There is an ongoing, sometimes rancorous, debate in the coaching world as to the relative merits of “instruction” and “discovery” learning.

From, on one side, those who want to line players up behind cones, and have them take turns to replicate skills demonstrated by their coach.

Or those who set up games and leave the players to work it out for themselves.

OK — two grossly inaccurate, “straw-man” descriptions of coaching practice. But not uncommon in the darker spaces on Twitter.

Perhaps more accurately:

  • Direct Instruction, which, however it is conceptualised, seeks to inculcate the Instruction.
  • Ecological Dynamics and non-linear pedagogy, exemplified by the constraints-led approach, sees the coach creating a learning environment from which movement solutions “emerge”.

But what if the role of the coach was thought of differently. Neither “instructor” nor “environmental designer”.

In search of a third way, between “tell” and “go find”


Three books published towards the end of 2021 set me thinking about what we actually do when we are coaching.

Rob Gray’s How We Learn to Move — sure to become the go-to resource for any coach interested in the Ecological Dynamics approach to skill acquisition.

The Spectrum of Sport Coaching Styles, by Shane Pill, Brendan SueSee, Josh Rankin & Mitch Hewitt. From “Coaching by Command” to “Player Self-Coaching”, an invaluable guide to the decisions and responsibilities inherent in all coaching activities.

Myths of Sport Coaching, edited by Amy Whitehead & Jenny Coe. A great read in its own right, but also my inspiration for looking beyond established orthodoxy.

BTW — I am not suggesting that Direct Instruction, the Spectrum of Coaching Styles, or the Ecological Dynamics approach to skill acquisition are, in any way, “myths of sport coaching”.

What do Direct Instruction and the Constraints-Led Approach have in common?

Although the pedagogical approaches of Direct Instruction (DI) and the Constraints-Led Approach (CLA) are very different, they both start from the assumption that the coach knows the answer.

In DI, this is explicit — “this is what you need to learn, now I’ll deliver a structured learning programme to help you learn it”.

Less explicit in CLA, perhaps, but still — the coach identifies the specific problem to be addressed and designs an environment in which a solution to that problem can emerge.

And this is the nature of coaching — coaches very often tend to be more experienced than the athletes they work with, very often are appointed because of the technical knowledge they bring. Rarely, it seems, for the pedagogical knowledge they offer.

Is there more to coaching than knowledge?

Curiously, although I was challenged by the “Coach as Educator” model espoused in “The Spectrum…”, it might actually promise greater freedom. And could, perhaps, point in the direction of the “third way”.

Whilst there is an explicit “non-versus” ethos underlying The Spectrum — no style is inherently better than any other, just more appropriate in a given situation — the spectrum “advances” from simple to complex “need”.

From basic instruction delivered by Command (e.g. safety, Laws of the Game) through to Player Self Coaching, with no coach involvement at all.

From “Reproduction” (“here’s a skill — now you try”) to “Production” (“here’s a problem — produce a novel solution”).

And in the Production modes, especially those that are player-led, the player needs to understand & select the learning modes.

That is, the athlete needs to know what to learn and how to learn. Perhaps with the assistance of a coach, perhaps independently.

This skill is most apparent in the high performance environments. Would any coach try to tell Cristiano Ronaldo how to kick a dead ball? Or instruct Steve Smith on how to should bat?

Of course not. The role of the coach here is to facilitate whatever practice is appropriate for that player.

Facilitating player learning

During the current Ashes tour in Australia, the England coaching staff has been severely depleted by positive COVID tests. Some reports were amazed that Joe Root, England captain, was helping with practice by working the “dog stick” or feeding a bowling machine for colleagues.

This should be commonplace. If players really want to become learning athletes (aspiring to constant improvement), they need to understand how they learn, how their team mates learn, how to help their team mates.

(To be fair, maybe this is already the case, and the journalists never noticed before.)

And, surely, the coach has a responsibility to “teach” this “skill”, alongside technical, tactical, physical, psychological.

But I also believe there is value in teaching younger players the mechanisms of learning. How do we learn new skills? What works best for you, the player? How can you work with team mates to improve skills, teamwork, outcomes?

And it’s a skill to learn early, I believe.

How many “simple” fielding sessions have disintegrated into chaos because players can’t throw a simple catch to a partner stood 2m away? Or batting practices fall apart because the players can’t or won’t throw the ball “nicely” for the batter to hit?

In truth, this is as much about mind- as skill-set.

But that is down to the coach, as well, perhaps.

Challenging, in the era of tutors and cramming for exams (all too common in my experience), where players (and their parents) expect coaches to provide ready-made performance solutions, in preference to learning opportunities, learning from failure, the growth mindset.

The third way

Beyond telling. Beyond “the game is the coach”.

Perhaps the coach has the vital role of teaching the player how to approach a new challenge.

In addition to coaching technique, tactics etc., the coach also has a responsibility to encourage “learning about learning” (meta-learning?).

“Coach as creator of specific learning experiences” is too clunky a phrase, perhaps…

“Coach as learning consultant”?

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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