coaching pedagogy

Situational Coaching

As a young coach I struggled to find my coaching style. I was naturally reserved, bordering on shy, and yet I wanted to be an Athletic Development coach. After following the examples of a few great coaches around me along with a little trial and error, I eventually settled into a style that I was comfortable with. And as a result I was able to effectively reach most of my athletes. Mission accomplished right? Well, not quite. Not too long after I was feeling good about my coaching, I started coaching with Rett Larson. Rett is one of the most charismatic and engaging coaches out there. Ideally, I would have welcomed the opportunity to learn from another coach that was so different than me.  Unfortunately, my competitive nature and ego took over. I couldn’t stand NOT being the favorite coach of EVERY athlete we were both coaching. Being an athlete’s “favorite” coach has a lot to do with individual personalities and shared interests, but an athlete’s favorite coach is also the coach that seems to explain things and motivate them in a way that just makes sense. So, while I was going to be hard pressed to win over the U-12 girls soccer team that had crushes on Rett, I still had to find a way to make meaningful connections with athletes that I had been missing the mark with. You see, even though I finally found my own coaching groove, I had yet to accommodate my style to those I was working with. I was a hammer and every athlete looked like a nail.

If the end goal is to effectively coach ALL athletes you work with, then the first step is to identify what coaching style you are most comfortable with. Coaching athletes that have different preferences and characteristics doesn’t mean you have to change your style, only ADJUST. So recognizing your natural style is important. In the book Successful Coaching, Martens describes three distinct coaching styles; Command, Submissive, and Cooperative.

Command: authoritative, coach makes decisions while athletes listen and respond to commands.

Submissive: passive, minimal decision-making and instruction, only steps in when absolutely necessary.

Cooperative: coach shares decision-making with athletes, establishes structure then guides the process.

Martens also provides overviews for 8 other coaching styles with a self-reflection tool that can help you to recognize specific characteristics that make up your coaching style. Download it here.

So, what is your natural coaching style? If you are anything like me, then it is probably a mixture of the styles that Martens describes.

The more critical part of this equation is being able to identify what type of athlete you are working with, so that you can adjust your coaching style accordingly. One way to deliver optimal coaching is by making adjustments that span and overlap individual sensory learning preferences. For the most part, athletes are predominately Visual, Kinesthetic, or Auditory learners.

Visual – learn by watching: Most people are visual learners. These athletes ask, “Can you show me again”. Take advantage of demos, diagrams, and video playback with visual learners. Keep in mind that your demos better be on point for these athletes; they will do EXACTLY what they see regardless of the verbal description that accompanies the demo.

Kinesthetic – learn by doing: Athletes are typically more kinesthetically inclined than the general population. These athletes will start practicing the movement while you are still describing or demonstrating it. Minimize verbal instruction and utilize more actual movement practice along with manual/tactile/rhythmic cues and positioning. You can also guide their intrinsic feedback mechanisms by asking questions like, “How did that feel?”

Auditory – learn by listening: These athletes repeat what you say and/or ask, “Can you say that again”. Auditory learners can be catered to by using speech patterns, musical elements, rhymes, and voice tones to emphasize important teaching points. Similar to the importance of demos for visual learners, auditory learners demand clear, concise, consistent, and specific descriptions and instruction. Also encourage dialog with these athletes. Allowing them to “talk through” the learning process will help.

We can also learn a lot from the Situational Leadership Model created by Blanchard & Hersey in the 1960’s. Developed as a way of helping business leaders get the most out of those they managed, its premise is to utilize specific leadership strategies based on situational variables. Basically, Blanchard & Hersey looked at corresponding the way one manages with an interaction of the employee’s Commitment and Competence. For example, a person with low Commitment and low Competence needs a different management style than someone that exhibits high Commitment and high Competence. I really like this model because it also integrates a developmental scheme to progress poor performers towards high levels of both variables. Brian Grasso, founder of the International Youth Conditioning Association, has tailored this model specific to sports performance coaching. Grasso looks at it like this:

Low Motivation Low Skill: Use a Direct coaching style; avoid singling this athlete out by “directing” coaching points to them in a subtle and personal manner.

