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The case for online communities boosting coach development

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Daisy Marriott

Daisy Marriott coaching youngsters at High Green Gymnastics Academy in Sheffield

Set out below are three individual case studies summarising the findings of a nine-month research study conducted in partnership with Hull University, which provides evidence that an online coaching community can serve as a powerful facilitated learning tool and impact positively on coach development, behaviour and practice.

Take three children’s coaches, from different sports, with a range of experience, and divergent learning objectives.

Add to the mix a growing online community for coaches to serve as a learning intervention.

Stir in some means of acquiring new knowledge in the form of blogs, infographics, videos, conversations and forums.

Throw in too the opportunity to swap views on latest coaching theories, discuss your own burgeoning ideas, debate other topics, share coaching experiences and engage generally with both the content and the members – cherry-picking content which suits your development needs and connecting with likeminded individuals to build up a support system and network of potential mentors.

Is such an autonomous learning experience, where coaches are placed centrally within the learning process, a recipe for progress?

Or, put another way, are the aforementioned ingredients essential to facilitating positive change in coaches’ behaviour and practice?

Below is an analytical overview of the research findings for each coach who took part in the study, which aims to answer this fundamental question.

The in-depth study – which entailed a 12 to 16-week engagement period with ConnectedCoaches for each coach – comprised individual session observations and follow-up discussions, pre and post video-recorded sessions, interviews and reflective conversations with principal investigator Dr Ed Cope , who used the qualitative and quantitative data to produce an extensive 52-page evaluation report (see attachment at end of copy) – a condensed review of which can be read here.

Case Study 1: Dan

Background

Dan coaches an under-10’s grassroots football team. The side trains midweek and every other Saturday and plays in a local league. He coaches on average for three hours a week and has been with the club for three years. Dan has passed the FA Level One qualification but did not study coaching, or a coaching-related subject, in Higher Education. 

Area of coaching he wanted to develop

Dan wanted his players to develop their decision-making skills in games, and so wanted to develop his coaching practice in a manner that enabled his players to do this.

Summary of engagement experience

Dan experimented with ideas in his practice based on recommendations by coaches he considered more experienced and possessing a greater level of expertise. 

Dan zeroed in on blogs and conversations that he felt were relevant to his field of coaching, avoiding ones he considered ‘didn't relate to my sport’ and which ‘I couldn’t really see how it transferred over.’ 

Not everything posted on the ConnectedCoaches site will have a discernible relevance to all coaches, and Dan preferred not to stray out of his comfort zone, mindful of his own lack of experience. 

He added: ‘There were a few coaches who had commented on a discussion I posted. I had a look on their profiles and they seemed experienced and knew what they were talking about so I took on board what they said and used some of the ideas.’ 

Coaches should be cautious of reproducing harmful coaching practices, urges Dr Cope in his report, noting that Dan accepted the messages conveyed. 

The onus is on the individual to test out advice they identify with and, if the ideas don’t work for them, discard them and learn from the experience – in the same way coaches encourage participants to make training sessions a safe place to fail. Some methods will work, some will not. It is a process of trial and error. 

Dan found being able to interact with fellow coaches a rewarding experience and praised the supportive nature of the platform. 

‘There are coaches in my club, but we don’t really talk about what we talk about (on ConnectedCoaches). And then there are other things like the coaching qualifications, which are great when you are doing them, but that support has gone once you have finished. This is allowing me to just talk about my coaching and get some advice.’ 

Impact on behaviour and practice

The data analysis from the pre-observation phase showed that Dan used large amounts of direct management (34%) and instruction (23%) in his coaching practice, with most of his behaviour directed toward the individual (44%) or team (37%), and was of a technical nature (63%). Analysis of the activities Dan engaged learners in showed that most time was spent in ‘other’ practice activity (32.43%) followed by technical practices (25.64%). 

Post observation analysis revealed a 9% reduction in Nathan’s use of direct management, and an 8% increase in divergent questions. Time spent in different practice activities stayed relatively constant, apart from time spent in full-sided games, which increased by 10.47%. These changes suggest a move toward placing greater onus on players’ decision making and by telling less and asking more. 

‘I have learned to let the lads do a little more themselves,’ said Dan. ‘They make their games up and they make the rules and it has worked because they seem to challenge themselves more, which they enjoy.’ 

Case Study 2: Daisy

Background

Daisy coaches gymnastics to 5 to 18 year olds, however the study focused on her sessions with her 7 to 9-year intermediate group. A full-time A-level student, Daisy possesses a Level 1 gymnastics qualification and was undergoing her Level 2, specialising in Women’s artistic gymnastics, during the course of the project. On average, she coaches 15 hours a week and has been coaching at the same club for three years. 

Area of coaching she wanted to develop

Daisy felt she was controlling the learning environment too much and wanted to reduce the level of direction and advice she was providing her participants – to enable them to have greater autonomy and control over their learning. 

Summary of engagement experience

Daisy enjoyed the level of freedom and flexibility the ConnectedCoaches platform gave her and the fact she could tailor the acquisition of knowledge around her own learning needs. 

This contrasts sharply to the traditional course and qualification structure, notes Dr Cope, where learners receive formal training at a designated time and place, with rarely if any follow-up learning once the course has finished – meaning limited places to turn to for support.

