The road back to coaching

Like much of the world (I imagine) the pandemic has given me pause for thought, an opportunity to reflect on my coach-self in a bid to define, and perhaps more importantly, redefine my coach identity. To begin with (lockdown 1.0) I engaged in podcasts, Zoom calls, individual conversations and additional reading as a way to embrace the gift of time and improve my practice in the absence of practice. It was exciting, in fact, I wrote pages and pages of notes, ‘to do’ lists and references to further self-help, instructional and biographical material. If nothing else, I was going to be more informed, knowledgeable and ready to re-enter the hardtops of West Yorkshire. The problem was, I was doing a great deal of theorising and no practice, I was holding on to volumes of information with no opportunity to explore, discover or reflect on my actions and reactions. Instead, I started to muse over my coach-identity, who my coach-self was and what purpose my coaching served.

Many of my engagements with lockdown learning material had reflected contact with the lived experience, biographical journeys through the coaching lives of many practitioners. Indeed, I too had shared my story, and in doing so, I uncovered a reality yet to be recognised. I was a part-time coach, I entered and exited the domain with little more than six to eight hours of exposure to the coach-athlete interactions I enjoyed. For many years I have sought the title of coach, chasing voluntary positions in a bid to gain recognition and be seen as a coach of standing. In support of this goal, I have enjoyed various modes of learning, education and upskilling in a bid to add credibility to my coach title. However, in the midst of a forced hiatus I found myself re-prioritising, returning to family and friends and indulging in secondary activities such as mountain biking and golf. In short, my coach-self had retreated in a bid to allow me time and space to reimagine my practice.

Some 13-months later and I walked through the arena doors to a crowd of young people, there was a hustle and excitement in the air, everybody appeared relieved to be back on the hardwood and ready to reengage in the three-dimensional artistry we call ‘Ballin’. I had sat the previous evening contemplating my return, diagramming our practice and theorising my contribution. I was keen to move away from blocked practice and promote a more variable version of learning. One that I had mused over, promoted within my contribution to the Player Development Framework, and now was excited to implement. Williams and Hodges (2005) introduce the concept of game intelligence, an overarching term that captures the importance of player anticipation and decision-making. I too had reported many times on the need to promote and encourage basketball players to become independent thinking athletes and reject the overt instructional behaviours exhibited by many during competition. This was my chance to be true to my thinking.

I drew a breath, expelled through my Wilson whistle and called the crowd to attention. I was suddenly very aware of the multiple eyes and attentions focused in my direction. I scanned the room, smiled and with great pleasure, welcomed myself and co practitioners back to the world of coaching basketball.

A regional coach conversation

I had the pleasure of delivering at the East Midlands Regional CPD event yesterday, which I saw as a great opportunity to engage in yet another meaningful coach conversation. I was joined by #johncollins #kenrickliburd #mattshaw #karenburton as we shared our thinking, our practice and our research with an enthused audience of coaches. Below is some of what I had to say.

Coach behaviours have been the focus of my research for the past seven years. They can be described as the actions, reactions and responses exhibited by a coach during the delivery of their practice. These behaviours are thought to originate from a “combination of tradition, intuition, and the emulation of other coaches” (Partington & Cushion, 2013, p.374). The behaviour of the coach has been associated with the concept of effective practice (Lacy & Darst, 1985) and is a prominent theme across the sports coaching literature (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008; Ford, Yates, & Williams, 2010; Galimore & Tharpe, 2004). Results from many of these studies have found the behaviour of the coach to yield a significant impact on athlete performance (Cushion, Ford & Williams, 2012; Terry, 2006). Furthermore, the literature establishes ‘instruction’ as the dominant behaviour within the practice environment (Gilbert & Trudel, 2004).

Instruction has been consistently found to be utilised 48% of the time during training / practice. That is, explicit and direct instruction as a means of informing and shaping athlete development. Sociologist argue that the retention of power by the coach shapes this approach to our practice and describes this form of coaching as Coach-centred. An alternative approach is to consider the athlete, their current level of knowledge and understanding, and their ability to solve problems. This form of coaching is described as athlete-centred.

I propose that we (basketball coaches) begin to consider our coaching behaviour, what we do and say, as a means of improving the climate we create within our practice environment? Traditionally, basketball practice is constructed of training form activities (skill and drill) and overt instructions. However, as a means of moving towards a more research informed approach, researchers suggest that practice should be more aligned to competition and should reflect playing form. Moreover, it is felt that the coach should employ a less instructional approach to their practice. This may include the provision of small-sided games, both advantage-disadvantage and non-advantage, as a means of creating problems for our athletes to solve. In order for this approach to be successful, we need to employ the use of questioning.

