The Art of Coaching: the power of words, and conjuring mental images...

The art of coaching is communicating information in a way that the athlete understands and is able to use.

When it comes to coaching movement and technique, this information is often in the form of concepts and quite abstract ideas. Even when the technical model and idea to present to the athlete is the same, the method that proves effective for communicating this information to each individual can differ markedly. 

Hence the challenge that faces the coach is finding the particular word or cue that resonates with the particular individual. What every coach aims for is that illuminating 'light bulb' moment when the message becomes meaningful to the athlete.

The route by which you arrive at this moment will differ for each athlete. The method of teaching that works for the majority will not work for all; it is clearly critical to accept this and prepare accordingly. To this end, having a broad and diverse playbook and an array of methods at your disposal is clearly beneficial.

Equally, a shotgun approach of throwing a variety of cues and methods of communicating all in one go can be baffling; and even if the athlete does pick up the relevant information it is very difficult in this situation to have a clear idea which cue or method proved effective. Therefore an understanding of the athlete and an intuitive sense of which cues and methods to select is critical, not least for the ongoing learning process on the part of the coach.

Often the quest is to conjure a visual depiction or a moving image in the mind of the athlete that captures the essence of what you are trying to convey. The use of analogies can be very useful here.

Other times it is a feeling that you are looking to capture. Simply manually putting the athlete in the posture you want can be very effective. Using tactile cues or describing the feel of the movement can also provide rich information that the athlete can readily apply. 

Clearly this is however reliant on the coach or practitioner having an intimate understanding of the 'feel' of the movement in order that they are able to convey this information to the athlete. This does not necessarily mean that the coach must have been an elite performer themselves; it merely requires that the coach is willing to practice these movements on a regular basis in order that they are able to readily recall the sensations involved.

Likewise being able to demonstrate correct technique can be crucial. Many times when you are describing a particular movement to an athlete they will ask 'show me'. There are however a growing number of tools available to the coach with the different resources such as YouTube that are readily available online that may provide a substitute for 'live' demonstration. Similarly smart devices and related technology can be a great tool to provide visual feedback to augment the coaching cues provided.

Nevertheless, finding what is effective for different individuals is ultimately a trial and error process. With experience of communicating different messages to a variety of individuals a coach will acquire a growing playbook of cues and methods that they find to be effective. 

As this discussion illustrates, it is not sufficient for the coach to have a detailed understanding of technique or technical model (albeit this is a necessary starting point!). The goal is to find the right message in the right manner of communicating the particular idea in a way that conveys the relevant information to the mind of the athlete. This comprises a host of different skills and experiential learning on the part of the coach or practitioner.

When You’re Done Learning, You’re Done.

The process of acquiring these skills involves time spent coaching a mix of athletes at different stages of development, ideally in different environments and even different sports, a willingness to be innovative, and a commitment to reflective learning to get the most out of these experiences. Ultimately, this journey has no end point - even the best and most experienced coaches in the world are continually learning from each experience with a new athlete, adding to their playbook, and refining their approach.