Match day coaching: Using an athlete-centred approach
Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU
The following is a pre-course reading for a workshop I deliver on Match Day Coaching.
Match day is all about winning, right? Not necessarily. Competition provides players with the opportunity to learn and develop, and should be an extension of their training. A truly effective coach – an athlete-centred coach – provides an environment that ensures players grow continuously, with every training session and every match. In this article we will look at what an athlete-centred coaching approach is and how you can continue to use it on match day. We will start in Part A by looking at the purpose of coaching and the available coaching styles before moving to Part B, where we examine how you can maintain this approach on match day.
Part A – Coaching styles
We start this article with a discussion of the coaching styles that you can use and how they relate to the purpose of coaching.
Purpose of coaching
While coaches will have different motivations for coaching, the purpose of coaching is quite simple. Coaching is about helping athletes to learn what works best for them. To coach is to educate a player, providing them with opportunities for personal growth and development. As a coach, you are tasked with helping your players to reach their potential. This will include helping prepare your players to perform in competitions; more importantly, however, you need to help your players to achieve their goals.
Coaching styles refer to how coaches work with players and where they direct their focus. They cover areas such as how much responsibility for decision making the coach allows the players and how much the coach focuses on the athletes’ goals. The coaching style that you use will depend on your philosophy, your understanding of how athletes learn, how you were coached yourself, and what your objectives are. There are a range of styles you could use; it is useful to think of these as working along a continuum.
At one end of the continuum is a coach-centred coach, and at the other end is an athlete-centred coach. A coach-centred coach is there to achieve their own objectives, which are often results-based. They use control, direct instructions and often a ‘win at all costs’ attitude to achieve this. At the other end is the athlete-centred coach, who places the needs of their athletes at the centre of the coaching environment. They are focused on player development and creating independent athletes.
Figure 1: Coaching styles
The style that you use will influence the objectives you set, the coaching methods you use, how much freedom and responsibility you allow your players and the sort of environment that you create.
Table 1 presents some of the general characteristics of each type of coach:
Table 1: Characteristics of coach-centred and athlete-centred coaches
Coaches should aim to develop “independent” athletes. This means that your athletes are able to critique their own performance, make decisions and correct their mistakes without relying on you to do it for them. After all, in the midst of competition there is often little that the coach can do. The athletes are the ones playing the sport; your role is to prepare your athletes so that they can perform independently.
Many people view a successful coach as a winning coach. While competition success is an important factor for many coaches, truly successful coaches are those that help their players to achieve the goals that they set. How you coach will be shaped by how you define success.
How do you define success? An athlete-centred coach does not rely solely on results to determine their – or their athletes’ – level of success. You should measure your success as a coach by how well you are fulfilling the purpose of your role: assisting your athletes to learn and grow. Your true measure as a coach is not how many trophies you win, but how many of your players are able to grow towards reaching their potential. And when are athletes successful? When they are achieving their goals and those of the team.
Why use an athlete-centred coaching style?
Sport is about the people that participate in it: the athletes. An athlete-centred approach focuses on the achievement of the athletes’ goals. It creates a positive learning environment and caters to the needs of all athletes. It prioritises the holistic development of the players, and is necessary if you are to develop independent athletes.
By contrast, a coach-centred approach does not address the needs of the players. It will often result in a negative environment, and does not focus on learning. Player development will take a back seat to results, preventing many players from reaching their potential. To provide the best possible environment for their players coaches should adopt an athlete-centred coaching style.
Tools of the athlete-centred coach
There are a number of tools and approaches you can use to develop independent athletes. The starting point is a structured environment based on a shared goal. You need to understand the needs of your athletes and work to meet those needs. You can help your players to develop skills and make decisions by using a range of training games, rather than spending most of your time “drilling” your athletes. You should also allow your athletes to have input into the direction of the team. The development of your players’ game understanding, and the use of questioning, are two important tools for an athlete-centred coach.
It is important that your athletes understand how to play the game and can make decisions based on their understanding. You need to help your players to learn about their sport and to learn about themselves. Effective learning doesn’t come from being told what to do; it comes from trying things out and seeing what works. If your players are scared of making mistakes, they will stay within their comfort zone and avoid trying something new. Players need to know that making mistakes is fine; the key is that they must learn from their mistakes.
Ask your players questions to help them to learn from their experiences – both successes and mistakes. Focus on open questions which require your players to think and make decisions. Some useful questions for helping players to learn from their experiences include:
- What did you notice as you…?
- Where were your feet during…?
- What were some other options available to you?
- How did it feel as you…?
- What have you learnt from this?
Resist the temptation to tell your players what to do; instead, pose questions and set problems for your players to try and solve. Your role as coach is to question your players and to help them to draw out their learning from each experience, and to guide them to understanding what else they could have done. For example, rather than telling them how to beat a player in a 2v1 situation, put them in an activity where they score points by beating a player 2v1. Instead of instructing them on what to do, ask them questions that help them to find a solution that works for them:
- What are you trying to achieve in this activity?
- How can you create space for yourself?
- How can you draw the player in?
- When is a good time to make the pass?
- What did you do on the times when you were successful?
Taking this approach is more enjoyable for the players and requires them to take ownership for their learning. If they come up with their own solution in training, they are more likely to use it in competition. You want your players to just react during competition; if they have to first remember what you have told them to do, their performance will be much less flowing. And that is if they remember what you said at all!
Asking your players questions will help them to understand their own performance better, raising their self-awareness. It will engage them in the learning process and give them experience making decisions. These are all aspects that will help your players to become independent.
