The Way of the Silent Coach

Imagine this scene:

The pupils are silent as they file into the exam hall. Their names are checked, valuables left at the side and they quietly walk past the rows of desks and chairs till they find their own. Nervous tension fills the the room. The exam papers are distributed, instructions issued and timings written on the whiteboard. They hear the words ‘you may begin’ and they open their paper and start reading and writing furiously. As soon as that happens a number of teachers and parents who just happen to be at the side watching, start shouting instructions at those who are taking the exam:

‘Jimmy read all the questions first and underline the command words!’

‘Jimmy start with the long answers. Get them out the way first!’

‘Bobby remember to write in full prose, show your depth of knowledge!’

‘Bobby remember to bullet point your answers, be succinct!’

‘Frankie don’t leave blank answers, make sure you answer everything!’

‘Frankie leave the answers you don’t know, move on to the next question, come back to them if you have time!’

The scene is ridiculous. It just wouldn’t happen. It would disturb the pupils and have negative consequences on their concentration and focus. People would offer different view points which would lead to confusion and possibly poorer performance. It would undermine the validity of the exam as a test of the pupils knowledge and ability on that day. We then wouldn’t know whether it was their own ability or the advice that was being shouted at that influenced their performance. It certainly wouldn’t ease the tension that they might be experiencing, in fact it would only ramp it up.

Yet if we look at matches in youth sport this is what happens week in and week out. If we continue to look at those matches through the lens of an examination, then we could see them as a test or challenge to the players knowledge and skills on that given day. As a teacher or a coach surely we want to glean as much quality information as possible from the solutions the players come up with to the problems being asked on the pitch. Their answers would help us to see their understanding, check whether the training we have delivered has been successful and to offer us information on future planning and development. We can’t realistically do this if the performance has been affected by constant streams of advice from the side.

I have never been a massive shouter during game day, but I did feel that it was my role to solve all the problems my players faced. However since a chance meeting on a trip with an ex pupil and an incident I witnessed last year on the side of a football pitch, I have tried to take a step back. I am slowly walking the path of the Way of the Silent Coach.

What is a Silent Coach? I think this is a coach that assumes that every child has the capability for independent analytical thinking in terms of solving problems presented to them in competitive sport. The Silent Coach tries to create an environment for their players that empowers them to solve problems rather than dictating to them what the answers are. A Silent Coach isn’t  silent, but is comfortable using silence as a way to support player development, and sees it as a major part of their coaching toolkit.

Over the course of the last 3 years my approach to coaching school sport on game day has changed:

Previous Coaching Approach Silent Coaching Approach
Pre Game:

Immediately telling players about the conditions, what they should do. I initiate conversations reminding them of what we worked on during the week and what they needed to improve from last game.

Pre Game:

Greet them warmly, usually with a handshake and ask how they are feeling. I have already nominated 2 or 3 people to set the tone of the changing room. I leave it to them but listen to the conversations happening and give advice if wanted.

Warm-Up:

Everything set out in advance. Fully in control of what they are doing, with most feedback from me. Telling them what they need to do during the game.

Warm-Up:

This is now the shared responsibility between a nominated player and myself. We set up together. I support and advise where needed.

Pre Game Talk:

I recap game plan. I recap what we have worked on in training. I set us three targets to focus on during the first half to review. All information from me. Captain gets time just before kick off.

Pre Game Talk:

This is now the Captains responsibility. They will also ask other players for their thoughts. I have asked them to come up with to focus on during the first half and ensure the whole team understands them.

During Game:

A combination of talking into my phone to record my thoughts and events from the game which I listen to later and make notes and shouting technical and tactical instructions and some encouragement.

During Game:

I talk to my bench and ask them questions, trying to get them to accurately describe what they see happening on the pitch. I make notes on paper. Any verbal communication with team playing is encouragement and support during breaks of play.

Half Time:

I tell them what is happening from my viewpoint. I tell them what they need to do in the next half to win. I expect them to implement my instructions. Success is about winning.

Half Time:

Team splits into 2 to 4 smaller groups and has time to discuss what is happening. Each group has a leader I nominate. The discussion is around threats and opportunities and I listen. Groups combine and share their thoughts. Captain then picks two key threats and opportunities to focus on in second half. Success is around performance of diffusing threat and exploiting opportunity. Success is about performance. I might step in if I feel something has been overlooked.

Post Game:

Sit down. Take apart the game. Look at positives and negatives from the game. Pick things on which we need to focus on next week. Discussion usually led by me. Personal judgements are made.

