What is coaching? learning specific skills

Coaching is about learning specific skills, to improve performance or to prepare for advancement. To an outsider, coaching situations may look similar. All are based on an ongoing, confidential, one-on-one relationship between coach and learner. Yet each teaching situation can be quite diverse and some of these distinctions are important to recognise, if only to foster informed choice by everyone involved. Therefore this essay defines and explores key distinguishing features amongst coaching. Furthermore taking account of these factors, this essay will discuss and suggests different coaching roles. Any instructional strategy should be based on learning theory because without an understanding of how athletes learn, one cannot expect to achieve intended learning goals (Griffin et al, 2005). The use of student and athlete has been used interchangeable throughout this essay to reflect its meaning. So focusing on this I will look from a behaviourist perspective on how people learn best and what certain influences can facilitate learning, by briefly discussing the place of feedback will identify influential factors this can make to a pupils education and overall learning experience.

Watkins and Mortimer define pedagogy as ‘any conscious activity by one person designed to enhance learning in another’ (1999; 3). With coaching being recently reconceptualised as a pedagogy (Cassidy et al., 2004), it is imperative for a coach/teachers to ensure learners are facilitating in their learning, so rather than just teaching a certain skill, they also teach when this skill should be used. By being a coach, in other words, implies being a ‘certain kind of teacher’ (Hacking, 1986; Gee, 2001), but exactly what such being entails remains covered in uncertainty (Richardson, 2002). The role for the coach or teacher has been very directive, instructional or prescriptive (Cassidy et al. 2004, Kidman, 2001). For instance, the coach or teacher deciding when and how athletes/students should perform specified skills or movements. This has led to the coach being regarded as the sole source of knowledge, transmitting this in a unidirectional way with learners having a passive role in the learning process (Potrac and Cassidy 2006). Furthermore, this occupies a position of centrality and influence in the sporting environment (Cushion et al. 2006, Smith and Smoll 2007). Therefore, Lyle’s (2002) research suggests there is a strong belief that the quality of coaching is one of the most important environmental factors in determining performance improvement with success. Signifying not only the behaviour of the coach being an influential socialising agent but might also impact on performance, learning, and a range of many other psycho-social outcomes.

Coaches and teachers can be implicitly or explicitly, by their beliefs about learning. By practicing and behaving according to their own beliefs, directly impacting on how the coach’s role is perceived and enacted within the coaching process, such as tradition of the sport taught, socialisation experiences etc. Research suggests knowledge and practice, remains largely based on experiences and the interpretation of those experiences (Cushion, Armour, and Jones 2003; Cushion 2006; Gilbert and Trudel 2006). This however, is regardless of the implementation and availability of education programmes and courses. Furthermore, Douge and Hastie (1993) believe that the accumulating years of involvement doesn’t necessarily guarantee that an agent will become an effective coach. Chelladurai also expands suggests that “future research could focus on generating items based on the experiences and insights of both coaches and athletes” (1990; 340). Indicating that there is no single behaviour, role or approach that is either a defining or essential component to an athlete’s/student’s centeredness (Popkewitz, 1998; Cain, 1989). In fact, the amount that a coach feels compelled to act in a single way; the more likely they are to impose limits on their athletes because their own behaviour is constrained (Daniels 2001, Cain 1989) not only implementing interventions but could interfere with coaching preparations.

There are many different ‘building blocks’ which aid coaches in the effectiveness of their coaching and improve their coaching practice, although there are a number of reflective cycles to assist coaches, Gibbs (1988) offers a model of coaching effectiveness ideal for the beginner coach involving the following six elements:

1) Description – Describe as a matter of fact just what happened during your critical incident or chosen episode for reflection.

2) Feelings – What were you thinking and feeling at the time?

3) Evaluation – List points or tell the story about what was GOOD and what was BAD about the experience.

4) Analysis – What sense can you make out of the situation. What does it mean?

5) Conclusion – What else could you have done? What should you perhaps not have done?

