The Coaching Process
At its essence, coaching is a simple process. It is a series of decisions based upon information that is presented to the coach on daily basis, which are further refined as patterns emerge over time.
While the process may be simple, coaching effectiveness varies widely. What’s the difference? Doc Counsilman, one of the sport’s most successful and revolutionary coaches, was often asked what makes a great coach. In a talk about the X-Factor of great coaches, he said, ‘You must be able to recognize the important things and work on them; and to minimize the unimportant.”
At each stage of the coaching process, coaching effectiveness is distinguished by the ability to understand what information is important and what is information is not. That effectiveness is further differentiated by what coaches decide to do with the information that is provided to them.
I’ve laid out a framework below that could be useful to coaches as they navigate their decision-making process. By starting with a clear structure, a younger coach can organize their thought processes. Overtime, the initial structure eventually allows that process to evolve into a much more fluid and intuitive one which characterizes expert coaching.
Understand What is Happening
There are many different aspects of reality that affects the process of coaching and the process of improving swimming performance. The more coaches can gain an understanding and appreciation of all of these areas, the better they can understand what is happening in front of them on a daily basis. The sooner this happens in a coach’s development, the sooner they can learn to label and manage the various problems presented by the coaching process. To start with, consider the following areas-
Mechanics- What are the underlying principles that support great movement? How do these principles apply specifically to swimming?
Learning- How do swimmers best learn skills? What strategies are consistently effective?
Physiology- What is happening physiologically when swimmers race and train? How does the body adapt to physical training?
Socio-cultural- What social and cultural dynamics affect performance? How can these dynamics be influenced?
Psychological- How do psychological dynamics can be expected in the training and competitive environment? What attributes are commonly seen in successful competitors?
The generalized answers to these questions become more apparent over time. The process can be accelerated by reading everything you can, watching and learning from other coaches, learning from your swimmers, and otherwise educating yourself about anything that affects performance, which is just about everything.
With an understand all of the aspects of reality that can affect performance, we can start to appreciate what factors may be most critical in driving performances forward. A foundation for separating the important from the unimportant can be created. With a broad perspective, we can begin to appreciate that what is important depends very much on the context. With a more global understanding, we are more likely to accurately discern what matters for each context.
It is this understanding that allows coaches begin to distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant.
Have a Clear Intent
Our actions are guided by our intentions. What are we trying to accomplish? In setting clear intentions and clear goals, coaches are defining what needs to be accomplished. Successful coaches will have a better understanding of what goals are most important for long-term success. As coaches gain a better understanding of what is important, the intentions surrounding the most important tasks will become clearer and clearer. The intention is very specifically outlined because the details matters.
For every aspect of development, goals will be determined. As knowledge and experience grow, better coaches will become more skilled in clearly defining what needs to be accomplished for long-term success. They can differentiate between goals that are important and goals that are unimportant.
Create an Intervention
Once intentions are clear, coaches use their knowledge and experience to create interventions to accomplish the goals that have been set. Better coaches will create better interventions that have a greater likelihood of successfully accomplishing the desired objectives. Better coaches have identified more of the strategies consistently produce positive outcomes and they learn to anticipate the potential problems that can arise and have developed strategies to pre-empt these problems.
As many different interventions can successfully improve performance, coaches must become skilled at choosing the appropriate solution for their specific context, as well as modifying those interventions for different individuals under their coaching influence. The more coaches can appreciate the different factors influencing their context, the greater the likelihood of selecting effective interventions.
There are infinite possible interventions for coaches to choose from when deciding how to intervene. Coaches must be able to distinguish the important aspects of an effective training intervention from the unimportant.
As interventions are created and implemented, coaches must then closely observe the impact of those interventions. Observing your swimmers on daily basis provides feedback to guide and manage the process. It’s important to be looking for both the intended and unintended effects of the interventions, as well as consider effects beyond performance. While coaches will certainly be aware of how performance is moving, they must also consider how technique is improving, how team dynamics are shifting, whether swimmers are remaining engaged, emotional status, etc…
Effective observation can arise from asking and answering the following simple questions-
What do you expect to be happening?
