Top tips for using questions for athlete-centred coaching
Posted by Dean Holden at September 10th, 2013
by Andy Grant, August 2013
There is evidence available nowadays to suggest that the coach’s role is more effective when he/she acts as a facilitator of learning rather than taking the more traditional approach ie as a teacher of skills and knowledge. And as a facilitator, an important method a coach has to enhance learning is that of asking questions to participants rather than giving instruction.
Being a coach that asks questions rather than offering instruction and correction can be quite challenging. I know, I tried it recently! Working with some young players I set myself an aim to limit my technical/tactical instruction and instead use more questions. And it was a challenge to not revert back to be instruction-focused. But it was worth it as the sessions were definitely better and the environment was more conducive to player development.
All questions are equal, but some are more equal than others.
All questions serve a purpose and can help the learning process. But the effectiveness of questions can vary depending on a number of factors such as participants’ stage of development, the facility, the nature of the sport, intensity and type of activity. Asking the right question at the right time is a skill of the quality coach.
The art and science of questioning is an essential tool for the modern coach. So to help you develop coaching skills in questioning I have provided a Quick Guide to the theory, Top Tips and suggested questions.
Quick Guide to the Theory
The theory below provides some evidence-based reasons to use a Question and Answer coaching method.
In Athlete-centred Coaching: Developing inspired and inspiring people, Lyn Kidman highlights the many benefits of using questions. When the coach asks a question, the participant must find an answer which in turn increases their knowledge and understanding of technical and tactical aspects of the sport. Questioning stimulates athletes’ thinking, providing them with a chance to be creative and make decisions. This can stimulate their intrinsic motivation to learn. Also the solution that participants’ generate is their own and they will remember, understand and apply the content more effectively than if they were given the information.
Questioning can support the development of participants’ critical thinking skills and deeper understanding of their sport. This is great for improving their performance in your sport and develops core thinking skills that are essential in wider aspects of life.
Lower-order and Higher Order Questions
Low-order questions require simple thinking to generate a response. They are often what or where questions and usually require a factual answer, with only one likely correct response.
High-order questions require higher-level thinking processes such as analysis, evaluation, problem solving and creating solutions. These are often the why and how questions and usually there are no wrong answers. High-order questions are good for tactical questioning and technique questioning.
Tactical Questioning requires decision making and problem solving on strategies and tactics relevant to the sport
Technique Questioning requires an athlete to become aware of the techniques in their sport and can gain feedback on their performance of the techniques through comparison to an ideal model.
Siedentop and Tannehill (2000)identified four categories of questions dependent on the cognitive activity involved. These are neatly summarised by Pearson and Webb in their paper presented at the 1st Asia Pacific Sport in Education Conference. They are:
Recall questions require an answer from memory.
Convergent questions require responses that analyse and integrate previously learnt knowledge. This requires reasoning and problem solving.
Divergent questions require solutions to new situations through problem solving and solution generation.
Value questions require expressions of choice, attitude and opinion.
Griffin andButler (2005) provide a questioning framework based on What? Where? When? Why? With whom? How? These questions can be used regarding three areas in most games – time, space, risk. Some example questions are provided later.
Questions that encourage a Growth Mindset
Carol Dweck has researched motivation and achievement in children and young people for over 40 years. Her findings have led to the concept of Growth Mindset. In short, Dweck’s research indicates that children have one of two mindsets regarding their own intelligence. One is that intelligence is a fixed entity and cannot be changed. The other is that intelligence can be increased with effort ie a Growth Mindset. Those with a Growth Mindset have been found to persevere longer to master a task and used more innovative solutions to solve problems. Dweck suggests using learning goals rather than performance goals to encourage a growth mindset. The coach should then think carefully about wording questions around a learning outcome and some examples are shown later.
Top tips for using questions when coaching young participants.
Asking questions about the sport will increase their interest in that sport, hopefully leading to a lifelong involvement in participation. Often, the more you find out, the more you want to know
Questioning younger participants can be done in a range of ways. Although the method of stop- stand still – let me ask you a question has started to replace the previous stop-stand still – let the coach identify your mistake in front of your peers and then show you how to do it better coaching method, it still has a limited impact on the participant being asked the question who is often frustrated at being stopped in full flow. In my experience it also has little or no effect on others involved in the session as the question isn’t directed at them and they can therefore be disengaged.
