10 mistakes of a beginner coach – Part 2

Part 2 of 2

Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU

In Part 1 of this article I discussed five mistakes that I made in the early years of my coaching. In this second part I will discuss another five, and look at what we can learn from these about effective coaching. Mistakes are only bad if we don’t learn from them; learn from mine and be open to learning from your own.

Mistake #6: Using a traditional approach

The traditional approach to coaching will be familiar to most people. This is how many of you will have been coached when you were athletes. The traditional approach involves starting with a warm up, doing some isolated technical work, moving into a skill activity (by adding some opposition) and then into a game to finish. The idea is that you must learn the individual techniques before you can use them in a game.

What’s the problem?

Game-based sessions such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) have become popular due to some of the problems associated with the traditional approach. With a traditional session, most of the training is out of context; techniques performed in isolation are not representative of how they are used in a competitive setting. This means that the training is not realistic (so the technique does not transfer to competition) and the sessions are not motivating for the players.

Most coaches will be familiar with the player that can perform a technique well in training but cannot repeat it in a competitive match. I would often find that players seemed to be competent with techniques when using them in drills, but their performance in games was much poorer. This is often because practising the technique in isolation does not allow players to actually learn the technique. Applying the technique requires a player to identify cues in the environment to determine which technique to use, when to use it, and how to use it effectively. Players need to have this information available in training to be able to identify it in a match.

Practising isolated techniques, before putting them into a skill situation and then a match, does not motivate players. Often they will not see how the technique (e.g. passing the ball back and forth) relates to an actual game. Without the context, my players would often go through the motions – performing the technique because they had to, not because they wanted to. They wouldn’t get excited and really focus on the technique until they got to the game and could use it – by which time most of the session was over.

Another issue with the traditional approach is that it does not meet the needs of the players. Often I would spend time teaching my players various fakes and feints, starting in isolation and gradually building up to using them in a competitive situation. This was fine if they did not know the techniques and needed to learn them. Often, however, I would get to the game and realise that they actually had a decent handle on the technique of the feints; the problem was in their understanding of when to use them. The traditional approach makes assumptions about what players need to know and what they can do; an athlete-centred coach needs to design sessions based on what their players require.

What’s the solution?

The solution is to design your sessions using realistic, game-like activities as much as possible. I started out by trying to use more of a TGfU structure for my sessions, by beginning with modified games and focussing on my players developing their understandnig of the game. I worked in technical activities when it was apparent that the players needed more work on their technique. I researched TGfU and Game Sense approaches and tried to incorporate them into my coaching style. While working at Auckland Football I wrote a Player Development Programme based on a TGfU structure. Gradually I moved from a traditional approach to delivering TGfU sessions.

Mistake #7: Switching offcoach switching off

Like it or not, we are probably all guilty of this at some stage. Whether we start watching the clock, waiting for the session to end, or we just go on autopilot and let the training game play out, there are times when we are not fully engaged in the session. There were times when I was not as focussed or engaged in the coaching process as I should have been. It may have been that I was just watching the activity, without really analysing it, or that I decided to ‘just let them play’ and got out of the way. It can be hard to be fully present for several hours in a row; however, to coach effectively this is what is required of us.

What’s the problem?

By switching off and dropping down a gear we are not giving the players the attention they deserve. I would often miss coachable moments that had presented themselves, or fail to acknowledge a good piece of play. My communication with my players was reduced, and it would take me longer to recognise when an activity needed changing or progressing. Flying on autopilot does not equate with effective coaching; to provide our players with the best possible quality of service we must be fully engaged.

What’s the solution?

