In applied sports psychology, the area of debriefing is given due consideration. The process of reflecting back is said to help with understanding, as well as aid psychological recovery – but only when conducted in an efficient and effective way.
Debriefing helps athletes to divert their attention from past events and also to build up a fundamental knowledge of understanding themselves better and of how to acquire strategies that make them enhance their level of performance…Sports Psychologist’s Handbook, Joaquin Dosil.
With that in mind, the role of a sports coach is important in ensuring the right debrief questions are presented, considered and asked.
The importance of the debrief
Debriefs often take place post-competition, when thoughts and emotions are still raw. However, some sports coaches prefer to give the athlete time and space to reflect. This may be picking up the debrief the day after.
In teams and clubs, there may be one general debrief, followed with individual catch ups. After all, in order to create an environment of trust and respect, it may be better to pick up certain matters on a one-on-one basis for development.
Much like counselling of any kind, a debrief requires an open environment where those involved can speak without judgement or fear.
Reflection is an important part of sport. Debriefing with your athlete offers a structured approach to this. It can create an opportunity to explore ways to improve performance, while acknowledging what worked at the same time. It’s all part of learning from our mistakes and strengths.
When it comes to a successful performance review, the sports coach should come armed with the right debrief questions for their athlete. Here’s a few of the areas that can be considered:
Ultimately, the purpose of reviewing performance is to reflect back, and see what we can learn from the experience.
It’s not important just to look back and reflect on results, but to also explore how factors may have affected their mental performance too.
Easing your athlete into the right space, ask them to acknowledge their emotions by prompting questions such as; ‘How did that make you feel?’ and ‘Why did it make you feel that way?’. There’s also an opportunity here to reflect back upon your own coaching techniques. What helped and didn’t help them achieve their goals?
Athletes by nature are ultra-competitive individuals. This means that they can be especially critical of themselves. They may find it hard to focus on anything other than taking first place. In the role of sports coach, we are often reminded that it’s not about winning, and more how we encourage your athlete to become their best version of themselves.
Staying positive and reminding them of their achievements will help them take an important step. Help your athlete into this mindset by asking them “What went well?” and “Why do you think it went well?”. This is an invaluable tool letting them see how to learning from success and apply helpful behaviours to future events.
Acknowledging areas for improvement
Failure is an important part of the learning process. Invite your athlete to review their shortcomings and allow them to open up without the need for being defensive. The listening ear of a sports coach will offer counsel, as well as a strategy for overcoming these challenges in the future.
Start by asking your athlete ‘What didn’t go so well?’ and ask them how they might better deal with the situation. This is a useful indicator for behaviour that can be examined in further detail. It is also valuable in goal setting – as it will enable your athlete to focus on how they can improve for future events.
Similarly, ask your athlete ‘What would you do differently next time?’ and ‘What other ways could you have overcome this?’. These are useful ways to refocus negative thoughts, knowing that obstacles are there to be overcome with a winning strategy in place.
Finally, inviting them to think laterally about the situation, propose to them: “If you had done X would it have changed Y?”. This will encourage them toconsider the situation from a different point of view.
Learning from experience
Winning is great, but it’s not everything – debrief questions serve to remind us of this.
If we can unlock any potential in our athlete, it’s the ability to learn from experience; to make us stronger, more agile and be better equipped for the future.
There is no greater modern example of this, than England coach, Gareth Southgate. Up until the recent FIFA World Cup (2018) the ex-footballer was famous for missing a critical penalty. Undeterred by this career-defining moment, he continued to persist in sport to become one of the greatest England managers of our time. His ability to discuss his own personal experience and share his learnings with the squad had positive effect. Coupled with his ‘Never Give Up’ approach, he has won fans on and off the pitch.
Taking this approach, ask your athlete ‘What did you learn from this?’, ‘What can you learn for next time?’ and ‘What one thing from this event will you take with you as a key learning?’. You might also want to ask, ‘Is there anything differently I could have done as your sports coach to prepare you for the event?’.
Debrief questions are the first step. Think about how you can improve together to devise strategies to overcome some of the areas highlighted. Give consideration to how these changes will be implemented, and set goals together. These are important steps that will help you to nurture and develop your long-term partnership for success.
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