The Coach as a Teacher

Posted on Mar 01 2019

Kristen Veal is the Head Coach of the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence Women’s program and was an assistant on the 2017 World University Games gold medal team. The former Australian Opal and WNBL life member shares some learnings from a recent conversation with respected coach development expert Dr Donna O’Connor regarding the coach as a teacher.

Introduction –

Professor Donna O’Connor, from the University of Sydney, is a well renowned strength & conditioning coach and professor of coach education, who has conducted a number of studies in the field of heath and sport, learning sciences and teaching and learning.  Donna has and continues to work with a number of elite and professional sports such as basketball, soccer and rubgy.  For more background information please follow this link –

I was fortunate to catch up with Donna during February over a coffee at Sydney University to pick her brain around one subject, teaching as it relates to coaches.  From this conversation we spoke about how to improve practice planning to facilitate more effective learning opportunities, how to continue to drive buy-in to team standards once established, and considering more strategic mirroring of games in practice.

Below are my initial interpretations of the ideas discussed – designed to be adapted and built upon.

Idea 1

Compartmentalising a practice session or a practice block – compartmentalising in reference to a section of a practice, or a practice block (for example; 2 weeks or x4 practices).  This allows for dedicated learning blocks where the focus on standards and efforts become a lesser priority to the learning.  Learning new information is usually difficult if young athletes are overloaded with managing the expectations of retaining new information whilst maintaining effort levels and desired training standards.  By clearly communicating with the team what compartment we are focusing on, the players are able to shift to the required focus.  Consider 20-minute blocks within the practice plan, this will allow athletes to maintain high concentration for an achievable period of time, and maintain balance between learning, repetition and play compartments.  Types of compartments:

  1. Learning compartment = intensity varies, mental focus high, teaching detail required, mistakes are used as part of the learning
  2. Hybrid compartment = intensity mod/high, parameters, opportunity to compete/play
  3. Explorative compartment = intensity high, athlete driven/coach supported, exploration of both learning and new ideas

Idea 2

Aim and Questioning – incorporate (write) into practice plans an aim of what we are trying to achieve when teaching or running a drill, use open questioning to guide the team to that aim.  Have a big picture (aim) of what the drill should look like, prepare questions to ask the team/athletes that lead them to that big picture.

  1. The WHAT questions – What did you do? What was hard about that? What did you see? What worked?
  2. The HOW questions – How did you do that? How did we get that outcome? How did she get that wide open shot?
  3. The WHY questions – Why did we do it that way? Why did that work/didn’t work? Why are we doing this?

Idea 3

  • Language – having a team or program language assists in the automation of practice and aids in information retention and transfer. The principle behind the use of language (names, analogies etc.) is about ‘chunking’ information, this improves memory (easier to retain & recall); this then frees up the brain to be more creative and won’t be overloaded.

In regards to automation of practice, using a specific name of a drill will trigger the athletes memory on how to set up the drill, the parameters of the drill, expectations and competitive element. This automation creates efficiency during practice by minimising drill set up and explanation, it creates fluidity through a practice.  More importantly, it allows more opportunity for coaches to coach the play components (team or individual) and decreases tuning out by athletes due to over-talking.

How to create a language – assign names/words/analogies to common elements and use repetition to create familiarity.  All coaches/teams are familiar with playbook language, name of sets, P&R schemes, defences, some examples:

  1. Drill names – 3-man-weave, Jacobs layup drill, two-line shooting, Tennessee, etc
  2. Skills or Concepts – push slides, space catches, hunt the ball, kick aheads, chest blow, wall up, smash, hustle
  3. Offensive/Defensive Systems and Sets – 21 (zone), hard show, on, 1 safety d-trans, tagging up, drags, punch, horns, flex, flow, shuffle

Idea 4

Coach movements – plan into practices who is going to set up/run drills, remembering that the set-up of many drills is primarily logistical and less teaching.  Sometimes it may be beneficial for an assistant coach to run the logistics of a drill which will provide opportunity for the head coach to teach the detail and/or coach on the run (throughout the drill).  If done well this could involve coaching team more, reduce over-talking and provide more teachable moments for the head coach.  It is important to plan to ensure that talk v play ratios are discussed and managed.