In my experience the why question shouldn’t be asked as a coaching intervention with young participants during an activity and here’s my reasons. Yes it can be useful for the participant trying to come up with a response as it aids critical thinking but (a) because of its immediacy any response will be limited and lack reflection (b) you are probably only looking for one response and you have a preconceived idea what you expect to hear (c) the wording of the question can raise the player’s defences and they don’t engage positively (d) someone else trying to come up with a response isn’t a spectator sport and isn’t compelling viewing for the others in the activity and (e) listening in this situation is passive learning and not overly effective during an active sporting activity.
Questions are more effectively asked one-on-one or in small groups after the activity has concluded or during a natural break in play eg timeout, drink break, dead-ball situation, between runs, sets or reps. It is also possible during team games to take a player to the side to talk to them whilst the game continues but consider how likely the player is to commit to the discussion whilst the game is played without them.
Be aware that the young participant might not be able to project his/her voice when given the response in front of a group so consider where everyone is placed when you ask a question and/or be ready to paraphrase for them.
Ask yourself before you intervene if you are asking them the question to show off your knowledge in front of everyone or because it is the correct learning method for the participant(s).
If you are going to intervene during an activity and other participants are going to be kept waiting, keep the questions focused on knowledge that they should know – and it is a case of reinforcement – rather than complex solutions. It is neither effective time-management of your activity nor the most conducive time for higher-order thinking.
When you ask a high-order question you must be prepared to remain patient for the response. Often the response will take a while to come – as it should do if the question is pitched at the level that will challenge the participant(s) to find an answer or solution.
Plan the questions you are going to ask. In the same way you have planned your outcomes and content of your sessions you should have the questions you may ask and the right time to ask them. This doesn’t mean you must ask them – how many times does your session always run exactly as planned? – but it does help get in the mindset of using questions rather than giving coaching points.
Let’s play 20 Questions
Here are over 20 questions as suggestions that you may find useful to ask young participants. Remember that these are questions that are generic to all sports or are sport-specific examples and in both cases you should amend them to suit your specific situation.
Who is your favourite athlete or sportsman/woman of all time and why? Who is your least favourite and why?
Top Tips – this works well as a small group discussion but can equally be used as an individual task and possibly set as homework between sessions. The two questions can be used to facilitate a discussion around values in sport.
Without referees/officials/umpires what would our sport be like?
Top Tip – can be used as a group discussion on values. The coach should emphasise responses that highlight the positive role officials make in terms of applying rules, ensuring fair play, resolving difficult decisions, recording times, distances and final placements.
Why do you/we need opponents to make you/us better?
Top Tips – in my experience this is best done in a one-to-one chat. In groups the responses can become focused on defeating them. Individually the coach can facilitate the discussion around values such as opponents playing well will help us play/compete to our full potential. The better they play the better we can play. The highly successful NBA coach, Phil Jackson, in Sacred Hoops identified that players needed to embrace their opponents. He termed it Aggressiveness without Anger and told his players to Enjoy the Dance. That is, he espoused the benefits of embracing the opponents positively to achieve your own excellent performance.
Who do you think is the greatest player/athlete/participant in our sport and why?
Top Tips – Can be a good group discussion travelling to competition or during a break in training. As an individual task this is best done between sessions and should be written down. The responses can be used by the coach to direct focus on what is required to become a better performer. Responses can be linked to tactical andtechnical requirements of the sport, and values
When we played this team last time can you recall what their strengths were?
Top Tips – This is a convergent question best done in pre-match training session or possibly travelling to match/competition. It can be asked to a small group for discussion or individual for self-reflection.
When you were at training last time what did you think was the best activity we did and why?
Top Tips – Best asked individually ideally between sessions. Possibly during a break in the early part of the next session if this is logistically easier. It encourages reflection, and provides avenue for them to feedback on your session.
What happens when you win the point? How is the match restarted after the ball is played out? What are the different line markings for? These questions can be used for checking the participants’ knowledge on rules of the sport. They are recall questions and can be used during activities to recap on a key point that they should know.