Many coaches are able to take an athlete-centred approach to trainings, designing sessions that meet the needs of their athletes, asking questions and allowing the players to take ownership. On match day, however, the pressure of competition and the desire to win can cause coaches to move back towards the coach-centred end of the continuum. Match day provides a great opportunity for players to learn and develop, and the best way to enable this is to maintain an athlete-centred approach.
Part B – Match day coaching
It is important to view trainings and match days as part of one process rather than two separate events. The work that is done in training should lead into and be reinforced on match day. You should then reflect on what occurred during the match and build on it in the next training session. To do this effectively you need to understand the role of development and winning within sport.
Development versus winning
There are two ways to view the purpose of competition: either to develop athletes or to win games and championships. Where you decide to focus will depend on your philosophy, your team or organisation’s objectives, and the developmental needs of your athletes. You need to consider each of these together and come to a balanced approach to development and winning.
The age and skill level of your athletes will clearly influence where you direct your focus. With children’s sport the focus should clearly be on development, with the desire to win taking a back seat. As players age and develop, striving to win can take on a greater focus. Player development, however, should still be the overriding goal.
Importance of maintaining an athlete-centred approach
It is important to bring the athlete-centred approach to match days so that you remain consistent in how you coach. Many coaches promote ownership and decision making during trainings and then turn coach-centred on match days. If you do this, your players will believe that you do not really trust them to make decisions during competition. This will make them less likely to engage in the process during training. Their confidence will suffer as they will feel that you do not have enough belief in their ability to allow them to take ownership over their own competitive performance.
Using an athlete-centred approach on match day ensures that the needs of your players are not overridden by the competitiveness of the day. You should view competition as an opportunity for your players to continue learning, creating a positive match day experience that focuses on development and growth. Opportunities should be provided for all players, not just the strongest or best performing. Taking this view, you will help your players to learn from what occurs during the match, not criticise them for making mistakes.
How do you maintain an athlete-centred approach on match day?
Usually it will not be appropriate – or even possible – to ask players questions while they are in the middle of competing. So how do you apply an athlete-centred approach to match day? Here we will discuss four approaches: using a theme on match day, setting goals, using an observation tool, and using effective communication strategies.
Match day theme
If you take a long-term approach to player development, you will likely plan your training sessions around “themes” that your players need to work on. These themes should be appropriate for their age and stage of development. They could include the techniques, skills or principles of play for your sport. Examples might include passing, receiving, tackling, transitions or evasion, among others. A good way to link your trainings and match days is to use the same theme across both.
Providing a theme for match day encourages your players to focus on specific tasks rather than just the result. This means that your players are actively trying to use what they have learnt in the week’s training session, and that you are viewing and assessing your players’ performance in light of how they perform relating to the current theme. The goals that the team set, and the areas that you discuss with your players, will be related to this theme.
It is important that the theme is not a shortcut to winning, but rather an area that is important for your players to develop. This maintains the link with training and ensures that player development is the focus throughout the process. A shortcut to winning is a strategy or technique that makes it easier for your team to get a result, without actually helping the players to develop. Examples could include using the long ball in football, passing to the tallest players in basketball, or walking the strongest hitters in softball.
Goal setting is an effective tool for player development. Teams should have a goal for the season and goals for each game that they play. Players should also have individual goals that they are working towards. For an athlete-centred approach you should tie your goals to your match day theme.
Match day goals should be based on using what your players have learnt during training. This will help your players to focus on using what they have learnt and allows you to judge if there has been an improvement in the area. They also provide a way to measure the success of the team that isn’t dependent on the result; even if they lose the game, if they have made improvements in the areas they have been working on then the game has been a success.
Effective coaches are able to view a match and focus on the important areas of their team’s performance. Performance can’t be judged by the score line alone; you also need to judge how well your players are developing in the areas which have been the focus of your training. Just watching a game, it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of the competition. To be effective you must actively seek out information that will tell you how well your players are actually doing.
One way to focus your observation is to use an observation tool. This is simply something you use to record targeted information on how your players are performing. The areas that you use should be tied to the theme of the match day and the goals for the match. The tool directs your focus to the relevant areas in the match and provides a means for recording what you observe.
Figure 2 shows what an observation tool could look like for the Auckland Avengers. Here the coach records the number of bounce passes the team attempts and whether they were successful (√) or unsuccessful (X). Collecting this information directs the coach’s attention to the theme of the match, and also provides valuable information for identifying the team’s progress towards their chosen goals.
Figure 2: Observation tool
Coaches influence their players on match day through their communication. Often we see coaches barking instructions to players from the side-line, telling players what they need to do in order to win, and generally trying to control everything that occurs. While you may not have time to use detailed questions and group discussions on match day, there are still ways you can use an athlete-centred approach.
If you are using an observation tool, you shouldn’t have time to be continually barking instructions to your athletes. Remember your theme and focus on this during your team talks, along with what your team can do to achieve their goals. You can ask players for their opinions, and get them to assess their own performance before offering your critique. The communication that you use can help to maintain a positive environment and assist your players to learn. Focus your communication on the theme of the day rather than how you will win the match.
Match days provide a great opportunity for learning and player development. How you approach match day determines how well you take advantage of this opportunity. Using an athlete-centred approach is the best way to achieve the purpose of coaching: helping players to reach their potential. It creates a positive environment that prioritises player development and helps to create independent athletes. By taking a consistent approach to both training and matches you will enhance the experience of your players and make sure that every match is a learning opportunity.
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