Low Motivation High Skill: Use an Inspire coaching style; spend most of your energy motivating and challenging this athlete. They have natural ability already, but need someone to captivate their interest and inspire effort.

High Motivation Low Skill: Use a Guide coaching style; this athlete has the inherent desire to improve, match their eagerness with coaching that is focused on teaching them the technical aspects of athletic movement.

High Motivation High Skill: Use a Delegate coaching style; make sure these athletes understand the goals and structure of training then include them in the training process, gather their feedback on programming, put them in situations where they can teach other athletes. As a coach, your goal should be to develop all athletes to this category.

Here is short video of John Spence, a leadership consultant, explaining the dynamics behind the situational leadership model. He is presenting from a business management perspective, but there are strong parallels with sports performance coaching.

I truly believe that a great coach is one that can effortlessly adapt their coaching style to best match the athlete they are working with, even in team settings. In case you are wondering, the coaching battle between Rett and I was cut short before I could completely dominate the training floor we shared (I transferred to another facility). But if you ask me, I was well on my way to stealing his “favorite coach” status by some of his most devoted minion.

– Coach Hall

Do as I Say, AND as I Do

Growing up, a common phrase from my parents was “Do as I say, not as I do” (second only to “Because I said so”). This beauty normally got dropped when they weren’t practicing what they preached, and got called on it. The equivalent in the athletic development coaching world is related to coaches’ demos. Too often do we rely on our verbal descriptions of exercises and drills, while letting the actual physical demos get a little sloppy. Especially if we are reviewing an exercise that has been introduced already but the athletes don’t necessarily know it by name. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this. After ten years of coaching the Acceleration A-Skip, my verbal description is quite rehearsed, specific, and concise but I don’t always have a high attention to detail when demonstrating it.

Laziness isn’t always the culprit for poor demos; sometimes coaches have legitimate difficulty with physically performing certain exercises or drills. In which case, an athlete might hear “Don’t do it like me, but…” Sound familiar? Worse yet, you probably know coaches that avoid using some exercises or drills when training athletes, solely because they aren’t good at them themselves. The coach that’s still nursing 19 welts from the last time they tried 20 reps on the jump rope probably isn’t likely to use a jump rope warm up very often. It goes without saying that our athletes are the ones that are shortchanged most by poor coaching demos and exercise exclusions.

So there it is. Coaches need to demonstrate exercises and movements correctly. Nothing groundbreaking or new about this topic. However, next time you catch yourself just going through the motions when demonstrating or reviewing an exercise, consider these points:

  • Most people are visual learners and learn by modeling what they see. Regardless of your verbal description, many athletes will do as you do. This can be a good thing or a bad thing; use it to your advantage.
  • Position yourself and your athletes to best view the demo. Demonstrating from multiple angles will help athletes see and conceptualize critical aspects of the activity. Facing athletes is best for them to hear you, but not great for them to see some movement patterns. Athletes to your side and back are best for them to view most movements, but not great for them to hear you.
  • If using a Part to Whole teaching approach for complex movements, showing the Whole first can help to provide a conceptual model for the parts to relate back to. Athletes that know how a Buttkicker drill fits into a top speed stride cycle will have a higher level of drill transfer to the real deal.
  • Use slow motion along with full speed demonstrations.
  • Limit the amount of demonstrations that show what not to do. “What I don’t want to see is…” Read more about why in my Don’t Throw Your Juice post.
  • Video support is a great alternative for coaches that have difficulty with performing a particular exercise or drill. It isn’t cheap but a laptop with Dartfish software is perfect for this.
  • Utilize your studly and veteran athletes for demos you aren’t comfortable with. It will totally make their day too.

– Coach Hall

Too Much of a Good Thing

I’m a big believer in augmented feedback, as evident in my previous posts on Specific, Individual, and Prioritized feedback. If a coach isn’t communicating information to instruct, educate, correct, and praise the actions of their athletes, then they aren’t really coaching. However, just like Kobe and his Jordanesque jump shot, we as coaches need to learn when to hold back and let those around us (our athletes) learn to help themselves. Kobe has the talent to pour in 81 points in a single game, and is probably tempted to take the game into his own hands more often than he actually does. After 10+ years in the NBA though, he has learned that although his individual offense is critical to the Laker’s win column, overemphasizing his own scoring is ultimately a detriment to the team’s long term success. Likewise, in an effort to affect positive change, we are always eager to impart our observations, knowledge, and experience onto our athletes. I think we can agree that our feedback and instruction is crucial to the improvement of their athletic performance, but is there such a thing as too much?

