Coaches must impart their game plans at training because there is too much on during match day.

The Coach as a Teacher

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

By Peter Schwab
AFL Director of Coaching

The volume of information available to football clubs, on everything from on and off field statistics, recruitment and strategy, has grown to almost unmanageable levels.

This creates a problem in itself, where, in the words of the man acknowledged with originating the term 'lateral thinking', Edward de Bono, there "comes a time when further information makes it difficult to sort out important information from the rest. Then there is confusion and information overload."

What does a coach do with the information he is receiving? The way in which he uses information is critical in making a positive difference to the club's performance.

Players also must take in a large amount of information about how to better both their own game and work into the team's game plan. The opposition they are playing are analysed and that information is given to the player with specific information about potential opponents he may face during the game.

On match day the player needs to be making correct decisions at speed in defence and attack, so their ability to process information quickly and then make decisions under pressure is crucial to their performance.

The step-up from VFL to AFL level requires a step-up in thinking and decision-making, which is developed through repetition and simulation under high-pressure game situations at training.

Elite football programs and academies are now cottoning onto what educators have been doing forever: trying to find out the best way students learn.

The commonly used method of teaching has tended to be Neil Fleming's VARK questionnaire, which concludes that children and indeed all people will have a primary, or preferred learning style.

This style will be either Visual in that they prefer to see and memorise information, Auditory or learning by listening to instructions, Reading and writing, or Kinaesthetic, which centres around exploration or doing.

Once a person's style of learning is identified, other questions raise their heads.

Can you match the teaching to the learning? Is the learning style measurable? Can a teacher change their teaching style to suit the learning style? And probably most importantly, is knowing your learning style going to make you a better learner?

In a coaching context, as it is in teaching, all this is worth investigating if we believe that knowing a person's learning style can make better players (learners) and better coaches (teachers).

There are some who hold the view that we should teach in a way that the topic demands. So when teaching or coaching in football do we need to work out what is the best way to coach a drop punt, or an offensive kick-in drill, or a boundary throw-in in the forward line?

Most coaches would use almost all four styles of the VARK method. They may show some vision to highlight how they want a skill to be executed, they'll certainly talk through it as the vision is shown, they'll probably draw diagrams and provide handouts to the players and then they will practice it on the field of play.

Personally I think by using as many methods as possible you have more chance of everyone knowing what is required, so that is why practice sessions become so vital as there is plenty of time to coach or at least more time than on game day, and there is also the advantage of working one on one, to further hone in on individual players' preferred learning style.

If you ask AFL player and coaching staff I am sure they will say they need to have the game plan and game day structures ingrained in the way they train so it becomes second-nature once they're placed in a match situation.

If you think about it, it does not matter at what level we are coaching or playing, match day does not lend itself to numerous instructions to players or an overload of information. There are too many other things at play without a coach trying to make fundamental changes to their game-plan.

Early on in my first year as coach of the Richmond reserves in 1992, I was approached for a chat by chairman of selectors, and former club great, Francis Bourke.

As we discussed the game from the previous weekend, he asked me one simple question, "How much did I remember of my coaching instructions on match day?"

It made me stop and think. "About three," I answered.

Bourke thought three was even being generous, making the point that a match day coaching box was not the right place to be formulating long-term game plans.

This advice, to confine match day instructions to three main focuses for the team and perhaps one dominant instruction for a player, was the best I could receive as a rookie coach.

What flows from those three focuses, if you chose the right focuses for the opposition you are playing, is that so many more aspects of your game plan will come together.

What may flow from the individual is that he plays in a way that best benefits the team.

The academic debate around learning styles will continue because like football there are many theories and many variables. There are even those who believe individual learning styles do not exist.

What coaches know and what they do best is build on their years of experience of observation and interaction. By getting to know the individual they learn how best to coach them.

Coaching is all about positive human interaction and validation. If you know the person receiving the information understands it and can act on it and repeat it then you are coaching.

A friend once asked me, "Do you know what the players are thinking when they go out to play?"

I wonder how many coaches know the answer to that question.

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