Developing better players: switching teaching to learning…


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…! 

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12 thoughts on “Developing better players: switching teaching to learning…

  • March 11, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Like you've said Nick, we spend so much time being educated on how to teach that we can't see the forest for the trees. We seem to assume that if we teach it, they'll learn it. Over the years, as I've realized that the connection between teaching and learning is tenuous at best, I've become fond of telling coaches that we can teach kids but we can't learn them.

  • April 16, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Hi Nick, my son is a B License coach and coaches at the Peterborough United Academy with primary school aged children, he keeps telling me to read your Blog, I can see why. I am Head of a large primary school, judged as Outstanding by Ofsted, The Fulbridge Academy, where Tom also works teaching PE lessons. What you have described above is something that has changed in forward thinking schools where the move from teaching to learning has proven the best way forward. It is done well in some schools and by some teachers and not so well by others. We base all our planning on what the children have learnt in the previous lessons. It means we cannot use schemes of work and text books as then you fit the child to the book or the scheme rather than matching the learning and teaching to where the children are. You can see the parallels with coaching football, I originally qualified as a PE teacher myself. The best teachers review learning throughout the lessons and have reviews at the end of the lessons as you describe after a coaching session. This approach relies on very good subject knowledge and in education it has an acronym that is used widely – AfL (Assessment for Learning). I have long thought that teachers can learn from great sports coaches and that the coaching world can learn from good educational practice and the principles underlying child development. For me you are exactly on the right lines with your thinking. One of the best lessons I ever saw was by Dave Robertson from PUFC Academy, A licence coach, and you could have taken what he did in a football lesson, and transferred the format into any subject area/lesson in school, I got him to run the session for the whole staff. It's a fascinating journey you are looking at, but crucially in my opinion it relies on having coaches or teachers who have great subject knowledge and expertise because as you rightly say they must teach on the hoof, if the children are going to get the best learning and the coach needs to know the next steps of the child's learning without having to refer to a coaching manual or in our case a lesson plan. Good luck!

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks for the post Nick, always thought provoking. I saw this quote on Twitter the other day…

    "If you've told a child a thousand times and he still does not understand, then it is not the child who is the slow learner"- Walter Barbee

    I like the thousand times bit because over the years I have heard that said to children many times!!

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Coaching youth sports really presents some unique challenges. Getting kids to really understand and learn what you are trying to teach them can be complex and I really appreciate your Wooden quote. I think it was Tony Dungie's father who was professor and once said something to the effect of A students will always be A students but a good teacher makes the B students A students and the C students B students. I really think that is something that should be considered when teaching and coaching youth.

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    This is quite interesting and especially I was attracted to your comment about "planning on the hoof".

    I've been thinking about something for a while now; a link between "programmed" curriculum (and content) as an analogy for waterfall IT development and a flexible approach to curriculum "design", or maybe content, as intended by an approach to IT program design called "Agile".
    The idea being that instead of large project meetings to progress new development, it is done using a series of quick meetings looking at arising challenges or 'barriers'. Small iterations to change, in some measure, the approach allows the 'flexible' development of the program which then develops, almost, organically to achieve the desired outcomes.
    Whilst I haven't formulated my ideas quite yet, I really believe this approach can help players accumulate 'learning' organically in a similar way.
    If you have seen Premier Skills' approach to player development, that feels to be a a sort of "Agile" approach to them 'learning' the game rather than being 'taught', as such.

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    "Is it ok for the players to not learn something new?"

    I think it is, providing the practice time was spent reinforcing fundamental skills. You don't want to sacrifice the basics in the same of flash, because that's not what kids need to learn when they are starting out. If they don't have the fundamentals down solid what is the point of the new?

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Hi Nick, another excellent article. Got me thinking…

    All the questions you posed were thought-provoking. The ones that especially got me thinking were Q 6 and Q 7. How do we know what they (the players) know and when do we find out?

    For me the importance is in defining 'knowing'. Is that when the players can verbalise a concept? Or is it 'knowing' it in their nervous system by being able to demonstrate competency in the practice/game/context?

    Personally, I would value the former over the latter, unless perhaps the 'knowing' was in the context of thinking and speaking rather than 'doing' football-specific-skills such as in ' player-led team-talks'.

    I pre-suppose that one of the reasons that kids are able to learn 'like sponges' is that they have fewer 'mental maps' than adults and therefore less interference in the assimilation of skills modelled (often unconsciously) from others.

    That's why another interesting question to me is Q 8. What happens when some know and others don't…

    I propose the best thing is for those who don't 'know' is to watch others demonstrate excellence (their peers or someone else who can), then – 'have a go' themselves and only then have them talk about it and test their ability to verbalise what they have learned. Because I would value demonstrating the skill over being able to talk about it or even realise that consciously they HAD in fact learned something.

    I'm sure we can all relate to developing a skill without the help of any coach and being asked 'how the hell do you do that?' And then not being able to explain it consciously (especially as kids).

    We are often not consciously aware of what we are doing, or doing better, and this can be a good thing I suggest.

    Even as adults the explanation we give as to 'what makes us skillful/competent etc' may not be accurate anyway. It may only be a rationalisation for an unconscious process.

    Would be good to hear what you think…if you can make sense of this rambling…



  • April 23, 2014 at 4:21 pm


    Thought provoking.

    One which has been provoked is – where does a syllabus sit with this ?(linking with other stuff eg on education in Finland)

    Another one is – are some of the things learned easily articulated- is a verbal debrief always the best way to explore all of the kind of things we do in football,some of them, or is it just the least worst way?

    Is one way to explore current learning, to find out if we can apply it to something new?

    I need to think of a better example but how about if we have worked on some patterns of playing out from the back and seem to have got it ,but next try to we see – How do we use this against a team who man marks? Or for learning about strikers combining?

    With some groups I use a 'Learning Buddy' for player to player review at the beginning of the session (what did we learn last week) and at the end the session (what did we learn today) . Then find a new buddy for next week.

    You have made me think , have I actually been asking getting answers to 'What did we DO today?' which is not the same thing .

    Now I need to think about somehow using this to finding out new learning.

    Have I been asking the right questions?

    Are One to Ones, Groups of three or four, or the whole groups better for different ways of finding out what we learned?

    Finally, I have heard coaches say – both Academy and Grassroots –

    ' We don't have time to find out if the players understand'

    And that is before they even consider learning!

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Another very thought provoking article Nick.
    A further question could be: 'if the players learned something new, did they master it and could they apply it in a match situation?' – this then takes us to questions 3 and 4 to which I would answer 'No' and 'Yes'. A subject is not truly learned until you reach the stage of 'unconscious competence' – but is the Coaches job to get them there or is the players' responsibility, or is it shared?
    As well as playing football my 10 year old son practices Karate, so I have the opportunity to compare and contrast the approaches which are very different. Karate's main focus (as a junior anyway) is on developing technique by way of unopposed constant practice. They work on the same stuff until they pass their next grading (belt) and then move onto new techniques for their next belt. As football coaches we try very hard to vary things but other sports it seems do not.
    This is probably one reason why my son loves football and tolerates karate!

  • April 23, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    This is absolutely fantastic. What a great read 35 minutes prior to a session. Will apply a few questions from this onto the session now.


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