The simple answer is yes. Excessive feedback and “front-loaded” instruction are large parts of over-coaching. Front-loaded instruction is when a coach takes 3 minutes to explain a 15 second drill. Coaches guilty of front-loading (I have been there before) are probably just trying to thoroughly describe the drill along with its rationale, possible faults and corrections, and sport application. All of which are great to educate athletes about, just not at all once. Not only are small chunks of information easier for athletes to digest, but when presented with continuous instruction, listeners are likely only remember the first and last things said anyway (Primacy and Recency Effect). So be concise, get them moving and coach on the fly.

When looking at excessive feedback, the biggest offender is typically related to the frequency at which a coach delivers feedback. In many cases, athletes would be better served if the coach said LESS. Additionally, what is excessive for one athlete might not be for another. Three main variables to consider when determining the appropriate frequency of feedback are;

  1. Complexity of the task – Generally, low complexity requires less frequent feedback and high complexity requires more frequent feedback.
  2. Age/Skill of the athlete – Generally, young/low skilled athletes require more frequent feedback and as athletes become older and/or more skilled, they require less frequent feedback.
  3. Content preference of the athlete – If an athlete doesn’t want a particular type of feedback and feels like it is detrimental to their performance, then avoid it or find another way to deliver the same information. For example, an athlete tells you that they don’t like it when you point out a technical error because they are unable to get the picture of the error out of their mind, even when you couple it with praise or something else they did well. In this case, continuing to give feedback on technical errors would be considered excessive for this particular type of content.

Regardless of the situation, excessive feedback has a few damaging consequences. The worst of which is when athletes develop strong dependencies on their coach in order to identify the actions of their own performance. In essence, the coach’s feedback (extrinsic feedback mechanism) becomes a crutch for the athlete and is relied on to provide nearly 100% of the information needed to facilitate improved performance. As a result, when the coach’s feedback is removed, performance suffers because the athlete has failed to develop mechanisms that utilize intrinsic information to detect and correct movement errors. In actuality, no learning or retention has occurred.

From a sport sociology perspective, consider that an athlete receiving high frequencies of correction AND encouragement often perceive themselves as having low competence. Additionally, athletes that receive more feedback than others in a group setting are perceived by those in the group as having lower competence than the rest of the athletes. These situations are damaging to athletic development, as well as the emotional well being of athletes.

So how do you know if you’re over-coaching? If you can answer “yes” to either of these questions, then you are over-coaching:

  1. Do the majority of your athletes instantly look for your feedback after each rep of 5 rep set for Olympic lifts?
  2. Do you find that the athletes with the worst technique in a group try to avoid you watching them?

One really good way to avoid over-coaching is to adopt a Guided Discovery approach to coaching. Guided Discovery is characterized by allowing and encouraging athletes to explore movement in order to provide a permanent and independent environment for learning. This will develop athletes that are more in tune with their own bodies, able to use intrinsic information to produce movement solutions, and are less dependent on their coach’s feedback. As a coach, the “guided’ part means that we initially educate and establish a technical model that athletes can visualize and work towards. Then we gradually fade out the frequency of instruction and feedback while using questions more often. The simplest means of reducing feedback frequency is to provide summaries at the end of sets instead of each repetition. Also, try using “bandwidth” feedback, where you don’t provide any input unless the performance falls out of predetermined criteria. As you begin to use questions, focus them on areas that foster intrinsic feedback and reflection (What can you do to improve that?, How did that feel?, etc.).

Ultimately, athletes will learn more from their experiences than they will from their coach but we need to be there to make sure they have the right experiences.