The Debate of Ideas

The ‘Debate of Ideas’ (Gréhaigne & Griffin, 2005) is a framework that can be used to challenge and extend learning within our practice. Originally developed as a means of advancing tactical decision-making within invasion based sports (such as basketball), the concept is akin to social constructivism and promotes reasoning, reflection and decision-making. Gréhaigne and Griffin (2005) referred to the concept as a ‘tactical timeout’, which essentially is the provision of time and space to consider the tactical decisions employed within the game. The framework has four broad strategies that can be employed by the coach:

  1. Promoting Exploration: Concepts such as allowing moments of deliberate play, time and space to explore problems of difficulties within the Moment of the Game. After some exposure to the problem, players may fail to perceive any problems, at which point the coach should provide further opportunity to explore, collaborate and work towards a solution. The coach may wish to add further modifications to the activity as a means of guided-discovery.
  2. Asking Open-Ended questions: When a problem or challenge is identified by the athlete(s) the coach may decide to bring them together to debate among themselves or with them through the use of open-ended questioning.
  3. Asking Specific Questions: After posing a divergent question the coach may observe and allow the athletes time and space to problem-solve before offering further facilitation.
  4. Applying strategies: Once a solution is reached, athletes should be encouraged to explore / test the strategy.

You may wish to consider the following questions:


  1. How did you achieve your intended outcome? I would like you to consider the principles of the game you employed and why you employed them.
  2. How did you identify the particular strengths of your opponent? Consider their pattern of play, individual talent and the strategies they employed in their last three defensive possessions.
  3. What did you do well within the MOG to combat these strengths?
  4. What things does your team need to further counteract the strengths of the opposition?
  5. How will you do the things you have just mentioned in question 3?




Higher order questioning seeks to involve the athlete, explore their thinking and elicit an opinion that is individual and the sole possession of the person from which it came. Targeting our questioning empowers the athlete to think for themselves, to make decisions, and ultimately, to develop a ‘Independent Thinking Athlete’.

Five chairs – five choices

Having recently used the Five Chairs – Five Choices model within a seminar to highlight the concept of coaching styles (from a leadership perspective) I am mindful of some of the messages that emerge from the work of Louise Evans. The model addresses cultural intelligence, our ability as leaders / managers (and I suggest, coaches) to work effectively with people. Reflecting on my coaching practice, how I approach each individual relationship, each interaction and each moment often raisers the question of effectiveness. Do I move to a protective state where I assign blame, attack and defend my position as coach? Or, do I have vision in my practice, am I able to empathise and display compassion? I would suggest, like many others, that coaching does not reflect one single ‘style’ or mode of practice, rather, we move through a range of emotions, states of being and behaviours that have an impact on our charges. We have the power to influence their perception of the relationship we have and the effectiveness of the interaction as a result of the connectivity that exists within our being together.

Five Chairs:

(RED) Jackal – punish, judge, complain, attack, a judging position, I am right position

(YELLOW) Hedgehog – vulnerable, protective mode, self-judgement, self degradation self-doubt, lack of confidence

(GREEN) Meerkat – mindful, thoughtful, curiosity, choice

(BLUE) Dolphin (detect) – detective to ourself, self-awareness, vision, voice, create boundaries, retain power, freedom

(PURPLE) beautiful, difficult, loving, vision, empathy, compassion, understanding, listen

I often think through these and many other concepts as a means of informing my behaviour, the way I coach and the influence I have with my players. Today was very much one of those days. I spent a little bit of time prior to the start of the game talking to players individually. I wanted to empower them, give them a sense of confidence and ‘permission’ if you like, a license to play freely and do what they felt was an reflection of their very best. Having spoken to them individually, I took my place on the bench and did everything I possibly could to remain quiet, to allow the players to self-organise, to contribute through the execution of their role and to be supportive.

We got off to a good start, executing our now patented style of play, ‘Run-Press-Run’ (adapted from Coach Xavier, Nottingham Knights), sharing the basketball and communicating both the intent and purpose (at times). I sat quietly, using the opportunity to gather some stats, again, in the hope that I would be able to use them as a means of demonstrating Who We Are! The game continued to play out, the result was inevitable, however, I was more concerned with what we were doing and how we were doing it. My challenge had been a simple one, could we establish ‘Who Are We?’ Could we be US? It was important for all twelve players to get into the game and experience substantial minutes today, to act out their role and be who they wanted to be. With this in mind I said very little, accept for in the third quarter. The pressures, unpredictability and opposition really do direct our behaviour as a coach, something my research is beginning to tell me. I had my moment and then returned to my state of observation and recording.

At the conclusion of the game, our third gathering in three days, the boys had done well to explore their identity, to enact their individual and collective goals with a degree of success. Could we do better? Yes, sure we could, but for now, the effort (Where Are We?) had been good (engaged and leading) and we had shown that we did understand a lot of what and who we were trying to be. Of what our game model comprised of and how best to employ the various elements with success and energy. The boys had played well and I was happy with our direction of travel. We would continue to work towards our next challenge, a harder challenge, but one that I felt we were going to be ready for and that we would enjoy.