did well enough to remain academically eligible and compete on the track & field team. The only structure I had to my day was between the hours of 3pm and 7pm. Track practice would begin at 3pm and typically last until 5pm. We would then hit the weight room for a couple of hours, have a late dinner, and play video games. This went on until the summer between my junior and senior year.
I received a letter from SUNY Fredonia suggesting that if I didn’t get my act together I’d be at risk of becoming academically eligible. That stopped me in my tracks. I made it through three years of courses in the education program and would have been stuck if I wasn’t able to student teach and graduate with my degree in childhood education. I realized that summer that if I didn’t crush student teaching I would have wasted four years of college.
Student teaching and methods courses saved my professional and athletic careers. Our method courses were scheduled between 10am and 2pm. We didn’t have any classes scheduled during the early part of the morning because it was encouraged that we complete group work before classes started later that morning. Missing methods courses was not acceptable. If you missed more than three courses you would have been dismissed from the course, not allowed to student teach, and pretty much dismissed from the program.
This schedule built-in a structure/routine that I hadn’t incorporated before in my academic career. To prepare for student-teaching, I would get up every morning at 6:30am, have breakfast, and arrive on campus by 7:30am. I then immediately got to work with my classmates. At 3pm I’d go to practice, be done in the weight room by 6pm, be done with dinner by 7pm, work on class projects, and be in bed by 9pm. The routine not only helped me academically, but it also made me feel more comfortable with my senior season in track & field.
I kept a similar routine once student teaching began. Since I was really close to campus, I would be at practice by 4pm. I would get my reps in with my coach, be done with the weight room by 6:30pm, have dinner by 7:15pm, then I would grade my students’ work and prepare for the next day. I would be in bed by 10pm.
For a couple of months that fall and spring semester, I pretty much did the same thing in the same order every day. For the first time in my collegiate career I had established a routine that left me feeling as though I was making positive progress with my academic and athletic goals.
2. Process Focused Goal-Setting
The first three years of my athletic career at SUNY Fredonia I was driven by outcome goals. During my freshman year, I was happy to have qualified for both of our conference championships in the 35lb. weight throw. I simply wanted to throw far enough to qualify for those two championship meets. I had a teammate that was a senior that was one of the best shot-putters in our conference. I knew I couldn’t get to his level in the shot-put, so I focused all of my attention on the weight. I managed to sneak into the SUNYAC championships ranked 12th as the top freshmen thrower. I threw in the State meet on my birthday in 2001. I finished 15th out of 16th. Through my sophomore and junior seasons, I had a few meets in which I finished 2nd in the weight throw and placed in the top 3 in the hammer. I still hadn’t quite figured out the discus and shot-put, but I was making small improvements.
My initial thoughts were that I was making progress because I was working hard. I wasn’t working smart however. I was so focused on distances and places that I lost track of the little things I needed to do in order to achieve my goals. Up until this point in my college career, I had wasted a lot of time doing things that ultimately did not help me achieve my throwing goals. In no particular order, those things were; playing video games, not sleeping enough, not paying attention to what I was eating, and partaking in a vibrant social scene with my teammates.
The summer between my junior and senior season was a time of change. The coach that recruited me to Fredonia was replaced by someone that came from Wisconsin. I was excited because the Wisconsin schools are known for having top tier throwers every year. When I learned that our new head coach was a long/triple jumper I immediately felt concerned. I knew this was going to be my final season at achieving my goals, and now I was stuck with a jumping guy as a head coach. I also found out he was going to be my throwing coach.
I had a lot of negative thoughts and feelings built up inside of me before our first conversation that August, 2004. I went into the track office and introduced myself. We made some small talk, and then he started asking me questions about my training habits and my outlook for the upcoming season. I told him that I wanted to win the 35lb. weight throw and hammer throw championships that season at our SUNYAC championship meets. He then asked me about my previous performances and finishes. At this point I was more concerned about the season because I didn’t think he did his homework. He was inheriting a decent roster, I was one of a couple of returning scorers, and finished 2nd twice the previous season at SUNYACS. Yet he didn’t know that. I guess I thought he should have known that.
As we were discussing my training habits, he asked me a lot about why I did certain things and if I thought they aided my performances. The sense of anxiety I had before our conversation was beginning to go away. In that moment, I knew this was going to be a good season. I felt as though he cared about me. Not just about the throwing me, but the person. I told him I was going to be student-teaching in the fall and spring, and that my schedule would be structured. In order for me to accomplish my goals, the old me (staying up late, playing video games, and not taking training seriously) needed to go.
