I’m happy to say we’re still tracking for a December release for my book for sports coaches, The Coach’s Guide to Teaching. I’m trying to post some excerpts here. Though most of the book focuses on what we can do during training and practice to accelerate learning, in Chapter 6 I try to reflect on two of the most common challenges of coaching during games/matches.
This book is almost entirely about what is to me the most important part of a coach’s job: how he or she teaches in training sessions and practices. But athletes are learning and coaches are guiding them during competition as well. In this section I will offer some reflections on how coaches might think about interactions during competition from a learning point of view. That said, if most of this book comes with the caveat that some of what I have to offer must surely be wrong, this section gets a double dose of that disclaimer. Here, especially, I speak from a lack of experience. That said I hope to offer a few breadcrumbs.
The first thing to consider is that it is very difficult to teach anything new during competition, and efforts to do so will probably detract from performance. Why do I say that? Because consciously learning something new requires the engagement of working memory which as you have probably already recognized, is problematic. The capacity of working memory is severely limited. If I what I am explaining to players requires it, I am diverting some of its capacity from performance tasks demanded by the match.
If I ask players to do something we have discussed and rehearsed in training, however, they may be able to manage the load on their working memory. Especially if I cue them with words I carefully encoded as part of practice. Saying “Higher, Jordan. Press high,” is viable if we spent time in training studying how to press and what I mean when I say ‘press high’ is absolutely clear and she can process it nearly automatically. Then I am mostly reminding Jordan of what she already knows.
It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of language. The more familiar a cue, the more consistently associated with an action, the more likely players are to be able to use it. If you want to say it in the game, make sure your players have heard it over and over and over in training and that they’ve heard it used precisely and well.
So if she’s heard your words frequently and associates them with a consistent response, Jordan may be able to use your feedback during the game, but if you have not taught pressing in training and familiarized Jordan with the terminology you use, one of two things will happen.
1) Jordan will begin using her working memory to think about pressing and how to do it. This will degrade her perception and reduce her ability to execute. She likely won’t press well and there’s a good chance other aspects of her performance will suffer as well. If you respond by giving her further directions–“Higher, Jordan. Anticipate the ball. See if you can jump the pass. Read the pass, Jordan“–there’s a good chance you will make the situation even worse.
2) Jordan may also realize what is happening-that she is struggling at trying to do something she doesn’t really know how to do and that it is distracting her from something important to her: the game. In that case, there’s a good chance she will choose to ignore you instead. This will establish a precedent for her of ignoring what you say during competition (or more generally). It will probably effect her level of frustration, and possibly her relationship with you as well.
So a good rule of thumb is: during games you can occasionally remind players of what you are sure they already know using language they are familiar with.
That said, if a player is trying to distribute the ball and you shout “wide, Carlos, wide” in the half-second before he strikes the ball, the chances of a poor play are higher, even if Carlos knows what you mean by ‘wide.’ Talking to players about what they are doing in the moment they are trying to do it is asking them to multitask and many cognitive psychologists, it is worth noting, would say there is no such thing as multi-tasking, only distraction and reduced concentration. It will almost never help Carlos, or the team and will often harm performance. It also increases the likelihood that Carlos will strive to ignore you so that you don’t disrupt his performance. So coach during live play sparingly and strive to give guidance only at breaks in play.
In chapter 4 I talked about the importance of taking notes during training exercises. It’s also important during games. What you see during the game you will soon forget unless you record it. If you take notes, you’ll have data to keep you focused on the most important things when you talk to players at half time or time outs. But there’s another reason to take notes during the match. It can help keep you from over-talking. If you have no other way to keep track of the fact that Jordan is slow to press, you will be more likely to shout it at Jordan in the moment. After all, that’s the only channel for your game observations to get back to players. But taking notes–Jordan slow to press. Doesn’t recognize slow pass is a cue. 3x.—gives permanence to the observations. You know you won’t lose them if you wait to talk to Jordan about it so you’ll feel more in control and won’t have to shout.
The tendency of competition to make us more likely to shout or lose control of our tone of voice is another reason to try to coach only (or at least mostly) at breaks when we’re likely to be a little calmer. The emotion–and often judgment–communicated by the sorts of strident directions required to communicate during live play—Jordan! Press! JORDAN! Press!!—encourages athletes to wonder: Why is she blaming me? All of this reduces players’ from focus on and presence in the moment. Calmer delivery of technical guidance is usually better and that tends to happen when players have at least half a second to listen.
What about other opportunities to teach during competition? One of my favorite teaching moves used by the many fine coaches my children had growing up was one used by a youth soccer coach name Khris Clemons. When a player made a mistake instead of trying to tell him while he was playing (distraction) and shouting at him (more distraction; emotion), Khris would take him out of the game very briefly, stand next to him on the sideline, usually with his hand on his shoulder in a fatherly way, and quietly explain the correct action. Then he would immediately put the player back in. Obviously, you can’t do that at every level—it requires unlimited substitutions—but it was a thing of beauty. The message very clearly was I will teach you. I still believe in you. I want you to listen and learn but I’m not going to bench you for mistakes. Not coincidentally there were immense relationship benefits to this approach.
