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Unlocking the power of Reflective Practice for coaching excellence: A Practical Guide

Mr Nandan Phadnis - coach educator and former first-class cricketer, offers a key tool for the arsenal of coaches and performance specialists. A vital, but missing part of performance planning, learn more about reflective practice, and how it can add new depths to your work and results.

Mr Phadnis was a participant in the 2nd cohort of the High Performance Coach Development Program offered by ELMS Sports Foundation, in association with Abhinav Bindra Foundation, Loughborough Sport, Loughborough University, UK, and India Khelo Football.

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Introduction


As coaches, we plan meticulously and put our energies in conducting our practice sessions as well as we can. But how do we know if we have done well? How do we know if our plan has worked in reality or not? It is only through reflection, through thinking about, analyzing and evaluating our sessions. The learning cycle says plan-do-review; the loops need to be completed. 

                                              

Reflective practice then is the essence of coaching, and the mantra to being more effective and efficient as a coach.

What is reflective practice?


Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one’s knowledge so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. It is being purposeful and conscious, thinking and doing, valuing what you do and aligning values to action; respecting and working with evidence.

This is important because unless you reflect, you would not know what you are doing well, and what you could do better; what works and what needs tweaking





Types of reflection


There are different ways of reflecting: after the event, retrospectively, and during the event itself


Reflection-on-action

It is thinking back after the event has taken place, analyzing and evaluating the session. Here, you can then see what did and did not work well, and make the necessary changes for future sessions and practices. Though this is a useful tool, the downside is that you cannot do anything about the session since it is already over. This can be a hot review, immediately after a session, or a game, where feelings and emotions may still be high, or a cold review, maybe later in the evening, or the next day, where emotions have had time to cool off. Both have their plusses and minuses, depending upon the context and situation. It would be better to have a hot review when the team has won, or the session has gone well, since the players would be more receptive and criticism may be more readily accepted. Conversely, a cold review might be a better option if the session hasn’t really gone well, or the team has lost. Here, everyone gets time to absorb what has transpired, and for emotions to cool off, before any review is done


Retrospective-reflection-on-action

It is reflecting long after the event has happened, such as an end-of-season review. This again is necessary, and extremely useful, but the limitations are that it is difficult to recall and remember exact details after such a long period as recollections tend to get hazy. Here again, since it is the end of the season, nothing can be done to influence the season gone by; also, personnel may change for the coming season. This, however may prove useful in addressing the gains and misses of the past-season, and help in preparing better for the coming season


Reflection-in-action 

It is reflecting as the session is in progress. It is thinking on your feet, reflecting in the midst of the activity. This type of reflection affords you the chance to learn through experience, rather than from it. This is especially useful because you can see things happening in real time and, if required, make changes on the go, making the session more effective. You can have conversations with yourself as the session goes on. It is advantageous because you can influence the session in real time. The downside of this practice could be that you might focus more on the reflection than on the session itself; you might come across as not being interested in the session itself, or might tend to over-analyze. Another important part of this practice is stepping back, checking in and moving on. 


If you are coaching in an elite environment, you may have enough help and resources, and so would have more time on your hands and be better able to pay attention to the specific and important issues;but if you are coaching at the grassroot levels, you might be alone, maybe with one fellow coach at best, with limited resources. In such a scenario, you end up doing more or less everything. Since you have a lot on your plate, it might be a good idea to just take a step back from everything that is going on, giving yourself some space and a moment to pause and reflect; check in, either with yourself, your fellow coach, or anybody else who may be involved, regarding the session facilities, environment, pace and flow, activities, etc, and then move on with the session. You could go through this cycle maybe a couple of times, building this into your coaching sessions, or even at the beginning of the session


Then there is the formal and informal reflection. Formal, where you sit down and document it, maybe following a process; informal, where you might reflect on a session on your way home from practice, or lying in bed


All these types of reflective practices have their obvious advantages and potential drawbacks, and it would be down to the individual to see which of these would be beneficial in the given situation. 


Even though we may be doing well, not reflecting would keep us at the same level and prevent us from improving. It is a misconception that we learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience

Why is it important?