– Coach Hall

First Things First

Coaching Feedback, Part III

The phrase “Paralysis by Analysis” is a perfect description of the way Charles Barkley’s golf swing has evolved. According to Tiger Woods, Barkley had a “normal” golf swing until he took lessons and started thinking too much. As a result, the movement is plagued by his overthinking, and this is what he is left with today (this is his actual golf swing):

Now put yourself in the shoes of the Hank Haney, the former swing coach of Tiger Woods. Coach Haney took the challenge of working with Barkley a few years ago.  In fact there was a TV crew documenting the entire process.  If you were Coach Haney, where would you start?

OK, so chances are you won’t ever need to solve the Barkley golf swing conundrum. But as coaches, we see our fair share of rough technical models when it comes to complex movements. In fact, when an athlete is first learning a new exercise or movement skill, multiple faults are expected. Attempting to fix the athlete, young coaches are often tempted to give feedback and foci for most, if not all, of the faults. Unfortunately, this can lead to the CBE (commonly known as the Charles Barkley Effect). More experienced coaches will recognize the faults, identify the major causes of each, and prescribe one solution at a time to correct the faults. However, GREAT coaches will go one step further and deliver one solution at a time in PRIORITIZED order. Prioritized feedback not only prevents your athletes from being paralyzed by overthinking, but in many cases, fixing the most pressing issue will cascade down to the other faults and clean up multiple errors.

Take Pedro’s Power Clean for example:

I think we can agree that Pedro has more than one thing going on here. After observing his technique, if your only feedback was “Roll your knuckles”, then you would have missed the bigger picture. Even if his grip position at the start does actually need to be fixed, there are more critical issues to be addressed first (start position, early arm bend, finish position, catch position, bar path, joint angles, rhythm & timing…) That said, what would you address first? Then second? Then third, etc.?

So take some time and compartmentalize what areas are most critical to the learning and mastering of the skills you teach and train. From there you can create a more systematic method for the order in which you provide guidance to the movement problems faced by your athletes.

Lets’ recap the Coaching Feedback principles from the last few blog posts.

1. SPECIFIC. What exactly are your athletes doing well? Are you limiting feedback that communicates a general or negative action? Read more…

2. INDIVIDUAL. At multiple points throughout the training session, did you recognize or correct individual athletes by their first name? Read more…

3. PRIORITIZED. Are you attacking one issue at a time? Are you starting with the most critical fault, or the quickest fix?

– Coach Hall

The Sweetest Sound

Coaching Feedback, Part II

According to Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the “sweetest and most important sound in any language” to someone is their own name. The scope of Carnegie’s point goes beyond simply remembering names (a valuable coaching attribute). He goes on to note that a person’s name is what makes them unique; it sets them apart from others. When a coach addresses an individual within a group setting, that athlete has an instant upgrade in status. Another adage from Carnegie is that we all have an innate drive to be important. What better way to let athletes know you recognize their uniqueness, than by taking a few moments to deliver individual feedback as if they were the only athlete you were training that day?

Most of my coaching has been in team or small group settings, so I know the tendency to deliver group instruction and feedback when the training session is moving along. While there is some value in group feedback, there must be an element of individual attention if you are to gain trust, rapport, and accelerate the learning rate of your athletes. If you watch a group of athletes perform a set of 10 yard acceleration runs, jog back to the start line to get ready for the next set; and all you say is “Nice job guys. Remember to lean forward and drive back.”, then you missed a prime opportunity to deliver individual feedback. My coaching goal is to give individual feedback to a different athlete every rep/set. I don’t always hit that goal, but there’s an intentional effort to dish out way more individual feedback than group feedback.

Individual feedback does have some stipulations. In many cases, definitely with children and adolescents, individual feedback in front of the group should be praise rather than correction. I wouldn’t want to scrutinize technique of a 12 year old for the rest of the group to hear. Even when accompanied with praise, it will most always be perceived as a direct shot to their competency. In turn, negatively affecting self-confidence amongst their peers. Instead look to highlight what they’re doing well; “Jessica, I love the how aggressive you’re driving your foot back. That is the best acceleration run I have seen all day!” Specific, individual, and will probably make Jessica’s day. That said, always be aware of individual personalities. Even when praise based, some athletes (any age) aren’t comfortable with being singled out. Those cases call for individual praise to be delivered quietly and off to the side.