Post Game:

Thank them for their effort. Shake their hands. Tell them I enjoyed watching and coaching them.

 

If there are refreshments then I will speak to individuals and groups of players. Focus is about getting them to accurately describe what they saw and experienced in the game. Personal judgements are not made.

Next Session:

Straight into practice and overcoming the issues that we struggled with, always led by me.

Next Session:

10-minute session led by players about their thoughts from last game. This will be the driver for two player led sessions during the week. A 20-minute Captains session and a 20-minute individual technical session chosen by the player. I support and advise during these sessions.

After years of coaching the former way I still do slip back into old habits. It takes considerable effort not to do this at times, especially when we are losing. For the latter approach on game day to become more effective, my coaching approach during the week has had to change. I have to give more opportunity within training for the players to take ownership, so they become more comfortable doing this on game day. It also requires modelling and giving feedback on how they take ownership. This sometimes takes valuable time away from the actual physical practice, but I am beginning to see glimpses of its power during the game when small groups of players get together on the field, unaided by myself, to try and find solutions to the problems the opposition are presenting. It is difficult at times not to take over, as I know this would improve the performance there and then. However I need to view my role as a Silent Coach was promoting the long term development of the players, through a positive environment that keeps them coming back, rather than the short term improvement of performance and the next win.

I am continuing my journey in the Way of the Silent Coach. At times it isn’t easy and I constantly question whether it is the right approach, and what is the right age and experience It should be started at. I am yet to consistently challenge others on the sidelines who offer their thoughts and opinions throughout the game. Finally there is always the worry that I’m short changing my players by not imparting my knowledge and experience by telling them what to do. It would be great to hear from other teachers and coaches who are making similar journeys themselves and hear what they do on game day to empower their players by remaining silent.

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49 thoughts on “The Way of the Silent Coach

    1. Hi Mel. Thanks for your comment. I have a long way to go with this approach till I and my pupils become comfortable with it, but from what I have observed and experienced I feel it is the right way forward for them and the context I am in. Happy New Year.

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  1. You made me think about my coaching style and whether or not my players are learning as a result of it. Too often we focus on our teaching/coaching instead of focusing on the player’s learning. I love to challenge the players to solve problems on the pitch but struggle with their abilities as athletes. Many of them are not footballers naturally and need consistent practice and feedback, so I believe. Might need to be more silent. Thanks for your thought provoking post!

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    1. Hi Jason. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I think children/athletes will ‘learn’ whatever approach you take. I think the key question we need to ask is what do we want them to learn? I also believe that there are times where we must take a much more teacher led/behaviouralist approach in our coaching. Each of the players are individuals and will respond differently. The key as to recognise which approach is needed for which situation. This is something I want to become much better at, but the approach I have described I would like to become my natural default.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks for the share.
    I tried taking a step back with a Year 7 football team I was coaching in Essex and found it difficult to keep my opinions to myself during the game. The results weren’t as successful as required so I reverted back to the autocratic style of coaching.
    I hope you are stronger than me and can stick with the philosophy for the season.

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    1. Hi Adam. Thanks for your comments. Balancing winning and development is a difficult thing and something I’m still working on. I have found being open and honest with my pupils/athletes so they understand why I am taking that approach has helped massively and has got more buy-in. I am fully committed to exploring this style of coaching for the foreseeable future.

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  3. I really like your analogy of the exam setting. I have been thinking about the exams that I give in my courses and how to structure them so that they test the necessary knowledge but also let the students use what they have personally learned, and this post has given me a lot to consider. Thanks!!

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  4. Fascinating and a very timely challenge to the orthodoxy of shouty junior coaches. I have seen it done successfully at under 6 level – and very amusing it was to see my son’s coach chatting calmly to his subs while the opposing coaches were bursting blood vessels.

    I did try something similar as an under 13 cricket coach. It wasn’t very effective. I found the urgency of a 13 week season too great to indulge my players in self-discovery – and I felt their impatience (let alone that of their dads).

    It sounds like you’ve made a good start and have thought through your approach a good deal. Best of luck. Do keep us updated.

    Touchline Dad

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    1. Hi Touchline Dad. Thank you for the kind comments and sharing the post. I suppose the approach is more successful and bought into if the definition of success isn’t built around winning? Perhaps this needs to be challenged first? My friend Al Smith puts it far better than me: ‘I guess the biggest job of work is to help people to understand and get comfortable with the ultimate coaching paradox: the more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win.’ Just need to ensure my actions and my word are honest to this belief.

