Coaching Better Every Season
Though it might be overused, the sports adage “You either get better or get worse” is one experienced coaches know to be true. The best coaches employ new, effective methods to develop their athletes through the four phases of the seasonal coaching cycle. Each phase requires a different focus, what I call the 4E’s: Envision, Enact, Examine, and Enhance.
Envision During Preseason
Although the length of each phase varies across sports and levels of competition, there are common principles and methods for each phase that will improve your chances for success.
Figure 1. Four seasons of the annual coaching cycle: The 4 E’s (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. xi)
Preseason is the time to lay the foundation for success and to prepare athletes – as well as you and your coaching staff – for the journey ahead. That foundation will be solid only if built upon four pillars.
1. A defined coaching purpose and core values
2. Connection of purpose and values to a guiding coaching philosophy
3. Target outcomes (goals) determined with athletes
4. Trust and team cohesion
Across a season you will be faced with many challenges and dilemmas. A clear purpose and core values provide the compass to make sound choices and successfully guide you through adversity. How you approach the way you will coach, what you will teach, and the strategies you will employ is referred to as your coaching philosophy. Although elements of a coaching philosophy may vary each season depending on the profile of that season’s group of athletes, the philosophy should always align with your purpose and core values.
With a clear sense of purpose and a guiding philosophy, meaningful and realistic goals can be set for the season. Goal setting is common practice, but athletes must be active partners in the process to increase their commitment to the goals. Coaches and athletes should first independently write down goals for the season, and then jointly review and revise the goals.
The final pillar of preseason coaching success is building trust and team cohesion. Successful coaches establish team standards and behavior expectations as opposed to a rigid set of team rules. Standards and expectations provide a blueprint for ‘how we operate here.’ Coach and athlete behaviors that align with team standards and expectations build trust and cohesion; behaviors that don’t will erode trust and cohesion.
In-season is the heart of a coaching cycle. This is the time when coaches are most focused on teaching and supporting athletes. We know that athletes develop best when coaching methods are adapted to meet an athlete’s unique needs and stage of readiness. How you coach a 6-year old beginner athlete should be very different from how you coach an 18-year old high performance athlete. Regardless of the athlete’s stage of development though, quality coaches always consider basic principles of learning when designing practices (see Table 1).
For example, athletes improve most when they engage in practice activities that stretch them just beyond what they are currently capable of doing. This approach – commonly referred to as deliberate practice – requires intense focus and effort, and therefore must be balanced with less strenuous playful practice activities.
Table 1. Principles of Athlete Learning and Sample Coaching Strategies (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. 127)
The benefits athletes gain from quality training will be wasted unless they are concurrently prepared to perform at their peak in competition. Effective athlete precompetition preparation includes proper rest and routines to get them into their unique, preferred physical, mental and emotional states. Once the competition begins, effective coaching measures include (a) close examination of performance, (b) praise and encouragement of athletes, and (c) use of teachable moments to strengthen athlete skills (see Table 2). Post-competition routines should also be prepared to help athletes recover and get ready for the next training sessions and competition.
Table 2. Components of Effective Competition Coaching (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. 201)
Examine at the End of Season
After a long season, it is normal to want to get away from coaching to rest and recover. While a brief pause in schedule can be healthy, the best coaches quickly regroup and carefully assess what went well and what can be improved. End of season evaluation should always start with a rigorous self-analysis involving four basic questions:
1. How well did I model my purpose and core values?
2. How well did I build a culture of trust and cohesion?
3. How well did I develop athletes through quality training sessions?
4. How well did I prepare athletes to perform at their peak in competitions?
Although self-evaluation provides an important basis for making decisions about how to improve, end-of-season feedback from a wide range of people is just as essential (see Figure 2). Without feedback from others, particularly athletes, it is easy to miss important clues about how to improve. In addition to asking others to share their observations, many questionnaires and evaluation tools are readily available for coaches to use or adapt (see Chapter 10 in Coaching Better Every Season).
Figure 2. Potential Sources of End of Season Evaluation Feedback (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. 233)
End of season is also the time to recognize and build on strengths. End of season ceremonies such as team banquets, senior recognitions and last practice rituals, are used to celebrate the journey and reinforce team culture. Finally, coaches should make time at the end of season to recognize their own achievements, sometimes referred to as ‘strengths-spotting.’ Answering this simple question at the end of the season will help you identify your coaching strengths: What was my best day of coaching this past season, and why was this my best day?
Enhance Through Off-Season
Quality coaches use their off-season to invest in getting better. Improvement as a coach comes from closing performance gaps, building learning networks, and recharging your health and wellness. Select one or two items each off-season to study in-depth. This manageable, steady approach to learning over a coaching career is much more effective than trying to cram new ideas or make wholesale changes to your coaching all at once.
Improvement as a coach is enhanced when you have mentors and access to other coaches who are willing to guide off season learning efforts. The list of 12 characteristics for identifying ideal candidates to join your network in Figure 3 will help you build the right team to accelerate your development.
Figure 3. Checklist for Identifying Candidates for a Coach Network (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. 359)
Equally important during the off-season, you must make time to re-energize. Failing to set aside time to reconnect with family and friends, and maintain personal health and wellness, will short-circuit your coaching career and your personal life will suffer. The off-season presents an opportune time to revisit, or learn new, strategies for refilling your physical and emotional tank. A good place to start is to watch some of the free self-care videos compiled as part of the popular TED Talk series (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Important of Self-Care TED Talk Playlist for Coaches (reprinted from Coaching Better Every Season, p. 363)
Remembering to stay focused on the topics most important during each of the four phases of a coaching cycle will help you coach at your best. Quality coaches use strategies and principles shared in this article to stay in a constant learn and adapt mode. These underlying principles provide the compass for a rewarding and long-lasting coaching experience across every season of your coaching career.
About the Author
Dr. Wade Gilbert is an award-winning professor and internationally renowned coaching scientist in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Fresno. Born and raised in Canada, he has 25 years of experience conducting applied research with coaches around the world spanning all sports and competitive levels, from youth leagues to the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games. He is widely published, including his recent book Coaching Better Every Season (Human Kinetics) and is frequently invited to speak at national and international events. Gilbert is Editor-in-Chief of the International Sport Coaching Journal and is a regular contributor to coaching seminars for Olympic and national team coaches.
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