The Value of “Working Out Loud”

My Journey Understanding Practice Design & Learning

Mark Upton
Oct 12, 2015

Below is a blog post I published almost 6 years ago. Having stumbled across it again recently it was an interesting reflective exercise to contrast my understanding and thinking then compared to now. Pleasingly it has reinforced I continue to learn and evolve as there are quite a few things I have written below that I now see differently. (note: it’s not for me to tell you what they are but we can help with your own learning journey)

Although not my intention when writing the post 6 years ago, the bigger theme is the value in “thinking/working out loud” by regularly blogging (or journaling) half or fully formed thoughts & reflections on things you are pursuing personally or professionally. Keith Lyons and Julian Stodd have both inspired me in this regard. I’m particularly interested in this approach as a legitimate method to evaluate learning over time. Also on my mind is John Stoszkowski and his recent research highlighting the potential benefits of social/informal learning IF accompanied by adequate critical thinking and reflective skills.

Working out loud in a public forum requires a unique form of courage – to embrace vulnerability and humility. These characteristics may underpin “expert learning” (?) and having people of this ilk in coaching and support roles seems vital in helping players and athletes be their best.

(the above could be something for you to explore and discuss further at our up-coming #relearn event)

For those interested, below is the blog post from late in 2009 (it is based around Australian Rules Football but should be relevant for most team sports)…

Our game continues to evolve in complexity and so does the amount of tactical knowledge players are required to take the field with. No longer does the most technically talented team dominate (although that is always a good base!). Port Adelaide in 2004, Sydney in 2005 and Hawthorn in 2008 are examples of premiership teams that have triumphed against more “talented” teams. I believe they all executed superior team play and tactical knowledge that complimented their technical skill and the intangible factor of a “hunger for the contest” that can never be under-estimated in a physical game such as ours.

Just consider in the past few years some of the tactical elements of our game that have come to prominence:

  • Zonal Defending — both in general play and when the opposition are kicking in. This can extend from a few players up to an organised 18-man zone
  • Player Roles — more defined expectations of areas they will cover and their responsibilities offensively and defensively
  • Forward Line Systems — deliberate patterned or “choreographed” movements that create space and allow 1v1 situations. Random movement by forwards is no longer good enough
  • Ball Movement Patterns — movement out of defense, preferred areas to enter from and into the forward line, strategies for when ball movement becomes slowed or opposition have numbers back
  • Stoppage Structures and Systems –patterns of moving the ball from a stoppage
  • Game Scenarios — winding down the clock when in front, stopping an opposition run-on, changing the tempo of the game

I am a firm believer that the “what” and “how” are two critical competencies of coaching. Let me explain how these relate to the elements listed above.

For the coach taking charge of a new team, or looking to change the game plan of his current team, he must define his approach to the elements listed above and many more. This is the “what” of coaching. The “what” concerns your game plan/style of play and your philosophies towards these. It is vital that the coach be well researched and knowledgeable in the modern game so he can make an imformed decision about what methods he believes will create a successful style.

Once those methods are decided upon we come to the “how” competency — “how” are you going to effectively coach these elements? The amount of knowledge transfer and on-field training that is required to have all these aspects ingrained well enough to withstand finals pressure is enormous. The key factor in achieving this will be the quality of the teaching/learning environment you create. Hence the crux of this post and my belief that this is where the next competitive advantage exists for any coach willing to learn and commit to some of the processes required.

A favorite quote of mine comes from Tex Winter, a basketball coach known for being the modern teacher of the triangle offense that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers have used to claim many championships:

”It is the way we teach, not what we teach, that really counts”

Lets now work through some of the areas that need consideration to achieve an optimal teaching and learning environment:

  • Training drill design
  • Training session design
  • Training progressions/sequencing
  • Feedback & instruction during training

(there are more things that could be added to this list but I will start with these as broad headings for now)

1. Training Drill Design

Ok, the first one here is training drill design and I have it listed first because it is probably the most important.

I think for the last 10 years most coaches would be aware that drills or activities need to be designed to replicate phases or scenarios from the game . This does not necessarily mean 18 v 18 match simulation. It can relate to a kicking drill that exposes players to the types of kicks they most often use in a game (a good exercise is to go through a game and note down all the different types of kicks that are used in a game — you will be surprised how many subtle variations there are). It could be a “breakdown” drill that works on the first phase of ball movement when the the ball is won in the defensive 50m area. Where possible players should be put in situations where decision making and technique execution mirror game-like conditions (remember skill = decision making + technique execution). Game-Sense, Teaching Games for Understanding, Game-Based Training, Simulation Training etc are terms you probably would have heard to describe this type of training and drills.

