How can sports coaches help teachers?

Over the last few weeks, as my mind has started thinking about the new school year, I have found myself involved in lots of sports coaching. Specifically, I have found myself involved in multiple conversations about sports coaching. This has highlighted to me just how far ahead sports coaches are in comparison to teachers. I hope to offer some advice on how we can take what they do and know and adapt it to teaching.

Firstly, let’s talk about the shifts in both fields. “Progressive” is banded around a lot in teaching with negative connotations. It’s a shame that such a positive word generates this reaction. If you are progressive (in the twitter sense), you believe in solving problems; creating engagement and motivation breeding success. There is far more to it than this but for now, that’s enough of an overview. The other end of the spectrum – “Traditionalist” means you believe in facts; teachers know best and things are taught not discovered. Again a horridly cut-down version of the actual debate but enough for those who are unaware. The recent shift in education has been to push problem solving. Questions are more “real world” so students have to act as mathematicians do or solve medical problems that doctors face. A similar shift happened in sports coaching. Games were the big thing a few years ago. Spain are the best side at football, they play lots of games therefore we should play lots of games.

Technical vs Tactical

Both of these arguments seem to make sense on the surface level. The problem is that if someone’s skill set is not strong enough, they cannot engage in these activities in any sort of way which will impact long-term memory and therefore learning . For example, 9 year old Spanish kids may be better at passing with both feet than any other country therefore the games they play will work in a different way. In the same way, a student who can recall their multiplication tables will be better at solving multi-step problems involving multiplication than a child who has to work out every multiplication. What do sports coaches do, therefore, to look past this problem?

When games-based coaching first appeared, there was a tendency to go fully in the deep end and let the players play games and expect them to get better. Obviously, this model did not work but it began a very important process in sports coaching. Sports coaches realised they could constrain games however they wanted – numbers of players, size of pitches, type of ball used or certain rules – and this would, in turn, force students to practise the skill necessary. This is taken further with a “whole-part-whole” model whereby a session begins with a “whole” e.g. some form of a game which is used to diagnose flaws and then the “part” comes in. This “part” may look more like a drill or specific practice in which skills are practised. After significant improvement in a more controlled environment, the players are put back into a “whole” in which they play the game and hopefully show improvement in this discipline.


Tech vs Tact


The difficulty with getting this approach right is selecting which “whole” to start with. If you look above at the graph of technical vs tactical, developed at Oxford Brookes University, we see that as the number of players increases in a game, the emphasis shifts to tactical and less technical. This makes intuitive sense, if 30 people are doing something, it is hard to see each individual techniques but you can see how teams co-adapt and progress in the specific game.

Coaches constantly think about the purpose of their “whole” segment. A 15-a-side rugby match is not the time to judge someone’s passing ability. The match is not designed to test this ability. In the same way that a summative exam is not designed to test a student’s individual techniques. These are designed to differentiate from top to bottom within a cohort. I cannot recommend Daisy Christodolou’s book “Making Good Progress?” enough for more on summative vs formative assessment. We must realise what we are asking students to do and the purpose of it.

The equivalent to whole-part-whole in a traditional classroom would be to sit an exam; highlight flaws; practise flaws; sit an equivalent exam. Repeat. The problem here is that an exam is far more on the “tactical” end of the spectrum if we think of the same diagram above. Exams are designed summatively and need to be able to put students into labelled boundaries. Therefore, these exams will test multi-step problems and questions will take on multiple techniques at once. As a question increases in marks, this becomes more true. In this sense, we can think of more players = more tactical/less technical for sport and more marks = more tactical/less technical for teachers.

What do we do then to ensure we maximise the effectiveness of this approach? Sports coaches are very creative with what constitutes a “whole” and very specific in what they take from the performances. A “whole” does not need to be a full game, it can be small-sided games or it can be a very variable practice focusing on one or two techniques. The point of the part is to “screen” the players. After players have received very specific feedback, they are asked to play either the same whole or a slightly different version but coaches offer precise feedback on the one or two techniques discussed. We can certainly take that approach into our classrooms and ensure that students are specific in what they are trying to improve. For this to happen, we must be creative when asking students to complete diagnostic assessments. This doesn’t have to always look like the final exam. What do we want to test for? How can we constrain an activity so we can effectively and efficiently test for it? What feedback will we offer to ensure the students know where they are and how improve?

