The Gist: The purpose of reflective practice is to improve our coaching and the context in which athletes practice and perform. Coaches can move beyond evaluation of the x’s and o’s by using reflection (in-action, on-action, and retrospectively) to identify program values and link their aims to actions to build a coherent culture.
Whether you are beginning a new season or hitting in-season roadblocks managing group expectations and dynamics, team culture is central to coach effectiveness. Building team culture may seem lofty and intimidating; and if your coach brain is like mine, thought on the subject generates more questions than answers: how do I start creating culture; once culture building is set in motion, how do I further direct that process; and when is culture creation complete? Don’t let these questions discourage you; asking them is a crucial part of the culture-building process known as reflective practice. In this entry, I define reflective practice (“what”), outline how reflection can serve culture creation (“so what”), and offer strategies that coaches can use to support culture building (“now what”).
Reflective practice simply means reflection, or structured, organized thinking. Reflection may already be a part of your coaching practice—and if so, that’s awesome! Before I integrated specific reflective strategies into my coaching, my favorite informal space for thinking was in my car driving to and from training. I still safeguard that time as an opportunity for reflection because though less structured, it works for me. If you have a comparable moment, note when and how you already reflect, and keep using that space. Regardless of the reflective tools from this post you might incorporate into your coaching, these strategies need to work for you. And, the time or space that already suits you is a promising place to start.
Coaches can engage in different types of structured, deliberate thought: reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, and retrospective reflection-on-action. Reflection-in-action refers to when a coach contemplates behavior as it unfolds.
A coach might ask “what is my body language ‘saying’ to my players right now as I am giving them instruction?”.
Reflection-on-action regards thinking about a behavior after an event, but with the ability to still make a general situational impact.
After a game a coach might reflect on how to more effectively deliver corrective feedback for the next game.
Retrospective reflection-on-action constitutes reflection done outside the immediate action-present.
At the end of a season a coach might contemplate what barriers challenged him/her from coaching differently, and implications of those barriers for next season.
One type (time point) of reflection is not necessarily better than another. Using a mix of these types of reflection can optimally support coach effectiveness and the culture-building process. Reflection at different time points can help coaches more consistently evaluate their aims, actions, and efficacy of their coaching for athlete development.
As coaches, we don’t have to have all the answers. We can have “expert” knowledge of our sport; however, we need to look beyond the x’s and o’s and view our practice as an ongoing developmental experience. Just like our players, coaches are constantly learning and growing. For the ways in which reflective practice can be a helpful tool for culture creation, reflection also supports coach effectiveness and development.
Whether coaches reflect in-action, on-action, or retrospectively, deliberate thought about events and interactions that come up in our coaching context is necessary to build a coherent culture. Coaches (and players) are primary culture creators. In order to start building culture, coaches need to first think carefully about their coaching aims. Coaches need to have a clear vision of what they seek to accomplish and identify the values most important to their team/program. The goals and values of a given team/program will be specific to who you are as a coach, the sport context, and your athletes’ needs. For example, values central to a U-7 recreational league team may be quite different from those of a select U-17 program.
Recall the brief reflective practice from my previous post. This exercise was meant to encourage structured thought on what your values are as a coach relative to your sport context and athletes. In recent workshops that I have done with youth coaches, care and commitment were among values frequently chosen. Perhaps these values resonate with you and your coaching style—or maybe you prioritize different values. There is no single way to coach or one “correct” culture to create. What is important to consider, however, is your “why”. Reflect on what your values are and why these values most optimally fit with who you are as a coach, the sport context, and your athletes’ needs. Only when we have clearly defined our aims, can we then intentionally act to make those values, and our desire culture, come alive.
Reflection for culture building does not stop after coaches clearly define their values. The second part of last post’s reflective activity guided you to identify specific actions that demonstrate your values. When reflecting on your coaching (at whatever time point), give careful consideration to whether your values and actions align not just from your perspective, but from that of your athletes. While coaches may establish appropriate, realistic values for their program, and think that they are acting accordingly, coaches’ perceptions of their actions do not always correspond with their actual behaviors—or their players’ interpretation of those actions. Coaches who consider their players’ perceptions can gain an accurate knowledge of whether athletes are interpreting their feedback as intended. This awareness is important for effective communication of program values and coach effectiveness. First, consistent messaging, or “developmental redundancy”, of information, within (and across) contexts in which youth participate is necessary for strong, enduring organizational and development effects. Second, more than a coach’s own interpretation of their actions, athletes’ perceptions are most strongly tied to their development.
Now that we know what reflective practice is and why reflection matters to the culture-building process— now what? Defining program values and actions that bring those characteristics to life is the first step toward culture creation. Hopefully you tackled this reflective activity after reading the first post, but if not, I invite you to take the space and time to do so. Remember that culture building is a process. Team/program culture is dynamic and evolving over time. The more consistent coaches can be in their reflection (and action) the stronger, more coherent their organizational culture. Here are three strategies to consider integrating at different time points for your coach reflective practice.
- Pick a reflective focus for a practice or game, such as tone, body language, or frequency of feedback. Concentrating on a single aspect of your coaching can make reflection more manageable, especially in the midst of action with a lot of distractions.
- Use Good- Better-How: what worked well, what can be better, and how can you improve next time?
- Use START, STOP, CONTINUE, CHALLENGE: what behaviors do you want to start, stop, and continue next season? What challenges might you face in making these changes?
These reflective strategies are just a few examples, some of which could be used at different time points in your practice. Regardless of how or when you use them, make these strategies work for you!
 See Smith (1978)
 Along with guiding coaches to define values and link values with actions, and assess the efficacy of those actions, reflective practice can also support knowledge generation. Coaches not only gain knowledge through formal education (such as coaching workshops), but informal, personal experiences (e.g., observations/interactions with other coaches). Through reflection, coaches can make connections between these formal and informal learning experiences. Structured thought can help us identify how coaching experiences might reinforce, or challenge formal knowledge—or our own previously held beliefs or practices. Awareness of these links can powerfully inform what, when, and how coaches take action.