Questioning to develop skill
Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland
Questioning is an effective tool for developing players. We know that to execute a skill players need to combine the correct technique with an appropriate decision of when and how to use it, all the while evaluating the current situation. Players are constantly making decisions during competition, making it impossible for you to tell your players what to do in every situation that they face. You can, however, help your players to develop their ability to solve the problems these situations pose, helping you to develop independent players.
There are several tools that you can use to develop the skill of your players, including instruction, feedback, conditioned games and video analysis. Another highly effective tool is the use of questioning, which will be the focus of this article. We will look at how you can use questioning as a tool to develop your players’ skill, why you should be asking questions, the different purposes of questions related to skill development, and the types of questions that you can ask.
Why ask questions?
Questioning is an essential tool for an athlete-centred coach. Many of the benefits of using an athlete-centred approach are directly applicable to skill development. By creating independent athletes you will develop players that can make their own decisions in competition. By asking questions in training that require your players to solve problems, they will have ownership over the solutions they come up with. This will increase the likelihood that the players can recall these solutions when they face similar situations while competing. Providing athletes with input and options will increase their intrinsic motivation, leading to a mastery orientation. All of these benefits will help players to develop their level of skill.
The link between the brain (thinking and understanding) and the body (physical technique) is key for skill development. Questioning can be used to improve how your players learn, developing their thinking processes and their understanding. It can also be used to guide the improvement of their physical techniques. Using questions effectively to raise your athletes’ self-awareness will help them to understand their own characteristics and performance, and provide a solid base from which to further develop their skill.
Purpose of questioning
Questions will only be effective if you understand what you are trying to achieve by asking them. There are three reasons related to skill development for you to ask questions:
Improving your athletes’ game understanding
Game understanding is a player’s knowledge of the tactical elements of their sport and their ability to recognise when to use them to achieve a successful outcome. There are a number of aspects that go into an athletes’ game understanding, including:
- The principles of play
- The use of techniques and tactics
- Their recognition of patterns.
By developing these aspects the athletes will be able to read and understand what is happening in the game, assisting them to make correct decisions. The purpose of your questioning could be to improve your players’ understanding of these areas, leading to improved skill development. In addition to these areas, the purpose of the questioning could be to improve the ability of your players to think effectively and make decisions. This could include areas such as:
- Their ability to recall information (situations, solutions etc.)
- Their ability to solve problems and make decisions
- Their understanding of how to use techniques and tactics in a range of situations (being adaptable).
Game understanding is one (albeit important) part of skill. For skill development to occur you also need to address the physical aspect. This is where performance improvement comes in.
Improving your players’ performance
You can ask questions with the purpose of improving your players’ ability to implement their skills in competition, which is to improve their performance. This will involve asking your players questions that assist them to:
- Analyse their performance and that of their team and opponents
- Identify what they can do to improve their performance
- Identify what occurred and what they have learnt.
The focus of questioning in these areas is to address what the players can do to perform better. It involves looking at what the player has done, and using their game understanding to come up with solutions to help them to then perform better.
Improving your understanding of your players
To be an athlete-centred coach you need to understand your players. This could include understanding their strengths and weaknesses, needs, goals, traits and tendencies. The more that you understand them, the better placed you will be to coach them effectively. This could be through the questions you ask, the activities you use or the feedback that you provide. The questions that you ask could be intended to find out your players’:
- Thoughts, feelings and actions
- Goals and objectives
- Likes, dislikes and responses.
You can also use questioning to allow you to:
- Test your players’ knowledge
- Check their understanding of a concept or instruction
- Understand your players’ views.
You can use the knowledge you gain from these questions to help you to coach your athletes more effectively. This might mean changing your approach, using some different activities, or providing some alternative progressions. By knowing your players’ current level of understanding you are able to identify when and how to progress.
As you can see, there are a number of different reasons for asking your players questions. As the type of question that you ask will depend on why you are asking it, it is important to be clear on what you want to achieve before you pose a question. We will now look at some different types of questions that are relevant to skill development.
Types of questions
There is a wide range of questions that you can ask your players. We will examine how we can use the following question types to assist with skill development:
Open and closed questions
Questions can be either open ended (there are multiple ways that the player can respond) or closed (only one “correct” answer or “yes/no” etc.). An open question will allow the conversation to develop based on the response of the player, whereas a closed question prevents the conversation from going further. The following table summarises the features of open and closed questions.
|Involve problem solving, reflection and decision making||Limited to recall or a choice between two options|
|Require higher level thinking processes||Require lower level thinking processes|
|Challenge players to apply and analyse information and create knowledge||Used to test existing knowledge rather than create it|
Skill is about finding a way to successfully use what is available to you. You should focus on using open questions when you are trying to develop your players’ skills, as they require players to search for solutions and examine what they already know. They will also help players to come up with solutions that are suitable to them, and may include some that you would not have thought of yourself.
