Pre-Activity Learning Objectives

One art of good coaching is being able to use one’s words efficiently, allowing the athletes to be focused and active and not wasting time standing around listening to you. Embracing an athlete-centred approach means focusing on each individual’s needs, but it also challenges them to self-analyse. This means the coach doesn’t have to be constantly ‘coaching’ them. To facilitate this, it is important for the coach to establish clear learning objectives at the start of each activity. Specific challenges provide greater focus but also make activities more fun and valuable. When drafting a practice plan, it helps to predict what issues athletes might have, thinking of some engaging questions to ask that explores the concepts being taught. This is more powerful for an individual’s learning than the coach simply providing an answer. Athletes are forced to consider the question, re-frame it and then explore the options, building deeper knowledge.

In-Activity Feedback

The athlete-centred process allows athletes a greater opportunity to test, assess, and re-try the activity without interruption. Instead of managing the drill or constantly providing error correction, the coach has more time to analyse each athlete’s progress. The coach doesn’t have to be completely silent, however. Coaches can help reinforce learning on the fly by celebrating successes and offering specific commentary that highlights why it was successful. This doesn’t have to be constant, but helps during those ground-breaking ‘A-ha!’ moments when an athlete might have done something different and especially if they’re not exactly sure why that worked.

Embracing Mistakes

We all tend to learn from our mistakes, so it’s a wonder that some coaches will negatively focus on their athletes’ errors. Even young athletes can be very self-aware and do not need anyone to remind them that they made a mistake – which, sadly, is about as much ‘feedback’ as many get. “Make your passes!” doesn’t address the specific reason(s) why an individual made a bad pass. Instead, coaches should consider ignoring one-off mistakes in the hopes that the athlete can self-correct next time. The relevance and design of the activity, the pre-activity objectives, and clarification questions / proposed solutions from the athletes should be all they need to help them explore and learn.

Peer Support

Ideally, the athlete will seek feedback when unsure what is going wrong after a number of attempts. But before going to the coach for help, an established peer support process can promote self-organisation and team cohesion. This is something that should be built into team culture, stressing that that feedback must be positive and constructive and built upon established knowledge or posing a question, not offering an unsubstantiated opinion. Athletes should also take care not to offer unsolicited advice given that we want to promote self-analysis and allow each individual the right to manage their own learning process. (For some, being offered advice all the time is as annoying as being told “You did that wrong!”). Athletes might feel most comfortable nominating learning buddies from whom they will accept unsolicited advice or who they will go to exclusively for feedback. This process can not only help team cohesion but also prevent interpersonal squabbles.


When the athlete approaches the coach for feedback, it’s important to resist simply giving out answers. Instead, engaging questions allow the athlete to better understand the situation and come to his / her own solution. Even if the answer doesn’t come immediately, there’s no harm in sending the athlete back into an activity with a dangling thought to ponder.

The following are some specific tips for asking effective questions:

  1. Focus attention of all concerned.
  2. Ask broad question to start. Prompt or re-phrase if needed, but allow time for question to be processed (a few seconds at least).
  3. Listen for responses. Re-state their answer or ask them to clarify if needed. (Hearing it back may cause them to re-think.)
  4. Observe others for engagement and understanding.
  5. Ask for comments on statement.
  6. Praise participation and frame into context if needed.

When posing a question to an individual in a group, ensure athletes are aware of your intent at the beginning of the season. Such questions are not meant to centre out individuals for criticism, but allow for genuine participation in learning process and to increase self-awareness in all individuals. Often throwing out a question in general elicits an immediate response from the athlete that knows and/or the one(s) that always answers. A targeted question checks that others understand a concept or at least can engage with the question.

Resist closed questions that have the answer embedded in them or using a leading question that prompts a simplistic response. Avoid simple recall questions as well. Questions should not be a subtle reminder of failure or of simple concepts athletes already know. These are usually a waste of time, can devalue the questioning process, and prompt more eye-rolling than genuine introspection.

When moving to direct feedback to address consistent mistakes, avoid “you” statements – assess the actions, not the person. Also avoid the classic practice of starting with a positive followed by a negative with “but” in between. Athletes are very likely to forget all the good stuff as soon as they hear that word, turning their attention to the criticism. Lastly, taking advice from Yoda (and John Kessel from USA Volleyball), be careful with the word “try”. It can be seen as an excuse not to do something. Instead, focus on the action and encourage athletes to “do”, whether it be more and more repetitions or different ways of doing the thing.

Types of Questions and Coach Interjections

  • Questions now (work through together)
  • Questions for next time (given time to think, process)
    • Process – ask to identify step in the process of something
    • Closed – simple, direct; memory, baseline assessment
    • Convergent – narrows subject
    • Divergent – expands subject, abstract; best for engagement and learning
  • Ask athletes to share a Big Revelations – “A-ha!” or“Eureka!” moments
  • Ask athletes to share Highlights / Successes – personal declarations, observed and shared
  • Invite the athlete to self-declare areas for improvement (coach assists with framing, and may need to pull back certain individuals from being overly self-critical)
  • Ask athletes to declare ‘intelligence’ on teammates (and opposition?) – What are your teammates’ tendencies, abilities, limitations (politely and realistically accommodated for)? Encourages honesty, openness, and accountability.
  • Teachable Moments – to be used when a ‘big lesson’ can be learned – a highlight, trend, common fault, new concept. Use sparingly as they are time-consuming.
  • Freeze! Stop and look at what’s going on at this moment…. best used between phases, not in the middle of the play, and not early-on but as an example of something that people keep missing.
  • Rewind! Stop and back up to a point when … athletes are pretty good about going back a few steps or to a previous phase. Coach might need to adjust them if they don’t remember – which might be an issue itself – but must be genuine as they will recognise when re-positioned.
  • Slo-Mo play on if looking at what happens next.
  • Stop play, re-set and discuss what’s working / what isn’t. Ask group(s) to huddle and solve themselves with coach observing or re-focusing / asking questions.


Simply, remember that you are more powerful being their guide, offering questions, support, and a resource to bounce ideas off because self-directed learning is the most powerful. Let athletes own the process!