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What makes up a good coaching session?

Avg: 4.53 / 5 (4votes)

ConnectedCoaches Content Champion and Senior Fellow in Sports Coaching at the University of Winchester, Richard Cheetham, talks about what makes a good coaching session. Using one of his students’ gymnastics coaching sessions on how to perform a dive roll, he emphasises the importance of the key elements.

Coaches should adhere to a framework of core elements when delivering their sessions. Richard Cheetham explains what these core elements are and why a structured approach is critical to the learning process.

  • Make the content and learning objectives of your session clear in your introduction.
  • Work hard to develop the partnership between yourself and the learners.
  • Planning and preparation are key to engaging participants.
  • Get them active early: if they are all active, they are all engaged.
  • Enjoyment and engagement levels will slip if you cram too much technical instruction into one session.
  • Help promote a positive coaching environment by focusing on each individual’s achievements.
  • Ask a lot of questions, and get the participants to ask themselves questions – and provide answers – before, during and after the sessions. Reflection is paramount.

In many ways, sports coaching is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. 

It can be extraordinarily difficult for a novice to fully grasp the gamut of principles and methodologies that go hand in hand with good coaching practice. 

It throws up dilemmas and challenges that can change from session to session – and sometimes during the sessions themselves – which can derail your thinking and knock your confidence. 

Nobody ever said coaching was easy. 

But what at first may appear to be a mountainous challenge can be reduced to more of a molehill by following a few basic rules. 

As ConnectedCoaches Content Champion  Richard Cheetham neatly summarises in the video above, a good coaching session is built on a foundation of core elements. 

And if you follow this framework for structuring your sessions, the numerous pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that make up good coaching practice will fit together a whole lot easier. 

Establish the learning outcomes 

You wouldn’t have the urge to watch a film if you switched it on halfway through, or begin reading a book if the first 10 chapters had been ripped out, as you wouldn’t have the first idea of the plot. 

The start of a book or film determines the middle and the end. And that is also true of a coaching session. 

It gives you the chance to explain to the participants what you will be trying to achieve in the time you have with them, and sets the tone for all that follows. A good beginning will also grab the interest of your audience so they give you their undivided attention. 

‘I think it’s vitally important to have absolute clarity between yourself and the participants from the outset as to what exactly the content of the session is going to be, and also the reasons why you have chosen that content,’ says sports coach UK tutor and Rugby Football Union (RFU) educator Richard, who delivers workshops on how to deliver engaging sessions. 

If, for example, you are planning to focus on decision-making skills in the session, you need to explain the context to them, and stress why it is important they quiz themselves during the game. 

Ask them at what point they think they might need to make a decision. What kinds of decisions might they have to make, and for what purpose? 

It is important you make this question and answer phase a staple part of your introduction so that the learning objectives are clear in the players’ minds when they begin the game. It will help them put theory into practice, and will result in more insightful feedback when players are asked to reflect on the session. 

The more habitual this process becomes, the more adept they will become at finding answers to their questions. 

As a development technique, it is simple but highly effective. 

The goal is for the participants to slowly become familiar with your coaching style. 

‘It is so important then that you have that partnership between the learner and yourself,’ adds Richard. 

‘I find with my students that they begin to understand the good habits that I want them to develop. 

‘It takes a while, but they learn that questioning is important before, during and after a session, as is the type of question they need to ask themselves.’ 

Getting active and staying engaged 

The process of establishing the learning outcomes will only work in combination with good planning. 

Preparation is the first challenge a new coach faces. 

Coaches must ask themselves a series of questions, such as: ‘What am I going to do in the session, why am I going to do it and how am I going to do it?’ 

Failure to address the questions: ‘What is my audience?’, ‘Who are my audience?’ and ‘What is appropriate for them?’, for instance, could leave you totally unprepared. 

The age of the participants may mean you need to modify your language and the amount of detail in your explanations. There might be different motivations at play too depending on whether you are coaching within a curriculum-based environment, like a school, or at a club, where the participants are paying to be involved. The audience, then, is an important factor to consider. 

