Reflection as a Coach Development Tool

The following is a paper I wrote a few years ago on the use of reflection for student coaches.


This report will outline the use of reflection as a tool for coach development, and some of the methods by which it can be used to aid a coach in their professional development. Issues regarding the use of reflection, along with benefits will be discussed, and suggestions for how reflection can be used individually and within a mentoring program will be made.

Reflection has been described as a process that helps turn experience into knowledge (Gilbert & Trudel, 2001) and involves thought and exploration of a concept or event (Gray, 2007). It is a form of problem solving that is used to resolve coaching issues, and involves the careful consideration of a coaches practice, based on their knowledge and beliefs (Hatton & Smith, 1995). It is a cognitive process that helps a coach to link professional knowledge and practice (Anderson, Knowles, & Gilbourne, 2004). Much of the research regarding reflection is with reference to teaching, however most of this can also be applied to coaching. The work of Schon is often used as a base for discussing reflective practice. Schon discussed the different ways in which practitioners (coaches) could reflect on their professional practice, in a practical environment (as opposed to purely theoretical). He identified ‘knowing-in-action’ which is the professional knowledge that a coach uses in their daily practice (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998). This form of knowledge is based on a reflection of what a coach does, and is often difficult to explain, however it can be seen in how the coach acts. It involves craft knowledge, and the coaches experiences, values and prejudices (Anderson, et al., 2004).

There are two broad timeframes in which reflection can occur. ‘Reflection-in-action’ occurs during practice, when a coach faces an unknown situation. Here they will bring aspects of their work to a conscious level, to reflect on the issue as it happens, and will try things out on the spot (Furlong & Maynard, 1995). Reflection-in-action occurs while the coach can still affect the situation. By contrast, ‘reflection-on-action’ occurs after the event, where the coach will reflect on skills or a situation, with a view to future improvement (Hatton & Smith, 1995).

There are three levels of reflection that are explained in the literature, these being technical reflection, practical reflection and critical reflection (Manen, 1977). Technical reflection looks at achieving objectives, and focuses on the effective and efficient use of knowledge (Cassidy, Jones, & Potrac, 2004). At this level the objectives and use of these methods are not questioned. At the practical level the coach will examine the objectives and goals, and analyses the athletes as people, looking at the assumptions that they bring to the coaching environment. At the critical level of reflection, the coach will focus on the moral, ethical and political meaning of the knowledge they use and the authority involved.

In order to be able to reflect on coaching practice and to use their knowledge to solve problems, coaches must have enough experience to draw upon (Lyle, 2002). Coaches will tend to start to reflect at the technical level, and some will gradually progress on to reflect at the practical and then the critical level. The level at which a coach reflects will depend on their level of experience, both in coaching and in using reflection, and the objectives of their use of reflection.

Benefits of Reflective Practice

Before examining the methods and tools that can be used to aid coaches with reflection, it is worth identifying the benefits of using reflection, in order to build a case for its use. A relationship has been found between the use of reflective practice in teachers and effective teaching (Giovannelli, 2003). Reflection helps a coach to link their knowledge to practice, helping them to improve what they do and how they do it. Through reflection on values and ethics, coaches become more sensitive to the backgrounds and needs of their players (Cassidy, et al., 2004). By raising their awareness of their beliefs and values, and how they shape their coaching practice, more inclusive coaching may result. Through self evaluation and improved awareness, the coach is able to consciously and purposefully improve their coaching practice (Anderson, et al., 2004). It has been noted that reflecting on an issue consolidates the coaches understanding of the problem, and helps them to invent better or more general solutions (Furlong & Maynard, 1995).

Reflective Conversation

The remainder of this report will discuss methods of performing reflection-on-action, as this is the method of reflection that can be developed through mentoring and a structured reflection approach. The process of reflecting is often termed a ‘reflective conversation’. A reflective conversation involves the coach examining an issue, and may either be done individually (e.g. written in a journal) or with a critical friend or mentor (who would act as a sounding board and prod the coach with probing questions). In order for a conversation to be termed reflective, certain conditions need to be met, including that it involves the questioning of values, takes a questioning approach, and is articulated publicly (though initially it may start with the individual) (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998). Reflection may also occur at the technical level (where practice is examined without examining the underlying values). The reflective conversation may be influenced by several factors, including access to a mentor or critical friend, the coaches stage of learning, the characteristics of an issue and the environment it takes place in (Jones, 2006).

Principles of Reflective Practice

In order for a coach to act reflectively, certain principles need to be adhered to. Reflection needs to be fair, accurate and honest, and to provide a critique of an issue, not just a description of what happened (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998). Coaches should examine their experiences, looking for meaning by asking ‘why’ questions. Where questioning by a critical friend is involved, the coach needs to be open minded and to respond with honesty (Denison, 2007).