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  5. I would consider myself to fall into a similar category. This becomes easier as the students/players become used to this method of operation and as they mature into young adults. I say very little during the game and I too feel as though I am ‘short-changing’ the players if I don’t shout instructions there and then. However, I have found that when I do speak, they listen more intently and they value my input more. It works for me. All I ever do is encourage. Most importantly, by not shouting instructions at players they gain the greatest thing possible every game… ENJOYMENT – because that is what sport is about!

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    1. Hi Dominic. I read something today that stated that as coaches or teachers ‘We are responsible for enhancing the experience of young players who would be happy playing 3 hours in the park without us.’ I agree with you that a silent approach can enhance the enjoyment of those that are under our care. Thanks for commenting.

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  6. Well done…I love this! I’ve been doing a lot of these things in my coaching for the last few years, but didn’t realize that there was a name for it. My players have really seemed enjoy games and practices much better than before. They also seem to have a deeper understanding of game strategy and are motivated to practice skills on their own time in order to contribute personal strengths to the team.

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  7. So, I loved your idea about the “Silent Coach Approach” and decided to try it with my adult team at their upcoming mid-week training session – TOTAL rejection!!! “We are paying you to coach us not have us coach ourselves”, pretty much summarises their reaction. Perhaps it was too big a jump, perhaps they are not the right Group to start this journey with, perhaps I am not the Coach to make this intervention with them???

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    1. Hi Lawrie. It has taken me just over three years to get to this stage, making many mistakes along the way. I do think it needs to be taken in small steps. Change, both for the coach and the athletes, can be a challenging thing. Starting with the why might help. Explain clearly why you will be changing your approach, then slowly drip feed it in. I found setting training session around a question, then asking my pupils to try and solve it was the best first step for me. By then getting small groups to discuss their solutions and how successful they are you shift the focus of coming up with answers from you to them, with you supporting and guiding. If frustration appears, I think this is where you might need to step in and take control a little more. Do you think you might try it again, or do you feel the group is not just up for trying something new and different?

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  8. Good read, thanks. Has given me a reminder to practice what I preach. I also try my best to be a silent coach during matches, but find it does very much depend on the students’ age and ability level as to how much I find myself talking. Some students will need some instruction during the game, but most likely in terms of positioning on the pitch/court or refocussing and concentrating. I’m a big fan of not telling a child what to do when they are in possession or engaged in a critical moment…it just confuses their decision making.

    They’ll still get the opportunity to learn from you during the situations you provide in training and practice, which is where the learning should take place, not on the field during games/matches (you can continue the analogy of the classroom and exam/test here).

    Thanks again,
    Craig

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    1. Hi Craig. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think there is a one size fits all approach to coaching or a silver bullet to our athletes/pupils development. I think a good coach will be able to read the situation and the individual they are working with and pick what is right for them there and there. Sometimes that means being silent. Sometimes that means speaking up. I’ve yet to master that art. Personally I do want to move away from the loud shouting coach I was when I was younger, to something quieter who empowers. However in the end we have to do what we think is best for those we have responsibility for. That is all we can ever try to do.

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  9. This is a well considered approach, I’ve tried to allow for students to take more ownership and at time I do feel they enjoy the responsibility. It is also interesting to see the solutions they propose, however it does very much like swimming against the tide in terms of what is expected by not only the other staff members but also the students themselves. I found many students were proposing solutions or mimicking approaches from their own experiences from their teams at the weekend. Whilst being a newly qualified teacher, I felt great pressure from other staff members to display certain actions and perhaps pressure generated by myself being new also made it harder for me not to react as would be expected. This at times then led to me reverting back to the status quo, I think ultimately I ended up sending mixed messages to students. Ultimately it will be a continuing work in progress and I am going to endeavour to foster this approach.

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  10. This is a well considered approach although a hard one to implement, I’ve tried to allow for students to take more ownership and at time I do feel they enjoy the responsibility. It is also interesting to see the solutions they propose, however it does very much like swimming against the tide in terms of what is expected by not only the other staff members but also the students themselves. I found many students were proposing solutions or mimicking approaches from their own experiences from their teams at the weekend. Whilst being a newly qualified teacher, I felt great pressure from other staff members to display certain actions and perhaps pressure generated by myself being new also made it harder for me not to react as would be expected. This at times then led to me reverting back to the status quo, I think ultimately I ended up sending mixed messages to students. Ultimately it will be a continuing work in progress and I am going to endeavour to foster this approach.

