The benefits of internal and external coaching
By: Bill Manning
Photography: Peter Spurrier
We all learn differently. Whether an idea or a physical skill, people acquire new knowledge and abilities in their own, often unique, ways. Even the same person’s approach to learning changes over time. Coaches need to appreciate this and not attempt one-size-fits-all coaching.
Effective coaches vary their approach for different athletes and also vary it for the same athlete as needed. Alternating between external and internal coaching often works best. External coaching involves showing and instructing athletes what to do. Internal coaching helps athletes focus on what they feel while rowing well.
Begin with external coaching. It’s what most athletes think of as “coaching” and provides a foundation for further improvement. Good external coaching combines showing with telling. A picture or video is worth the proverbial thousand words. Describe what’s pictured. Highlight the desired behavior. Ask your athletes to imitate it.
External coaching also consists of instructions and relies heavily on verbs like “push,” “pull,” or “pry.” Talking through the sequence of actions and desired mechanics can elicit a better stroke. The greatest danger with external coaching is overwhelming the athletes by trying to do too much, too quickly. Maintain a narrow focus and take it one step at a time.
Internal coaching approaches the stroke from the inside out. It emphasizes what the athlete feels and relates good rowing back to what he or she already knows. Find something in their background that is equivalent to what you want them to do. They can then bridge the gap from what they know to what they are trying to learn. This is the realm of the insightful analogy. The more relatable it is, the better.
Asking “What do you feel?” is often the best internal coaching. By having them articulate it in their own words, they will gain a better understanding of what they’re doing and identify what it feels like when done correctly. To put it another way, when they’re doing it right, make sure they know they’re doing it right and challenge them to identify what they’re feeling so that they can recreate the same feeling consistently. In a race, there won’t be any outside instruction or videos to guide them, but the athlete will still be able to feel what is happening. Once the desired feeling is learned, mature athletes can start to coach themselves.
Getting the athlete to describe in their own words what they’re doing also gives the coach better verbal tools for external instruction. Use their own words to coach them since they fit exactly with the desired behavior rather than your words, which may only be an approximation to them. Similarly, asking “What feels different?…Do you feel a change?…What is that change?” involves the athlete in their own learning and focuses their concentration.
A variety of coaching generally yields the best learning. Coaches can’t simply repeat the same instruction and expect better results. If your coaching isn’t changing their behavior, look at your coaching rather than blame the athletes.