Start [coaching] before you are ready…

Plan-A-Plan-B-chalkboard1-300x199As a coach and coach educator I am a huge fan of session planning. I just never feel quite right without that piece of paper in my pocket to refer back to.  It is a process that has evolved for me over the many years of coaching, to the point that I now have a very specific template for my hockey sessions and a generic template for other aspects of coaching that I do (geeeeeek!!!).  I have hundreds of the things, full of drills, coaching points, potential questions, reflections on the session.  No one session is the same, different combinations of drills, various objectives, tweaks to space and numbers, many though all based on the same end goal… developing hockey players.

Recently though I have begun to think about that magical session in my pocket, mainly because that is the place where it tends to stay… in my pocket!  So for all of the work, why do I tend not to use it? Is it because I have already gone through the session on paper and therefore can recall what the plan is? Is it because player numbers/positions at training effect what I had planned to do. Maybe it is down to many years of experience.  I am a huge advocate of reflection in action, stimulated by surprise, reacting to the situation you are in, on the spot problem solving and using my previous experiences to ensure a session goes smoothly.

Ask yourself how often you get through all of your plan? Do you stick rigidly to your timings? Did you finish early? Did the plan force you to move on too soon? Did you have to pad it out with a game or a shooting drill? Is the incessant planning that we put ourselves through as coaches actually restricting us as coaches or even our players in sessions.

The ‘Start before you are ready’ principle was something that I read on Robert Poynton’s blog.  Robert is not a coach but I think that some of the things he talks about kind of resonate with the planning aspect of coaching.  Now of course, I am going to say this.  On a Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire I am predominantly (17) Activist and on the Personality Enneagrams Typing System I come out as a 3 ‘The Achiever’.  So I am clearly a do-er, though as mentioned before, still an avid planner.  Just as a caveat at this point, I am by no means claiming that coaches should not plan, I am merely questioning whether we over plan to the detriment of our sessions?

The parts that interest me most in Robert’s post are:

“…if everything is determined and decided beforehand – in other words, if you are completely ‘ready’ – then something is lost.  The unimagined possibility is eradicted before it even has the chance to occur.”

If we are completely ready as coaches, are we simply ‘robotic slaves’ to the session that we have designed, without being flexible to our audience/participants’ needs. Do detailed session plans take away the ‘holism’ that we are all striving for in our coaching?

“…it made a lot of sense not to ‘finish’ it but it is hard to do.  We normal feel obliged to tie things up neatly.”

This is such a true reflection of coaching. 10-12 warm up, 10min on skill 1, 15 mins on drill 2, finish with 20min game… How often do we move on too quickly, before participants have developed or achieved anything purely because the session plan says so? How keen are we always to get ‘closure’ on a session either with a ‘good’ drill or a ‘winner’ in a small-sided game? “Let’s finish on a good one girls!!” or “Next goal wins lads!!” is ‘coach speak’ that you will here on pitches, courts and tracks the country wide.  All of this when we will probably be back in the same place a week later, though armed with a new set of objectives and a freshly designed session plan.

“…enough structure to make it work, but to leave enough open or unfinished so that people felt really involved.”

Does the tight structure of our magical plans create closed coaching environments that limit the ownership, responsibility and empowerment that we are trying to transfer to our participants?

Perhaps I am reading into this a little too much, but I think there might just be a little something to think about around the concept of ‘start before you are ready’. I don’t mean in the sense of abandoning all planning as coaches (that would be foolish…) but to think a little more about the flexibility of our plans in order to allow participants to express themselves at training and give them more to think about when they leave the practice. Can you imagine finishing on a bad drill or a game ending with a draw…

Comments and thoughts are welcome as always.



4 responses

  1. […] Start [coaching] before you are ready…. […]

  2. Daniel Renshaw | Reply

    As a coach who is relatively new to coaching, I feel that planning is absolutely necessary (as you mentioned), and I spend an awful lot of time jotting things down on paper days and weeks before a session even starts. I’d feel that I’d have ‘cheated’ my students if I hadn’t planned a session thoroughly.

    On the day of the session itself I have a look over my notes and plans even though I will know the session off by heart, and I mentally go through all the drills/coaching points/questions an hour or two before the session even starts, and on the way to the pitch!!

    The piece of (by now overly folded and grotty) paper goes with me even though I have rarely ever looked at it during a session. This might be due to me being a relative ‘novice’ and not trusting my own abilities and therefore the paper gives me a bit of confidence to know I have something to fall back on if I forget things.

    I quickly found that sessions never go as planned due to timing issues, or players not having fully developed the skill, or even due to players’ enjoyment of a particular drill.

    However, with allowing a drill to go on for longer than planned (purely because the players enjoy it) am I achieving all the goals/aims I had at the start? If the players have achieved the coaching point and shown development of a particular skill, by allowing them to continue the drill because they like it, is it impacting on the rest of the ‘planned’ session?

    I think this is where a coach needs to be flexible and weigh up all the options. Surely the reason we’re there is to allow our students to enjoy themselves?

    I think over time, as I gain more experience, these questions will answer themselves, and I’ll evolve my own coaching style that I hope shows flexibility, allows the players to find their own answers and that the players leave feeling that they’ve contributed to the session themselves. .

    One question (that’s not rhetorical!!), is that at an elite level, rigid and structured session planning is surely the norm? I would’ve thought that due to the technology available and to ensure peak performance of players, a more ‘planned’ approach with sessions would be necessary.



    1. Hi Dan, thanks for taking the time to read the blog post and thanks very much for your comments. It’s really nice to see a coach that is self-aware and constantly thinking about what they are doing and where they are going next.

      With regards to planning sessions, I couldn’t agree with you more it’s not that the planning shouldn’t take place it’s just more about how much planning we actually do and subsequently, how much of that actually ends up in the session. You mention about being a novice coach and perhaps that is something. with more experience perhaps you are more able to be flexible within sessions. However, that comfort blanket of the session plan in your pocket still happens whether you are a beginner coach novice coach and even so-called expert coaches.

      I think a lot of it boils down to some of the work done by Shcön 1983 on reflective practice. The planning aspects of our coaching fall under reflection for action where we try and look into the future and plan exactly what it is that we are going to do. During the session, where we are expecting to be flexible and adapt to our players needs, ensure that they are enjoying themselves, ensuring that the session is productive, developmental and the players are learning, for me, this falls into reflection in action where we are actually thinking on the spot, making changes based on our players and the situations that we are faced with. Again, this is where experience really plays a big part. In my opinion coaches with more experience have a greater range of situations to draw upon from their past in order to change things for the better within a session.

      I’m sure this happens at the elite level too. Although there may well be structures in place with regards to formations, tactics, strategies and playing style sessions will often still run themselves depending on the situations that occur and how the players engage in the session.

      The post wasn’t aimed to encourage people to stop planning ha ha! The idea is it makes people think about what happens when the shackles of planning a taken off and the creativity that we may be able to produce without such rigid plans in place. Thanks for taking the time to read, I’m glad it made you think about your coaching.

      good to hear from you


  3. […] adaptability) or are they simply a continuation of a preplanned session (see my post on ‘Start [coaching] before you are ready‘)  Do all of the above attributes develop because of how the coach spends his or her time […]

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