Quiet and off to the side is also a smart approach when delivering corrective feedback to individuals. Although mature athletes are sometimes comfortable with receiving constructive information in front of others, most will not be.

So whether it is praise, correction, in front of the group, or done more discreetly; aim to deliver SPECIFIC and INDIVIDUAL feedback.

– Coach Hall

Good is the Enemy of Great

Coaching Feedback, Part I

“Good is the enemy of great” is the first line of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Collins’ book uses this phrase to describe how some companies settle for good results and fail to make further progress towards becoming truly great. From a feedback perspective, when a coach overuses the word “good”, they are failing to deliver great feedback.

We are all guilty of it. Terms like “good”, “nice job”, “that’s a way”, “perfect” are meant to communicate praise and affirm an athlete’s performance or movement correction. The problem is that these terms are so generic that the athlete doesn’t actually receive valuable information from us. This is especially true when athletes are in the early phases of motor skill acquisition.

We know that the corrective feedback loop relies on an external source (coaches in this case) to deliver information that athletes can process internally and conceptually. In turn, motor skills are refined and performed correctly at high acquisition rates. So imagine an athlete, or group of athletes, learning and rehearsing their acceleration skill with 10 yards resisted sprints. And after the first rep or set, the coaching feedback they receive to process is “Good job guys”. From their point of view, “Good” doesn’t offer anything constructive that will help them know what to repeat or focus on during subsequent rehearsal. I have been an athlete in this scenario before, and I always thought to myself – “Good at what, Coach?” I wished that my coach would have told me what specifically I did well.

Instead of “Good job Nick”, it might be “Yes Nick!, that aggressive drive back is exactly what I am looking for! Keep it going!” Not only do I recognize Nick’s efforts and competency in front of his peers, but I also give him something specific to process and support his learning of acceleration mechanics. Specific feedback is always better than generic feedback.

This is the first Principle of Coaching Feedback. Be SPECIFIC.

Coach Hall

What Are You Really Saying?

If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
– John F. Kennedy

I believe coaching to be synonymous with communicating. If you aspire to be a great coach, then you better be a great communicator…period. Without this skill set, messages are destined to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Not being on the same wavelength with your athletes will most certainly result in sub-optimal physical performance, but also severely hamstring any chance of establishing a solid coach / athlete trust relationship.

In future blog posts, I’ll spend some time writing about aspects of verbal communication and coaching feedback, but for now I’ll turn your attention to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is something most of us have habit of looking for and recognizing in our athletes. We sense that an athlete is probably having a bad day when they walk through the doors with slumped shoulders, and eye focus locked two inches in front of each painfully-slow step. Additionally, if you are anything like me, then you know that an athlete continually rolling his eyes at your instruction and feedback is a pretty good indicator that he is about to be kicked out of the training session (half kidding). However, the majority of us are probably guilty of being relatively unaware of the non-verbal messages WE send to athletes.

Some researchers estimate that non-verbal cues represent approximately 70% of all communication. That exact number is probably largely situational, but it is clear to see the power of non-verbal communication when you understand that the way athletes perceive what we say often depends on the facial expressions that accompanies our words. Imagine getting the Coach Cowher scowl (above) while being told how great your effort was. With that look, there’s no amount of sugar coating that would allow his words to be perceived as positive or encouraging.

Non-verbal communication can be separated into 8 main categories, all of which send strong messages of approval, disapproval, frustration, mood, anger, disbelief, alertness, etc. Here is a quick rundown and some examples related to athletic development coaching (think about the messaging of each as you read through them.)

  • Facial Expressions: smiles, eye rolling, scowls, raised eyebrows, wincing.
  • Gestures: hand gestures to signify movement, clapping, head nod, fist pump, thumbs up, yawning.
  • Body Language: posture, sitting, leaning against wall, arms crossed, hands in pockets, pacing.
  • Proximity: moving away or towards an athlete, standing close or far way from athlete.
  • Paralinguistic: how things are said – tone, pitch, volume, clarity.
  • Eye Gaze: steady eye contact, avoiding eye contact, blinking, glancing, darting, glaring.
  • Physical Contact: handshake, high five, shoulder squeeze, light arm touch, manual adjustment, palpation.
  • Clothing & Appearance: clean, neat, wrinkled, tucked shirt, untucked shirt, matching, groomed.