Having planned your session meticulously and established the learning outcomes with your students, you will have the foundation needed to ensure a smooth transition to phase two of the session, which is to get the participants active and engaged. 

‘Engagement is a critical part of delivering a good session. You have to make people interested and attached to that learning,’ says Richard. 

‘The RFU promotes the APES principle: active, purposeful, enjoyable and safe. That first element is crucial. If we’re all active, we’re all engaged. 

‘It was one of the things I remember most from taking my first coaching qualifications. So, yes, that questioning and that stating of the purpose of the session is vital, but don’t let that stretch on for too long because participants really want to get involved.’ 

And when they are being active, they want to be having fun. The onus is on the coach to think of creative ways to keep participants engaged, preparing different but purposeful and relevant exercises that involve lots of interaction. 

Using one of his students’ hockey coaching sessions designed to practise applying pressure in defence, Richard highlights the importance of coaches making their sessions engaging, active and enjoyable.

Don’t overcomplicate practices and activities. When it comes to the message you want to transmit, think quality over quantity. If you bombard them with dossiers’ worth of technical instruction in a single one-hour session, they will likely forget most of what they have been taught. 

‘No more than three main coaching points in a session is a good number to aim for,’ explains Richard. 

‘There is a lot of evidence now on the role of memory and how we learn. Beyond three, you then start to forget. If you are given direction or instruction, you will remember the first thing you hear and the last thing. There is a high probability that, if you give more than three instructions, they will not remember them all.’ 

He recalls a presentation he attended where a coach introduced eight tactical moves in microscopic detail: ‘After he’d finished talking about the first two, I was completely lost.’ 

A positive coaching environment 

I ask Richard if coaches should demonstrate new skills to their students. 

How to angle the arm when throwing a ball or how to grip a racket is one thing, but what about showing them exactly how to execute a complicated move, or how to position their body for the perfect take-off or landing? 

‘Modelling is a common coaching expression,’ says Richard. ‘For me, if I have an expectation in a coaching session, I will show the people I am teaching how it looks. It’s important to act out what you are looking for because people like to learn visually. They want to see it through actions, not just words. 

‘That modelling, that demonstration, is absolutely critical.’ 

It is a fail-safe method of building confidence levels in your charges too, as the quicker they pick things up, the happier they will be. 

Confidence is a positive attribute so it’s important you try to get them to have some success, in whatever form that is, very early on in a session because it helps you create a positive environment. It’s human nature that we become more positive the more things we achieve. I always remember the phrase, “early success breeds confidence”.’ 

Striving to create a positive coaching environment is another of the core elements that make up a good coaching session. 

Do not overstretch participants by setting unachievable goals beyond their capability, and make sure you recognise the successes of every individual. 

Richard recently returned from Dublin, where he gave a presentation on the future of learning to triathlon, cycling and running coaches. 

One of the areas he focused on was individualised learning programmes and the idea that a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching can hamper development – with the coach needing to be aware of every individual’s abilities, achievements and aspirations. 

He used the example of keeping a photograph and video diary of the season to illustrate this point. 

‘I thought of an idea whereby cycling groups could record their rides, taking photographs and videos of the hills and routes they have undertaken, so they can reflect back on what their training programmes have looked like and what they have achieved.

‘So through creating a picture diary, they will find it easy to track their progress. This also means you are engaging with them as a coach as it enables you to say: “OK, let’s see what you have done over the last three months or six months.” Those photos will help to recall the challenges they have overcome and show their achievements.’ 

Reflective practice 

Anything that promotes reflective practice – a key stimulant of continuous learning – is to be encouraged. 

Almost everyone has an iPhone, smartphone or tablet so it makes sense to tap into that technological resource. Rather than shy away from the use of smartphones, why not find ways to use them positively in your sessions? 

‘If I was doing a closed skill,’ says Richard, ‘such as a free throw at basketball, a tennis serve or a golf swing, I would look to give my phone to a friend if I was serious about improving, and I would keep my own photo and video diary of my progress, looking back on what I have achieved, comparing the video of week one to week six, and then show my friends, parents and coach what I have learnt in that time. 