It is human nature for your energy and motivation levels to rise and fall. Think about your typical work day: are you fully engaged the whole time? It can be very tiring if you are. However, to coach effectively we need to be present and fully engaged for every minute of each session. This takes effort and a real desire to help your players to grow. Here are some of the things I did to turn off autopilot and really focus during my sessions:

  • I ate a proper diet so that my energy levels were consistent throughout the day and evening (no more chocolate and energy drink pick-me-ups on the way to training!)
  • I had clear objectives that I wanted to achieve in the session, and kept these front of mind
  • I identified specific areas to focus on so that I could direct my attention
  • I tried to provide each player with regular feedback
  • I constantly analysed activities to ensure they were meeting the needs of my players, and
  • I tried to learn something new about each player in each session.

Coaches should strive to provide quality coaching throughout a session. As I gained experience I came to understand the importance of operating at 100% for 100% of the session.

Mistake #8: Not assessing progress

In the early days of my coaching, I would judge my players’ progress based on my subjective view of their improvement. There wasn’t anything scientific to this; basically, if they could find success at the activity then I would move on to the next one. Across sessions and throughout the season I did not give a lot of thought to what improvements they were really making, or where their current level of ability was actually at.

What’s the problem?

If you don’t track the improvements your players are making, how do you know if your coaching is actually working? As a beginner coach, if my players improved it was probably down to luck more than anything. Since I was not fully aware of their current ability levels, I wasn’t able to tailor my content to meet their needs. This resulted in sessions that were generic and aimed at addressing the general level of the players; it did not address their specific needs.

It is important to understand your players’ baseline levels so that you can build on these. You also want to know if they are improving, and to match your coaching to their new level. You need to challenge each player at a level appropriate to their current ability; it is hard to do this if you have not tracked the progress they have made.

What’s the solution?

To track your players’ progress you need to identify their starting point and reassess it at regular intervals. Keeping records is important for making use of the information you gather. Have a system that allows you to see where your players are and what you need to do to move them further along. Use the information you have about your players to assist you to write each session that you deliver.

There is a huge number of aspects you could track. To be effective you need to select those that are most relevant for your players. A few of these aspects could include:

  • Fitness levels (VO2 Max, sprint times, heart rates, flexibility etc.)
  • Mastery of specific techniques (e.g. serving, passing, catching, shooting etc.)
  • Decision making (e.g. correct decisions, identification of options etc.)
  • Performance in games (e.g. distance gained, tackles completed, successful conversions, points scored etc.), and
  • Accuracy of specific skills (e.g. hitting targets).

Identify what you will track, find a way of assessing it, and keep a record so that the information can inform your coaching.

Mistake #9: Not providing enough feedbackcoach feedback

To a younger player feedback is like water: it is essential for them to grow. When I started out coaching I could see things that players could do well, and that they needed to improve, but I often didn’t say anything. If I could see that they had mastered a technique or skill, I moved on to the next progression. I did not give them feedback on their progress regularly, whether it was positive reinforcement or a correction. Of course, I would do it sometimes, but with feedback, sometimes is not enough. Players need regular feedback to keep them motivated and to inform them of their progress.

What’s the problem?

We can see how players are performing and the progress that they are making; players themselves do not always have the same level of awareness. Players need to know that we can see what they are doing well, and they need to have their strengths reinforced. Within a team environment, players need to feel that their efforts and contributions are appreciated. We need to tell players that we appreciate them, and not assume that they already know.

It is important to provide individual players with feedback. It is easy for a player to ignore praise if it is directed to the whole group. Likewise, if a correction is directed generally, rather than at the players that it is specific to, it is less likely the intended players will take it on board. I was certainly guilty of this early on in my coaching, as I would coach the group but not necessarily the individual athletes.

What’s the solution?

The solution is to make a point of providing each player with feedback during each session. You should still use a questioning approach, assisting players to use their own feedback rather than relying on the coach. However, you need to make sure that you are still identifying for players what they have done well and what they need to work on.

To help you to make better use of feedback, consider doing the following:

  • Identifying the areas you will look to provide feedback on for each activity
  • Keeping track of your players’ progress and feeding this information back to them
  • Setting a goal of providing feedback to each player in a session
  • Identifying something that the player did well
  • Identifying an area of the activity that the player could improve
  • Praising players when they put in a good effort or achieve a difficult task, and
  • Providing motivational feedback that will encourage the players to keep working at an aspect of their game.

