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Developing Competence: What Coaches Need to Know about Athlete Learning

Why are some coaches better than others at helping individuals to improve? In part, it comes down to how coaches think about developing competence in their athletes.

In this article, we’ll draw from the research and thinking of acclaimed coaching consultant and sport scientist Dr. Wade Gilbert to discuss:

  • What is competence?
  • Why good coaches think about ‘how athletes learn’ (and what they can learn from teachers — hint, it’s about teaching)
  • Gilbert’s Four Principles of Athlete Learning

What Is Competence?

Helping athletes to develop competence is a fundamental part of coaching. In fact, it’s the part of coaching that most often comes first to mind, when we think about what coaching is — the teaching of key skills, techniques, tactical knowledge, so that athletes can learn and get better.

Gilbert talks about how, when we think about the components of competence, it helps us to understand the essence of coaching. “With competence, we think about athletic skills, physical skills, tactical skills — the things that make better athletes.

“These are the first things that most of us consider when we think about coaching. And this, to me, gets to the heart of coaching; coaching is teaching.”

Good Coaches Think About ‘How Athletes Learn’

Gilbert suggests we look at the science of great coaching, and how great coaches liken the role of coaching to teaching.

“Are great coaches focused on teaching?” he asks. “Do they act like teachers and understand pedagogy and learning principles? Yes, they do. They invest heavily in learning how to become better teachers.”

To emphasise his reasoning, Gilbert points to a year-long study on John Wooden, one of America’s greatest ever basketball coaches: “The study found that, with Wooden, arguably one of the best coaches of all time, over 50% of everything he said or did was related to teaching,” he explains.

Researchers began by breaking down the feedback that a coach gives their athletes into ten distinct categories: 

  • Instructions: statements regarding what to do or how to do it.
  • Hustles: statements to activate or reinforce previous instructions.
  • Positive Modelling: demonstrations of how to perform.
  • Negative Modelling: demonstrations of how not to perform.
  • Praise: encouragement or compliments.
  • Scolding: statements of displeasure.
  • Nonverbal Rewards: physical demonstrations of praise, such as smiles.
  • Nonverbal Punishment: physical demonstrations of displeasure, such as scowls or gestures of despair. (It’s worth noting that the study found this form of feedback to be virtually non-existent in Wooden’s coaching.)
  • Scolding/Reinstruction: scolding that reverts to a previous instruction. (For example, “How many times do I have to tell you…”)
  • Other: behaviour that couldn’t be placed in one of the preceding categories.

After monitoring an entire season of Wooden’s coaching, and recording every piece of feedback he gave his athletes, researchers found that over half of his coach-athlete interactions fell into the first two categories — instructions, and statements to positively reinforce those instructions. “If you factor in modelling and re-instruction, it was over 60%,” says Gilbert. “This portrait of one of our greatest ever coaches clearly shows that, first and foremost, he was a teacher. He acted and thought like a teacher.”

This is a concept that Gilbert has explored during years of research into the science of teaching. He maintains that, in order to be better coaches, we must understand teaching and learning — and it is through deepening his knowledge in this field that he developed his Four Principles of Athlete Learning.

“If we use these four principles, we put ourselves in a position to be more effective teachers,” he claims. “And this helps us to become more efficient in building our athletes’ confidence and competence.”

The Four Principles of Athlete Learning

1. Prior knowledge can help or hinder athlete learning

Simply put, we shouldn’t try to teach an individual before establishing what they already know. We may find that our athletes can’t do certain things that we expected of them, and that we need to bring our training programme back a few steps. Alternatively, they might be more advanced than we anticipated, enabling us to skip a few planned areas of learning (or even requiring us to skip ahead in order to keep them engaged).

“We can come in with a practice plan, but our first step should really be a needs assessment,” says Gilbert. “Let’s take that first practice and just see where our athletes are.

Then we can make a better determination of where to meet them, and where to start.”

2. Athlete motivation directly influences the learning process

Gilbert’s second principle acknowledges the importance of motivation — and of not taking our athletes’ motivation for granted — in effective learning. “We can’t assume that our athletes are going to do things just because we’re the coach and we’re telling them to do it,” he explains. “We need to help them understand why we’re doing certain things, and how those things relate to what they want to do.

“After all, it’s about them, it’s not about us.”

