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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Introduction to Effective Coaching

Most sports have a structured coach education programme in place.  Karate and other martial arts appear to be lacking in this regard.  Instead, people “teach” or “instruct” rather than coach.  The instructors’ qualifications are based on their length of time of participation within Karate, or their success in competition. Some organisations have “instructors’ licences” but the exams are based on the ability to learn Japanese terminology, and learn by rote kata counts- that is not coaching, it is repetition.

This happens in lots of other sports too, where an ex-player becomes a coach and repeats the drills that were done with them 5- 10 years previously.  What happens is that the sport never progresses.  Instead a good coach can analyse, plan, deliver and review their sessions according to their team’s and players’ needs.

Often people with as little as 2 years experience (brown belts) are given the responsibility of coaching the fundamentals to new participants. Is it any wonder that people without a depth of knowledge and no formal coaching training don’t do the best job?  Is it any wonder that beginners leave too early?  (If you don’t think that the best coaches should be placed with beginners- just watch “strictly come dancing”.  There the level of skill achieved in 3 months is down to two things – hundreds of hours of practice and expert tuition from the outset).

When asked to develop a coach education programme for the JKS, I decided to start with some simple concepts, to make the coaches more self-aware, and to plant the seeds of the idea that coaching itself is a skill that needs to be worked on as much as your technical skills.

Rushall (1995) identified over 100 aspects of successful athletes.  10 of these related to effective coaching practices.  This is a good starting point to examine your own coaching.  If we look at these 10 points and how they apply to your Karate lessons, you may be able to identify areas that you do well, and areas that could improve.  The important thing is to sit down and analyse your own coaching, don’t just repeat what you have been taught. 

According to Rushall’s  review; Excellent Coaching Sessions:

  1. Are planned and published in advance of the session.

Each session is part of an overall plan, rather than stand alone. There can be a link to the grading system or kata. Publishing the plan empowers the athletes, because it gets them to take responsibility for their own learning.  They can see what is going to happen in advance and practice or research on their own. 

  1. Start and end on time.

This shows the coach cares and is prepared. Athletes must comply too. Finish on time no matter how the session is going, people have other commitments and have invested mental effort for only the required amount.  If you can’t get it done in the session, you haven’t planned properly, or you have gone off track!

  1. Keep athletes busy the whole time.

Especially kids, they need to be occupied.  Recovery periods are different, rest is important, but that is different from dead time.  One class I saw with 40 kids in it just had two of them doing anything at one time in turns, the other 38 had to sit down and watch.  So for 95% of the time they were inactive. Use parents or other helpers to organise the set up of the class or to take fees. Don’t talk on your mobile whilst teaching- I have seen it done.

  1. Promote competition between friends.

It doesn’t have to be fighting, but competition allows the chance to let off steam, every 4th or 5th session is ideal, lots of karate activities always do this.  The danger is when athletes use beating others as a way of measuring progress, rather than looking within (ego versus task goals- another subject in itself) Also, most elite athletes will find a way of competing in even the most cooperative environment.

  1. Include a lot of variety.

As long as it is relevant, as long as it produces improvements.  Repetition is boring, especially for beginners, but reps are necessary to ingrain habits. It is how you structure these reps that allows you to show your coaching ability.

  1. Include behaviours required in competitions.

In Karate terms this would include behaviours required in gradings and in self defence situations. This comes down to specificity of practice.  If you practice slow, you will fight slow.  Some training must be at game pace.  Get the students used to performing under pressure. In a grading or a competition you are on your own, but you  train in crowd of 20 people.  Replicate the grading / competition/ self-defence environment.

  1. Involve each athlete in goal-setting.

Don’t set top down goals- elite athletes will already have their own goals.  Instead consult with the student and ask for their input and what they want out of their karate. Guidance on to technical goals is good and beginners may need more instructional type goal setting. Don’t set a goal without identifying how to get there- pass 7th dan may be admirable, but it is a long way off and you have to work on the intermediate and short-term goals first. Goals are for individuals, despite us participating in group practice

  1. Generate as much feedback to each athlete as possible.

There are two types of feedback:

Primary feedback- what we say, think, feel and do.

Secondary feedback- how other people respond (coach) to what we say and do.

 As a coach it is a good idea to get the student to analyse their primary feedback before we give our secondary feedback. For example “what was your right foot doing?” or “where were you trying to kick?” before saying “your right foot is facing left instead of right” or “you were kicking to his shoulder, not his head or ribs”. That way the student is learning for themselves.

Don’t just give result orientated feedback, give mostly performance orientated feedback.  You are not in control of results (unless you are also the grading examiner or competition referee) so they may not go to plan, but you can give feedback on the performance itself.

Phrasing the feedback is also important, as is the timing. Verbal feedback that is value driven (words such as good, nice) is not specific and if over used, becomes ignored. Instead use phrases such as – “that was a good kick because your knee drive led to more speed” or “your timing in that Kata was good because you followed your breathing pattern”.

Negative feedback isn’t constructive.  Instead of “don’t do that” say “do this” if you have to discipline some one don’t do it in public.

Giving feedback on the day of a competition or grading is inadvisable- if they haven’t got it yet, they aren’t going to get it at the final moment.  Too many coaches want to make themselves feel useful and overcompensate by trying to correct things at the last moment- this is just a distraction for the athlete.

Feedback can also be gained not just from the coach, but also other students- but following the same guidelines.

  1. Are evaluated as soon afterwards as possible.

Evaluate your session or course within 24 hours of delivery.  Spend  20% of the time writing down what worked well, then spend 60% of the time looking at  what needs working on and make a plan to improve these areas.  Then spend the last to 20% of the time reminding yourself of what went well to reinforce the positive message.

  1. Encourage interested family and friends to make a positive contribution.

If you are running a club on your own, you can get bogged down in everything and then find yourself with no time to plan your sessions. Get the families and friends to help as time keepers, first aiders, providing refreshments, taxi drivers, advertising the club and collecting lesson fees.  The more people who help, the more likely the students will stay and become part of the “Club”.

By no means comprehensive, this list is just a beginning, but it is student focussed.  If you as a coach can look at this list and endeavour to fulfil it at every training session, you will hopefully notice an improvement in your coaching practice and your students will enjoy their sessions more.

From this platform, the JKS coaches have developed a Continuing Professional Development folder, have looked at goal setting in detail, and have been introduced to best practice in child welfare.  The next stage is looking at planning for skill acquisition and developing self-reflective skills.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS*D