One of the best ways to learn is to teach. Students rethink not just what they learned but whom they could learn from. If coaches do all the teaching themselves, they miss a valuable resource: their athletes.
Setting up tasks where the athletes observe, practice, and then teach the same skill improves the learning process. It also frees up the coach to see the overall picture rather than constantly doing things themselves.
This article will show some ideas and tasks to help the coach and the athletes improve their skills through peer-to-peer coaching.
‘Do you understand?’ the coach asks. The athletes nod their heads and trot out to perform the drill. Half of them proceed to run in the wrong direction. The other half stand scratching their heads, waiting to see what they should be doing.
This is a classic coaching error and happens all the time. The athletes are bombarded with information, the coach is in a hurry, the athletes lack the confidence to raise their hand if they don’t understand something or don’t want to appear stupid, so everyone nods and carries on. This then transfers to the matches, and all parties (except the opposition) get frustrated.
Learning does not take place when the coach talks or shows videos. Learning takes place when the athletes change their behavior. It does not matter what qualifications the coach has, how much they know, or what level they played at if the athletes don’t understand what is said.
John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, said, ‘You haven’t taught until they have learned.’
There are many different ways of coaching. One of them is to set up practices where athletes teach each other the skill or drill or even create their own.
Show, Do, Teach
This three-word mantra helps explain learning through teaching: the coach shows the athlete the skill or drill, performs it, and then teaches another athlete the same thing.
When we are asked to teach someone a skill, we have to think about it differently from simply doing it. We have to think about the start and finish, the key points, what words can describe this, and how to demonstrate it. All of these things reinforce our learning. We see things from a different perspective that can help us do the skill again. We also have to be certain of what we are saying and doing.
The coach who asks a group of athletes to demonstrate and then teach can observe how things are working from the sidelines rather than concentrating on the teaching themselves (they are still teaching but indirectly). This frees up their own brain space and allows for an overview.
Removing the coach’s voice from the exercise allows the athletes to connect rather than stand passively listening. The connection with others is one of the main reasons people play sport (learning something new and feeling competent are also why). This improves communication between the athletes that will hopefully transfer to the pitch or court.
If everything has to be done with the coach as an intermediary, the athletes will constantly look to the coach for answers. They will be subjects of the coaching monarchy rather than active citizens in a democracy.
Examples Of Athlete Teaching
There are two main ways of introducing peer-to-peer teaching.
The first is for the coach to introduce a skill or exercise to a small group of athletes and get them to teach their peers in a 1:1 or 1: small group. I would suggest starting with a 1:1, which is less intimidating for the novice teacher.
I start with a simple skill and then build up. A bodyweight squat, looking at the knees going in the same direction as the toes, or a vertical jump with a quiet landing where the hips, knees, and ankles all have to bend. The risk of injury is minimal, the skill is finite and quick, and no equipment is required.
I get the athletes to demonstrate, explain the key points and observe their partners doing the exercise. I then audit the efficacy of the teaching by asking them who they think has done the exercise correctly. We then observed one or two of the learners performing the exercise and agreed as a group whether they were correct or how they could improve.
If you are thinking, that takes too much time, remember that the athletes are repeating the exercise multiple times all the time that this is happening. They are either learning by teaching or learning by doing.
I then switch the teachers over and show them another exercise such as the lunge or a press-up variation. We don’t do this all the time, but we do it regularly. Instead of a group of athletes whose eyes are glazed over, we have a group of athletes interacting with each other.
The second method of peer-to-peer coaching is when the coach asks the athletes to come up with a sequence of moves, an exercise variation, or a skill themselves. They then teach this to their partner, who has to learn it and perform it. This is more suitable for athletes who already have a good repertoire of movement and skills that they can build upon.
One example is asking athletes to work in pairs and develop passing, catching, and moving drills between them. Give them a framework of time, number of catches, and the space they can operate in. They then teach that drill to another pair of athletes who perform it. The learners can then give feedback on what they liked and how the drill could be improved before teaching it to the other pair.
The coach observes all the time and can suggest improvements if the athletes look stuck, but only as a last resort. I find that doing this results in many good ideas and some less valuable drills that we can incorporate into training in some fashion.
The sense of engagement and involvement within the sessions increases immensely when the athletes get to do ‘their’ drills or exercises. Working in pairs helps those who are less confident and increases the connections within the team.
Later, the two pairs who have taught each other can decide which drill works best or amalgamate ideas and teach another four athletes their ‘super drill’ and vice versa. Before the coach knows it, the athletes run the sessions.
A good coach is trying to make themselves redundant: the athletes are playing and competing, so they need to make decisions themselves. The coach is responsible for teaching, guiding, and correcting them where necessary. Using peer-to-peer coaching in small doses within sessions allows the athletes to express themselves, interact and connect and deepen their understanding of the skills.
It also allows the coach to observe and harvest new ideas integrated into their overall framework. Making the team stronger.