What’s Your Coaching-Thought?

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One strategy I’ve always found useful is the “swing-thought.” The term originates with golf; it refers to focusing on a single idea as you swing the club.

For example, one swing-thought might be SMOOOOTH. Or ROLL WRISTS.  A good swing-thought works because it un-clutters the mind, clarifies focus, and captures the essence of your best performance.

Which makes me wonder: do the best coaches and teachers have the equivalent of swing-thoughts as they work? Are there key ideas coaches can use in the moment of teaching to help them coach better?

Based on my observations, I’d say that most master coaches have three distinct coaching-thoughts.

The first is CONNECT. They create a personal link; they use their interpersonal skills to capture the spotlight of the learner’s attention. Until that’s achieved, nothing useful can happen.

The second coaching-thought is ASK. The coach puts forth a task — it could be doing a drill or playing a song, or trying something new — it doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as the task 1) is unmistakably clear; 2) puts the learner on the edge of their ability (which is to say, it’s neither too hard nor too easy).

The third is RESPOND. The coach perceives what the learner is doing, and uses it to generate the next task. The next task might be more difficult, or it might be easier — all that matters is that it helps the learner navigate closer to the goal of proficiency.

Connect. Ask. Respond. This process isn’t a lecture from a podium. It’s more like a personal conversation that happens on the edge of the learner’s abilities.

When I coach, I find it useful to visualize what’s happening inside the learner’s brain: to picture the wires glowing, trying to connect, the new circuitry forming through each repetition. I know, it sounds sort of science-fiction-ish, but it works for me because it helps focus on the underlying process. Mistakes aren’t verdicts; they’re pieces of information you use to build the right connections.

Next question for you coaches and teachers: what images and ideas are going through your mind as you work? Are there any useful “coaching-thoughts” you’d like to share?


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13 Responses to “What’s Your Coaching-Thought?”

  1. Some great thoughts — especially on the edge of capacity.

    My first question is not typically about technical proficiency. I have my own thoughts on that but they get put aside. The first thing I actually ask myself is “is the thing this person is doing the same as what they *think* they’re doing?”

    I think that you have to bridge the gap between perception and execution for meaningful learning to take place. Tools that amplify the feedback loop probably take precedence over anything else.

  2. Hank Garvey says:

    Great posting. I love your book have used it for years as reference when I teach shotgun shooting coaches classes. We coach Olympic clay target shooting and while coaching and in preparation I constantly look for ways to break down the funtamentals into learnable chunks. We have a sport I would say is very similar to golf, there is a lot going on and you can blow a kids mind if you put too much in a once. So for me while coaching I really need to focus on the small step that I’m trying to get across to this athlete. How to keep your eyes in the right place in order to shoot the clay. I had a wonderful short 12 minute training session the other day with a young athlete and it was all about where are your eyes during and after you shoot the clay. Teaching him how to manage his eyes, the location, his focus (wide or narrow), when to change that and how to stay in timing with his squad mates. In a matter of 12 minutes he brought himself to a new level. If I had focused on more than is eyes and where they would be we would not have accomplished as much as we did. I learned as much as he did that session. Coaches need to be able to adapt and see the small things while coaching and help your athlete focus on that small skill. Can’t wait for the new book. If you have an early copy please let me know. Thanks for having a positive effect on my coaching, the coaches that I teach and all the athletes that we are training.

  3. Sefu Bernard says:

    Interesting question you pose, Daniel. I use “swing thoughts” when working with athletes; although I’ve never termed them as such. That said, as a coach, I’ve never actively given myself one.

    When coaching, I ground myself by ‘setting an intention’ for that day/session. I borrowed this idea from yoga where you’re encouraged to start your practice with an intention. It’s the idea that you affirm a thought/belief or an approach for how you want to show up during that session.

    In doing so, I’ve found that I’m more attuned to what I’d like to accomplish that day.

    My typical grounding thought, or intention, is to ‘stay present’ and maintain a childlike mind. I spend a lot of time prepping for any practice or training session that I run, but I never want to allow myself to be confined to that plan. I always want to stay dialed in and aware to the mood, energy of the group. That changes everyday and I firmly believe it’s my job to ‘feel’ the energy of the gym (and, individually, each athlete within it). I freely make course corrections and adaptations on the fly because of this.

    When I start with clear intention, I feel I’m at my best. I’m receptive to making adjustments on the fly; and, knowing that there are many different paths that can get me back to my desired end goal for that day.

    I often have to remind myself during a practice to stay present; or, as they say in yoga, to ‘come back into my intention’. I’m continually giving myself reminders to ‘read’ the group and honor the athlete’s feedback whether it be physical (intensity), technical (skill execution) or emotive (alertness, energy, body language).

    As a mentor of mine once told me: “Teach them where they’re at.”

    Some days a group/individual can be pushed; whereas, other days they need to compassion. That doesn’t mean one of those practices is more productive than the other, it’s just that I must connect to the energy that they’re bringing so I can guide it to where we need to get to ‘deepen’ that day’s learning and keep our momentum going forward.

    My two cents. /sef.

    BTW… THANK YOU for the depth of knowledge/insights you’ve shared in your book ‘The Talent Code’. I’m almost done the book and already plan on re-reading it again. It has provided me with so many of the missing pieces I’ve been searching for.

