Is there such a thing as overcoaching? More I often I find myself saying it in my head watching coaches in action but I’ve never heard anyone else refer to it.

First let’s ask – What is the role of the coach in sport?

  • Is it to identify and correct every mistake an athlete makes in order to achieve immediate improvement?
  • Is it to ensure each athlete’s technique conforms to the step by step process from a manual?
  • Is it shouting key coaching points or cues out as reinforcement while the athletes practice or compete?
  • Is it to formulate a game plan and ensure everyone sticks to it by shouting instructions on to the pitch?

From the games and training sessions I have seen between under 8 and professional level this seems to be many coaches’ idea of their role. Is it necessarily the right approach though?

You often hear coaches say “I can’t play the game for you!” and promptly attempt to do just that. Walking the dog on a Sunday morning recently around a set of sports pitches where four under 13 games were being played  I counted three coaches literally standing on the pitch directing the players where to stand, where to run and who to pass to as if they were playing a giant game of FIFA 13 on their playstation where their voice is the controller and the louder they shout the more responsive the controls are!

Does shouting instructions at players (especially youth players) help them to perform skills under pressure? Or improve their understanding of the game? Try completing a complex task under pressure with someone shouting the instructions at you over your shoulder and see what you think!

Trial and error is a key part of learning and given the right circumstances people are capable of amazing feats of learning. Sugata Mitra, an educational scientist, has demonstrated the efficacy of what he calls Self Organised Learning Environments. Using this approach he found Tamil speaking 12 year old children in South India learnt the biotechnology of DNA replication in English, by themselves from a streetside computer with no teachers!

This is obviously an extreme end of the spectrum but not only is self learning guided by a coach possible, in many cases it is preferable. Every athlete is highly individual with different heights, weights, limb lengths, training histories and so on. As a result each athlete will have a different way of performing a side step or deciding which player to pass to as they are all working from different bases. Who better to work out the best strategy than the athlete themself? Obviously the coach’s responsibility then is to create the environment to allow this to happen and this is something I will look to address in future posts on Ecological Psychology, Constraints Based Coaching, Understanding Skills and Motor Learning.

There are many problems associated with overcoaching as the athletes either tune out the coach’s voice as background noise or become overly reliant on the coaches to think for them. How often do commentators bemoan “Robotic Play” such as when rugby players kick to the corner when there was a clear overlap or footballers playing a speculative crossfield pass when another player was unmarked in a much better position?

So why do so many coaches do this? I think there are several factors such as a desire to feel like they are having an impact, justifying their position as the coach and the fact that this was the way they were coached but the main issue in my view is the way coach education is taught and assessed by many of the national governing bodies.

Most of the courses and certifications run by sports governing bodies that I have attended try to cover too much information in too little time and are focussed on being able to tick a box in your workbook to say that you have covered a broad range of topics of which actual coaching methods such as feedback, demonstrations, verbal instructions etc. are only a small part yet these are the key foundations of effective coaching.  The course should primarily be about coaching – the clue is in the title!!

Add to this the fact that the secondary focus is coaching you to pass the assessment they put in place at the end of the course and no wonder many coaches come out with bad habits.

The end of course assessment has to be one of the most false environments that I have witnessed with 6 to 8 other adult candidates acting as athletes and the ever present instruction from the assessor that “If you don’t speak we can’t mark you!”. This instruction leads to guess what………………..

I feel that in this case removing the assessment would be more beneficial as it would stop so many coaches having the idea that they need to be “busy” and giving constant feedback in order to be effective. The time recouped could be used looking at coaching methods in more detail. If there must be an assessment it should be done at the coach’s club with their actual athletes. Whilst there are issues with finding and financing sufficient assessors to do this in person one solution would be to send in DVD’s of sessions candidates have run on which they can be graded and given feedback over email. I think this is actually better as they can watch their own session back and see exactly the points the assessor makes.

The courses are improving as practices such as teaching games for understanding and game sense coaching begins to filter out. However, until the main focus of coaching qualifications is actually coaching methods and assessments are made on the coach in their actual environment by assessors who understand that coaching isn’t just about what cues you can remember then we will continue to see coaches hindering rather than improving their athletes.

If overcoaching is bad practice read my post on What is good coaching practice?

Simon Nainby is an Accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach and Tutor, Sports Massage Therapist, RFU Level II coach and an Assistant Athletics Coach. He has worked for a number of professional and semi-professional teams and he currently acts as a coaching consultant through Underground Athletics to a wide range of athletes from rugby players to Olympic Lifters. He provides physical preparation training and support in order to maximise sports performance. This consists of strength, speed and power training combined with recovery support to create a periodised programme which is essential for athletes to perform to their potential.

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