6) Action Plan – If it arose again, what would you do differently? How will you adapt your practice in the light of this new understanding?

This framework is an ideal excellent starting point for coaches/teachers in their investigations of the coaching process itself, not only this but Bandura states “People not only gain understanding through reflection, they evaluate and alter their own thinking” (1986; 62) enticing coaches to un-earth their theory in use, inevitably extending learning in both coach and athletes. Paradoxically focusing on this, coaches and teachers have varied roles to consider, whereby they can aid the need for the following specific knowledge and skills:

Interpersonal skills.

Communicating and establishing trusting relationships with whom they are trying to change their practices. Coaches must be able to observe accurately and provide appropriate feedback.

Content knowledge.

Having an understanding of their subject matter, this includes how knowledge of a discipline is developed through curricula and learning materials. Experience with others coaches at the different level indicates that a certain level of content-area expertise is necessary to be a subject area coach. However, expertise also may create tension when coaches are labelled experts. Most important is for a coach to establish a collaborative, reflective relationship.

Pedagogical knowledge.

To lead, coaches need to understand how students and athletes learn, including knowledge of the tasks, questioning strategies, and structures that can help students/athletes develop their own ideas.

Knowledge of the curriculum.

Familiarity with the structures and experiences offered by a curriculum is important, including understanding the fundamental ideas behind a curriculum and how those ideas connect across different ability levels.

Awareness of coaching resources.

Aware of specific knowledge of professional development materials, literature, and resources that can be used to support development of subject or pedagogical knowledge and better understanding how to teach.

Knowledge of the practice of coaching.

Coaching strategies and structures, such as how to use pre and post observations or on-the-spot coaching; the role of questioning and effective strategies; how to use resources of teaching practice (curriculum materials, student work, scripts of classroom dialogue, etc.); and the pro’s and con’s of demonstration lessons and coaching sessions.

All specify a requirement of the coach/teacher, however, athletes have been shown to have different preferences and different responses to coach behaviour (Reiman, 2007) and in complex social and interpersonal settings, individual differences are sure to play an important role (Smith and Smoll, 2007). However, not all people are the same, nor are circumstances and contexts, and consequently a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work for all learners and in all situations (Amorose, 2007). Moreover, Jonassen (1999; 235) suggests possible ideas “by starting the learners with the tasks they know how to perform and gradually add task difficulty until they are able to perform” therefore facilitates learning in both coach and learner encouraging decision making roles. There are four components which influence: the coach, the athlete, knowledge and the learning environment. Focusing on these statements further and the literature researched indicate many influential factors one in particular being feedback which the following section discusses.

Indeed, all coaching is based upon some theory about how we learn with behaviourism strongly informs coaching, resulting in an instructional approach that emphasises the use of feedback and rewarding behaviour. Feedback from coaches is an essential aspect of learning. Whereby coaches use feedback to encourage pupils to respond to their own learning by discovering where they are now in relation to where they would like to be, and to determine how to do better next time (Hargreaves, 2005).

Fundamentally feedback can be used as a tool to support and enhance learning (Ofsted, 2008) in both education and coaching practice. More recently, it has become the source of heated debates and has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of literature relating to feedback and in particular operant conditioning approach (Skinner, 1958) which is based on the well established principles of individual learning that behaviour is a function of its consequences. Although some citations are dated in this section however; it is still relevant today as there are many expectations and implications which are placed on coaches and teachers to provide meaningful support and feedback to enhance learning.

It’s believed by Smoll and Smith (1989) that coaches must have extensive task knowledge so that they can issue proper instruction about desired behaviours and reinforce individuals when they do well. However, findings by Komaki et al (1989) illustrate the need for consistency in verbal reinforcement and feedback to initiate an increase in the frequency of desirable behaviours and decrease the frequency of undesirable behaviours. Thus, according to Mayer (1983) can elaborate and expand on learners knowledge, building on existing cognitive schema (Mayer, 1983), this can be reinforced by way of feedback.