Idea 5

Stoppages – knowing when to stop the whole group versus pulling out an individual between reps/ during play.  Sometimes we have a tendency to stop the whole group for an individual’s learning.  Exploring and practising this as a coach skill, recognising when the instruction will benefit the whole group (usually when play has resulted in a reoccurring mistake or confusion by multiple athletes) or when it is only relevant to a specific individual.  Sometimes pulling out a player during play (exploration) serves two purposes; 1. Individual development/learning, 2. Creates an environment where the rest of the group need to adapt to the situation (a player down or ‘playing short’) and make decisions.  This often simulates the unpredictability of a game environment.

Idea 6

Down times – explore mirroring game-like components (train like you play philosophy).  Specifically, where athletes heart rate decreases, they mentally relax and their concentration shifts.  This is a common occurrence in every basketball game, however often at practices we have an expectation of high energy, high focus for the entire practice. Whilst constant high energy/high physical stress is beneficial in deliberate overtraining it may actually prepare athletes inaccurately for games.  There are many down time moments in games such as; sitting on the bench, quarter times, half time, timeouts, injury, official/scoreboard errors, etc. Incorporating ‘down time’ moments into training develops athletes ability to recover, re-focus and produce positive performances from a standing start.  ‘Down times’ are also an opportunity for athletes to reduce stress/anxiety, recover from physical stress, manage confidence and prepare for next playing task/opportunity.

Another idea is to explore deliberate activities in ‘down-times’ like taking three deep breaths, asking a question, recovering with food/fluids/stretch, etc.

Idea 7

Driving Team Standards – easy to set up, harder to drive.  Standards are usually an agreed upon set of values established by the group that will make them better players and better people.  The set up is the easier part, creating athlete buy-in and more so athlete drive is key in achieving the ‘better players/better people’ outcome. They must become a part of the everyday environment, ideas:

  1. Film ‘Team Standards’ behaviours at practice and review with team (start with positive examples)
  2. Have the team engage in further activities where they define what these standards look like
  3. Use the ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’ questioning to gain understanding of standards
  4. ‘Training standards’ are different in that they are every practice non-negotiables – the group should be achieving these standards/habits every practice. Starts with awareness and then accountability (coach and athlete)
  5. Positive + Improvement reinforcement, utilising both to create buy-in
  6. ‘Training standards’ should underpin ‘Team standards’ – it is important to dedicate more time and do more work on ‘Team standards’
  7. Consider using ‘Team standards’ as a part of game review during preseason and season

Idea 8

Be great at things that matter most – spend majority of practice time on what’s important. This requires prioritising what’s important and planning the session around those priorities.  Also explore planning around strengths of the athletes, this will create opportunities to build confidence in individuals and the group, ‘strengths based’ practice.

Idea 9

Feedback – explore positive accountability, seize moments to provide immediate feedback where an individual or the team have done it right (aiming at consistency).  Provide opportunities for players to use feedback (whether positive, correctional or explorative), it is important to not just provide feedback at the end of a drill or before you do a drill/activity that has a different focus.  This eliminates the immediate opportunity to try to implement feedback.  Explore ways to encourage players to give each other feedback, peer feedback can be beneficial for both receiver and giver.

When providing feedback or instructions, where possible use external focus feedback (focus outside the body or on the ‘environment’), this is more effective for learning compared to internal focus (focus on self), for example:

  1. asking players to push against the ground with their front foot (external focus) rather than shifting weight to the front foot (internal focus)
  2. focus on anticipated trajectory of the ball (or the basketball rim) rather than the players hand/wrist








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