Reflective practice for coaches. Are you asking the right questions?

A window cleaner may be able to do the same thing every day for 50 years without any negative consequences, but if a football coach fails to continuously adapt their methods they’ll struggle to find work. Reflecting on your sessions is vital to avoid stagnation.

Given that there is so much to consider during a coaching session and so many decisions to be made in each moment, analysis of those decisions will often have to wait until after the session. Emotions can arise during a session that can cloud judgement, so information is best processed after the session, when emotions are neutral. Reflective practice has become a requirement for passing your FA courses in recent years, such is the importance placed upon it. But are you asking the right questions?

FA reflective practise

FA Level 2 Learning Journal excerpt.

The default reflective practice has for years been “what went well/what didn’t”. The limitation of this approach is that it simplifies the issue into whether your decisions and interventions succeeded or failed, neglecting to consider why they did, and how your approach should change in future. It narrows your view when it should be an opportunity to widen it. It also fails to challenge your inherent biases towards coaching, which can lead to a cycle of trying to improve an aspect that only you consider important.

What is needed then, is to widen your perspective. To ask questions that provoke creative thought, rather than dead end questions. “Were players engaged?” leads nowhere. Engagement is a spectrum, and the very finest coaches reach levels of players engagement that the rest of us didn’t know were possible. Here are some examples of alternative questions:


  • Did the players start unrelated conversations during the session? If so, what were they about?
  • Did players make eye contact when you delivered messages to them? If not, where was their vision?
  • Did players volunteer their own ideas? If not, how can we encourage them to do so?
  • Did players start conversations about meeting the aims of the session without your prompting? If not, how can we encourage them to do so?

 

When reflecting on a session, it’s easy to get caught up in an incident that influenced the quality of the session, but it’s often the things that don’t happen that are really important. These are the things that can be missed when you ask “What went well?”.

To determine which questions are worth asking, you need to consider the needs of your players. At the start of the season you should set targets, and your reflective practice should be designed with the aim of meeting those targets, to determine whether you’re on course or not. Those targets must be ones that the players identify with, or ideally have chosen themselves. There’s no point trying to lead them somewhere they don’t want to go, and trying to do so will just cause friction, possibly literally!

Your passing session with the u8s may have fallen flat because the players had been on a school trip that day and were exhausted as a result, but if you’re asking yourself “what went well/what didn’t?”, the answer is simply that the players were tired. If you were to instead ask “how can I adapt a session to a group of tired players?”, you may consider using a smaller area to decrease exertion, or have more rest breaks. Your reflective practice may also focus on individuals, for example if you have a player who struggles with a specific aspect you may include that in your regular reflection, for example “Did Johnny communicate well in-game today?”.

The right questions meet three criteria. They should be individualised to the needs of your players, in order to keep your focus on what is relevant. They should challenge your beliefs, providing alternative perspectives and considerations. They should also be written before the session, to avoid letting what did happen obscure what should have happened.

Here’s an example of reflective practise for a hypothetical grassroots u8s team:


  • Did players play at least 2 positions? Were they enthusiastic about their roles?

Jay had to be encouraged to come out of defense, due to his lack of confidence with the ball. Could he be worried about his teammates moaning at him? Maybe find out next week, and have a word about behaviour standards and expectations if so.

Lucas sulked when he had to take his turn in goal. Maybe I need to explain how goalkeeping can be fun?

  • Did everyone score a goal? If not, why not?

Jay was tentative about coming forward, and elected to pass even when he had the better chance to score than his teammate. Maybe implement a rule next week where each player can only score one goal, so there’s no incentive for him to pass to someone who has already scored.

  • What do you know now that you didn’t before the session?

Nigel has an older brother who is at a Premier League clubs academy, which might explain why he’s a few years ahead of the rest. He’s obviously comfortable playing with older, better players, maybe he’d be best served by moving up an age group?

  • Which players did you have individual conversations with?

Nigel, Leo, and David. I haven’t had an individual conversation with Jay this season, so I may need to prioritise that.

  • Did Joe receive the ball on the turn or facing his GK?

Joe remembered to receive on the turn when doing drills and games, but when under pressure in the matches he forgot and got stuck facing his own goal. Next week the drills needs to have pressure in order to focus on this aspect.


 

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