Hands-Off Coaching For the Win
Everybody has had that coach on the sidelines who tries to coach his or her athletes through every single move like they are robots trying to complete a task. Constant yelling and screaming. Always organizing offensive and defensive sets. Players getting torn apart during time-outs. Players constantly looking at the sideline to see if they are getting taken out because they did something wrong. I had a coach like this when I was in middle-school, and it was hands-down the worst experience of my athletic career.
Similarly, everyone knows the coach or teacher who talks way too much, and tries to provide so much detail that by the time they finish you forgot everything they just said. You tune out after about 3 seconds because information overload often leads to miscommunication, and a lack of actual applied information. This used to be me to the max when I first started coaching. Sometimes I still revert back to this style unintentionally, but the longer I have done it the more I see the potential flaws with this model.
I first started coaching when I was a 15 year old high school sophomore before I had any idea the field of strength and conditioning and sports performance was even a viable career path. I helped my parents coach my younger brother’s basketball teams prior to that, but never did anything more than provide assistance when needed. My sophomore and junior year of high school, though, I took over as head coach for my brother’s basketball teams, and at the time, it was one of the best experiences of my life.
I loved playing basketball more than anything when I was younger. Even so much so that I had unrealistic aspirations of playing high level college basketball as a short white kid who was really only above-average at playmaking and defense. Once I started coaching, though, I realized how much more I enjoyed coaching basketball than playing it. At the time, I loved the idea of elevating kids beyond where they expected to be, and working with a team to accomplish a common goal. I definitely still enjoy both of those aspects of coaching, though much of my thought process has changed since then.
As a new coach, I was incredibly passionate and loud on the sidelines during games and practices. Rarely in a negative way (although I did get ejected once), but more so trying to provide energy and boost confidence. I was constantly trying to micro-manage things if they did not go as planned, and I would often get upset if a player lacked effort and enthusiasm. Even when I first started working as an employee at Acceleration, I would often provide athletes with way more details than they could thoroughly comprehend, and sometimes the coaching descriptions I gave were the length of an entire book. I like to think that a lot has changed since then.
Contrary to the coaching strategies I used to rely on as described above, hands-off coaching is a mantra I have been trying embody within the last year or so. In short, I view hands-off coaching as a way of utilizing the environment to create subconscious actions of the athlete as opposed to listing off a million and one positional cues to them. In English, rather than providing a novel-length explanation as to exactly how I want an athlete to perform said task, I will put them in a situation that teaches them to do what I want without them necessarily consciously thinking about it.
For example, rather than telling an athlete to “get their knees up,” I would rather put them in a situation where they have to run over mini-hurdles, and then immediately have them sprint without the hurdles to see how it transfers. Or instead of telling an athlete to displace their hips high as possible during a jump, I will instruct them to land with minimal knee bend on an appropriate box in a safe position. If I want a young athlete to run as fast as possible, I would have them play a chasing game, or try to get a tennis ball before a certain number of bounces. If an older athlete has been taught to punch the ground aggressively while sprinting, resulting in over-striding, improper timing, and braking forces, I would have them perform a single-leg hop immediately into a sprint to feel the natural rhythms and relaxation that is required to run fast. These are a few examples I have used recently, but the possibilities are infinite, and really only limited by creativity.
I am not arguing that the role of a coach is simply to throw an athlete into the deep end and watch as athleticism magically develops. I also believe there is absolutely a time and place for an excessive amount of cueing. Examples of when I use a ton of cues are: with more advanced athletes who have a high level of sensory awareness, with any athlete when trying to change something noticeable regarding their position, or activities that require a great deal of attention to what they are feeling. Similarly, if an athlete is putting their joints into a position that is putting them at a high risk for injury, then it is absolutely in the coach’s job description to address movement quality, and teach an athlete safe relative to unsafe positions.
Movement quality is 100 percent the precursor to performance, but as long a sufficient and safe level of movement quality is present, then I think it is often in the best interest of the coach to put athletes in situations to allow them to self-organize and figure out how to succeed on their own. If after a few repetitions, the athlete is not performing the task up to your standards, at that point you can either provide instructions to hopefully influence a positive change, or change the environment completely and use a different activity to achieve the desired outcome.
I believe in this hands-off coaching model for a few reasons. First, I have noticed that athletes tune out after just a few seconds of providing instructions. Second, the body is incredibly adaptable and is probably using that specific movement strategy to compensate for an issue somewhere else that you may not be noticing. Third, giving blatant cues often leads to the athletes forcing whatever it is you are saying, but it is turning off the subconscious self-organization ability of the brain which both hinders performance and sometimes changes the entire movement completely. Fourth, environmental constraints often facilitate a more subconscious learning process that will stick in the long-term better than simply yelling directions at someone in my experience. And lastly, you as a coach will not be present for a majority of the athlete’s life, so creating a robot that is overly reliant on feedback is creating a monster that will probably hinder the athlete from reaching their full potential not only in athletics, but also in life.
The goal of coaching should be to facilitate a subconscious learning process that enables the athlete to apply their specific strengths to whatever obstacle they encounter, as opposed to facilitating a process that forces the athlete to rely on you and your feedback. The best coaches in the world create athletes that can operate with and without their presence. The ultimate goal of coaching, teaching, and mentoring should be to help someone apply the principles you have learned in your experience, and use those principles to take their life to the next level. However, due to the overcoaching that is often present in today’s coaching models, the best athletes are often those that at a young age almost seem uncoachable. Maybe they aren’t uncoachable, though, maybe the coach just isn’t the right fit for the job. Adaptable coaching is the best coaching, and adaptable athletes are the best athletes. That is why hands-off coaching is, in my opinion, the best coaching model for facilitating a process that creates adaptable athletes. Don’t be like my younger self. Say less, because less is often more.