Sports coaches and performance consultants are increasingly employing questioning as an avenue to nurture growth and development. Opposed to more traditional approaches to teaching where a coach, typically, provided all of the answers and simply instructed athletes where to go and what to do, a more humanistic and contemporary approach is to facilitate learning and development. Of course there are various ways to accomplish this and no method is going to work all of the time, however, it is important to consider the potential influence that asking an insightful question can have on the development of athletes.
If you are going to help players move beyond their current level of development, then the questions need to stimulate thinking and social interaction. However, research in education and coaching has shown there are questions and then there are good questions.
Research from American psychologist Spencer Kagan suggested that questions can be divided into those that are skinny or fat, high consensus or low consensus, and review or true:
• Skinny questions require yes/no answers and little thinking, while fat questions require more evaluation.
• High consensus questions are those for which the group would provide the same or similar response, while a low consensus question would get different responses due to the diverse perspectives of the group.
• Review questions simply ask learners to recall information, whereas true questions call for more thought and detail.
Below is a list and explanation of various question types that can be used during your coaching sessions.
Autonomy is a basic human need. Everybody has the desire to feel as though they are contributing to and have a degree of influence on the session
Asking questions that allow a suitable amount of volition is likely to enhance motivation as athletes experience a greater sense of self-determination. A simple question such as “how would you like to warm up today?” provides athletes with an opportunity to make a decision and influence an important aspect of their lives.
Assuming ownership and accountability is a likely outcome of experiencing a greater level of influence. Participants who perceive ownership over the process are more likely to exert maximum effort, be resilient, and experience desired forms of motivation than athletes who experience little control over their development. When coaches provide athletes with decision-making opportunities, they portray a stance that promotes joint ownership. A who are coached exclusively via instruction often report feeling as though they have no control over their development or performance, whereas athletes who are provided with a healthier degree of choice are more likely to describe experiencing greater motivation and satisfaction.
Critical thinking and reflection
All coaches want athletes who are able to reflect and evaluate their performance during competition. However, the behaviours that are often employed by coaches (e.g. direct and immediate feedback after a mistake) are not aligned to developing critical thinking and, in reality, are likely to foster a reliance on the coach. Asking astute questions such as “what would be a strategy that you could use to be more effective in that situation?” promotes higher order thinking and implicitly informs an athlete that they have the ability to reflect and problem solve. As mentioned earlier, such an approach promotes joint ownership over the process and holds athletes accountable for their development and performance.
With the constant pressure and expectations placed on athletes and coaches, we often forget that sport should be enjoyed. As a result of the stress that generally accompanies competitive sport, we are often guilty of becoming overly prescriptive and dictatorial in our coaching.
Who has the time to ask questions when we have practical activities to be doing? While there may be some truth to that argument, the potential impact that asking a couple of insightful questions should be considered. Could it help an athlete remember a strategy during their play, or finally understand a specific tactic that you have been trying to explain for weeks?
Perhaps most importantly, however, questioning can be used to tap into athletes’ minds to ensure that training is fun. For instance, ask athletes what their preferences are for pre-game routines, or ask them to bring along some music to listen to during certain drills.
When researchers observed coaches in action, they found that less than 10% of coaching behaviours involved questioning, and the vast majority of these were closed and technical, rather than open questions.
If you want to look at research for questioning in coaching, I would suggest the research by Harvey and Light (2015*) research on questioning in practice. They outlined a believes that a simple ‘plan, implement, review’ process, coaches start to change their questioning approach.
* Harvey, S. and Light, R. (2015) ‘Questioning for learning in game-based approaches to teaching and coaching’, Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 6 (1): 1–16.
Developing a list of starter questions is a good way to build experience with asking the correct question. Examples of questions to start these types of conversations are shown below. The words in bold are the starting question, with the rest of the question purely
an example that could be changed to suit your context.
In this example, the context is of the questions below is 3 vs 1 possession game. The questions are worded to get players to assess, evaluate and draw conclusions on their own performance as well as their team’s performance.
- How are you deciding when it is best to make the pass?
- How could you improve your off-the-ball movement to make it easier for the person in possession of the ball?
- What is the most important thing the players off the ball must do in order for them to be successful in maintaining possession of the ball?
- If you passed the ball harder to your teammate, what might happen?
During any coaching session when the drills or adapted games are being played you may notice a moment when you want to implement something to enhance learning, this is a great moment to use questioning. In their research paper, Harvey and Light suggest how
such questions could be used in practice:
- Stop the game at a teachable moment and pose a question. Divide the learners into small groups to discuss the possible solutions. Then test one of the possible solutions in the subsequent bout of gameplay.
- A more personalised alternative is to call out one individual from each team and ask them the question, matching this to their Zone of Proximal Development. Developed by LevVygotsky in the early 1900s, the Zone of Proximal Development is a theory that emphasises the importance of language and social interaction in learning.The ‘zone’ in this case refers to the gap between what a child can learn on their own and what they could learn with adult guidance or in collaboration with peers. For Vygotsky, the most effective instruction aims at this zone just beyond existing knowledge.
- For more social learning through debate, a single player could be given a question that they could then ask their teammates at the next break in play
The key to a good session is making sure the coach intervention matches the context, and this can depend on a wide range of factors: whether the issue involves the whole group, one team or even one individual. The stage of learning/development of the participant and the nature of the activity also need to be considered.
Harvey and Light do suggest caution about these interventions. Stopping the whole group should be kept to a minimum, and the coach needs to ensure that as many different players as possible have a chance to speak.
An obvious danger with this style of questioning is that too much time is spent questioning and not enough time spent playing. This may have detrimental effects, with
players learning but not enjoying the games anymore. This makes review essential, and a number of suggestions ranging from asking another coach to observe your session to asking your players how engaged they felt in the session and how useful it was.
Whilst using questions during coaching can be effective as this post has shown it is not an easy concept to grasp. A coach should always be questioning themselves. You are not only developing the participants in your sessions but you are developing yourself as a coach in the process. A couple of questions that I would recommend you ask yourself when using questioning are:
- What is my style of questioning? How often do I ask questions? What type of questions do I ask?
- Can I ask a colleague to observe a session and record the type of questions I ask?Can I record myself in a session (video or audio) and listen to my questions?
- Am I asking questions at the right time and to the right players given their stage of development?
- How often do I sit back and let my players learn for themselves? Am I always in charge?
- Am I targeting the Zone of Proximal Development, or am I just getting a player to repeat what they already know?
As always, ensure that whatever approach to take to questioning during coaching. Make sure that questions to allowing the participants to develop. As coaches we are not only developing within the sport that we are coaching, we are developing people. Coaching people about how to answer questions effectively whether it be via a demonstration or through the spoken is going to a vital skill that people are going to use throughout their lives.