  4. Ed Chapman says:

    “Feel and Real”. What athletes (golfer in my case) feel, proprioception, and what they’re actually doing, execution, are usually very different. I find in coaching that most people have a mental picture of how the skill should look and until they’re shown, feedback, otherwise that is what their brain tells them they are doing.

    Can’t wait for the new book!

  5. Ryan Hockman says:

    Several years ago, I filmed myself coaching and discovered that when an athlete was struggling with a technique (quarterback) I often assumed the position of a thrower with my left foot out in front, then I tended to correct immediately before receiving feedback from the athlete. In fact, the athlete probably had not even had time to reflect on the repetition. My body language showed me that I was so invested in the athlete’s mastery of the skill, that it looked like I was going to perform the skill myself.

    After experimenting with a few strategies, I came up with one that worked. Any time I felt like I wanted to interject too soon, I put my right foot forward. Stand in this unfamiliar position helped me slow down and detach myself, thus forcing me to give response time to the athlete.

    Also, I tell students at the beginning of a session about my flaw and that if I start correcting too soon I want them to remind me.

  6. liz garnett says:

    My primary question as I go in to coach is: What does this need?

    The ‘this’ may be the music, in which case the session develops a focus on shape, meaning, delivery – on getting the musicians to have a deeper understanding of the material they are performing.

    Or ‘this’ may be the performer – what do they need in order to realise their artistic intentions? In which case, the focus homes in on technical skills for execution.

    But the primary question of ‘What is needed here?’ sets the agenda so that the coaching is tailored entirely to those who are being coached.

  7. Steve Errey says:

    Great question, and not something that had crossed my mind before. I guess when I’m working with someone and feel that we need to course correct, my swing-thought is “RISE”, which helps to get out from and above where we were so we can get a good look at the land.

    And I totally agree with what you say about visualising how the coachee is thinking – and it’s fairly astonishing what insights you can gain from that process that help the coaching relationship along.

    I guess the swing-thought there is “SEE”.

  8. nate knopf says:

    I’m a swim coach, I find myself trying to get the younger kids to perceive themselves in a 3 dimensional space, and figure out what the body parts are doing. For freestyle I talk about swimming in a tunnel, don’t let the body parts go outside the tunnel, I talk about “swimming downhill” for the older kids, getting them to shift the weight in front feel like they’re driving forward.

  9. Robert says:

    I started with the aim to build a world class athlete in golf best in the world bar none.
    In the process of building that level of skill and performance I found the field of golf is horrible in what to practice and what to do as its filled with a lot of mythical stories.

    Coaching, as for me means the player in this case can and should focus on one task, follow my instruction which will be above and beyond what they currently are able to do. As they are doing that I am providing feedback to them in what they do and how they are doing that, once they enter the learning state of their experience “deep focused practice” they are able to enter the contextual references they need to have to countinue to improve.

    I check great players, analyze traits not covered by technique but by what happens for them and how they percive it, I use that to adapt it for the player. Once the skill set is in place, which can be a long process, then identity is built to support that skill set.
    The player are free to focus on improvement, feedback is given during this time in real time from me and them. I make sure the task is highly quality made, and focus on the experience they have once they are doing it. For them, they have no comparisons going on then, (criteria for deep practice) and are able to fully develop awareness of the skill they do.

    ex: he was able to only hit one type of shot.
    I said, hit a 7i as a 5i, he said, cant do it, 40minutes later he could hit any club the same way built a bigger generalization for him doing that.
    I asked him to hit the driver at 80%, he couldnt do that, he always did 100%. 5 minutes later he hit it at 80%, longer and more straight with less effort.
    ex: Putting, asked to put the ball down where he was absolutly sure to make it, took him 5 minutes before he could do it.

    Having athletes and working with them is fun, they are dedicated, listen often to what I say, once they understand I am always right that is…once they get that, they improve massively.
    I took a triathlon girl from ok performance, improved her time olympic distance with 8 minutes, 2 sessions, she went in the next 3 years to swedish national team and competed in european championchips. her improvement curve lacks explanation.

    I rebuild the swing for the golf pro in 3 weeks.
    Anyone you talk to in golf or athletic field tells you it cant be done, I done it and I know how I did it.
    I had to get him to shift since he had back issues for the last 4 years, once he did listen to me, he made the shift in 3 weeks. Today no back problems.

    Since I work with the athletes desire and ambition, what I do is a lot from how and where they want to go. To get them to the level of skill is a lot to clear up old misconceptions they come to belive about performance, skill, learning and themselves. Its a lot to consider systemically, family, life, training, work, and balance what I do, with their ambition and their life is always a priority.
    Elite athletes are special they can go and do things 24/7 if none stops them.

    I previously assumed that a field (golf) knows what they do but I find out its often filled with misconceptions, so a lot of my time is clearing up what actually happens when they learn and do things and what and how to go about it. Getting this across isnt easy, often I have to wait for the moment when they come to understand this what they percive to be isnt right nor correct, if I do to much it will affect their family, their life, so I take great care to make sure balance is always maintained.

    He played his best golf in a practice round this week ever, made 9 birdies in 15 holes, 5 in a row, and are going to try get into the Open in UK. if he gets in, I expect him to win it easily.

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  12. This philosophy can be related to someone walking a tight rope. Eyes have to fixed in order to maintain good balance.

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