Should Coaches and Teachers Have a PreFlight Checklist?


Pilots have checklists. Doctors and nurses have patient-care checklists. Not because they’re dummies but because they are smart enough to know that they’re in a performance business. They know that a good checklist is not a crutch — it’s a tool.

The real question is, if checklists are good for pilots and doctors, why not teachers and coaches? With that in mind, here’s what it might look like, based on the master coaches with whom I’ve spent time.


Before all else, establish the emotional connection. Show you are there, and that you care; take a moment to acknowledge your shared connection, to build togetherness and trust. Practice requires energy; this is where you turn the key and start the engine.

  • Do: Make a joke, get personal, tell a story, ask a question.
  • Don’t: Launch straight into activity.
  • Dashboard Gauge: Have you made good eye contact with everyone?


Practice is about reaching, and to do it well, everybody needs to know exactly what they’re reaching for. Not vague goals, like “working hard” and “getting better,” but concrete, tangible, measurable targets like “playing that song all the way through,” or “converting more headers off corner kicks” or “nailing the sales pitch in 20 seconds.” You cannot be too clear.

  • Do: Use models and mimickry to show the target.
  • Don’t: Set unreasonably high goals. Aim for something just beyond current ability.
  • Dashboard Gauge: Could a complete stranger walk up to practice, watch for a few minutes, and figure out the goal?


Have you planned a practice that places people on the edge of their ability, making and fixing mistakes? Is practice designed to maximize struggle for the maximum number of people? (In other words, no groups of kids standing in line, waiting around to kick a ball.)

  • Do: Celebrate struggle.
  • Don’t: Celebrate success (it speaks for itself).
  • Dashboard Gauge: Does your peoples’ success percentage in the 50-70 percent range — neither dispiritingly difficult nor too easy, but in the sweet spot on the edge of current ability?

What’s interesting in part about this checklist is what’s not there — inspiring speeches, pep talks, all the Hollywood stuff. This is not because they never occur, but because inspiring speeches are a terribly inefficient way to learn. Learning happens when you create a space where people work together, reach toward a goal; when you make the kind of human connection that keeps people coming back again and again, wanting to reach a little farther.

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6 Responses to “Should Coaches and Teachers Have a PreFlight Checklist?”

  1. Walter says:

    As a boys U12 soccer coach im glad to see im doing it properly! I am and always have been, “Mr Checklist”. Before very practice i jot down point in regards to messages i need to communicate to the parents. Then i briefly crack a joke or 2 to the boys, ask them about their day at school. Once we are about to start i tell them what we are going to do in that specific practice, our goals, and our objectives.IF i need to stop an activity i ask them questions! Im not a rah rah guy, or a “When i was your age guy” or “When i played guy”, kids can’t comprehend that, they just want to live in the “here and now”! One thing i do however when i get home is evaluate my practice. So for example, we start off with a brief dymanic warm up, then move to a specific activity (ex: 3vs2) and then we finish off with a scrimmage of some kind. When i get home i rate each specific activity out of 5 stars with comments. Some thing work, some don’t some better than others and so on. I learn from my notes.

  2. Justin says:

    Hey, there’s actually a book that looks in depth into checklists. It’s called the checklist manifesto, and it does go in depth into how much a checklist affect differenct professions like medical and what not. Check it out.

  3. Michael says:

    Checklists make a lot of sense … I work in consulting and a lot of clients want to know the checklist or “recipe” for evaluating their business, their people, etc. I like checklists in that they often codify best practices and are a reminder around “covering the bases” to ensure you don’t leave anything out.

  4. Linda says:

    You can’t underestimate the importance of CLEAR communication! In how I lead, if an employee/player/customer does something incorrectly or not exactly how I expected, I don’t blame the employee/player/customer at first, but first think about how I explained it and retry it a different way. People don’t want to do something “wrong” intentionally, they usually just misunderstood what you wanted exactly.

  5. liz garnett says:

    Useful idea. I think the content of the checklist is also a function of where the coach/teacher is in their development – if you keep the same checklist for a long time without changing it, that might be a signal that you’re not challenging yourself to become a better coach.

    The difference from the pilot or doctor is of course that the essence of expertise for the coach is in the concatenation of discrete steps into more complex gestalts. The procedures a pilot goes through continue to need specific attention to every element, however experienced they get, whereas it is the chunking up of steps that gives space to develop greater depth and flexibility as a teacher.

    On the other hand, it’s probably also worth looking back at your checklists from a decade ago to see if you’ve built on or lost the good habits you were working on back then!

  6. Dean Holden says:

    Re-reading many of Daniel’s posts, I came upon this topic again. A great companion book to this topic is by Atul Gawande – The Checklist Manifesto. Some excellent storytelling relating how checklists impact almost all aspects of life. After reading this book, I am re-framing my coaching methodology, trying to translate what I do using checklists with the hope that it will make my coaching and teaching clearer for my student-athletes and fellow coaches. It isn’t as easy as I first thought but by challenging my brain about my coaching process, it provides a tremendous contribution to my own professional development!

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