Instruction is the most basic coach-athlete interaction. It’s the transfer of knowledge from master to learner.
Knowledge is the building block of skill.
Skill is the bedrock of confidence.
Our mission as coaches is to help athletes Be their Best both as performers and people.
Delivering tight, impactful expert instruction is the second critical component in our coaching operating system.
And, while all coaches deliver some level of instruction centered around the day’s training activities, only the best coaches transfer knowledge in an efficient and impactful manner.
As George Bernard Shaw says, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Within the context of coaching, this quote means that unless athletes walk away from the instruction you’re providing with a capacity to implement the skill taught, we’ve wasted our breath and their time.
Contrary to common beliefs, expert instruction is not about inspiring or motivating.
In fact, Deliberate Practice experts will tell you the best instructors are often unexpectedly dry, straight to the point, and succinct in their instruction. While Rockne-like pep talks have their place in coaching, instructional periods should forgo the ra-ra speeches and ruthlessly focus on getting the athletes what they need: knowledge.
Below, we’ll dive into six best practices for delivering world class instruction to your athletes.
1. Keep It Short & Intense
Deliver instruction in tight, focused sessions centered around small, digestible pieces of skill.
For example, if we’re talking about teaching the Clean to novices, chunk out sessions to start with partial range movements, IE) high-pulls at zero load (PVC) done slowly.
This way, athletes can quickly engrain a deep understanding of movement patterns and master a portion of the more complex whole.
As Anders Ericsson, the father of Deliberate Practice insists, we should “isolate before we integrate.”
Learning occurs fastest if the new material being introduced is finite enough to master in a short period of time.
Break it down before you build it up.
2. Cues Count
American memory champion Joshua Foer tells us the best way to embed memories for instant recall is to rely on distinct, even absurd imagery.
It turns out, the human brain favors novelty and can perform with greater automaticity when cues are colorful and unique.
Here are some examples:
1) To teach proper shooting positions, countless basketball coaches use the following:
- Set-up position - “hold the ball as if you’re delivering a pizza, 90 degrees, just over and in front of your shoulder”
- Follow through - “reach way up over your head, high up into the cabinet, and put your hand in the cookie jar”
2) To fight valgus knee positions in the squat, rather than just saying “push your knees out,” expert weightlifting coaches will say, “imagine you’re standing on a rumpled bath mat. I want you to pull the mat apart with your feet. “
3) Similarly, when teaching athletes to keep the bar close to their chest and resist the temptation to let it drift way out front, I’ve found success telling people they’re a big block of cheese and the bar is a cheese grater. Keep the bar close to the body and shave off a tasty piece of cheddar.
The point: invest in images to imprint your instruction.
3. Gradually Release Responsibility
One childhood experience probably best illustrates Expert Instruction and rapid knowledge/skill transfer better than any other: Learning to ride a bike without training wheels.
In this experience, kids are magically able to learn a highly complex motor skill within a short period of time. This is a model for success for a few reasons: The stakes are high, the performer is bought in to the goal, and because there’s a perceived risk of injury, the instructor smartly uses a gradual release of responsibility to the rider.
This last part’s the key.
While GRR (gradual release of responsibility) is a widely accepted best practice in the teaching world, it seems to have organically developed in the little tike bike training space. If this is new to you, here’s an overview of the three phases of GRR:
- The “I do” phase - Two parts: 1) an unimpeded, perfect modeling of the chosen activity. Show ‘em a flawless version of the end product. 2) Follow this step with a narrated, broken down walk through of the previous model. We call this a “think- aloud.” In this step, show them the magic behind the curtain.
- The “We do” phase - Shared instruction. The performer and instructor walk through the concept together and work on a handful of reps under careful supervision. Lots of checks for understanding during this stage.
- The “You do” phase - Two parts: Guided and Independent practice. 1) The performer is working solo, but the instructor is there to guide and spot. 2) The performer is solo and the coach is removed, allowing for reflective exploration of the concept.
In your training facility, this looks like (we’ll use introducing the KB Swing as an example):
The “I do” phase - The coach knocks out 10 perfect unimpeded reps of the KB swing as the athletes watch. Hips hinge, glutes fire, scaps retract, and the bell swings effortlessly. The coach then introduces what to watch for. The coach follows this lecture with a think aloud of 10 more perfect reps, repeating key points.
The “We do” phase - The coach grabs an athlete to demonstrate and the athlete applies the coach’s methods in front of the group. The coach fixes the athletes flaws in front of the class. Then, the large group breaks into smaller groups to each get 10 focused reps under group and coach supervision.
The “You do” phase - The group then all has a kettlebell and does three sets of 10 as the coach circulates the floor and corrects errors on the fly. Finally, the coach outlines a metcon in which the athletes will perform 10 KB swings in each of five rounds.
4. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
Want to get a point across to your athletes? Say it over...and over...and over again.
As Joshua Foer coaches in Moonwalking with Einstein, “If you want to make information stick, it's best to learn it, go away from it for a while, come back to it later, leave it behind again, and once again return to it - to engage with it deeply across time. Our memories naturally degrade, but each time you return to a memory, you reactivate its neural network and help to lock it in.”
From a coaching perspective, this means building a library of common cues and reiterating them until your athletes cry for mercy.
If you find your athletes mocking you and impersonating your cues in the locker room, you know they’ve sunk in.
5. Check for Understanding
As Doug Lemov says, “You haven’t taught it unless they’ve learned it.”
A chronic flaw in instruction is assuming that the audience grasps the concepts being relayed and can implement them with any level of success.
In 90% of the world, the most common checks for understanding are:
"Does that make sense?”
“You got it?”
“Are you with me?”
To which the audience will, almost without fail, nod their head and say, “yes.”
The problem here is that we don’t have proof the athletes know what you’re talking about. The chances of a them piping up to acknowledge that they’re totally lost in front of a group of their peers is about as likely as snow falling on the beach of Waikiki.
Before moving on to introduce the next exercise, movement, or concept, it’s imperative that you’ve created space to check in with your athletes and actually watch them demonstrate their understanding of the taught concept.
Until you know they’ve got it, don’t move on.
6. Assign Homework
There’s never enough time in the day. To accelerate talent development beyond the norm, extra reps are necessary.
Extend your coaching by providing athletes with supplemental resources and remote delivery. In many ways, this simply lengthens the “you do” period of independent practice we mentioned above.
Easy ways to do this?
A lot of our coaches will post instructional videos in their team’s Feed in TrainHeroic, push messages with links to relevant blog articles, or share podcasts with their athletes that align with their coaching philosophy.