Post By: Jeff Ruser, M.A. | Friday, June 5, 2020

sport psychology performance STRESS coaching

Think back to your last job application. You likely filled in all of your information like your name, address, zip code, phone number, email, etc. After that, what is almost always listed on a job application? Duties. Employers want to make clear what possible future employees will need to do in order to fulfill the duties of the position. Now, take your experiences of being exposed to job duties and think about how you would write out the in-game “duties” list for a high-level sport coach. What would your list include? Is it tough to think of specific capabilities that that coach would need? I'm talking more specific than “Coach games, and preferably win.” What should a coach do during a game?

In my experience, many coaches don't have the specific ‘duties' of a coaching job spelled out to them when taking on the task of coaching a team, yet most coaches also believe they know what to do. How? Coaches most often call upon the experiences they have had being coached, themselves. An athlete who plays through high school will have likely had dozens of coaches in their lifetime, then when return to coach, they simply draw on what they believe is best from their past experiences. What if there was a better option? Enter coaching science: the study of athlete development and optimal human learning and teaching techniques. In other words, coaching science is the field of study that systematically examines the experiences and strategies of thousands and thousands of coaches and athletes and boils it down to determine the best “duties” to fulfill the job of coaching. The importance of coaching in sports cannot be overstated. Coaches lead, develop, and largely impact the success or demise of teams and individual athletes. Coaches are crucial pieces to the puzzle of “high performance.” To be addressed specifically in this blog is in-game coaching strategies.

Coaching during a competition or game looks vastly different depending on who you are watching, which sport you are watching, and what level of competition is taking place. According to renowned coaching scientist and consultant, Dr. Wade Gilbert in Coaching Better Every Season, overcoaching during competitions is widespread amongst coaches at youth levels and all the way up to professional and Olympic levels. Overcoaching is one of the greatest mistakes that a coach can make in their duties. Gilbert demonstrates that the 3 E's can serve as an effective and evidence-based framework for in-game coaching to learn and utilize instead of the constant talking, yelling, correcting overcoaching. The 3 E's are Examine, Encourage, and Educate.

‘Examine' refers to the ability of a coach to pay close attention, suspending their urge to speak and correct everything and instead, take in the immense amount of information coming their way. Gilbert notes that great coaches are effectively attending to two teams/athletes during any given competition if they are examining their team as well as the other team to work to counter-strategize. A major deterrent to examining the competition effectively and making needed adjustments is overcoaching and constant talking, moving, and shifting. John Wooden, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich, three of the greatest basketball coaches to ever grace a sideline, all had pieces of their in-game coaching in common. All three of these greats tended to sit on the bench, without much talking or shouting of instruction, and examined the game. Note that they weren't just screaming from a different vantage point by sitting. They shut their mouth and watched. It might take serious practice for many of us and that's ok! These legendary coaches, and many more, obtained great success by doing so. Gilbert further breaks down that coaches can excel even more by referring back to pregame notes, making new notes of adjustments to consider, feedback to give, and teaching to do at a later time. In the flow of a competition, examining mindfully can become a competitive advantage!

A second step to optimal in-game coaching is to ‘Encourage' the athletes who you are coaching! At first glance, this might not land well for coaches who are “tough love” leaders. That may be, but consider this: Dan Gable, the legendary wrestling coach at the University of Iowa, known for his grueling practices, intensity, and obsessive focus on wrestling was even known for encouraging his wrestlers during matches, according to Gilbert. Encouragement is a tool for any successful coach's toolbox. Encouraging an athlete is a strategic endeavor. Dr. Gilbert also identifies that encouragement is best used to reinforce off-the-ball efforts of athletes. “Off-the-ball” might refer to small, often overlooked aspects of competition that an athlete is doing well. In baseball, it could be positioning in the field, for hockey it could be leading a successful line change, in basketball it could be pointing out great communication that a player is using on defense. All of the activity going on away from the main action. Secondly, encouragement is powerful for highlighting the process. In competition, there will always be outcomes (i.e. wins, losses, points scored, goals scores, matches secured). The process refers to the behaviors that are taught and reinforced in practice. Why would it be important to encourage athletes regarding process-oriented actions, specifically? Truth be told, we can't always control the outcome. That's why we play. However, athletes can always control the process. A well hit baseball that a batter hits using the mechanics that he has been honing in practice may look and feel great, but a gust of wind can keep the ball in the park. A well-timed take down attempt in a wrestling match can build on what a wrestler may be working on in practice, yet the shot may not land if the opponent has an exceptional sprawl. By encouraging the athlete for the process, the ‘meat and potatoes' of what you are coaching them on is reinforced, knowing that favorable outcomes will be more and more likely as process skills are built and strengthened. Lastly, encouragement can be a powerful tool in building trust within a team by conveying reinforcement for actions done well – use it generously!

The third and final ‘E' prompts coaches to ‘Educate' in-game. A common draw for coaches, when encountering ‘educate,' is to say something like, “My yelling out to the athletes is just educating! I have to do it.” I challenge coaches of that nature to reconsider. Educating is an intentional, thought out, and strategic effort. As humans, we have limited band-width in our mental abilities. Even the mentally sharpest athletes in competition will have a limit to how much they can hear, process, and act on in any given moment. Knowing that there is limited capacity, coaches can maximize their words by choosing optimal timing, content, and context. Referring to Dr. Wade Gilbert's expanded explanation of educating in-game, he notes that the best educating comments are short, repeated, and ideally acknowledged by the athlete. If attempts to “educate” an athlete are made at length and without attention from an athlete, the words my fall on deaf ears or may not sink to a level of the athlete being able to react immediately, and therefore distract him or her from the task at hand. Furthermore, Gilbert notes that educational feedback during a game should be concise, specific, and focused on relevant points. Deficits in understanding schemes or big-picture, drawn-out ideas can be corrected in practice time. In conveying ideas, reiterate previously discussed concepts and ideas, reminding athletes, keeping them on track, and doing so twitter-style – with few words.

Great coaches, in every sport and level of competition, rise to the top when they recognize and act on knowing that coaching is a growth endeavor just as much as growing as an athlete is! If coaches demand growth of their athletes, they ought to lead by example. In-game coaching can become a matter of learning from the best rather than learning from previous experiences. By integrating the 3 E's in to one's existing coaching style and values, in-game coaching can be enhanced to best lead the hardworking athletes out there playing!