Does the coach always need to be the expert? The benefits of peer coaching.

For the most part in sport in order to be recognised as a coach you would need to have a certain level of knowledge, experience and expertise in the game that you are coaching. In the sporting world at least the coach is seen as the expert.

Of course they are! It wouldn’t make much sense to have someone who doesn’t know what a sliotar is coaching a hurling team.

In order to be able to develop the players on their team the coach needs to have a vision for how the player will grow, what the skill development trajectory is and when the player might need additional support. They need to have an overarching knowledge of the game and the requisite experience to be able to plot out the player’s development path, they need to think ‘Big Picture’ as well as being able to teach the individual skills necessary to master whatever sport they are involved in.

But is the expert always the best person to teach a novice a new skill? 6205979382_746598b35c_o

Cognitive psychology tells us that there are certain oversights that experts often make when teaching a new learner and these oversights are down to how the brain stores information about complex tasks. In order for a coach to be able to teach a new skill to someone they need to be able to access the individual steps of the process from their own experience. Simple right?

In actual fact it’s not so simple at all. Different types of information are stored in different ways by the brain. Procedural Memory or memory to do with well learned motor skills is unconscious and for good reason, imagine that every time you had to drive your car you had to think about concentrating on steering, braking , accelerating and watching the road all at once. That’s a lot of attention to have to give to a lot of different tasks!

In order to help us out with this the brain slips the complex motor skills necessary to manage this task into our unconscious and lets them carry on happily in the background while we watch the road and admire the countryside. So procedural memory holds the set of instructions that allow us to dunk a basketball, head a football or type a text on your phone.

Explicit memory is freely accessible and allows us to figure things out on the fly or remember what we were meant to get in the shop. Explicit memory is also what we use when we learn a skill for the first time. Can you remember a time when you were learning a new skill for the first time? Trying to keep all the steps of the sequence in your mind while trying to convince your body to obey the instructions you are relaying to it?

Its a challenging experience, as is all new learning and growth, but the more you practise the easier it gets and the more you practise the more your brain tucks away into your procedural memory until the act becomes natural and eventually unconscious. so the better we become at something the worse our ability to remember the distinct components of the action gets.

smart-phone-use_smallMost of us have had the experience of having a kid try to explain how to operate their new phone, as they fly through the menus and screens the accompanying verbal instructions go something like ‘You just open this and then go in to this, click this menu and pick this drop-down and once you save that you open up a new profile and start your game from there…’. 6 seconds gone and I’m none the wiser.

However having this information about how the brain stores information can help us in understanding how best to teach novices new skills, and it turns out that someone who has just recently learned a new skill is far better at gauging how long someone will take to learn a new task than the experts generally are. Their experience of working from explicit memory is much fresher and so they are much more aware of the challenges the new learner faces.

So eventually I get on to the benefits of peer coaching! When coaching young players it can be extremely beneficial to put the kids who are picking a new skill up faster than the rest of their peers coaching those that are finding it a bit tougher. Some coaches might worry that this is holding the faster learners back but the research shows us that both kids learn better in this arrangement. The kid who picked it up more quickly gets to reinforce their learning by having to think about the process again while the kid who is struggling gets instruction from someone who knows how difficult the task is and has each step of the task fresh in their mind.

An added benefit of this set up is that it helps the kids to understand that not everyone learns at the same pace and it builds empathy and team cohesion as everybody helps each other out. And when it comes to under-age players who’s main reason for participating in sport is to have fun and make new friends it helps them to get what they need from a social standpoint too.


Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure by Sian Beilock