Learning and coaching

Using your learning edge

Part 1 – Learning and coaching

Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland

Coaching is the process of helping athletes to grow and develop in order to reach their potential. To do this well requires a focus on learning – of both the coach and the athlete. In our new series of articles we are going to examine the learning process and how you can use it to increase your coaching effectiveness.

What is learning?

Learning is about improvement. It can be either physical or mental, as it is the process of acquiring either knowledge or skills. This may be done out of interest, to achieve a goal, or to increase your capability. You could become more capable at making decisions by gaining the knowledge required to make them effectively, or you could learn the physical or technical skills required to complete a task.

Learning definitionLearning involves a permanent change in knowledge and / or behaviour. This means that the new skill level should be consistent enough that it can be performed on a regular basis. It is important not to confuse learning with performance. Learning is a permanent change, where the knowledge or skill level is retained; performance is just an indication of how well someone does at a specific point in time, and can change often. This means that while they may achieve the desired level occasionally, they are not consistent in achieving it, and therefore have not yet learnt it.

We also need to be careful not to confuse knowing with learning. You can read a book that tells you how to do something, but just knowing how to do it does not mean you can actually do it. For example, you can read up on how to ask open questions, but that is not the same as having learnt to ask open questions. This is because just knowing how to ask them does not necessarily mean that you are able to ask them in practice. You can say you have learnt how to ask open questions when you are able to ask them consistently.

For another example, think about how you could coach a player to catch. You can tell them how to catch a ball, so that they now know how to catch a ball, but until they can catch one consistently then they have not yet learnt how to catch a ball. Let’s examine this in a bit more depth:

learning example

How learning relates to coaching

To be an effective coach it is important that you are constantly trying to increase your knowledge and improve your skills. This will help you to become a better coach while being a positive role model for your athletes. The areas that you could try to learn about include increasing your knowledge of:

  • Coaching
  • Yourself
  • Your athletes
  • Your sport.

We will take a closer look at each of these to identify the different areas that you could try to learn about.

Coaching knowledge

There is a huge range of topics that you could try to learn about that are related to coaching. These could include the coaching process, communication, leadership, player development, sport psychology, exercise physiology, growth and maturation, skill acquisition and team development. By learning about these topics you will have a better understanding of how to coach. This knowledge will help you with your planning, delivery and review of your sessions.

Having a detailed knowledge of a range of coaching topics will allow you to make more informed decisions and improve the quality of your coaching delivery. This understanding will help you to develop your athletes’ abilities and increase the enjoyment they get from participating in their sport. It can be difficult to know what to focus on, given the large range of possible coaching topics. In a future article we will discuss learning plans; as part of this discussion we will look at how you identify what topics you will try to learn about.

Knowledge of yourself

The better that you understand yourself, the better you are able to relate to others. This is the basis of emotional intelligence, which is a key attribute required to be an effective coach. Through learning about yourself you could try to understand:

  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • How you respond to situations
  • How you respond to other people
  • How other people respond to you
  • How you coach during games compared to training sessions
  • The emotions that you experience, and
  • The impact of those emotions.

Learning about yourself will allow you to take action on the areas you need to develop and help you to manage your emotions effectively.

Knowledge of your athletes

Athlete-centred coaching requires you to meet the needs of your athletes; to do so you need to have a good understanding of those needs. The more you know about your athletes, the better you are able to coach them. The areas of your athletes that you could try to learn about include:

  • Their strengths, weaknesses and their level of ability in the range of skills for their sport
  • Their level of game understanding
  • Their physical, mental and emotional characteristics
  • Their goals and what motivates them, and
  • How to get the best out of them.

As you learn more about your athletes, you will find the best way to coach each individual on your team or in your squad. You can use this knowledge to ensure that each player has a positive experience and is coached in the most effective way.

Knowledge of your sport

Player development and improving competitive performance are two aspects of the coach’s role. You will be in a much better position to fulfil these roles if you have a good understanding of the sport you are coaching. By understanding your sport, and how it is played, you will be able to coach your athletes so that they can reach their potential. A detailed knowledge of your sport will allow you to identify which areas should be prioritised and how to do so in a manner that is realistic for your sport. This will make your coaching much more effective and help you to make the best use of the time you have available with your athletes.

Some areas of your sport that you could learn about include:

  • Its rulessport equipment
  • The techniques involved
  • The range of tactics and strategies
  • Its principles of play
  • Its physical and mental components
  • Appropriate weight training and conditioning programmes
  • Appropriate training games and activities, and
  • The history of the sport.

To coach is to help an athlete to reach their potential. To do this, a coach needs to work hard to reach their own coaching potential. The only way to do this is to be continually learning, and making use of what you have learnt. The Using your learning edge series of articles will examine how to use learning to improve your coaching.

Across the series we will look at what you need to do to be continually learning, how to make the most of your learning, and how it will improve your coaching. While we will be using coach development as our context, the principles will be true for any area where you wish to learn and develop. Throughout the series we will examine your ‘learning edge’ – the area where you are challenged to grow and develop. We will look at how you can develop a learning plan, and highlight some of the methods for learning effectively. Through this series of articles we will take the Taking charge of your coach development articles to a new level, by examining the learning process in-depth.

Learning is critical not only for coach development but in any area of self-development. Gaining knowledge is an important component of learning, however, it is the ability to apply that knowledge that is the true indicator of learning. Through these articles we will look at how to use learning to improve your coaching effectiveness. In our next issue we will discuss the learning edge and how to set goals that push you past it.

Issue 2.

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