How should you hold the bat? Where should your feet be positioned? These are recall questions checking for factual knowledge on technique
What should you do if your opponent does this?
Top Tip – This is a convergent question and can be used at any time during pre-competition phase. It can also be used during breaks in play such as half-time, time-outs, between heats. This is used effectively to develop tactical decision-making.
What can you do if our opponent does this?
Top Tip – This is a divergent question as it suggests there is more than one solution. It is effective as a tactical question.
Where should you run when the ball is played there? When should you run into that area?
Top Tip – These may be used as a ‘stop-let me ask you a question’ during the activity as it provides an immediate and direct link to space and time. A note of caution is that the coach should ensure that the other participants are also involved in the response. Otherwise this is best done as an individual activity, possibly in a post-session debrief and can be enhanced with use of visual aids.
When can you attempt that shot?
Top Tip – The when question is effective when the coach is checking understanding of the risks involved in the sport eg playing cross-court shots, attempting high-lofted wedge to the green, taking on a 3-point shot. The coaches mindset will decide whether this question is convergent – ie only wanting one clear solution such as ‘only when the opponent is on the baseline’ – or divergent – ie encouraging a range of solutions to be presented such as when opponent doesn’t expect it, when the ball sits up nicely, when opponent is off-balance, when you are near the net’.
Why did you make that decision or take that action?
Top Tip –This question is best used outside of activities such as in a debrief or during an activity by taking the participant to one side. It can improve participants’ in-game decision-making and high-order thinking skills and can be used to improve their understanding of the risk associated with different decisions/actions.
With whom can you combine with to execute the move?
Top Tip – The best time to use this question will depend on the number of solutions available. If there is one obvious correct solution then this can be used as an intervention in the activity. If there is more than one solution then this would be better done using visual aids outside of the activity. This can be used to relate to time, space and risk
How can you take that turn tighter? How did you feel during the take-off?
Top Tip – These are technique questions best used to develop evaluation as it involves the participant using their own self-assessment of technical performance and identifying how to improve it. This question will be difficult for the young participant or novice but can still be used by the coach that recognises that the response will be limited due to lack of technical knowledge. The coach can prompt further knowledge by using further questions to probe deeper.
How can you learn a new skill? How can you learn to be a better player/performer? What would you like to learn at the next session?
Top Tip – Wording questions around a learning outcome can encourage a Growth Mindset and these examples can encourage a Growth Mindset in young participants. Dweck’s research found that when children were set learning goals – eg can you learn to swim breaststroke – they outperformed the children that were given performance goals – eg this week you are going to swim 200m.
When was the last time you felt that you performed really well (ie to your full potential)?
How did it feel? Why do you think you performed so well?
Top Tips – these questions are linked to the research on the state of Flow by Mihalyi CsiKszentmihalyi (Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, 1975). He identified that when attempting to master a skill or task people could often become so absorbed in what they were doing that they were in a kind of trance – or Flow – state. While these questions are only a very small part of what it takes to achieve a state of Flow, by getting young participants to start to reflect on the positive emotions associated with mastering – or close to mastering – performance, it can help to create an environment where Flow can flourish.
The ability to ask effective questions is a key skill for the coach. This isn’t to say that it is the only coaching method that should be used. Far from it, with young participants and novices there is still benefit in the coach demonstrating technique, intervening to correct technique and tactical play and so on. The aim of this blog is to provide coaches with a few suggestions for questions that can be used with young participants. The coach that has mastered the art of questioning will encourage young participants to have autonomy, feel empowered, have a better understanding of your sport, greater commitment to learn and have better critical thinking skills.
These are just some suggestions for coaches to use and amend for their own coaching. For further information read the resources recommended below.
References and Recommended Resources
Dweck, C (2006) Mindset: The new Psychology of Success.
Griffin, L and Butler, J (2005) Teaching Games for Understanding. Theory, Research and Practice.
Kidman, L. (2005) Athlete-centred Coaching: Developing inspired and inspiring people.
Pearson, P and Webb, P (2008) Developing effective questioning in teaching games for understanding (TGFU) A paper presented at the 1st Asia Pacific Sport in Education Conference, Adelaide, 2008
Siedentop, D and Tannehill, D (2000) Developing Teaching Skills in Physical Education.