Athlete-Centered Coaching And Empowerment

My College Teaching class is designed to promote more student-centered learning, but the students are reluctant to embrace this idea.

After a group demonstrated a teacher-centered, a student-centered, and a balanced approach, one student from the student-centered group remarked that it seemed like the professor was unnecessary – as if she could learn on her own. The class seemed to think that was a negative. I asked if that wasn’t the point. The students seemed concerned that they are not getting their money’s worth if they do all the work. Isn’t the point to learn and develop students who are capable of learning?

This attitude of getting one’s money’s worth afflicts basketball. With the advent of club basketball and personal trainers, coaches and trainers feel like they have to earn the money that parents are paying. Like the students, parents and players do not feel as though they get their money’s worth when the coach or trainer does not instruct constantly. However, is that the best approach for the player to learn?

We need to start with the end-goal: the player’s or team’s development. Coaching, like teaching, is not about the coach; it’s about the effect on the player. One cannot measure a coach’s effect without measuring the player. As John Wooden said, “You haven’t taught until they have learned.” Brilliantly instructing and pontificating without positively effecting the players’ learning is not good coaching.

A coach’s purpose, then, is to enhance the player’s learning, not just to instruct. Often, those two may be aligned closely: the instruction facilitates the learning. However, if the two are not aligned, the primary objective is the learning.

Our educational system (our athletic system developed from the educational system) creates passive learners. From the time that we enter school, we learn that the teacher is the expert, and we are to listen to the expert and absorb his or her knowledge. After years and years of schooling, we may become an expert too.

In sports, the coach is the expert, and the players follow his or her directions. The coach designs the practice, explains the drills, creates the strategy, calls the plays, decides the positions, makes the substitutions, etc. Players follow directions.

Is this the best way to learn? Do we learn by listening attentively to someone else’s experience? How do we determine a coach’s expertise: age, someone else’s approval, experience?

I am an empowerment coach. Like most things, empowerment is just a label – anyone can call himself anything. By empowerment, I mean that I attempt to empower players to be active learners and active decision-makers. My goal is to make myself unnecessary.

When I was young, I practiced on my own. I learned to shoot. I mastered dribbling moves. I did not need a personal trainer. I went to parks to play pick-up games. One of my most influential coaches was in a summer league. He was playing in Asia and home for the summer. We had no practices; we played four games per week. He did not try to teach anything. However, he, more than any other coach, instilled confidence in my abilities.

Today, players appear to need a personal trainer with them to learn to shoot, dribble, etc. They need to be on a team with a coach telling them what to do in order to play.

Coaches and trainers instruct in a manner that makes the players reliant on the coach or trainer. While the best way to sustain business, this method of autocratic, prescriptive or behavioral-style of coaching is a traditional and well-accepted approach just as we expect a professor to stand at a podium with a powerpoint slide show and lecture for the entire period.

Because we grow up in a system that creates passive learners, we have misplaced goals. We sit in a class and expect teachers to do everything for us – that’s what we pay for, right? However, if the teacher does all the work, do the students learn?

When we play basketball, we look to the coach for directions. When a game gets tight, players look to the bench for the play call. Players learn to depend on the coach. However, players learn this behavior because of the coach’s behavior.

I feel that if a player stays with me too long, I am not doing my job. My goal is to make the player self-sufficient. I want to help him discover the feel of the right technique so that when he practices, he knows whether he shot correctly or not. I should not have to stand there and tell him whether it was correct or not. If the player becomes reliant on my feedback, I am making the player dumb. I am absolving him of his responsibility in the learning process, and ultimately I am slowing his development. However, I have created a dependent relationship, so I can increase the frequency of our workouts to facilitate the improvement and make more money.

As a coach, I do things that other coaches feel are crazy. Late in games, when I call a timeout to set up a play, I ask the players what they want to run. If the players call the play, why do they even have a coach, right? As a professional coach, my job is to win. If the players are confident with the play, I believe they are more likely to execute. If they execute, I look like a good coach. If I draw up the most intricate, perfectly designed play, but they fail to execute, I look like a bad coach. What’s the objective? To score. What’s the best way to score? To have confident players who know exactly what to do.

When I took over a J.V. basketball team, I had a group of players who were conditioned to look to the coach for answers. From the beginning, I refused to be that guy. When they wanted answers, I asked questions. I wanted them to discover the answers. I wanted to teach them how to learn on the court. My goal is for players to be able to adjust and adapt. Players cannot adjust and adapt if they are looking to the coach to call a timeout or call the play.

Players initially may feel like I am not doing my job, that I am not solving their problems. However, that’s the point. If I solve their problems, when do they learn to solve their own problems? If they do not learn, how do they become self-sufficient? How can they practice on their own if they need me to solve their problems?

Instructing is not coaching. Coaching is having a positive effect on the player’s learning. When we conceptualize coaching from this viewpoint, the specifics of the coaching are less important than the result as measured by the player’s progress (although, research by Vickers, Schmidt and Lee, and others has found that reduced and delayed feedback enhances transfer of learning better than immediate and frequent feedback, so from a pedagogical standpoint, the constant instruction that we identify as good coaching is actually harmful to the player’s learning).

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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