Reasons to enter a Reflective Conversation

Three levels of reflective conversations were detailed earlier, and the level that is used will depend in part on the reasons for which the reflective conversation is entered into. Reflection can be used to re-evaluate events and determine suitable future courses of action. Coaches may try to clarify and understand their personal philosophies, reflect on choices that they have made in the coaching process and attempt to understand why they coach the way they do (Cushion, Armour, & Jones, 2003). Several common coaching issues that could lead a coach to enter into a reflective conversation include athlete behaviour, athlete performance, coach profile, parental influence and team organisation (Gilbert & Trudel, 2005).

Four areas have been identified which reflection can take into consideration. These are based on teaching, however, they are also applicable to coaching. These are values, which would include coaching philosophy, practice, improvement and context (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998). The overall purpose should be to improve the quality of coaching.

Critical Incidents

A reflective conversation should guide a coach to reflect on their own personal incidents or coaching stories, which may be termed critical incidents. These are any event that occurs during the act of coaching, which causes the coach to enter into a reflective conversation – i.e. to examine the issue and the values underpinning it (Jones, 2006). The coach will attempt to understand the significance of the event, through examining the underlying trends and motives (Gray, 2007). This can be achieved by noting the nature of the incident, such as in a journal. This can be examined critically by linking it to the wider social context. Ideally the conversation would then involve the use of a mentor to probe the coach. Critical incidents can be used as a basis for reflection, using a variety of the available tools for reflection.


This method involves the coach telling a ‘story’- e.g. describing a critical incident – to someone who listens. The coach articulates a problem or event, and together they explore the meaning of the story (Gray, 2007). This could also be done through a reflective journal, where the coach reflects on a critical incident. The coach should describe the setting, the build up to the issue, and the crisis or the climax. A shared understanding is developed, which is applicable to other situations.

Reflective Metaphor

Here a concept that is used for one thing is applied to another concept. The metaphor invokes a number of commonly held images, which are then examined. This technique is used in critical inquiry, to examine underlying values, and could be done through a journal or in a group discussion.

Reflective Dialogue

This approach involves a group of coaches who share their thoughts and feelings on a subject, and then self reflect on themselves and their reaction to the dialogue of other participants (Gray, 2007). The coaches critically examine the underlying assumptions behind their thinking.

Reflective Journal

A reflective journal contains personal stories and descriptions of work related events. It involves the recording of deliberate thoughts, and an analysis of coaching issues and critical incidents. The journal can serve two roles – to provide daily reflection on coaching experience and to examine how personal objectives are being implemented and met (Gray, 2007). The journal should contain the coaches practical knowledge and wisdom, and the coach should re-read entries regularly to determine patterns (Ghaye & Ghaye, 1998).

Methods for Reflecting

Various models have been described for using a reflective approach to professional development. These tend to incorporate one or more of the methods described above, and will often involve several steps that guide the coach to reaching an understanding of the issue they are examining.

Generally, a coach will initially be presented with an issue in their coaching practice. If this issue is important enough, the coach will enter into a reflective conversation (Jones, 2006). A four stage model is then suggested for the coach to work through the issue reflectively:

1)      The coach sets the issue – what are the characteristics? Has it been encountered before?

2)      The coach determines strategies – through reflection, past experience, consulting with others etc.

3)      The coach experiments with the possible solutions – either virtually, such as writing it down or talking over with a peer, or in the real world by applying the strategy

4)      The coach evaluates the strategy – either individually or in consultation with others

(Gilbert & Trudel, 2001).

This may involve the coach going through a cyclical process of appreciation (problem setting), action (experimenting) and re-appreciation (problem setting). This process could be done in a group setting, with the group being asked to address a series of typical coaching issues. Questions could include “why is this considered to be an issue?” and “what strategies could be used to address this issue?”

A similar approach is suggested elsewhere in the literature. A five step process is suggested along similar lines to the process detailed above:

1)      Identification of the problem / issue to be resolved

2)      Determination of the similarities to other situations

3)      Frame and reframe the problem

4)      Anticipate possible consequences or implications of the various solutions

5)      Determine if the anticipated consequences are desired

(Barnett, 1995; Kidman & Hanrahan, 1997).

Another useful structure for reflective journal writing is as follows:

1)      Describe – what did I do? (without judgement)

2)      Informing – what does this mean? (patterns or principles underpinning practice)

3)      Confronting – how did I come to be this way? (examining social and cultural aspects)

4)      Reconstructing – how could I do this differently? (alternative views and goals for future)

(Francis, 1995).

The processes above can be implemented through a reflective journal, an oral discussion with a critical friend, a group discussion or an oral interview. Some aspects of these approaches will now be examined.

Reflective Writing

Written journals are a common method used in reflection. The form of writing that is used in the journal is important, to ensure that it is of a reflective nature. Descriptive writing provides a description of an event, however it does not provide reflection. Descriptive reflection will attempt to provide reason and justification for events, and recognises alternative view points. Dialogic reflection involves stepping back from an event or action and exploring the experience, using qualities and judgements. Critical reflection involves the addition of social, political and/or cultural settings (Hatton & Smith, 1995).