Half time and after the game are the two other times often put in the service of teaching on match day. What about them?
After a game emotions are likely to be raw—yours and theirs—which means more opportunity to respond unwisely, half-baked, without getting your ego in check because you lost to a team you wanted to beat and therefore not hastily blame the players for ‘not wanting it bad enough.” A lot of post-game talks start with good intentions but—since they are rarely planned—can veer quickly into ‘let’s establish who is to blame.’ Establishing blame is rarely the basis of a productive public conversation. So maybe just skip it. Veering off topic–to whatever triggers you emotionally or talking a lot seems to express the idea that this game was important—is a result of lack of clarity about what you want to say before you start, so why not take 20 seconds to plan? In your phone or on a note card, jot down two or three most important things to say. Glance down at your notes to keep on task.
One NBA franchise has a simple system for this at both its pro and developmental league teams. The players go into the locker room after the game and the coaches into an adjacent room where they debrief in a way that first lets them vocalize what they’re dying to say but perhaps shouldn’t. e.g. “Can you believe Smith? Does he even understand the defense?” Then the head coach says some version of, “Okay, what’s our message in there?” All of the coaches share ideas but they choose one or perhaps two that everyone thinks are most worthwhile. Then they walk in the next room, deliver their shared message collectively in about a minute and that’s that. No around the horn: “Coach Wilson, anything else?”
Given the chance to think it through together the coaches almost always highlight process and mindset. “We lost focus after halftime, but our fight was much better in the fourth quarter, you wanted it more than them, that’s why we pulled it out.” Or “We did the little things today, diving for loose balls, boxing out the shooter after free throws, winning habits.” The process lets coaches put a check on one another, keeps the message less personal—it’s from the staff—and gives assistant coaches a voice. And of course it ensures that everyone focuses on the main idea.
Another theme of this book: We often assume, falsely, that volume of words and importance of topic are correlated. If we think something is important we often try to signal that by talking about it a lot. Again, this correlation is false. We want people to listen well. We want our words to be memorable and actionable, to expresses importance. Not only are those purposes not necessarily brought about through quantity of verbiage, but they often operate in conflict with it. I talk more and you remember each sentence a little less. I talk more and you start to think, you already told us that; I heard you. I talk more and your attention wanders to the play you can’t stop thinking about or the drive home and where you can get something to eat.
This is important because a lot of the talking coaches do after a match is talking done to express the idea that this game and its lessons were important. Frustrating tie=long talk. Big loss=longer talk. Often in those cases the more we talk the more their eyes glaze over- and therefore just maybe the more we talk because their eyes are glazing over which suggests that they do not understand how important this game and its lessons were. Cue more talking to reinforce that idea that this game was important. Five minutes later athletes have begun practicing ignoring us. It’s a downward spiral.
If there’s a lot to say it’s worth thinking about alternatives to post game talks. There could be a post game question: What did you take from today’s game? But rather than asking rhetorically in the moment and having the words fall on the group like a smothering blanket, why not say: Please text me your thoughts by tomorrow morning. Or: Please text me one thing you can do more of to make your teammates better. Or: I have texted you all two key lines from our principles of play document. Can you each take a minute to tell me one moment in which you think we did each of theses well and each of these poorly. Or perhaps practice Tuesday starts with: “I asked you all to think about X. Let me hear some of your thoughts now…”
Or perhaps you want to be more systematic about it. Maybe you want your players to keep journals in which they reflect briefly after every game and which you can occasionally collect and discuss. Or maybe the journals are just for them. Yaya Toure famously kept such a notebook throughout his career; it became a part of him and his life in the game.
Video review might also work. Especially if you want to review critical moments such as the goal #12 scored in which no one marked her. Much more effective to present tape of the few seconds before her goal in moments of calm at the next practice, say, than to ask the team to try to remember how she got so open in the moments after the game.
It’s worth reviewing here some of the key elements that make feedback effective: it works best when it’s close to the antecedent, when it’s focused on one or two things only, when recipients can see what we’re talking about, and when people get the chance to use it right away. For the most part none of those things are easily accomplished after a game. The failure of the midfield to mark #12 is now long in the past. No one really remembers it- certainly not objectively. There’s no chance to try the guidance of scanning to make sure you see her movements. Players are in their own emotional space. They may not even want to think about #12 and the goal she scored until they’ve processed something else. In light of that, a good rule of thumb is that the longer post game talks go on worse they get. At the youth level at least, my suggestion would be: Steady players emotions. Offer one or two insights for reflection. Give them a question to respond to or a topic to reflect on before practice. Stop talking. Three minutes max.