Consider the following scenario.

You see a fellow coach do something you disagree with. Maybe you know with 100% certainty (e.g. from scientific research) that it’s not the best way to do something. Maybe you just think there’s a better way based on your own understanding and experience.

How do you address it?

This is an important question for coaching interactions because it can have a big impact on personal relationships as well as on the spread of best practices through the profession.

The way I see some coaches address things they disagree with is to bluntly state – in one way or another – that the other coach is doing it wrong. You especially see this in online discussions, but it can happen in the real world as well.

What usually happens in this case? From what I’ve seen, a fight often ensues. Both sides make arguments, but neither side actually listens to what the other side. The end result is anger, hurt feelings, and opinions further entrenched. There tends not to be a lot of convincing happening.

Why? Because people often link a challenge of their views on coaching as an attack on their person. As you’ve probably noticed, this doesn’t just happen in coaching.

How can we do it better?

So how do we approach situations like this in a more productive way?

By asking questions.

Let’s say you’re watching a coach run a practice with a team of 18-year-olds who’ve been playing since they were 10. In other words, the players are far from beginners. You see the coach, though, using very basic drills – like passing off partner tosses. The science is very clear. These are not productive exercises. They are not game-like and they aren’t sufficiently challenging to produce development. In other words, you have a very solid basis for arguing that they should do things differently.

If you have a good existing relationship with this other coach you might be able to get away with a blunt challenge to their methods. If not (and sometimes even if so), chances are that’s not going to go down very well. Better if you can get them sharing their views first to open them up to an exchange of ideas and not feel like they’re being attacked. After all, most folks are happy to talk about their views on things.

This is what asking questions does.

What questions should I ask?

There are two ways to approach things when asking questions. The first is to just get them talking about their views. This comes from a simple question like “Why do you use that drill?” or “Why do you like this game?” or “What are your reasons for playing your libero in 6 vs 5?”

Questions like these serve two purposes. First, they get the other coach sharing their opinions. Second, they let you see their perspective on things. If you keep an open mind – as you hope the other coach will – you might learn something here. At a minimum you get a sense of where they’re coming from, which can be an important factor in the conversation.

The second approach is to introduce your thinking through the questions you ask. Oftentimes theses types of questions are follow-ups to the first kind. Examples are “Have you read the motor learning research?” or “Have you thought about initiating the ball this way?” or “Who takes 2nd ball when the libero is in 6?”

Again, keep an open mind because you might hear something you hadn’t thought about before. That may not change what you need to say, but it could be useful down the road.

What’s great about asking this second question type is it can get the other coach thinking through things and coming up with the “right” answer on their own. It’s like guiding players to find a solution to the problem they’re facing on the court. The lesson sticks better if they come up with it themselves.

The other nice thing about this variety of questions is it can encourage the other coach to ask you questions back. If you can get them doing that you increase the odds they will at least give your ideas serious consideration.

Another angle for asking questions

There’s another angle you can also potentially take with your questions. Basically, it’s to ask the other coach to make the argument for the view opposing the one they’ve taken – meaning your view. For example, you might ask “What would the benefits be of playing the libero in 5 instead of 6?”

This approach tends to be most helpful when interacting with a stubborn coaching peer. These coaches tend to think only in terms of the positive of their way and the negatives of the other. What you’re looking to do is to get them to acknowledge the positives of the alternative.

Along the way, you may also find out there’s a lack of understanding or a limited perspective that’s influencing their thinking. In that case, you can return to the types of questions I mentioned above – especially the second.

Don’t expect instant results

Does this questioning approach always work? No, of course not. You may indeed get the other coach to acknowledge a better way of doing things, but they might still not change their methods – at least not right away.

Is this frustrating? Absolutely! But you have to take it in stride.

Remember this approach is aimed at maintaining good relationships, as well as changing opinions. If you keep your interactions non-combative maybe some time in the future you can eventually sway the other coach to your side of things. Just be sure to pick your battles well and not be annoying about it.

And remember that long-held views tend to be slow to change.

Yes, I have used this questioning approach on other coaches

At this point there might be a group of coaches among the readership who are wondering if I’ve used this questioning approach on them.

Maybe. 😉

I’ve definitely asked a lot of questions in coaching conversations.

To be fair, many of the folks I’ve watched at work – such as those I visited on my 2019 Eurotrip – have asked me straight up for my thoughts. I’ve asked plenty of questions in those situations as well, though. 😀

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.