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A tale of two questions

As a coach moves from being a novice to becoming more of an expert, they transition from focusing on the ‘right’ way to do things to understanding that there is no one ‘right’ way. In this article, Dave explores this concept in more detail and asks can coaches ‘hack’ their own development by pushing themselves to understand that there is no one ‘right’ way.

In January of 2019 I helped facilitate a two-day Hockey coaching workshop with a colleague (Mick). Mick was the Hockey expert, and I was there to help with a ‘how to coach’ lens. Towards the end of the first day, one of the coaches in the group asked the following question: 

“What type of press do you recommend I use with my team?” (this will be referred to as ‘question one’ for the remainder of this article). 

Mick, being the Hockey expert, did a good job at answering the question, yet that later night, the question kept going around my head. I mentioned to Mick on the Sunday morning there was something about that question that kept me up the night before. You see, the way Mick answered the question started with ‘It depends’. What I realized, in speaking with Mick that morning, was that we hadn’t done as good a job as we could have in helping the coaches understand what they need to consider within their own context to answer that question. We hadn’t helped them understand what ‘it depends’ depends on. We needed to do a better job at helping shift the groups thinking from asking questions like “What type of press do you recommend I use with my team?” to asking questions like: 

“What should I prioritise when it comes to deciding what type of press I use with my team?” (‘question two’ for the remainder of this article). 

Or, in a general sporting version: 

“What do different tactics depend on?” 

Question one is a very rule-based question. It is seeking absolutes. It is essentially asking ‘can you please tell me how I should coach this part of the game?’ However, I believe the question coaches should be challenging themselves to ask, at every opportunity, are question two type questions. To quote Craig Lewis, “knowing why beats knowing how”. Coaches need to be developing an understanding of knowing why as well as knowing how, and questions twos are the way to do that. 

Mick wrote a great blog last year that was focused on the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition (not coincidently, it’s called It Depends). The Dreyfus Model charts how people move from novice to expert in whatever skill they are trying to master. 

A key difference between novices and experts, according to the model, is that novices are very rule-focused, whereas experts rely on intuition that comes from significant amounts of experience. They’ve long since forgotten the ‘rules’ that helped them initially, and at times, probably go against those rules because they have a wider understanding of the overall context. 

Question ones are questions from coaches who are towards the novice end of Dreyfus’ skill acquisition continuum. There is nothing wrong what those questions. That’s not what I’m trying to say. Those questions are to be expected as people transition through the stages. However, what I have started to wonder is, can coaches ‘hack’ their transition through from novice to expert by asking more question two questions? To be honest, I’m not sure. But, if it were to happen, the default mindset of coaches needs to shift from ‘what’ to ‘why’. It would look like: 

  1. When a coach is googling “activities to develop passing for my Rugby/ Netball/ Football team”, they are asking questions like: 

    ‘How is this activity actually developing passing?’ 
    ‘Could I improve it to develop passing even better?’ 
  2. When a coach is watching the All Blacks, Silver Ferns or All Whites, they are asking questions like:

    ‘Why is that tactic working for them?’  
  3. When they have been sent a YouTube clip of another coach taking a training, they are asking questions like: 

    ‘How does she know if that activity is too easy for her team, and how could she progress the activity to make it harder?’ 
    ‘How does she know if that activity is too hard for her team, and how could she regress the activity to make it easier?’ 

As any coach worth their salt will tell you, not all tactics (or formations, or counter attack policies, or set piece ideas) are created equal, and they will be more or less effective in different situations and with different ages, genders and skill levels. We know the folly of ‘trying to fit a round peg into a square hole’ in general life but we, as coaches, can do better at seeing this ‘round peg, square hole’ situation when we coach. What coaches need to understand is “Why is ‘tactic A’ more likely to work here than ‘tactic B’, or “why is ‘skill A’ better for my athlete than ‘skill B?”. Thinking like this is shifting from novice to expert. The more coaches are encouraged and allowed to think like this, the faster they will move from novice to expert.  

I don’t think this is all on coaches to shift their thinking though – coach development has a role to play too. In my story above, Mick did a great job at answering the question at the workshop. But what if he had gone a step further, and turned the question back on the coaches even more explicitly? 

What if his response looked like this: 

“Ok I’m not going to answer that question directly. What this course is here to help you do is to answer that question yourself. So, I want you to take five minutes and start to jot down in your notebook what things influence the decision you make when you decide what type of press you want to use. We will compare these answers as a group in five minutes.” 

Rather than tell the group what selecting a press depends on, they have been asked to think about the answer themselves. They are starting to think about ‘why’ as well as ‘how’, e.g. why am I thinking about using that press?  

So, the next time you’re thinking about designing your training, and you go to YouTube, or Twitter, for help, remember to keep asking yourself ‘question two questions’. Why is that working for them? How is that developing that tactic or skill? How could I adapt that to fit my team? 

The next time you’re thinking of sending a clip or an idea to another coach, preface it with question twos

  • ‘How do you think this would work with our team?’ 
  • ‘What would we need to adapt?’ 
  • ‘How would this help them solve that issue with their performance?’ 

In this way, coaches are being nudged, slowly but surely, from novice to expert. They are starting to understand what ‘it depends’ depends on.  

Image Credits: Emilio Garcia on Unsplash