Without reflecting, we would probably keep doing the same things and making the same mistakes without even realizing it. Even though we may be doing well, not reflecting would keep us at the same level and prevent us from improving. It is a misconception that we learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience. When we say we are experienced coaches, it would be a good question to ask whether we have the experience of many years of coaching or of doing the same thing over and over again


Why do we not reflect?


Coaches are loath to reflect for a number of reasons. Firstly, it takes time and energy to reflect properly. You will need to dedicate time after a session, find a quiet place and document it. If you are to do it well, it would take a considerable amount of time. It is just too much work, and coaches generally tend to procrastinate in such a scenario. Secondly, it asks questions of the coach, and leaves him/her exposed and vulnerable. If things have not gone well, the coach has to admit it and put it in black and white; so, there’s no place to hide. Finally, the coach may be unaware of what reflection really is, its value and necessity, and how and what to reflect upon


What to reflect upon?


  • Session outcome- how the session went; what worked, what didn’t; how were the performances, did the plan succeed, etc

  • The practice design- did it address the objective of the session, the facilities and equipment, personnel, time of the season, safety, etc

  • Player engagement- were the players meaningfully engaged, did the session challenge them commensurately, etc

  • Finally, coach behavior- this probably is the most important ingredient of reflection. We are quick to reflect in terms of player behavior and performances, but what really is the crux is self-reflection; reflecting about yourself in terms of communication, organization, man-management, attire, teaching inputs, interventions, and so on. Any reflection which does not include self-reflection would be an incomplete, half-baked reflection. Also important is that apart from your own thoughts on yourself, get feedback from a senior or fellow coach, or a mentor, to see whether you have been objective in your reflection or not. Simply put, you should be the first person you should be reflecting about!


How to reflect?


There are numerous ways to use reflection. One can use templates, cue cards, keep notes, audio-video recordings, or collect reflective questions. Also, one can reflect in isolation, or with fellow coaches. The challenge is to reflect as honestly as you can, and to get honest opinions from fellow coaches and other stakeholders, without fear of consequences. It would be fair to say that one might get the best feedback from a mentor, who would not be afraid to say it as he or she sees it


What do the experts say?


Without proper self-evaluation failure is inevitable

John Wooden, legendary basketball coach


Self-reflection is a humbling process; it’s essential to find out why you think, say, and do certain things- then better yourself

Sonya Teclai, song-writer, author


Without reflection, we go blindly on our way; creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful

Margaret Wheatley, writer and teacher


We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience

John Dewey, American scholar


Learning without reflection is a waste; reflection without learning is dangerous

Confucius, Chinese philosopher


Reflective thinking turns experience into insight

John Maxwell, American author and speaker



An example of my reflective practice


Session reflection

  • Bowled with good rhythm and control

  • Came pretty close to hitting a consistent landing point in the run up

  • Was not able to maintain the position of the seam in seam release 

  • There was no time left for the fielding session as the batting session overran and she was feeling a bit exhausted

  • Will need more sessions to work on the batting set up

  • There were a lot of discussions through the session


Self-reflection

What went well

There was a lot of interaction and banter

Used the tripod to capture videos which left me free to move around

What could have been better

Could have managed the time better to ensure all components of the session could have been completed

Probably brought up too many points during the batting session

She could have bowled to a batter/ round the wicket

Things to do next session

Stick to one or two main points for the batting session

Ensure a session on fielding is conducted

Try and get an additional batter and a bowler

Other coach’s comments

None available

How to get better at reflection?


Like any other skill, reflection can be learnt. But for that, one has to be open-minded, have a growth mindset, and be willing to take out time and make the effort to reflect

Seek help if you are not clear about how and what to reflect upon. Build it into your session, plan for it, document it, rehearse it as much as you can, and discuss it with your mentors and fellow coaches


Conclusion


The importance of reflective practice cannot be emphasized enough. Reflection should become an integral part of your coaching toolkit, without which, you would be floating around like a rudderless boat. If you are serious about your coaching, reflective practice is the way to go. Only through reflection would you learn and improve, and become more effective and efficient.


Remember, you are only as good as your last review!


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