‘What I am looking to show in the few examples I have given is that success is an individual measure. So when you state the aims and objectives at the start of a session, while not everyone will achieve the ultimate goal, it is important to focus, upon reflection, on what you have learnt. 

‘I can teach a lot of people juggling in 15 minutes. But those who can’t may still have made progress. Some might have struggled to catch with their left hand. But if, at the end of that 15 minutes, they can catch the ball in their weaker hand, then they have achieved something.’ 

Reflective practice is not about a coach holding court in front of their players, telling them what strings they should have added to their bow, it is about giving the players a voice. 

As Richard states, evaluation is the key to progression so get them to divulge to the group what they know now that they didn’t before, what they can do now that they couldn’t before and in which areas there is still room for improvement. 

Physical literacy 

For a developing coach, understanding the process of learning far outweighs the need to have an expert knowledge in your chosen field. 

Getting your message across successfully should be the first priority. And remember, learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t worry if the participants don’t get things straight away. They will learn at different rates. 

‘Coaching is like a good presentation,’ says Richard. ‘It is not about telling everyone how much you know. It’s about developing the knowledge among the participants and allowing them to recognise what they have learnt and how they can improve further. 

‘Participants want you to find a way for them to pick up the key elements of what you are trying to put across in a way that they won’t forget.’ 

Hopefully, the pointers contained in this article will serve coaches well, no matter how wide or narrow their experience, and go some way to helping them unravel the coaching riddle. 

Let’s finish with one final example that ties in all the core elements of the framework – an exercise that establishes clear learning examples, creates a positive environment, immediately engages the audience, is creative, and provides coaches and participants with plenty of opportunities for reflection. It ticks every box. 

All aboard for a visit to the zoo. 

Richard details an exercise he devised based around a theme and a story that the children he worked with thoroughly enjoyed. 

He explained to them in the introduction to the session that he was a zookeeper and they were the animals. The challenge was to escape from the zoo without waking up the zookeeper and then to evade capture. 

‘You can teach adults about jumping, landing and body position, but with children, you might want to introduce a game-based approach. Ask yourself: “How can I deliver that technical language to the group I’ve got in front of me?” 

‘I came up with the idea of animals escaping from a zoo, and the children all had to come up with a different animal. Then we linked movement skills to the animals they selected. 

‘One of them chose a kangaroo so I asked them how a kangaroo moves. “It jumps and it lands,” they told me. From that aspect, you teach them how it jumps, and they perfect how to jump properly. Then you look at how to land and the importance of a gentle landing, and the best technique to achieve that. 

‘It’s about being able to put the learning in a language they will understand. It’s beyond technical knowledge, it’s about how coaches deliver that knowledge.’ 

The children were instantly engaged too because it was a theme they could relate to. 

It seems so simple when written down, but as a new coach, it can be an easy trap to fall into whereby you bypass that creative thought process. 

You can picture the colourful scene that quickly evolved at Richard’s session. 

Besides the kangaroos, there are lions running amok (‘the yellow bibs were the lions, the blue bibs were the lunch so you’ve got evasion, chasing and footwork’). Horses are galloping around with riders on their backs (‘so we had piggybacks and showed them how it was important to have good posture – like having a squat bar on your shoulders’).

The poor flamingos, meanwhile, are envious observers, standing balancing on one leg while chaos ensues around them, desperate not to flinch an inch and attract the unwanted attention of the alligators who are crawling on their bellies, waiting to strike.

Did you find this article useful? Please leave a comment below. 

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Comments (8)


Excellent advice as always from Richard! Cheers.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Excellent, though I do want to muse on some of the ideas...and I am willing to be told I'm wrong.
Setting out the learning objectives/outcomes: because learners are non-linear dynamic systems, an outcome is hard to measure. I wouldn't set out an objective explicitly, just because of that. Instead, I now focus on areas we are going to explore. And, I don't always do this explicitly. Any great novelist draws you in by leaving enough gaps for you to want to fill in. Why not do this with our introductions. Perhaps start with a familiar game in the warm up. Introduce a new rule which forces them to think differently. Then build the session around discovering ways to solve that puzzle.