To this point, taking a humanistic view of coaching, will help coaches to better learn about their athletes’ motivations. That is, as Gilbert states, our role is not to coach a sport, but to coach people. The precise areas of competence we coach might vary depending on our sport, but our primary role will always be to work with other humans and teach them to do or understand something new.

3. Skill mastery requires athletes to learn component skills

Mastering any skill requires us to learn all of the component pieces that comprise it. To help us understand this concept, Gilbert recommends thinking of competency as a jigsaw puzzle: “When you attempt a puzzle, you start by looking at the picture to get an idea of what the final picture should look like. Then you organise the pieces. This is all before you begin putting them together.

“It’s the same approach with teaching skills; there are always pieces of a skill that athletes must be able to do before they can learn the next skill.

“Take the example of scoring in an invasion game: what are the components of being able to score? Athletes must be able to pass and read the play; they have to be in position; and they need to be fit enough to get to where they need to be to receive a pass; there are a lot of pieces. It’s not just scoring.”

As coaches, we need to understand the component skills (or puzzle pieces) that our athletes need to learn, place them in order, and know how to teach them as we build towards the bigger picture of competence and mastery.

4. Combine deliberate practice with targeted, specific feedback

Finally, Gilbert emphasises the importance of deliberate practice — the process of practising the things you’re not good at. “Deliberate practice is pushing your athletes to work on the stuff that’s hard for them — the things they can’t do yet,” he explains. “If you didn’t show up, or you just let your athletes practise whatever they wanted to practise, they would pick the things that they can already do, because it’s much more rewarding and intrinsically motivating to do things that you’re already good at.

“That’s where feedback is really important — so that you can keep them motivated and on track. I always encourage coaches to think about which things their athletes are struggling with, ensure there’s time at practice to focus on them, and consider the feedback they give afterwards — the kinds of words and statements they want to use — in advance, instead of just reacting in the moment.”

Applying Athlete Learning Principles in Our Coaching

Of course, knowing the Four Principles of Athlete Learning is only part of the challenge; we must also consciously apply them in our coaching, and be careful not to slip into pre-learned habits.

“Imagine teaching someone how to juggle,” says Gilbert, to exemplify this point. “What would be the first step?” According to Gilbert, after learning his Four Principles for the first time, many coaches will still suggest coaching specific techniques, such as how to toss one ball, or how to grip a ball correctly. “But no,” he replies, “let’s go back to our principles.

“The first step in teaching something to anyone is asking what they already know. Have they juggled before? Have they seen someone juggle? Can they juggle? When I introduce new skills, tactics, or techniques to my team, the first thing I should do is get a sense of where they are with that particular skill, tactic, or technique. We must be careful not to just assume that our athletes are blank slates. We need to think about these learning principles before running a practice.”

Andy Rogers, National Sport Development Consultant at Sport New Zealand, agrees: “You see so many coaches plan and then jump straight into a session without that understanding of where their athletes are at,” he adds. “But for any given skill, some athletes will be more advanced, others will be somewhere in the middle, and some will be further behind. So getting that prior knowledge of what they can do is hugely important.”

Final Thoughts

In order to help athletes develop competence, we must first understand how they learn. Dr. Wade Gilbert asserts that, as coaches, our primary role is to teach — and that our methods should be founded upon a knowledge of the individuals we’re working with and the principles of teaching and learning.

To assist coaches in this approach, he developed his Four Principles of Athlete Learning:

  1. Prior knowledge can help or hinder athlete learning.
  2. Athlete motivation directly influences the learning process.
  3. Skill mastery requires athletes to learn component skills.
  4. Combine deliberate practice with targeted, specific feedback.

It is by seeing ourselves as teachers, endeavouring to know our athletes, understanding the principles of learning, and then consciously applying them to our coaching that we can help athletes develop key skills, tactics, and techniques, and improve their overall competency.

In Summary

  • Before coaching competence, we must define what it is. According to Gilbert, we often think of competence in terms of skills, tactics, and techniques.
  • The central component of coaching is teaching. In order to help our athletes develop skills, we must understand how they learn, and acknowledge our role as teachers.
  • Gilbert’s Four Principles of Athlete Learning provide a great framework for understanding how our athletes learn, and how we can effectively teach them.
  • It’s essential that, in addition to knowing the Four Principles of Athlete Learning, we embrace them, and make a conscious effort to apply them in our coaching.

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