Recall questions are used to help players to bring to mind something that they have learnt previously. They are useful for prompting a player prior to completing a task (e.g. “how do you hold the racquet for this shot?”) and for having them think about a similar situation (“how did you deal with this situation in your last match?”) They can help the player to make the link between a previously learnt technique or skill and its application in a new situation.
There are several benefits to asking a player to recall the information rather than just telling them as a reminder:
- The player has to search their memory for the answer, strengthening the link to the information in their brain
- The player has some ownership for coming up with the answer
- They are more likely to recall the information at a relevant time in the future.
Recall questions are a good way to get players to engage their brains and to direct their attention to something that they should be focusing on. Make sure that there is a reason for asking a recall question; don’t just ask one for the sake of it. You should either be checking that they have remembered something important, or directing their attention to something they need.
Past / Present / Future
You can ask questions that help your players understand what has happened and what the implications are of this. This can be done by asking them questions about what has occurred in a match or activity (the past), what is currently occurring (the present) or what may happen as a result (the future).
By understanding what occurs in a game – and why – players will start to develop an understanding of the principles of their sport. They can then start to use this understanding to improve their ability to control the future – to perform well. This line of questioning is about understanding a game situation, examining why a certain outcome occurred, and then identifying what you can do in the future to be more successful.
Some questions you could ask a player to examine the past include:
- Where was your opponent when you played that shot?
- How many opposition players were there in the area? Where were they positioned?
- What did you notice as you approached the goal?
- What did you do as you entered the final 50 meters of the race?
Each of these questions forces the player to think back on a situation and try to understand it a bit better. Often players will not know the answer, as they did not pay enough attention during the activity. By questioning players about their situations you will help them to recognise the need to pay attention to them. Questions require the player to use their brain to think back over a situation, making them much more aware of it in the future.
If players are struggling to think back on what has occurred, you can ask questions regarding the present situation to help guide their search. An example is the “stop, stand still” approach. Here you would stop a training activity and ask the players what they see. You may be looking at the positioning of players, the opportunities that are present or the threats that exist. What you are doing is trying to get the players to search for the relevant cues or information in the environment.
By asking players to identify cues – rather than telling them what they are – you help to develop their ability to examine the environment and make decisions based on it. This will make them more likely to do so in a game, when you cannot call “stop, stand still”. Improving your players’ ability to read the environment and make decisions will directly improve their skill. All of these questions ask the players to look at the environment, search for specific cues, and read what is available that they can use and make decisions based on.
When you ask players questions about the future, you are getting them to analyse information and then draw conclusions from it. These conclusions should help them to successfully deal with similar situations in the future. This may involve the choice or use of a specific technique or tactic, or knowing what to look for in the environment. Based on what the players have learnt about the current situation, how would they now deal with it in the future?
Future-based questions look to link the players’ new understanding of the situation to their future performance. Some questions you could ask based on the future include:
- How will you approach this situation in the future?
- What do you need to look for?
- How can you perform that task successfully?
- What will you do to draw your opponent in?
Notice that these are all open questions. The player needs to think through them and select an option that they are most comfortable with. They also lead to a future action, meaning that the information becomes something that they can use practically.
Another way to develop skill through the use of questioning is by setting problems for the players to solve. This often involves putting the players into a situation and asking them to come up with a solution that enables them to be successful. You might allow some time for the players to discuss and strategise before having a go at using what they come up with.
Problem setting is well suited to a range of training activities. You should frame the activity so that the players need to use skill to solve the problem. The key is that you set the problem and allow the players to solve it. You may use questions to help them with their search for a solution, however, you should not instruct them on how to solve the problem.
In each of these situations the players are faced with a problem that they need to solve. The idea is that they will try different solutions until they find one that brings them consistent success. Further questions by the coach can help them to understand why this approach is successful, and what it tells them about the underpinning principles of the sport.
Movement response questions
Questions don’t always need to involve the players giving you a verbal response. Sometimes their answer could be in the form of a movement. These questions involve asking the player to perform an action or technique. This may be so that you can see how they are currently performing the technique, or it may be asked to help the player to examine their own performance.
When asking questions that require a movement response, you will often be trying to raise the player’s awareness. This might be achieved by asking them to focus on a certain feeling while they perform the technique.
Movement response questions can be very useful for the development of skill. While it is great for a player to understand the theory behind a skill, it is their ability to physically perform it that matters the most. By asking a movement response question you can combine both the mental and physical elements, by having the athlete pay attention to how the action feels. It will also allow players to examine and then correct their own techniques.
Some players will respond very well to movement response questions. They may have difficulty explaining what they know about a skill or to put their knowledge into words, but by showing you how it is done they are much more comfortable answering your question. These players are also more likely to learn from physically doing the skill rather than just talking about it.
Skilled performance requires players to identify cues in the environment and make decisions based on what they see. Questioning is an effective tool for helping players to improve their use of skill, and can be directed at either their understanding of the game or their ability to perform physical skills. Ask your players a variety of questions to help them to become more skilful athletes.