Using your learning edge
Part 8 – Researching
Jeff Mitchell – Community Sport Advisor – Sport Auckland
You will often come across situations when you are coaching that your previous experience has not prepared you for. The situation may be novel or outside of your current level of expertise. When you are operating at your learning edge you will often find yourself in the territory of the unknown. To help yourself to learn from these situations, and to then deal with them better in the future, you will often need to go away and conduct some research. In this article we will examine how you can use research to increase your knowledge and understanding, helping you to become a more effective coach.
Why conduct research?
Researching a topic can provide several benefits for your coach development. Research can help you to increase your knowledge and understanding, expose you to new ideas, reinforce your current thinking, help you to keep up with trends, or allow you to operate from a sound knowledge base. You could choose to research an area of interest, or one that you have a specific need in.
You might choose to research an area that you are not confident in. It could be an area that you have identified that you are struggling with due to a lack of understanding. You might have an area that you wish to increase your understanding of so that you are able to be more effective with it. It may be that you have a player that is struggling with something and you want to be able to assist them with it. Or, it could just be that you want to increase your knowledge in a certain area that interests you.
Research and your learning plan
Research can be one of the tools that you use to address an area in your learning plan. This could be where you identify that it is a lack of knowledge or understanding that is holding you back. You might research an area that is of interest and that could improve your coaching. When you identify the area in your learning plan, you want to make sure you make a note of what you want to research, why you want to research it (what will be the benefit?), how you will go about researching it, and when you will research it. This will provide you with an action plan.
The research process
Effective research involves more than just picking up a book or checking out a few websites. By taking a deliberate, structured approach you will make your research more effective and make better use of your time. It will also help you to take your research findings and make them part of your coaching practice. An effective research process will work through the following six stages:
- Defining your research question
- Reviewing your current knowledge
- Identifying your sources
- Researching your sources
- Recording your learning, and
- Integrating your new knowledge.
We will work through each of these stages to see how they can be used to research a topic. To do this we will follow Coach Gary as he tackles a situation he has been facing while coaching his lacrosse team.
Defining your research question
It is important that you are very clear on what it is that you want to find out or learn more about before you begin researching. This will save you a lot of wasted time researching irrelevant material. It will also help you to hone in on the information that will help you to achieve your learning goals. In your learning plan this will mean clearly defining the coaching issue that you wish to address. This is best done by framing it as a research question.
Your research question could be stated as “How do I…?”, “Why does…?”, or “When should…?” etc. The knowledge that you are after could be either coaching related (regarding the process of coaching or the ‘how’), or sport-specific (the ‘what’ of coaching). The question should be something that will help you to be a more effective coach once you answer it. This means that it should directly address an aspect of your coaching, and ideally the question should relate to something that you are facing. This could be from situations you face or based on your athletes’ needs. Some examples of possible coaching questions include:
- What are some effective methods of motivating players?
- At what age should athletes start training with weights?
- What causes athletes to ‘choke’?
- How do players make decisions?
- How do I plan across a season?
Coach Gary is having trouble with feedback in his sessions and has decided to do some research into the area:
Reviewing your current knowledge
Having decided on your research question, your first step should be to review what you already know about the topic. What are your current thoughts or perceptions regarding it? What previous experience have you had in the area? What knowledge base do you have that you can now look to build on? Reviewing your current knowledge will help you to contextualise the question and look at what further information will help you to increase your understanding.
You could review your current knowledge by brainstorming what you know about the topic. You could also review your learning logs or a learning journal. Another option would be to try answering the question before researching it – identifying what you currently know and then deciding where the gaps are in your current knowledge.
Being structured with your research means being deliberate with what sources you use to learn about your topic. There are a range of possible sources which each have their own pros and cons; the trick is to identify the ones that will provide you the greatest amount of accurate, useful information in the least amount of time. To identify your sources you need to determine the types of sources you will use and which specific sources within these types. There are several types of sources that you could use to research a given topic. These types include:
- Academic journals
- The Internet, and
- Other coaches.
The table below lists these types of sources along with the pros and cons of using each. Use this table to help you to identify possible types of sources to use for your research.
Consider the following questions to help you to decide on the sources you will use:
- How do you plan to answer your research question?