There are, however further expectations placed on teachers. Piaget’s work is concerned with the expansion of knowledge and understanding, with ways in which new information is dealt with by learners. However, Pritchard (2009) has identified concern in the amount of time coaches have available to give sufficient feedback, more so with coaching and teaching in groups rather than one on one. Although Boud (1999) suggests that when pupils take responsibility of their own learning this will allow them to deepen their understanding. 

Not only does insufficient time have implications but a message (feedback) can also have the potential to be misinterpreted. It is generally accepted that certain feedback might be taken personally by pupils, and lead to defensiveness and loss in confidence. ‘We judge too much and too powerfully, not realising the extent to which pupils experience our power over them’ (Boud, 1999; 43). Self-esteem, it is believed, is affected by receiving negative or unexpected feedback. Research by Young (2000) suggests, however, considerations should be made from the opposite perspective: it is the student’s level of self-esteem that affects the messages they receive—both positive and negative. Those with low self-esteem tend to view all feedback as a judgement of ability, whilst those with high self-esteem do not. Indicating certain implications which could severe interpersonal problems

Certainly, teachers and coaches if they are truly person centered should be continually open to learning and how their athletes/students learn and achieve effectively as shown throughout this essay, however there are so many areas and this essay has only covered a few. It might be valuable that by creating the best possible atmosphere for learning and performance, coaches and teachers can and would be less concerned about a certain coaching style or behaviour and more concerned about whether whatever they do impairs or facilitates learning. In this sense, receptivity, flexibility and differentiated responses in coaches and teachers are likely to maximize the outcome (Cain, 1989). In reality, the teacher or coach has a role to play in identifying and addressing certain problems and assisting, deconstruct knowledge relating to aspects of sporting performance (Potrac and Cassidy, 2006). Finally, this then provides the learner with the personal and informational resources for learning (Cain 1989), giving a unique opportunity to make significant changes in a person life.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a reflection and example of such a structured session using an approach whereby learners work out solutions to tactical problems themselves with the coach facilitating their learning.

In the UK there are thousands of individuals who are qualified coaches because of the availability of coaching courses. However, research into coaching have shown that coaching courses only act as a starting point, with coaches in Jones et al.’s (2004) review points to the fact that the immensity of learning actually occurs through experience. Thus this alone does not guarantee capability this is elaborated in these words:

‘It is not enough just to do, and neither is it enough just to think … Learning from experience must involve linking the doing and the thinking’ Gibbs (1988; 9).

The process of reflection is linked between doing and thinking (Martens, 1997; Gibbs, 1988) moreover, Bandura believes “People not only gain understanding through reflection, they evaluate and alter their own thinking” (1986; 62). Reflection has its origins in Schön’s (1983) work, where he defined a reflective conversation as the following cycle: appreciation; experimentation and evaluation. Later, other reflective models were put forward. Johns’ (1995) model consists of 26 questions that the coach must ask themselves, whereas Gibbs’ (1988) model consists of six. This reflection will use the Gibbs’ model to reflect upon a situation that arose during one of my coaching practices. The basis for this is because it’s uncomplicated and allows a beginner coach like myself to follow, whereas Johns’ tends to be more complex decision-making (Johns, 1995).

Before moving on to the process of reflection, it’s important to note that this paper will take a pedagogical approach. Watkins and Mortimer describe pedagogy as ‘any conscious activity by one person designed to improve learning in another’ (1999; 3). With coaching being recently reconceptualised as a pedagogy (Cassidy et al., 2004), it is important for coaches to ensure learners are facilitating in their learning, so rather than just coaching a certain method, they also teach when this skill should be applied. Therefore, I will reflect upon a coaching experience of my own, using Gibbs’ (1988) model, to access whether learners were given the possibility to progress in their learning.