Assuming you have drills that expose players to match situations, the other important concept to apply is called “constraints-based” coaching or drill design. By manipulating constraints in a drill you can effectively “guide” players towards the correct tactical solution, or adjust the complexity of the drill to overload players when appropriate. Constraints can be categorised under 3 headings — task, performer (ie player), and environment. Task constraints are probably the most known and used and these can include such things as field size, playing numbers (both in terms of density and numbers advantage), scoring and rules (ie must handball after taking a mark in the midfield). Constraints based coaching often allows “implicit” learning to occur which can be the best form of learning for some skills. If a players learns something “implicitly” it generally means the coach has not directly instructed the player on how to achieve the movement or tactical solution. Instead, the imposition of a certain rule in a drill could guide players towards finding the correct movement or solution through trial and error. Implicit learning has the added advantage of being more resistant to competition pressures (as it avoids “paralysis by analysis”) but is generally NOT appropriate for complex tactical situations such as a strategy for moving the ball inside 50m when opposition have flooded numbers back. This sort of scenario requires “explicit” learning to occur where the coach will give specific instructions about how to achieve the task.

2. Training Session Design

After covering training drill design some may think that the quality of learning that occurs and difficulty in a training session will be purely about the drill design. This is not necessarily the case. Even better learning and transfer can occur by considering some of the following principles when planning your training session and the drills to be used.

A concept that can have an influence on the complexity of the session is the order of your drills. By continually “switching” from open game-like drills to more closed technique based drills and back again will challenge your players capacity to adapt quickly. This can reveal how well learnt certain skills are and enhance the learning as well. Similar benefits can be achieved by going from an in-close drill such as a handball game on a small field to a full-field game.

Also related to drill order in sessions is what drills you do first and last in sessions. Traditionally the first drill after the warm-up will be a kicking or handball drill that is not overly taxing from a decision making point of view. A better option on occasions is to place your most game like drill first. This will demand players be able to quickly “switch on” — as is required on match day. The ability for players to execute the game style and skills in this drill without having the opportunity to “ease” into the session will again be a good measure of how much learning has occurred. Another option is to consider what drill you place last in a session, particularly during pre-season when fatigue can set in towards the later stages. Exposing players to performing under fatigue is actually a constraints-based approach as mentioned earlier (under the heading of “performer” constraints). Defensive principles are generally what fall away first under fatigue in a match so drills that have a defensive focus are always good to place at the end of sessions.

A final thing to mention on the order of drills is that new concepts or concepts that players have had little training exposure to should be incorporated into drills early in the training session when players are mentally and physically fresh. It is likely that these concepts have been explained using video or whiteboard in the pre-training meeting so the sooner they can be put into action on the training track the better.

Another effective training session design is one that I like to call the “choose your own adventure” session (anyone else remember reading those at school?). In this type of session the first activity should be something pretty close to a normal game ie full field with normal rules. Do this for 10–15 minutes and then during a 5 minute break make a quick assessment of what concepts were breaking down in the game. Based on those you then choose the next drill or two “on the fly” that best expose players to the problem concepts. These drills should have been done before by the players and well known so they can move straight into them (it will also require good organisation to set up any cones, balls, bibs etc). Once the drills are complete go back to the original game used at the start of the session and see if the identified concepts are executed better. This method of session design is based on the “whole-part-whole” process normally used to train technique-based skills.

3. Training Progressions/Sequencing

When teaching a system of play — be that ball movement patterns, player movement in the forward line or defensive systems — a critical aspect of the learning process is the progression or sequencing of drills to develop that system. The most common approach is to use “breakdown” drills first to train specific elements of the system in isolation so that players get plenty of repetition and teaching. An example of this could be working on forward movement patterns with just 2 forwards before introducing more forwards. Once players begin to master these breakdown drills then the next progression is to start training larger “chunks” of the system and see if the specific principles can still be executed. It is at this point that the coach must accurately assess the appropriate time to progress again into more complex drills (and maybe start to overload the system) versus continue to use breakdown drills.

Again constraints-based coaching can be applied here to vary the complexity of the drill. A typical example of this is the gradual increase in opposition numbers and player density when training ball movement patterns from defense. Initially you may have something like 5 v 3 in the back line and 5 v 3 in the midfield and progress to 6v6 in both defense and midfield. If you started with the 6v6 option it is unlikely any pattern or success of ball movement would be frequently achieved. This makes it difficult for players to physically experience and learn the principles that lead to good ball movement patterns. On the flip side, if you never progress to the most difficult scenarios that players will face in matches then they will always be vulnerable to those scenarios come game-day.

4. Feedback & Instruction

So far we have covered drill and session design along with how to progress these. Whilst these are critical for providing the learning experience for the players, the aspect of how a coach teaches during on-field training can determine the rate at which the learning occurs. What are some of the teaching methods that need to be considered? Most centre around instruction and feedback to players either during drills or between drills. Lets look at a few of the techniques you can apply.

Freeze the play — “the coachable moment”

This is the critical one. The most powerful method of feedback and instruction comes when players are immersed in the experience, ie during the training drill. Being able to identify “the coachable moment” during a drill requires that you understand the principles of what you are coaching and what makes it work or break down. When you recognise this moment a very powerful form of teaching is to blow the whistle and have players “freeze” in their exact positions. By then telling or questioning (I will expand on these next) players can receive feedback on their play (be it correct or incorrect) whilst still having the “feel” of what just took place. This is much more effective than reflecting on this moment at the end of the drill or using video footage in the following days. Important in using this technique is to ensure everyone on the field can hear the point you are making, which can be challenging on an AFL size field. Also avoid over-using this technique — a couple of times per drill would be ideal as otherwise players will start to become frustrated with the stop-start nature of the drill. Players generally just want to “do it”, not talk about it.