‘I really enjoyed the freedom to go and search about things that I wanted to learn about without being told I had to learn certain things,’ she said. ‘I am currently doing my Gymnastics Level 2 qualification and it is a bit like that on this course. I enjoy it, but everything is planned out for you that you have to follow, whereas this has been much more flexible.’ 

Significantly, she found that engaging in the research project increased her level of questioning, and reduced the extent to which she provided feedback. 

Academic research in the area of divergent questioning suggests this will result in increased levels of critical thinking by participants, developing their ability to problem-solve and improving their decision-making skills. 

Impact on behaviour and practice

Comparing the pre-observation data with the post-observation data revealed that Daisy’s use of feedback declined and her level of questioning increased quite significantly (+17%).  Most questions asked in the pre-observations were convergent (82%), that is to say closed-ended questions that only have one answer and do not require significant creativity, but post observation analysis showed a 14% decrease in convergent questions. 

‘The questioning approach seems to be working well,’ said Daisy. ‘The girls now seem to be enjoying this approach and they seem to be making more progress compared with what I was doing before and maybe for the first few weeks when I was getting used to trying something new. It is reinforcing that I need to stick with this approach and continue to learn more about it.’ 

Case Study 3: Rebecca

Background

Rebecca works full-time for the community department of a professional football club and has coached multi-skills to children aged 9 and 10 as part of their primary school physical education lessons for more than two years. She also coaches after-school clubs and oversees the coach development of other staff. 

She has a BSc degree in Youth Sport and Physical Education, an FA Level 2 and an ECB Level 1 qualification. At the time of the study, she was in the process of completing the 1st4sport level 3 Certificate in Supporting the Delivery of Physical Education and School Sport. While currently employed in a paid capacity in a primary school setting, Rebecca has an additional four years’ coaching experience in recreational club-based environments. 

Area of coaching she wanted to develop

Rebecca felt she lacked knowledge of behaviour management strategies, and therefore spent too much time attempting to control children and not enough time engaging them in active play. Consequently, she wanted to use the ConnectedCoaches site to acquire behaviour management strategies. 

Summary of engagement experience

Having achieved a degree in the area of coaching children, Rebecca has been sold on the importance of drawing upon evidence-based research in her coaching practice. 

At times she felt the blogs and opinions expressed by members failed to demonstrate they were built on evidence and empirical research, and would not therefore be beneficial to her personal development as a coach. 

Coaches must avoid simply accepting the messages conveyed that fit with their existing beliefs, said Dr Cope, who added that this could lead to ‘the reinforcement and reproduction of current, ill-informed coaching practices, rather than a transformation of these.’ 

While there is, of course, a need for coaches to be savvy to the difference between evidence-based and opinion-based sources, at the same time coaches must be careful not to close themselves off from practical, worthwhile suggestions from members that are founded upon many years’ dedicated practice and direct experience working with participants. 

This includes benefiting from advice on the softer-skills of coaching, such as communication techniques, how to inspire positive behaviour and growth mindset, psychological tips on dealing with pressure and so on. 

Take the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) as an example. Rebecca, while being an advocate of scientific research, specifically commented on a series of scenario-based videos she had watched on EI, anecdotal in style, that made her think differently about how to manage behaviour in her sessions: 

‘I found (them) really useful and (it) made me think about how I approach the kids and the type of questions I ask to find out a little more about them as people before attempting to coach them. I never did this before, but it certainly made me think more about it and that I need to start changing my approach to sessions.’ 

Impact on behaviour and practice

The level of instruction given by Rebecca was found to decrease by 7%, while questioning increased by 7%. Also, general feedback (positive) increased by 5% and management direct (how to execute a skill or drill) by 4%. Looking more closely at the type of questions asked by Rebecca, the secondary behavioural analysis showed a 15% increase in divergent questions (questions with no specific answer which instead exercise the participant’s ability to think broadly about a certain topic). With regard to practice states, there was an 18.08% increase in time spent in skills practices, and an 11.60% reduction in technical practices. 

Dr Cope was able to surmise from dissecting the evidence that Rebecca’s coaching behaviour increased in the area she stated she wanted to develop before the start of the learning intervention. For example, she reduced her level of direct management and instruction, which suggested she had learned strategies to deal with problematic behaviour in her sessions. 

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the coaching behaviours of all three participants in the project increased in the area of coaching they stated they wanted to develop before the start of the learning intervention. 

This process of positive change was facilitated by the presence of a ‘critical friend’, in this case Dr Cope, to encourage each coach to think more critically about their practice and in greater detail and to determine the direction of the learning. 

This role could be filled by a respected club colleague, college lecturer or a coaching mentor – of which there are potentially thousands within the ConnectedCoaches community willing to offer support and drive discussion and personal reflection. 

It seems ConnectedCoaches can indeed serve as a powerful facilitated learning tool.

And that power to effect positive change in behaviour and practice is maximised if coaches use the platform in the full manner it was intended. That means becoming actively involved, so they are not simply the recipients or consumers of knowledge but, by interacting with other members and joining conversations, become co-contributors too.

Download the full research report in the attachments below. Please note all issues highlighted in the “barriers to engagement in the CC site” have subsequently been addressed. Also, please note, within the research, Dan is referenced as Nathan, Daisy as Elena and Rebecca is Alice.

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