I explained all of this to Coach Barr. I told him I wanted to win two championships and go to nationals. I didn’t care how far I threw, as long as I won!
He told me to start writing down what I thought I needed to do in order to achieve those goals. As he explained to me, and as I have related to my athletes in the past, falling in love with the process is much more important and will have a greater impact on performance as compared to chasing numbers. I didn’t understand that before. I thought that if I worked hard I would accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. In 2003, I learned that there is so much more to it than that!
3. Focus on the Things You Can Control
I was all-in on working with Coach Barr. The lifestyle that I had led before the summer of 2003 was not going to help me accomplish my goals. In fact, after I left my meeting with Coach Barr I was flooded with emotions. I had wasted three years of my collegiate throwing career. I didn’t make much progress between my sophomore and junior year. Even though I placed in the 35lb. weight throw, hammer throw, and made the finals of the shot-put competition at our conference meets, I wasn’t getting better. As I previously mentioned, all I was doing was chasing numbers.
What I didn’t realize is that I was really focusing more on what others around me were doing. Depending on how you look at it, I was fortunate to have competed in the pre-social media era. We had to wait days for results to appear from meets across the country. Today, results are posted live.
On our first official day of practice in late October, 2003, Coach Barr addressed our team before we began our workout. I don’t remember word for word, but he shared his thoughts about focus and that we should only focus on what was within our locust of control. Nobody had ever told me that before. At meets I would always pay attention to what others were doing, how they warmed up, how long they took, what they were wearing, etc. I really couldn’t get out of my own head.
After a few weeks of practice, I met Coach Barr in his office. I asked him to go into more detail about the focus stuff. It was new to me, and I wanted to learn more. He shared some stories of his jumping days, specifically when he competed at the Olympic Trials in the long jump and triple jump. He said that if I wanted to be great, I needed to only pay attention to what I was doing because that was the only thing I had control over. He also asked me to keep a journal of my throwing sessions, lifting sessions, and to write down my thoughts about how a particular practice went.
By our first meet in the beginning of December, I thought I had figured some things out. That is, until I saw who we were competing against. For a couple of months, I thought I was on the right track of focusing on what I could control, but at that meet, I reverted back to my old throwing self. Rather than focus on what I needed to do in this meet, and focus on the plan we had for our first meet of the season, I got nervous and become very anxious. It was a long three-hour ride home that Friday night.
The one thing that Coach Barr told me to work on during the long break was my locust of control. I started writing about it in my throwing journal. For each session, I would write out everything that was in my control. Ultimately, by mid-January it became very clear that a pattern had emerged. I had control over my attitude, effort, and mindset. I couldn’t control a lot. And as we transitioned to our outdoor season, the list of things I couldn’t control became quite large (weather/elements, the time it took to get to the meet, who was competing with me, etc.).
When reflecting back on my senior season, I accomplished one of the three goals I set out for myself. I won the 2004 SUNYAC hammer championship, held at SUNY Cortland. I also finished 6th in the discus, scoring 11 points for my team. I set a personal best in the hammer and discus throw’s that weekend. Unfortunately, I did not win the 35lb. weight throw championship that winter. I finished 4th at the SUNYAC meet, although I did throw a personal best that day. I didn’t qualify for nationals. Far from it actually.
Even though I did not accomplish all of my personal goals, I learned more about life and coaching that season from Coach Barr that I could ever thank him for. All of the long nights of practice together, the road trips, and conversations at meets prepared me for my career in coaching. I didn’t know it at the time, and he probably didn’t either, but in a way, it was as though he was mentoring me to become a future coach. In May, 2004, coaching was the furthest thing from my mind. I was enrolled in graduate school and would be beginning my teaching career that fall.
All of the conversations we had I kept track of in my journal. The little nuggets of information that I do think he realized he was dropping. His outlook on coaching and teaching was different than all the previous coaches I had worked with. He spent a great deal of time discussing focus and mindset with my teammates. Before he arrived, we never had conversations like that. I’ve told Coach Barr in the past that I cannot ever repay him for guiding me through my senior collegiate track & field season. Thank you, Coach Barr! Thank you for believing in me, inspiring me, and teaching me not only how to throw farther, but about life and how to stay focused on myself and not those around me!
Dr. Charles Infurna
Charles Infurna, Ed.D., is the owner and lead coach of Forza Athletics Track Club. Dr. Infurna has coached National Record Holders, National Champions, All-Americans, and Conference Champions at the Post-Collegiate, Collegiate, and High School level.