When coaching we set up activities, assess the players’ achievement within the activity, and then progress or regress depending on their performance. Don’t forget to also provide the players with feedback on how they are performing.

Mistake #10: Joining in activities

This mistake will be contentious for some people. There are plenty of coaches that think it is important to get involved and join in the activities. With very young players (4 – 7 years of age) I would agree that you need to get involved and be part of the fun games that you play. Children at this age enjoy having the coach involved and it is the easiest way to engage the children and keep them on task. But for anything above this age the coach should generally stay out of the activity and let the players do it instead.

Coaches will give a variety of reasons for why they join in the activities. Sometimes it is so that the players can see how it is done. Other times it is because ‘the players like it’. Sometimes they do it to make up the numbers, and other times it is because they need to provide service or make sure that the activity works ‘just right’.

What’s the problem?

I did this a lot in my first few years of coaching, telling myself it was for the reasons above. Sometimes it was, but other times it was because I enjoyed it. Or maybe it was cold and wet, and I wanted to stay warm. Regardless of the reason, there are many more reasons why coaches should stay out of activities and let the players do it themselves.

Players develop through practice and experience. Each time a coach joins in an activity, they take away opportunities for the players to improve. Each pass that the coach makes is one less pass that a player could have made. Each decision the coach makes is a decision that another player has not had the opportunity to make. By joining in we reduce the benefit that the players take from the activity.

Players may well enjoy it when the coach joins in, however, this is not reason enough for the coach to become part of the activity. The activity itself should be enjoyable, and not rely on the coach to join in to make it fun. If you want to make a demonstration, you should do so at the appropriate time. Playing with the players and assuming they will learn from watching you in the activity is not effective. This approach ignores what makes demonstrations effective, such as viewing angle, directing the players’ attention to the important aspects of the demonstration, and allowing the players to then try and replicate the demonstration.

If you are joining into an activity, you cannot give proper focus to what you should be doing: coaching. You will be focusing on the activity and what you need to do to be effective; if you aren’t then your performance in the activity will be poor, which does not provide a good example to your players. What you should be doing is observing player performance, looking at trends within the activity, identifying areas that individuals and the group need to improve, and providing coaching points and targeted questions. It is very hard to do this properly if you are also running around with the athletes.

What’s the solution?

Stay out of the activities and let the players play. Do your job as coach: observe, assess, analyse, feedback and coach. Any time that you feel like joining in, stop and check your motive. Will it really help the players, or is it helping you? Stay outside and take notes to track your players’ performance. If you have an odd number of players, be creative. Can you apply a condition or rule that evens it out? How about having one player outside of the activity and giving them a task? This will often be more beneficial than joining in to balance the numbers.

In this article I have described 10 mistakes that I made as a beginner coach. These certainly weren’t the only mistakes I made, and I continue to make mistakes today. The difference now is that I examine my coaching so that I can recognise my mistakes, and then learn from them. Keep reflecting on your own coaching and change the areas that will make you a better coach.

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7 thoughts on “10 mistakes of a beginner coach – Part 2

  1. Jeff – loved this article. Down to earth, simple and a great reminder of all the stuff we all know we should do but in the daily grind of being a coach we often forget to do.

    • Hi Cindy, thanks for the comment. It is easy to lose sight of the basics when we are coaching day in and day out. Taking some time to reflect on whether we are doing what we know we should do is a good way to reinvigorate ourselves, and to make some simple improvements to our coaching.

  2. Jeff, these are excellent thoughts and I like how you challenge the conventional with refreshing and athlete centric ideas. Top Man and keep up the great work for all of us in the coaching fraternity, John

    • Cheers John. There is plenty written about coaching on the net but I like to try and come at things from a different angle. Hopefully the more people talk about athlete-centred coaching the more that it is actually done in practice.

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