Asking questions: I think we need to be careful to "ask" questions in the right way. By this, I believe we can find ourselves literally asking the questions, rather than letting the scenarios or games ask the questions. The players have to answer them physically, not verbally. So, pose the questions in the games. This can be through changing the parameters. Of course, we can still verbally ask questions, but does that mean that they will then reproduce that in a game situation? What's the research behind that? I'm not denying that it might work, yet I sense some players become good "answerers". For example, I've taken teachers on a coaching course, played a game and asked them at the end of the first section, what they could've improved upon. Communication is the answer most give. And yet, pretty much for the rest of the day, in a games, very few have improved. I'm sure that's echoed across all age groups.

Avg: 4.55 / 5 (1votes)

Dan - thank you for your comments. Well this approach is reflective of ideas that have been effective and developed from coaching across all ages as well as working with coaches. I am very mindful of the questioning in sessions for example (as that seems to be your focus)- the groups have really responded to 'owning the learning' through this and opportunities to develop their skills further. Great attention is paid to all aspects of the coaching and coach education sessions which are built on experience, awareness, research and feedback. I offer an open invitation to you to come along to any of the workshops and seminars - feedback, balanced and well considered is always welcome. But you may have to pretend to be a kangaroo or gorilla like all the others. And If you start feedback with the word 'excellent' then as you know yourself from coaching - just tell the athlete why it was excellent :) - that always helps the learning process.

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Richard, First, thank you for the invite. I would be delighted to be a gorilla (or a bigger monkey)
Second, I am constantly challenging my own understanding of the process. My musings are based on what I have seen as poor coaching. That's why I thought what you said was excellent. The correct balance of questioning is very hard to define because the situations are so dynamic. A group session is so different to a one-to-one. I am trying to find the best way for me to challenge my athletes to come up with the answers, or at least an answer.
Reading back my post, it might have sounded a bit demanding about the research! Apologies for that. Just keen to learn and where to find out more, rather than question whether you are right or not.
Third, I'm interested in the debate about learning outcomes, how to measure them (and if we can effectively). Again, where do I look for more information?
And to complete the message sandwich in the best way, and genuinely too, I enjoyed the article and, as always, you've really helped me (though posed me some more questions too).

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Hi Dan thank you and the learning outcomes is an interesting area (I am hoping that there is more attention paid to learning strategies as opposed to learning styles) - it is almost how we have been expected to start our coaching by stating what we wish to achieve at the end and not being open to what else could emerge. Your reference to 'discovery' is absolutely spot on as often participants / athletes coaches find something that wasn't on the list! That could be anything from confidence to developing a problem solving solution. The evolution of movement from play to fundamentals and Deliberate practice - was a great way in which the group answered the task physically. As you say the more food for thought continually challenges us as to reflect on how we coach and how we learn. I think it is 'watch this space' - from lego to the gruffalo and using the go-pro has opened more opportunities to think differently

Avg: 4.8 / 5 (1votes)

Great article and insight. Coaching outcomes are the foundation and cornerstones of a good session. Note that these are not coaching objectives. This is important as the chief phrase for coaches in formulating outcomes is... At the end of the session, the player will have .. This forces the coach to think about the participant. Objectives on the other hand allow such thoughts I am... As a fan of John Wooden, I feel that all activities should be timed, including down time and questioning time. This is difficult but aids intensity and discipline. The session plan, in my opinion, should also address RPE for each activity and the physiological energy systems being utilised during the schedule activities. This detail should match the physical demands of your sport and keep the session sports specific. The session structure, I feel should facilitate implicit learning and have reduced inputs from the coaching staff. This forces the coach to design and plan highly specific game based sessions.
The coach and player alike should reflect on the session. Nowadays, the best way is video shot by on a phone, and loaded to a private YouTube channel for storage. What went well? Opportunities for improvement? Goals for next session? These tend to be easily coached. The real progress is obtained when players and coaches, reflect on their thoughts, feelings, emotions and actions. Reflection to recognise negative and positive psychological factors affecting either performance in training or competition, is hugely beneficial. The simple physiological factors, sleep, tiredness, nutrition should also be considered.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Dear Richard,