The idea here is not necessarily always to get the right answer/win the game. Sometimes, you will want students to improve technically in one specific skill. Other time, you will ask to get the right answer. This perhaps fits more into the tactical side – in sport, you’d be asking players to win and in class, you’re asking students to get it all right.


Degrees of Freedom

The next part of sports coaching which I think can be taken into account is the idea of removing degrees of freedom. Simply, this means removing variability from a skill. For example, when teaching a player to throw, we might ask the player to sit on the floor and just use their wrist and elbow. This allows a chance for the coach to break down a massive group of concepts into parts. From here, we challenge the players to do different things – throw further, throw higher, throw left, make it bounce etc. This allows players to “feel” each part of a movement. They can quickly see how each part fits together and what happens to their process if multiple steps are required.

This can happen, too, when teaching in a classroom. Kris Boulton (@Kris_boulton) has done some great work, inspired by Engelmann, in breaking down big topics into concepts. Kris took “simultaneous equations” and said there are thirteen parts; let’s go through them. This is a similar idea to removing degrees of freedom. There is so much potential for errors in big topics that we have no chance of spotting where the actual mistake is and students have no idea where their own flaws are.

For example, if we look at a simple one step algebra solution at the end of a long, simultaneous equations equation:

2x = 6

x = 4


What is the mistake? Does this student think 6 divided by 2 is 4? Do they think 2x means 2 + x? Have they just made a silly error through fatigue? All of this could be true – this question is not designed to test this ability. The more we break down concepts and assess students abilities to solve those problems, we can be happy/unhappy that students can or cannot grasp this specific concept involved in simultaneous equations.

If we break things down, concept-by-concept, we can see specifically where students are struggling. This also has an added benefit of instant fixes and a chance of immediate success depending on the difficulty of the concept. The teacher’s role is to ensure each concept is a small enough jump that success can still occur but large enough that it feels challenging.


Removal of Anxiety

Finally, the last thing I would love to see in classrooms is a removal of anxiety. Sports pitches should be the least anxious of all environments. You kick a ball and it doesn’t go to your teammate, oh well, let’s go and get it back. The attitude here is a “what’s next” mentality instead of “what’s happened”. I think this probably comes from matches (without scaffolding) being played an awful lot – in some sports, players will play multiple times a week – whereas students might only sit assessments (without scaffolding) once a half term or even less frequently.

More low stakes quizzes/tests/assessments may contribute to a forward-thinking attitude as opposed to a backward-looking one. What we do with these assessments is also important. I saw a great tweet a few months ago saying “you wouldn’t write a letter to each player after a football match” to give them feedback so why are we doing something equivalent after these assessments? There can be some feedback for the whole class and something active to ensure it is more feedforward e.g. targeted questions, active reflection. This frees teachers to have the opportunity to have individual conversations with students. Feedback is far more likely to be acted upon if we have a short, specific conversation explaining what we noticed in their work which could be improved.

The hope here is that this approach creates a culture of seeking feedback after an assessment and not a score. This is very much mirrored in the best sports teams – players are concerned with how they did rather than how many points/baskets/goals they scored. This culture comes from the coach and I believe can be created by the teacher.

Before finishing, the final thought is about success. Sports coaches are also trying to convince players to come back a lot of the time. They use success to breed this motivation. Instead of using motivation to breed success. This is the last idea I think more teachers can latch on. All students want to be good. All parents what their students to be good. Let them be good. The more success that students feel, the more motivated they will be in your subject. Yes, failing and making mistakes is important, but don’t forget how important it is to feel good, too. All of us are more likely to stick with things if we think we can do it.









How can sports coaches help teachers?

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