I decided to coach a basketball session, focusing on shooting techniques and positioning. The games for understanding (TGfU) approach (Bunker and Thorpe, 1982) was used opposed to the more traditional coaching/teaching model. Teachers in the traditional model teach skills first and tactics later. As Light and Fawns (2003) have articulated, ‘knowing the game’ is to play it and demonstrate knowledge-in-action (Schön , 1983). Advocates of the TGfU model endorse tactics first, while skills are introduced afterwards (Bradley, 2004; Turner et al, 2001). So basically, what to do comes before how to do it. A mini game was introduced at the beginning of the session along with a brief explanation of certain rules required to give shape to the game and determine the variety of tactics and skills required for a successful performance. The session was going well with players participating with enthusiasm by contributing to certain questions then furthering their decisions. However, after a while I ran out of certain ideas for further progressions.


Having sensed with apprehension that some learners were getting uninterested and even slowed down and eventually stopped playing. Research has suggested this is because players can lack challenges and so therefore their intrinsic motivation to participate decreases (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Conversely feeling the pressure to make a change or how to put in challenges to be successful in their performance, dismay started to set in as I didn’t have a further plan.


The TGfU approach was effective in increasing enthusiasm because it was fun. This was backed up by Griffin et al (1995) who said that the TGfU approach may be more enjoyable for players than traditional technique drills; are, and so they’re more motivated to participate. Also, by probing the players to answer questions about faults in their technique, I was also facilitating the development of players’ critical thinking and decision-making skills; two important cognitive skills (Kirk and MacPhail, 2002). However, when the session started to become less interesting I was unable to make certain changes due to a lack of experience of different activities. There was also concerned in stopping and re-starting the game as research also suggested that learners feel this interrupt the flow of the game (Lieberman, 2008).


I’d realised that in the early stages learners were going through a learning process. The game allowed them to obtain physical skills and techniques, whilst the questions and communication with peers facilitated their cognitive development (Kirk & MacPhail, 2002). However, being unable to enforce new activities the learners’ learning process began to even out. This is believed to be because of a lack of challenge denting their motivation to continue (Ryan & Deci, 2000), thus decreasing or stopping participation would further the opportunity to learn.


I felt I had developed well through this session but was always looking at ways to improve through listening, reading and reflection. Thinking over my lesson, I’d realised that there were certain ‘blind spots’ in my coaching.  Although the tasks enabled the players to learn, success by progressing further questioning enabled decision-making skills and communicating with each other to solve meticulous problems. Therefore, incorporating a cognitive based learning approach; where learners were required to solve realistic problems (Dolmans et al., 2005). In relation, structured scenarios where players would need to decide whether it was best to shoot, which pass to use and dribbling techniques and enticing communication amongst their team to score or win. It was also vital that learners understood why they were carrying out and practising certain drills. If players understand why they were doing something, their motivation to change their practice in order to improve their skills and team play could then be improved. Therefore encouraging players to question and communicate the varying drills and by asking what it is going to be useful; for what reason.

Action Plan

Games have an essential cognitive dimension that has been to some extent limited by the traditional coaching/teaching model (Light, 2002; Light and Fawns, 2001). The TGfU approach utilises open ended questioning however it is believed to be more time-consuming in the early stages and errors are likely to be a plenty (Kroll, 2004; Prawat, 1992) but giving learners greater ownership of decision-making process would enable them to think for themselves in a game that is largely based on making appropriate decisions. Therefore, when planning future sessions I will account for various problems that may arise and the activities that I’ll put into practice to solve them (e.g. how and when to modify the games, when to stop play and question, when to bring players out of the game for individual questioning etc.) Finally the issue being the use of open ended questioning with learners. Such questioning would also enable students to make a cognitive leap, particularly when teaching invasion game strategies (Butler, 1997).

To conclude, the process of reflection has allowed me to notice that my session had both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect was that the TGfU approach was effective and enjoyable (Griffin et al., 1995), but the negative aspect was after a while, my session became tedious. Gibbs’ (1988) model also made me question why certain things happened, with me putting this down to challenges for the learners. Finally, Gibbs’ model really assisted me in thinking what I could do in the future. After reading Schempp et al.’s (2006) literature on certain planning, I realise that I could create certain plans for the different problems that can arise during teaching.

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