- What resources can you easily access in the time you have available?
- How deep does your research need to go? Would a couple of internet articles be enough, or do you need to trawl through a number of academic journals?
- What resources do you have access to?
- Can you get journal articles?
- Are you able to visit your local library?
- What coaches or experts are in your network that you could contact?
- Which resources are most likely to provide the information you are after?
- Which resources do you feel most comfortable using?
Once you know the types of sources you will use, you then need to think about which specific sources you will start with. These could be the books you will read, the websites you will visit, the people you will talk to or the academic journals you will download. These will be your starting point; no doubt from these initial sources you will find more sources to review as research your topic.
Researching your sources
Make sure you assess the quality of a source before you start using it, especially when looking at internet sources. Some aspects you would look at to determine the quality of a source include:
- The qualifications and experience of the author
- What other pages / books / articles link to the source and the quality of those links
- The motivations the author is likely to have for providing the information (i.e. are they trying to sell something or defend a position?)
- How well it is presented (while being wary of ‘all flash no substance’)
- How it fits with your current understanding of the topic
- How well the author justifies their stance (e.g. what sources they refer to).
Assess each potential source and decide if it is worthwhile. Following this, you can then start working through a process for reviewing each source and gathering the information that they contain. The following ideas can help you to review sources:
- Take notes as you go – this could be in a Word document, a file management programme (e.g. Evernote), on a mind map, in a notebook or any other system that works for you.
- Cross-reference the information with other sources – is it consistent and have they interpreted their sources accurately?
- Record your sources as you go. This will make it easier for you to refer back to them and to review them in light of further information that you gather.
- Follow the links and references in your sources (website links, books and journal articles etc.) to gain further information and to corroborate what you have learned.
- Compare what you have learned to your current knowledge, experience and social environment – does it sit well, is it at odds or does it cause you to review your current position?
- Form an opinion – what do you believe regarding the topic? Based on your research, how do you feel that you will answer your research question?
Recording your learning
A good reason for taking notes as you review your sources is that it will help you when you come to record the information you have learned. We discussed in our previous article the importance of having a system for recording information so that you can later refer to it and make use of it. Most people will struggle to remember everything they read and gain from their research; recording your learning points and research notes will make it much easier for you to use them to inform your coaching practice.
At some stage you will reach the point where you feel ready to answer your research question. Remember, this is the reason for conducting your research – to answer a question that will help you to become a better coach. There are a few ways that you might approach recording your learning and answering this question. You might choose to summarise the main points that you took from your research. You could decide to write out the conclusions you drew based on what you have learned. This could be done using a learning log or reflective journal. You could put the key points into your learning plan, identifying what actions you will take based on them. The important thing is to make a record of how you answer the research question based on the research you have conducted.
Integrating your learning
One key stage is left to be completed once you have answered your research question: integrating your new knowledge. This means that you need to actually use what you have learned so that you improve your coaching. Here is where you link back to your learning plan by identifying the actions you will take to integrate what you have learned into your coaching practice. This is an important part of the learning cycle as ‘active experimentation’ (putting learning into practice) is where you will develop your coaching skills.
There are a number of actions that you could take to make use of your knowledge and ensure that it informs your regular coaching practice. Your first step is to compare it to your existing knowledge. Does it fit? Does it challenge any of your assumptions? Does it require you to make changes or to do further research to get a better handle on it? You should update your learning plan with any actions that flow out of this examination.
Within your learning plan you should identify some actions you can take to implement this knowledge. These could be actions you can take in coaching sessions or when interacting with athletes. Although you may need to do some more research, don’t be shy to try and put what you have learned into action. Take something that you can do practically and work through a cycle of implementing it, evaluating its effectiveness, reviewing your performance and then applying or experimenting again. Throughout this process you should reflect on what you are doing until you are happy that you have answered your research question and improved your coaching. When you reach this point you can then start again with a new research question, addressing a different coaching challenge.
Research can be an effective way to increase your knowledge and help you to improve your coaching ability. Using a structured approach will help you to get the most from your research, and you should define some clear steps in your learning plan that will help you to integrate what you have learned. In our next article we will look at how you can evaluate and review your learning plan to allow you to improve on it and continue to move forward.