I really enjoyed reading (and watching) the blog, and have since recommended that my first year students use it to guide their preparation for - what for many will be - their first ever coaching session. I feel it will be a great help to them, and hopefully it will lead to a lot more coaching sessions that are guided by a clear set of principles.

I fundamentally disagree with Dan in regards to the position on outcomes, both philosophically and practically. Whilst the ideas of nonlinear learning quite clearly are convincing, they are - in my opinion - not a justification for abandoning outcomes in coaching sessions. In my mind, the warning we receive from the theories around non-linear learning and pedagogy are to do with how, when and if we can accurately assess that learning. In other words, we might say that determining whether learning has occurred is difficult because of its nonlinear nature, but that is not the same as saying 'because we don't know whether learning has occurred we might as well not bother planning what we might want that learning to look like'. It seems to me that coaching without having a clear 'end in mind' - regardless of whether we can predict whether we meet that end - might miss the point.

Moreover, whilst exploratory sessions (or scrambles) are a rich way in which to generate session outcomes, they require quite a high level of coaching skill to plan and guide. In my mind. the very best advice we can give new coaches is to choose clear outcomes or foci for their sessions. In fact, the advice that I give my first year students more often than not is to be as specific as they can be about their outcomes. In my mind, their session design (which is at the most basic level what coaching requires) flows from the articulation of an outcome. Their individual exercises should contribute to that outcome, and that outcome is what keeps them focused in their session. Once they have coached to a number of specific outcomes, they can start to articulate little more around their philosophy. Especially those of us who work with the youngest children should think extra hard around their outcomes and the key (technical) takeaways - as Richard illustrates in his 'Zoo Coaching Exercise'. Those children are learning fundamental movement skills from you, their coach, that will affect them for the rest of their lives, and that core learning has to be planned around clearly articulated outcomes (even if we are not sure how we will measure / assess their learning).

If we have to stay with the idea of assessment for learning, a key reflective question we may ask inexperienced coaches might be: 'how do you know you have met your outcomes?' We could then mentor those coaches into a mindset where outcomes matter, and they question their own coaching pedagogy. In other words, 'am I using the best tools at my disposal to get to the outcome I am pursuing'. Again, Richard's article is rich (pardon the pun) in suggestions around this. Whilst acknowledging that accurate measurement is hard, I encourage my students to think around ARTICULATE; DEMONSTRATE; DO (ADD if you like). By which I mean that by the end of the session I would want: ALL participants to be able to Articulate what the session outcome was; MOST participants to be able to Demonstrate the session outcome in isolation; and SOME to be able to perform the outcome in context. Given the nonlinear nature of skill learning (let alone game sense and tactics) this is nowhere near a suggestion that learning has definitely occurred, but a decent suggestion that they have been coached to clear outcomes.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)

Richard, I read the blog, and the comments. (English is not my original language, so sorry if I understand wrong or I express wrong)
At this moment I think more like Dan.
I think you have to plan your session, the outcomes, but you have to be open to thinks that can appear, and to change if might be need. We have to be flexible in that way. If we are centered in the player, we can't impose our outcomes to them.
We have to be always prepare for different scenarios, and plan our behavior.
Other think I don't understand of the article, is the video of the hockey session. I don't understand the second part of the session. I don't feel that'll engage a player.
An also, what I think now, In my background of many years as rugby coach, is that in the demonstration, you have to give the players the option of found their own solutions. Even in basic skills. At this time, I don't believe very mucha in closes drills, I believe that everything have to be practice in context, with decision making. Giving the boys the option to create.

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)