Tell v Question

Whether communicating about concepts with players before, during or after a drill you typically have a choice between two distinct approaches — tell the players what the solution is versus questioning and making them come up with a solution (which may not be the same as yours!). The “tell” method is a traditional approach that originates from the dictatorial-style coach who likes to be seen as all-knowledgeable. This method is not as effective as the “questioning” approach but does have its place when time for feedback and instruction is limited and/or the playing groups game understanding is not yet at the level where they can “solve the problem” (if this was the case it is worth considering if the concept(s) being covered in the drill are too advanced for the playing group).

The “questioning” approach is almost always a great form of teaching, especially in the “coachable moment” as detailed above. I think there are two forms of questioning that you may use depending on how advanced your playing group is. One is the “guided-discovery” questioning which tends to lead the players thinking towards the solution. An example of this might be to ask — “johnny, we want to do x in that situation so what might have been a better option to achieve this?”. Immediately you are guiding Johnny by giving him the answer to what he should have been thinking. He then has to work out what the better option may have been. The other method, which requires a greater ability for players to critically reflect, is “open-ended” questioning. In this method you might ask — “Johnny, what did you think about that play in relation to how we want to move the ball?”.

Either method of questioning is useful for learning as players actually have to process information which makes for a learning experience that “sticks” better than using the tell method. The other thing that I have noticed is that when players answer incorrectly to the questioning they seem to learn better — somewhat counter-intuitive to what you may expect!

If you can master the areas of designing game-based drills, manipulating constraints in the drills and using the questioning methods at the appropriate moment, you will have created a fantastic on-field environment for players to learn.

Terminology (action words)

The use of terminology is important for both on and off-field communication with players. I will focus here on terminology as it applies to instruction and feedback during training. Terminology can be very powerful for quickly conveying detailed concepts with the use of very few words. This makes it useful for coaching “on the run” efficiently. I have been involved in a team where a single term actually described a complex ball movement pattern requiring decisions both on and off the ball. Terminology should ideally invoke strong visual representations of the action it is related to. It should also be “action” or “doing” words — for example “scan”, rather than “awareness”, might be a term to use with players when they are in defensive transition and have to identify positioning of opposition players. Terminology can be useful when coaching technique too and can avoid “paralysis by analysis”. An example of this might be to use the term “snowflake” when you want the ruckman to provide a tap that softly lands in-close, as opposed to going into the biomechanical elements of how this is achieved.

Letting players come up with terminology and have ownership is a great way for them to embrace it and use in their communication on the field. It is vital though that whoever decides on the terminology — players or coaches — that it is then used consistently across the playing and coaching group. Players will be confused, and hence restricted in their learning, if varying terminology is used to describe a certain action.

Technology — video and headsets

Technology has a lot to offer both on and off the field in terms of teaching. I thought it was worth mentioning just two applications of technology to assist feedback and instruction on the field.

Video is obviously a powerful teaching tool when used appropriately. Many individual sports like golf and swimming use video replay of technique immediately after a repetition to enhance feedback or even provide “feedforward” before the repetition. Team sports are more challenging and Australian Rules is no exception. However at the higher levels the video analysis software products are getting to the point where they can provide real-time replays within a matter of seconds. Coaches can be spread all across the field and have certain actions immediately “coded” so that they can be replayed immediately if necessary. These replays can be viewed on a laptop or even sent over a wireless network to an iphone — opening up a lot of possibilities for quickly showing video replays to players on the field. Video can be combined with the tell or questioning methods of instruction and, apart from using the “freeze” method mentioned earlier, is the best way to put players back “in the moment”. Often the video footage is taken from a high vantage point and can reveal off-ball movement and availability of space clearly to the player — helping in their conceptual understanding of “why” a certain action may or may not be appropriate. Still, the challenge with using video on the training field is the ability to do it quickly and efficiently when time is at a premium.

Another piece of technology that can be useful is communication systems that can be worn by the player, such as headsets. The coach can talk to the player through the headsets which is often clearer and more effective than trying to shout instructions to players across a field as large as Australian Rules. Again the ability to communicate this way should just compliment existing instruction and feedback techniques. They are ideal for questioning and prompting players as the play unfolds. For example if it was being worn by a midfielder and the ball goes into their forward line and they are out of the play, you may prompt by saying “what should you be setting up for next?”. Whilst they may not be able to communicate back depending on the system you use, you would hope their actions reflect setting up for defensive transition in anticipation of the opposition winning the ball. Be careful with using the communication system to directly tell players what they should do next as this is not developing their game intelligence and instead they will rely on you as a crutch to make decisions for them — something that is obviously not going to happen on match day!

We have covered four aspects of the teaching/learning environment as they relate to on the field — training drill design, training session design. progression/sequencing and instruction/feedback.

relearn | a rethink of learning

we believe its time to rethink learning and development in sport and we’re finding that this view is shared by more and…