On the Use of Questions When Coaching

Questioning is a valuable tool for any coach – the benefits are numerous and include increased retention, a greater sense of ownership, and improved problem-solving abilities. Many experts have written about the advantages of a cooperative approach, as well as the different types of questions (binary, leading, open-ended, etc). But it was during a webinar this past week that I started to think about questions differently. Rather than simply knowing their importance and the different forms they can take, what if we could identify when we should be asking questions, and how the questions differ depending on the situation? I’ll try my best to answer those queries here.


First, we have to consider what our purpose is. What are we trying to achieve by asking questions? There are four main reasons to ask questions when coaching:


1. To check for understanding or to practice recalling information

2. To raise awareness, either of the body or of tactics

3. To guide thinking towards solving a problem

4. To find out what the athlete is thinking


Let’s look at the key characteristics of each one, when we should use them, and their main benefits.


Retrieval questions


Retrieval questions have two purposes: to solidify information in the athletes’ memory, and to gather data about player learning. Let’s imagine that on Monday, I introduce a new theme and give the players some key teaching points – for example, step-out footwork when volleying. On Tuesday, I might ask the group “What kind of footwork do we want on our volleys?” Or, if I want to be a little more open-ended, “What’s the key teaching point for our volleys?” By asking the question, I’m forcing the players to recall the information from their memory. This is called retrieval practice, and studies have shown this process to increase retention. This is compared to simply telling the players “We’re working on our step-out footwork,” which does not engage them mentally and does not do much to increase the chances of them retaining the information.


However, that’s not the only benefit of retrieval questions. Sometimes, I might ask a retrieval question simply to gauge what percentage of the group has retained the information. I could ask the team “What are the six tactical intentions?” and call on players randomly. If I call on four players and only one of them knows the answer, then that gives me a pretty good indication that we need to review the material.


Retrieval questions are best used when the answer is objective (i.e. there is only one right answer) and has already been taught.


Some more examples of retrieval questions:

  • “What do we call it when…”

  • “What is the most important…” (if already introduced)

  • “Remember: why is x important?”

  • “How do we y?”

Awareness-building questions


This is the most overlooked type of question in sports coaching, and yet it might be the most important. Awareness-building questions are, as you can imagine, questions that help an athlete gain an understanding of either how their body works or what is happening tactically. Awareness-building questions are so important because they directly influence the athlete’s perception of reality, and it is this perception that influences their actions. Therefore, if their perception is inaccurate, there is very little chance that their response to the situation will be appropriate.


One of the simplest forms of awareness-building questions is not even technically a question: the “yes/no” drill. Imagine you are working on making contact at the peak of the bounce. The drill is simple: after each shot, the player calls out “yes” if they made contact at the peak, and “no” if they didn’t. The question being asked implicitly is “did you do what you were trying to do?”


The benefit of awareness-building questions is not just that they require thinking from the student, but also that they allow the coach to be more deliberate with his/her feedback in the future. If a player answers “yes” when in fact the answer was “no”, two things happen. First, the coach gains information about the player’s level of awareness, which can go a long way to explaining future mistakes or roadblocks. Second, the coach is given the opportunity to correct the answer with an explanation. For example: “Actually, that was a ‘no’. You made contact on the rise on that one.” The result is that the player can compare the coach’s feedback with what they felt and gain a higher level of body awareness. This is why awareness-building questions are best used when players aren't "getting it." If it seems that the feedback isn’t landing, it could well be that the athlete’s awareness is off.


Some more examples of awareness-building questions:

  • “Where on the racket did you make contact?”

  • “Where did your opponent’s return land?”

  • “Which foot did you jump off of?”

  • “Where were you on the court when you hit your first volley?”

  • “What did your opponent change in the second set?”

Problem-solving questions


Problem-solving questions are questions that guide a student towards solving a problem on their own. In contrast to the other option – the coach providing the solution directly – they have three main benefits. The first is that allowing the player to solve the problem can increase confidence and self-belief. A player who feels that they are regularly producing solutions to the challenges they face will be more inclined to believe that they can handle difficult situations, whether on the court or off. The second advantage is that being exposed to the problem-solving process can implicitly teach students how to go about solving problems independently in the future. If, for example, a player is regularly exposed to a series of problem-solving questions that assesses the mental first, and then the tactical, physical, and technical (in that order), they will be more likely to follow that same approach when the guidance is removed. The last benefit is that problem-solving questions often give the athlete a more complete understanding of the answer. Rather than just knowing the ideal solution, they understand the logic behind it and the steps taken to arrive at it.


This does not mean, however, that problem-solving questions should be used any time a coach wants to deliver information. Players must have enough background knowledge to be able to arrive at the correct answer if guided. Without sufficient background information, the net effect can actually be negative. Players who cannot arrive at the answer will begin to doubt their own abilities, and the interaction between player and coach will inevitably take longer, wasting valuable practice time. That’s why problem-solving questions should only be used when the students have been given sufficient baseline knowledge, but not the actual answer.


A few examples of problem-solving questions:

  • “What options did you have in that situation?”

  • “What could you have done to give yourself more time there?”

  • “What do you think is the most important thing to focus on in this situation?”

Probing questions


Finally, probing questions – questions used to figure out what the athlete is thinking. Almost always, the answers to these questions are the impetus for mental or tactical coaching. Examples of probing questions are:

  • “What are you feeling right now?”

  • “What are you saying to yourself?”

  • “What did you see there?”

  • “What made you choose that shot?”

To coach mental or tactical skills without asking probing questions would be like driving to work with a blindfold on. We can never know what the athlete is thinking unless we ask them. Without asking questions, we can only assume — and to give feedback based on assumptions is irresponsible. Probing questions are essential in determining what a player was intending to do. We can't rely on what the shot looked like, because that can always be affected by execution mistakes. Giving tactical feedback without knowing for certain what the player was thinking has two potential risks. First, the player can accept the feedback, which at best, will be useless, and at worst, will hurt them. Second, the player can ignore the feedback, which will weaken the coach-player relationship. Probing questions are equally important in coaching mental skills. As we all know, human behaviour is complex, and one cannot simply use actions to infer thoughts or emotions. Conversing with players and understanding the root causes is critical, not just to improving performance, but also to strengthening the bond between coach and athlete.

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©2020 Zack Ohlin

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