Coaches can be encouraged to engage in the reflective process, possibly through questioning, by working at one of the three levels of reflection. They could reflect on the cognitive aspects of coaching such as coaching knowledge and processes (technical level), examine personal experiences and the underlying themes to create their own coaching concepts (practical level) or critically examine the values and cultural context of their practice (critical level) (Bain, Ballantyne, Packer, & Mills, 1999).

Approaches to using and structuring a reflective journal could include the following:

  • Examining coaching methods used and their effectiveness (such as after a session)
  • Analysing an issue or problem faced in a coaching session and examining the assumptions underlying it
  • Examining a critical incident and determining alternative courses of action that could have been taken
  • Describing a coaching incident and examining what was learnt as a result


Questioning is a good method to use to structure and focus a reflective conversation. This could be used with others, such as a mentor or in a group, or individually as a series of focus questions to guide reflection. Questions can be at the technical level (e.g. improvements, resources, techniques and management), practical level (communication, meanings, behaviour) or critical level (injured players, social and cultural factors of team environment).

Different forms of questions can be used in the reflective process, depending on the intended outcomes. These may include:

  • Clarifying questions: The coach recalls events and describes their feelings, actions or thoughts.
  • Consequence questions: Determining cause and effect of actions or beliefs
  • Linking questions: Consider possible connections between the context of a situation and personal beliefs, values and goals

(Barnett, 1995). There is a number of different questions that a coach could use to examine not only their practice and what they have learnt from it, but also the values and social aspects that influence not only their behaviour but also the outcomes of their practice.


The following recommendations are made to aid student coaches to make use of reflection in order to inform and improve their coaching practice:

  • A reflective journal is used which is structured to help them to examine their practice in light of the level that they are coaching at. This may be at a technical level, in which questions will be provided for them to use to examine their coaching practice with regards to technical matter
  • Coaches are asked, through questions, to examine a session that they have conducted. The questions should examine the technical aspects of their delivery, help them to identify what they have learnt, and to formulate goals for improvement
  • Coaches are asked to examine a critical incident that they have faced and to work through the reflective process to examine the effect of issues surrounding the incident, in terms of their coaching and the environment, and to formulate ideas of how to address a similar incident in the future
  • Coaches in small groups to describe a critical incident, and through a facilitator examine the underlying issues and how these impact on their delivery in these situations and in their wider practice


Anderson, A., Knowles, Z., & Gilbourne, D. (2004). Reflective practice for sports psychologists: Concepts, models, practical implications, and thoughts on dissemination. Sport Psychologist, 18.

Bain, J. D., Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., & Mills, C. (1999). Using journal writing to enhance student teachers’ reflectivity during field experience placements. [Article]. Teachers & Teaching, 5, 51.

Barnett, B. (1995). Developing reflection and expertise: can mentors make the difference?. . Journal Of Educational Administration, 33(45).

Cassidy, T., Jones, R. L., & Potrac, P. (2004). Understanding sports coaching the social, cultural and pedagogical foundations of coaching practice. New York: Routledge.

Cushion, C. J., Armour, K. M., & Jones, R. L. (2003). Coach education and continuing professional development: experience and learning to coach. Quest (00336297), 55(3), 215-230.

Denison, J. (2007). Coaching knowledges : Understanding the dynamics of sport performance. London: A. & C. Black.

Francis, D. (1995). The reflective journal: A window to preservice teachers’ practical knowledge. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(3), 229-241.

Furlong, J., & Maynard, T. (1995). Mentoring student teachers: The growth of professional knowledge. London ; New York: Routledge.

Ghaye, T., & Ghaye, K. (1998). Teaching and learning through critical reflective practice. London: D. Fulton Publishers.

Gilbert, W. D., & Trudel, P. (2001). Learning to coach through experience: Reflection in model youth sport coaches. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 21(1), 16-34.

Gilbert, W. D., & Trudel, P. (2005). Learning to coach through experience: conditions that influence reflection. Physical Educator, 62(1), 32(12).

Giovannelli, M. (2003). Relationship between reflective disposition toward teaching and effective teaching. Journal of Educational Research, 96(5), 293.

Gray, D. E. (2007). Facilitating management learning: Developing critical reflection through reflective tools. Management Learning, 38(5), 495-517.

Hatton, N., & Smith, D. (1995). Reflection in teacher education: Towards definition and implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 11(1), 33-49.

Jones, R. (Ed.). (2006). The sports coach as educator : re-conceptualising sports coaching Abingdon: Routledge.

Kidman, L., & Hanrahan, S. (1997). The coaching process : A practical guide to improving your effectiveness. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Lyle, J. (2002). Sports coaching concepts : a framework for coaches’ behaviour. London ; New York: Routledge.

Manen, M. v. (1977). Linking ways of knowing with ways of being practical. Curriculum Inquiry, 6(3), 205-228.


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