Some of these non-verbal cues can be used to your advantage and some will detract from your coaching objectives, but the first step is to become aware of them. In order to get a better idea of the way athletes perceive your actions and other non-verbal cues, try the following;

  • Have someone film your next training session, then play it back and carefully monitor the non-verbal communication methods you use. Build a chart of the examples and categories above, and mark each instance in the appropriate action or cue. Also take note of whether they seemed constructive or detrimental to the athlete’s experience. The first time I did this; there were a handful of things that I was completely unaware of. To this day, I am still consciously force myself to speak clearly and project my voice.
  • Coach a training session in total silence. You may want to start with just a part of the session. A “silent” warm-up is a good way to get your feet wet, but the real challenge is leading an entire session without saying a word. This includes the athletes; they aren’t allowed to say anything either. You’ll be amazed at how much can be communicated by using facial expressions, gestures, and physical contact.

As I realized after watching a playback of myself back in graduate school, non-verbal cues convey messages whether you know it or not. Here are a few tips to use them in order to become a more effective communicator:

1. Match Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t send mixed messages.

2. Maintain Eye Contact
Show confidence and attentiveness.

3. Use Positive Body Language
Have open and engaging posture. Sitting or leaning can be seen as a lack of interest and just plain lazy.

4. Smile
This is the easiest and best way to communicate that you enjoy coaching and spending time with your athletes.

5. Look the Part
Demand respect and establish credibility by showing attention to detail with your coaching uniform.

Wooden on Coaching Success

Coach Wooden reminds us to look beyond training methodology, sets, and reps.  Coaches have such an amazing opportunity to be mentors and make positive impressions. What struck me most about Coach Wooden is how firm he was in his beliefs.  If someone asked what you believed about coaching, could you communicate your beliefs?  Better yet, would your answer be compelling? If so, how often do you communicate your beliefs to your athletes?

  • Take some time to write down your core beliefs about coaching and WHY you coach.  Then share those beliefs with your athletes, family, friends, colleagues, etc.  You’ll establish authentic leadership by letting others have insight into your beliefs.  Not to mention that this level of self-awareness will take your coaching to the next level.

Here is some insight into Coach Hall.  I coach because I believe…

…that a coach can make a positive and life-changing impact in a single moment.

…a personal relationship is more valuable than a physical adaptation.

…that competence precedes confidence.

…young athletes need mentors.

– Coach Hall

Fatal Flaws

A friend of mine, and fellow Coach Joshua Aycock –, recently got me thinking about fatal flaws. Joshua has a unique ability to conceptualize critical aspects of professional development, and I frequently look to him to put me on the right thought track. Essentially, a “fatal flaw” is something that is completely devastating to one or more central principles. It is so damaging that if done will completely and irreparably negate all past/present/future positive and constructive steps toward your goal. Pete Rose is a classic example.

“Charlie Hustle” has over 4,000 hits, multiple World Series rings, gave 110% to the game of baseball for 24 years… BUT… he gambled on games. His fatal flaw was placing those bets. And because of it, his accomplishments may never be recognized in the MLB Hall of Fame.

This concept can be applied to all aspects of life, but for Performance Coaches there are some valuable applications to coaching, training, and small business ownership. Likewise, the fatal flaws for each of us will probably be different as we don’t all have the same central coaching focus, and training focus isn’t always identical for each athlete. Just to be clear, COACHING is what you and I do. Coaching is teaching, observing, delivering feedback, building relationships, etc. TRAINING is what your athletes do. Training is performing work to affect desired physical results. As Performance Coaches, we have a direct influence in the type, amount, and intensity of the training done by your athletes.
For me, the process of determining fatal flaws has been challenging but also extremely useful. Knowing what to avoid at all cost has helped me fine tune my professional objectives.
Finish these sentences and answer these questions to uncover potential coaching and training fatal flaws.
  1. The primary reason I coach is to…
  2. What are some fatal flaws that can devastate my coaching goals?
  1. The primary reason my athletes / clients train is to…
  2. What are some fatal flaws that can devastate the training goals of my athletes?

– Coach Hall