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.
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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.