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  • Nick Levett

Developing better players: switching teaching to learning…

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

This is not going to be like my typical blog post, a ramble into something I have been thinking about that I feel others may find value in reading or sharing. This is going to be more questions to myself than answers for others. This is going to be more about sharing reflection and potentially starts the voyage into a paradigm shift in my coaching. However, I hope you can see where I am coming from and that you may have similar thoughts and conversations from your own coaching.


When I look back over the years I have been coaching, having started at 16 and now just turned 37, I can reflect and say that I think I have honestly only ‘coached’ for the last five years. Before that, I’m not convinced what I was doing was coaching, maybe putting on football practices for kids, but I certainly didn’t KNOW what I was doing or WHY I was doing it. Having spent time considering the journey and influencers on my coaching I can now start to understand a little more about what I’m really doing.

Things were at a point where I was comfortable, happy with my approach to coaching and helping the boys get better; as people and players. But I think I am coming to another crossroads where this comfort is going to change. See, I’m not convinced I’m getting it totally right, or rather, I think I am missing part of the plot – an essential part of the plot!

I’ve spent a good few years learning about HOW to teach; the essential components on what makes a good experience for young players, about coaching styles, different approaches to questioning strategies and really focused on the TEACHING element. However, I think I have I’ve not spent enough time on their LEARNING – truly understanding what they are getting from the practices and sessions, whether they are actually learning anything.

Two quotes I think are particularly useful at this point:

“You haven’t taught it until they have learned it”

(John Wooden)

“It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear”

(Red Auerbach)

Last night was the start of the journey into changing this, into beginning to understand what the players are actually learning and then I believe I can start to evidence that me being there is making a difference. This is what happened:-

Our Support Coach is leading the U10 session; he’s working on breaking the line with your first touch.

During the first game, I ask one of the players a question quietly – “Have you learnt something new in this practice or are you practising something you already knew?”

He thinks it’s a trick question at first but answers with “something I already know”.

So my brain is running now, thinking about his answer, what we are setting out to achieve and loads of questions are firing off:

Q1. What do the players already know?

Q2. Do we undersell their knowledge and they know lots more than we give them credit for?

Q3. Do we have to teach them something new every session?

Q4. Is it ok to just be practising and refining something you already know?

Q5. What’s the percentage balance between these points? Is there one?

Q6. How do we find out what they know?

Q7. When do we find out what they know?

Q8. What about when some know something and others don’t?

Q9. How does this shape and influence our planning of sessions?

At this point there is a conversation with the ‘Coach Developer’ at the Club and I share where my brain is going. He is aware of my thoughts around shifting the focus from teaching to learning anyway and is a good person to debate stuff with. For example, Q9, I suggest that in the next session I deliver I am going to bring some flip chart paper and get them to feed in everything they know about the “session topic” before we start. I’ve done this before recently when we did a session on communication skills and it worked well. Coach Developer makes a great point – if they know most things, to extend their learning now is going to mean planning on the hoof, developing a session there and then to meet the needs of the players. That’s not easy. Therefore, should we ask the question about their existing knowledge in the session before the one we do later in the week, to help my planning? Good point.

Added to this we then discuss the aspect of doing reviews/debriefs to find out what the players have learnt. This is normally done by most coaches at the end of the session – the kids collect the equipment in, they are then thinking about their journey home and all they really want to do is shake the coaches’ hands and leave. Is this a meaningful time to ask them to reflect on their learning? I’m not sure this is now.

This sparks another conversation – when is a good time to find out what they have learnt? The outcome is that we are going to play about with some different approaches and see what happens.

Back to the session

As we finish we get all the boys together for a ‘classic’ approach to finding out what they have learnt and undertake a review. By this stage, the Support Coach and I have been talking about these things too so we start by getting them into pairs to discuss “Have you learnt something new in this practice or are you practising something you already knew?”, the question I asked the one player earlier.

Listening to some of the conversations, many started with “I didn’t learn anything new but….” When we got all the boys together to hear some of their answers only two of 20 said they had learnt something new (which was the same thing) – this was a coaching point I had added into the second game via an intervention to their half of the group.

The journey home for me is always an interesting time to reflect on my coaching and this one was a particular thoughtful one. Is it ok for the players to not learn something new? Do we label sessions before we start that ‘this is about technical refinement’ or ‘this is about learning something new’? How do we manage this for the whole group, as they are all in different places with their knowledge and understanding and ability to apply this to the game?

I really believe that this slight shift in focus is important. I am in a place where I am comfortable with my knowledge and understanding, and therefore approach, to teaching for the value of the players. I now need to spend more time thinking about assessing their learning. After all, isn’t that the most important part? I can deliver 120 fancy coaching sessions a year, with bells and whistles and all sorts of singing and dancing stuff going on, but if the players aren’t learning, I’ve failed!

When you start to really drill down into it, facilitating learning through good teaching and engaging practices is one part, knowing that you ARE genuinely helping to making better players is something different.

Quite a lot to think about in this coaching lark…!


Blog first published: 08 January 2014

Section: Coaching, learning, sport, psychology Views: 7,073

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