Better Teaching Skills=Better Coaching

In recent blogs, the focus has been on time management in practice. In this piece, the focus is on the ingredients of effective teaching. Although my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in Education, most of what I learned as a teacher came from being in the educational cauldron with students. To run beneficial training sessions, coaches need to incorporate teaching principles into their routine. The best coaches are the best teachers. When I say “best” coaches, the emphasis is not necessarily on the winning team but the team that demonstrates improvement throughout a season.

One can go in a million directions when focusing on the “how” of teaching. I will present a few general concepts applicable to most coaching situations.

Practice Makes Permanent

It is not unusual for a coach to explain a drill, get the activity started, then lean against the wall as chaos ensues. By chaos, I mean the players aren’t sure of what they are working on, there is no barometer for success, the feedback is limited, and the execution is poor. No matter how perfect the design of the activity, the mere fact that players are active will not precipitate improvement. Practice does not make perfect; it makes things permanent. If players are not executing correctly or not executing at full speed, they will not improve and possibly will digress. Whatever they are doing will become a permanent fixture in their skillset.

The levels of focus on specific aspects of skill must be high. The coach provides a foundation of information to develop the skills, and then the player must take over and provide the energy and concentration necessary to facilitate improvement. The video below with Lauren Barnes, the libero on the National Champion Wisconsin Badgers, demonstrates intentional repetitions that will facilitate improvement.

Lauren Barnes-University of Wisconsin

You can see in this video how intensely focused Lauren is on each contact. She is passing to a specific target and is possibly shooting for a specific number of passes into the target. The coach doesn’t need to be vocal as the athlete is self-coaching. The coach can assist if needed; however, it is beneficial to allow the player to take responsibility for their improvement.

Correction vs. Critique; Punishment vs. Opportunity to Repeat

Coaches should avoid telling players what they are doing incorrectly. The feedback should be what they need to do better. Instead of verbalizing “you’re not moving your feet” (critique), encourage the players to “move faster to the ball.” (correction). Correcting allows the player to focus on what needs to be done, not what they might be doing wrong.

Along the same lines, too many coaches will punish the athlete when an error is made. A ball attacked out of bounds results in five pushups. What a coach might do instead is provide an opportunity to repeat. A ball hit out of bounds results in five additional repetitions. I don’t like a failure. I try to repeat the skill when the player makes a mistake. In a middle school math class, students are not punished when a mistake occurs. Students are, however, provided with additional opportunities to rehearse the proper execution of a problem (homework). I see no reason for coaching volleyball to be any different. Practice should be designed so that a participant who fails to succeed at an activity will receive opportunities to repeat the mistake looking to iron out errors.

Environment vs. Motivation

Player motivation is difficult to measure objectively. Players, at a minimum, have the motivation to lace up their shoes and walk in the gym. However, to achieve anything of significance requires more than just walking in the gym. Many coaches seek the magical elixir as to how to motivate a player. As a coach, I recommend spending less energy trying to motivate a player or team. My emphasis is on creating an environment conducive to improvement. Developing a culture that emphasizes attention to detail, correct execution, an enthusiasm for learning, and embracing challenges will provide a springboard for success.

The challenge is the steps to create such an environment. Begin with the more minor aspects of creating a positive environment. How do we get athletes to pay attention to detail? Start small, such as how they dress, being punctual, taking good notes of the critical aspects of the practice, posing questions to a player, etc. If players can master the small components, the greater demands will be more straightforward. The overriding principle is the coach must demonstrate to the athlete how they desire the practice to be managed. If you are a low-energy coach that leans against the wall and doesn’t say much, don’t expect players to manufacture enthusiasm for learning.

Verbalize the Desired Behavior

Developing positive habits is essential for the consistent execution of the skills. I like to have athletes articulate what we are emphasizing. If you observed the video with Lauren Barnes, you notice there was a lot of self-talk to emphasize essential components to her serve-receive work.

Organize your Presentation

One of the things that I learned quickly as a teacher is to make sure you are presenting information in an attention-getting format—a couple of things to keep in mind.

  • Vary the tone of your voice, be enthusiastic, have fun with the learning process.
  • Avoid yelling across the court. If you need to provide information to the group, bring them to you.
  • When addressing a player or team, have them face a wall while looking at you. Make every effort to minimize possible distractions. All the focus is on you, not on the next court.
  • If possible, model what you want them to do. 
  • Be specific with your feedback. Saying “nice job” is excellent for building a positive vibe, but that form of feedback isn’t facilitating learning. For example, “that’s the way to accelerate on your hitting approach” is specific to the behavior you want them to repeat.
  • Have a player repeat back to you what was said. Often, what a coach says is not what a player hears. If a player cannot articulate a concept, they probably do not understand the concept.

Always Revisit Basics

All advanced skills and systems have a foundation of basic movements and techniques. When building a house, you don’t start on the second floor. Without a solid foundation of fundamentals, players will have issues performing at an advanced level. There will be a point in the skill development process where the shortcomings in a player’s skillset will marginalize their future growth. Coaches need to revisit skill basics to allow continual growth.

When planning practices, coaches must play the role of the teacher. The presentation must be organized, challenge the student, and have a method for objective evaluation of the session and the players’ understanding of the material presented. Frequently, coaches possessing a decent knowledge of the game do not successfully transfer their knowledge to the athlete. A club director might consider bringing in a teacher to assist the coaching staff in the organizational skills and the mechanics of being a good teacher. In summary, unless the coach is a great recruiter and gets the best players, the success of a team will probably be correlated to the instructional abilities of the coach.