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    1. Hi Ian. Thanks for your considered response. Changing approaches is very difficult, both for the coach and the athletes/players. This has come out of 3 years of working hard to move away from a very traditional behaviouralist approach to both teaching and coaching. I still revert back to type, but this is becoming less and less the more I practice. I think as a coach/teacher you need to do what you think is best for the children under you care. That can be difficult when your peers have very different attitudes to you and there is a need to fit in socially with them. I encourage you to try it, at least for you to find if it works for you as an approach. Learning something doesn’t work is often just as important as learning if it does work. Good luck. I would be very interested to hear about your experiences if you continue with it.

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    1. I have been working with an U16 rugby team this term, but I have used it to varying degrees of success from U12 to U18 in multiple sports. A lot of my teaching staff are taking on this player centred approach, so more of our pupils are getting accustomed to it, adapting and taking responsibility. I don’t know how early you can start, but I would want to try and perhaps modify through small steps of autonomy and empowerment are given. As simple as giving a problem to solve in training and not giving the answer to solve it, but through questioning try and get them to create plans to see if they work.

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  11. As a fairly recently-qualified Level 2 cricket coach this has been a fascinating read. My group is U11, so Y5/6 – quick question – would this approach need modify for a younger age-group?

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    1. Hi Chris. The youngest children I have used this approach with is Year 7. There needs to be a little more structure, but it can still be very effective. I think the answer is it depends. You know your players much better than me. Do you think they could cope and thrive with some autonomy and empowerment? If so start with something very simple like asking questions within training and asking them to solve them through guided group discussion. If you do decided to implement it, would love to hear the outcomes.

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  12. I have actually conducted research that identified ‘Silence’ as a coaching behaviour. Silence, as a coaching behaviour is both passive and also non-passive. Then measured against other coaching behaviours; Silence, accommodated the highest levels of creative and innovative, expressive and experimental playing than any other coaching behaviours.

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  13. Thank you a laudable and progressive approach that will undoubtedly enhance enjoyment, progress and retention. An aside – given the conditions of the exam hall versus playing field why is it 99% of kids would opt for the latter…..? Our challenge in school is to DO more of this rather than THINKING we are.

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    1. Thank you for you comments. My change in approach isn’t just to the playing fields, but to the classroom. However I have on reflection moved the other way, to a more behavioural cognitive psychology approach. I see that my pupils don’t enjoy this approach in the classroom environment, but their results have greatly improved. Until education perhaps changes it definition of what success is from grades, then I feel that I’m doing my pupils a disservice not taking this approach. It is hard to reconcile considering where my coaching approach is going.

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  14. Thanks for another thought provoking post to encourage coaches to be more athlete centred in their coaching processes. Gradual change is what is needed – select one area where you can achieve success and then slowly move onto the next. I encourage all coaches to consider this approach – “small chunks at a time” – I personally have had success with this approach while coaching my son’s cricket and football teams – kid’s love the engagement and taking on the responsibility – helps create leadership opportunities for all! The Sport Education (SEPEP) Model for PE and Sport would support and provide opportunity for teachers to be the “Silent Teacher” as well. I manage Coach Education for AFL Football in Victoria (Australia) and was wondering whether I have your permission to include this article in our next coaches newsletter to go out in March.
    All the Best Steve

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    1. Hi Steve,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is always helpful to hear that others are on the same though process and journey with their own coaching. The point you make about small steps is an important one and something I explore in a more recent post about ‘Silent Coaching’ https://drowningintheshallow.wordpress.com/2015/12/12/silent-coaching-the-first-steps/

      The Sport Education model is a great approach for teaching children about sport. It allows them to appreciate the traditons, values and rituals that being involved within sport offers which I believe improves motivation to become competent at that sport. Good luck in your endeavours and I would be very happy for you to use the post in anyway you feel fit.

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  15. I only just got around to reading this post, and I’m really glad I did. This is a landmark post. It has prompted me to include the topic in coach education courses and workshops that I conduct. Coaches need to understand that they don’t have to be talking to be coaching. Thanks, Darren Wensor

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    1. Hi Darren. Thanks for your comment. I think as PE Teachers and Sports Coaches we have 4 key verbal tools at our disposal. Instruction, feedback, questions and silence. In my own teaching the latter two are ones to develop. I wonder if as teachers and coaches we are loathed to use silence as a tool, as it doesn’t seem like we are actively involved in children’s learning? The more I spend being silent the more I see it as a powerful tool. The key as always is knowing your content and the individual in front of you and picking the right one at the right time to have the biggest impact on learning possible. Think that professional decision making and judgement is not easily learnt, but takes practice, mistakes, reflection and experience.

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