Developing ‘Intelligent Performers’: Implications for Coaches

thinking-man‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’

I think that this Chinese proverb should be  the core of every learning philosophy, be it in education, work setting, or sport. Most likely we all understand that, for example, learning mathematical equations by heart without understanding them, following outdated work policies without questioning them, or playing a game plainly following coach’s prescribed strategy, are all quick solutions that may have short-term results… but unfortunately no bright future. When there is no one to give us a fish tomorrow, we will get hungry again! All that because we were not taught how to fish by ourselves, or, related to the above examples from different life areas, quite often we may underperform as we are not taught how to think by ourselves.

Developing people, who are able to think, reflect and analyze independently is a valuable thing in terms of the future perspective. However, it is also a time-consuming process that requires resources and effort; this is why it usually gets neglected in the present moment. Sadly, sport is not an exception.

As noted by Richards, Mascarenhas and Collins (2009; pg. 355), ‘it seems ironic to think that, although performers in a majority of sports spend extensive periods of the game in isolation from the coach, their practice environment often develops dependency on that coach’. Indeed, traditional coaching methods are rather autocratic, involving coaches giving specific direction on how to perform a skill, prescribing training plans, and singly working out competition strategies. Athletes get used to being told what to do and how to do it, as well as what they did right, what went wrong, and how to correct the performance. It is all ‘served on a plate, and ready to be eaten’. Opposing such reality, Richards and colleagues (2004; 2009) advocate that developing intelligent performers, by empowering players to become reflective thinkers and autonomous learners, contributes towards more success in sport. Moreover, they argue that coaches are the ones to effectively develop ‘intelligent performers’ through creating an environment where athletes can learn by being engaged with the development process.

Reflection is the central process of learning

We say that learning happens through experience. However, getting only external feedback on performance might not be enough for making that learning happen; what is needed is personal reflection on the experience. As Richards and Ghaye (2004) note, reflection turns experience into learning and this learning turns into improved performance. Only when an athlete can gain a subjective perception of the performance situations, can this performance be corrected and enhanced irrespective of the coach’s presence, cues and feedback. Learning thus becomes more independent.

But reflection is a process that needs facilitation, it does not happen by magic. Therefore, coaches should incorporate reflective practices into their coaching styles. Following are some of the practical tips:

  • Create an environment where mistakes are acceptable, and are seen as sources to learn by reflecting on what happened and why.
  • Do not hurry with providing a thorough feedback, especially on a higher athletic proficiency level, but rather encourage athlete’s personal interpretation, explanation and analysis of the performance.
  • Treat reflection as a process and plan for it. As argued by researchers (2004), ‘reflection helps to develop an accurate feeling of what is right’, that is why it should be planned for and seen as valuable learning time.
  • Especially in team sports, reflection is better to be done with the whole team. However, even individual performers may benefit from collective reflection, as there is a lot to be learned from others.
  • Reflection should be done not only in a ‘fix-it’ situation when things have gone wrong. Committing to reflective practices regardless of performance outcomes teaches the athlete to think; to ask serious questions about ‘what’, ‘why’, and ‘how’.

So, what to look for in reflective practice?

Richards and Ghaye (2004) propose that the reflective practice process can be set up in four main steps.

First of all, it starts from a description of the event or situation. For example, ask your athletes to describe the competition or training that happened.

Next, the athletes should evaluate the situation, reflecting on what went well and what went wrong. Evaluation should include feelings, thoughts, thinking of all the aspects involved in the performance and their interaction. For example, a football team after a match may reflect on what did they think about opponents, how did the game ‘feel’, what has happened during the game, how did they react to it, etc.

The third step is to analyze issues and obstacles that occurred, and the interaction between them. In other words, this is a time for making sense of the situation, understanding ‘why’ things happened. For example, why did the other team manage to have a higher ball possession percentage?

Finally, encourage athletes to create an action plan and intervention strategy. Here the questions to be reflected on are mainly ‘what do we need to change?’ and ‘what worked well, and how can we act the same way next time?’

Naturally, after the action plan is discussed, it needs to be implemented and followed-up. Hence, a new reflection cycle can start when describing an event where the previously created action plan was implemented.

As mentioned earlier, the reflective practice can be done either alone, or together with teammates, coaches, other team staff. Moreover, apart from different settings of reflection, different ways of reflecting can be used, namely talking (e.g. group discussions), writing (e.g. reflective journals), reading (e.g. best practices) and observing (e.g. video-analysis).

Why is it important?

As described earlier, reflective practices develop athletes into ‘intelligent performers’, who can think and learn independently. Developing performance intelligence leads to better understanding of oneself, and interaction between internal and external aspects in trainings and competition. Moreover, on team level collective reflective practices may improve the collective understanding of game situations, create common meanings and values, relate to teammates perspectives and needs, and hence, ‘bind’ players, resulting in a more successful and cohesive team.

Therefore, implementing reflective processes in coaching is of great importance. Plainly put, instead of prescribing, directing and giving feedback, coaches should be asking, listening and encouraging autonomic thinking.

Let’s try to teach our athletes how to ‘fish’, so that they can stay well-fed today and tomorrow, together with our support and without it.

Further reading:

Richards, P., and Ghaye, T. (2004). Thinking teamwork: Being the best through reflective practices. The Sport and Exercise Scientist, 2, December 2004.

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1 Response to Developing ‘Intelligent Performers’: Implications for Coaches

  1. Angie says:

    So True. It’s one thing for a coach to analyze and correct performance, but when athletes themselves learn to analyze and correct there own performance through the process you mentioned above things “click” so much more and the improvements tend to be even greater as they learn to recognize and problem solve themselves as opposed to relying mainly on a coach to fix the issues that arise. A thinking athlete with good problem solving skills is a great asset.

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