Analysis: research shows that thoroughness in planning has the greatest impact on the success of a coaching session

Planning is a critical part of the coaching process. Expert coaches report thoroughness in planning as having great impact on the success of a coaching session. For example, renowned basketball coach John Wooden noted that he would "spend as much time planning a practice as conducting it".

In a study carried out by the author and colleagues with a group of high performance Gaelic football coaches, planning emerged as a principle theme. The coaches revealed spending significant periods of time in planning their coaching session as well as a multitude of factors that influenced their decision-making within the planning process.

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, an interview with Ireland's youngest inter-county coach, Wicklow's Davy Burke, about how he became involved in coaching

So what are the critical factors coaches may consider when planning and how can they use research to assist or inform their planning? The choice and design of practice activities to be included within the coaching session is a key pedagogical consideration for the coach during the planning process. Team sports coaching literature advocates the predominant use of open practice activities that involve the player making decisions in game-related environments as opposed to closed practice activities that typically involve players practicing skills in prescribed movements.

Coaches may benefit in the design of game-related activities by considering guidelines outlined in the games-based coaching research. For example, games based approach research suggests that coaches should consider four fundamental principles (task representation, task exaggeration, sampling, tactical complexity) when planning games. Ecological dynamics, a theory focusing on the performer-environment relationship, provides a set of principles that can assist coaches in their design of games. For more information, coaches can consult blog posts and research papers that outline how coaches may practically apply these within their planning process. Coaches may benefit by considering such guidelines when planning a practice session. 

From RTÉ Archives, Una O'Hagan reports for RTÉ News in 1987 on coaching sessions at Home Farm for young players trying to make a career in football

Contemporary sports coaching involves a multitude of people feeding numerous sources of information to the coach. For example, the application of player tracking technologies in the form of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have been commonly applied in high performance sports coaching settings to inform coaching staff regarding players' physical exertions and tactical behaviour.

While such data presents valuable information to coaching staff, it is important that coaches do not become slaves to numbers. Player learning objectives should act as the primary starting point for session planning. In our study on the high performance Gaelic football coaches, there were numerous examples where the coaches reconciled their pedagogical approach due to pressures to meet GPS demands. For example, coaches felt restricted in small-sided game design and the time they could dedicate to discussion/questioning periods. Within the planning process, it is important for coaches to give due attention to all information they are fortunate to receive, but not to neglect player’s learning or compromise their pedagogical approach.

From RTÉ Radio 1, hurling coach Davy Fitzgerald takes a coaching session with the hurlers from the Wild Geese GAA Club, Oldtown, Co Dublin as part of the Underdogs TV show in 2013

Integrating information from previous and upcoming competition is another key consideration for coaches. This extract from an interview with one of high performance coaches highlights the value coaches attached as regards competition informing their planning process: "Whereas we have progressed with [team name omitted] you're reacting to what has happened in the previous game, you’re reacting to the next opposition and you’re trying to make your games or whatever you’re doing in training specific to that, to learn and add to what you’ve done in the last game, to improve for the next game"

When planning, coaches may reflect on specific aspects of previous games where they were particularly successful and they may be assisted in this with information from stats personnel. Such reflections and statistical analysis means the coach is well prepared to identify successful patterns of play and to then reinforce/implement these in their session plan. Equally, a similar process may be adopted for working on areas of weakness. In addition, other areas such as upcoming competition and their particular strengths/weaknesses can provide vital information for a coach’s session plan.

From RTÉ Archives, a Jo-Maxi report from 1989 on Mayo county footballer and basketball coach Liam McHale

The placement and sequencing of learning tasks within a coaching session is another important planning consideration. Why do coaches place skills practice immediately after a warm-up, why are games played at the end and what connections exist between tasks? These questions all fall under the concept of sequencing.

Findings from our research suggest that coaches give little thought to the pedagogical implications of sequencing activities within a coaching session. Coach engagement with sequencing during the planning process may promote scaffolding in a coach’s practice and contextualise the session for the learner.

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, an interview with Gaelic football strength and conditioning coach Dr Ed Coughlan 

For example, a coach may position video analysis prior to the practice session and identify specific areas of concern or reinforcement. The coach may then immediately follow this video analysis meeting with a coaching session designed to specifically targets areas discussed within the video meeting. This simple example of a coach carefully considering the order of learning tasks highlights a viable starting point for coaches to introduce sequencing into their planning process.

The above points are just some of the areas that a coach may consider when planning. Coach engagement and awareness with pedagogy and research may facilitate a systemised approach to planning ensuring that the coach has given due consideration to the critical factors for a successful coaching session.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