What is happening?
What’s the difference and how do you explain it?
How are swimmers responding to the training program physically, psychologically, technically? How are group dynamics impacted?
It’s critical to see what is in front of you, and not just what you are looking for. There will be an infinite amount of information available while observing. Effective observation arises from the ability to distinguish the information streams that are relevant from the information streams that are not.
On the basis of your observations of the effect of the training interventions, coaches are tasked with managing the training process by adjusting their interventions to remain aligned with the previously established goals. While management efforts can be reduced through clear goal setting and the creation of effective interventions, coaches cannot predict the future and training management will be required.
In most cases, managing training takes the form of subtle training adjustments that occurs on a daily basis based upon how swimmers present themselves in training due to small changes in training readiness. While these adjustments may not seem like a big deal, they are critical in ensuring progress towards stated goals.
In some cases, the training process will not unfold as expected, performance will stagnate, and coaches will have to design alternative interventions to achieve targeted goals. The danger here is always the desire to overreact. Coaches have to make a significant enough change to solve the problem without creating too much change that just leads to other problems.
On occasion, this will be as a result of circumstances beyond your control that significantly derail the training process. In these more extreme cases, goals will have to be re-clarified due to unforeseen changes.
All of these outcomes are inevitable to some degree as even the best planning is not infallible. However, effective management of training can prevent small problems from becoming large problems by effectively adjusting training on the basis of careful and thoughtful observation.
While these five steps of the coaching process have been separated here in a linear manner for the purpose of clarity, they are constantly interacting with and influencing each other at every step of the process. Efforts at managing training will require modification in training interventions. Training goals may be influenced by the training interventions that are possible due to time or equipment constraints, or the skillsets of the swimmers being coached.
Training goals will also influence how the training process is managed as different goals will require different management strategies. Finally, constantly repeating the coaching process will cause coaches to notice patterns which alter what you believe is happening at a foundational level as a swimmer improves. This will affect every other aspect of the coaching process.
Each step does not exist in isolation. Decisions at each level are constantly being balanced against the considerations present at other stages of the process. As such, coaches must be skilled at determining not only what is important within each step of the process, but what is important across the various steps of the process.
When witnessing great coaching, it seems like an effortless dance where problems are solved before they even occur. That intuitive and natural ease emerges from a process characterized by a series of decisions.
Coaching is a relatively simple process characterized by the repeated separation of the important from the unimportant. It is a series of decisions that starts with an understanding of the factors that influence performance and then setting clear goals, creating effective interventions, observing the effects of the intervention, and modifying the whole process based upon those observations.
At each step of the process, coaches will be tasked with deciding what is important and what is unimportant. Throughout the coaching process, coaches can simply ask themselves, ‘is this important’? Coaches should then be able to justify their choices with a clear and concise rationale. The ability to do so increases the likelihood that their decisions are accurately separating the important from the unimportant.
While most coaches, particularly experienced and highly skilled coaches, work through this process intuitively, it can be useful to clarify the process, especially in less skilled coaches. It allows coaches to refine how they are deciding to conduct practice sessions, as well as reflect on the effects of those training sessions, both positive and negative. The intuition that characterizes expert coaches arises from the repeated exposure to similar situations, and constant reflection as to how best manage those situations.
Some coaches may be incredibly skilled at observing their swimmers and using this information to manage the training process on a daily basis. However, their relative inability to create training interventions reflective of their goals may require excessive training management where problems that shouldn’t be occurring must be solved. At the same time, coaches who create the most effective training plans, yet can’t manage those plans will not be as effective as they could be.
With careful reflection, coaches can identify where their skillsets may be falling short, and then work to improve these skills, ensuring they are a complete coach.