Accelerating learning from experience: how to get better at reflection

This article is based on a paper given at the International Coaching Conference in September 2015.

Learning from experience?

If you spend some serious time reading the research on coach learning (as I have), you will likely come to the rather obvious conclusion that coaches ‘learn from experience’. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that experience alone is perhaps not enough, as many people have pointed out:

Ten years of coaching without reflection is simply one year of coaching repeated ten times (Gilbert & Trudel, 2006)

Experience AND reflection are therefore necessary conditions for coach learning. Of course, the occasional training course and discussion with other coaches are also very helpful, but the research seems to promote these two ingredients above all else.

The problem, however, is that this is where it ends. Beyond simple exhortations like “make time to reflect” and “write reflections down” (or even “try to reflect on positive things as well as problems”), there is very little guidance on how to reflect better. Indeed, a recent review of research on reflective practice in sport concluded that:

we believe that the ‘how to’ of reflective practice has not been sufficiently addressed in sport. Therefore, more appropriate education on and pedagogical approaches to reflective practice is required for practitioners, educators and supervisors of the future… (Huntley et al., 2014, p. 874)

Given that the MIT professor Donald Schön published his seminal book on this subject – The Reflective Practitioner – back in 1983, we seem not to have made much progress. Even much of the high quality research investigating the process of learning from reflection in coaching has tended to be very descriptive. This is useful to a degree but, as a coach educator, I’m still left with the feeling that nobody is giving me clear practical advice for improving the reflective capacities of novice coaches. So, at a bit of a loose end, I decided to return to Schön.

Back to Schön

Surprisingly, like many famous books, I found that most things I’d read about The Reflective Practitioner were inaccurate. Put simply, Schön develops a theory of learning through practice that he calls “reflection-in-action” which he defines in opposition to something he calls “technical rationality”: the theory that practitioners can solve practical problems through the simple application of formal theory (like a doctor diagnosing and treating a patient following a textbook). Reflection-in-action, by contrast, assumes that learning from experience is a far messier process, based on problem setting (rather than problem solving) and the continuous conduct of practical experiments based largely on ‘tacit knowledge‘ (i.e. knowledge and theories that are intuitive and hard to explain), followed by immediate appraisal and adjustment. The more often you run through this cycle of problem setting, on-the-spot experimentation, and appraisal, the more you learn and develop professional expertise. This is Schön’s argument in a nutshell, illustrated (and apparently derived from) studies with architects, town planners and psychotherapists.

Looking a little more closely at this process of reflection-in-action, Schön argues that problem setting begins with a moment of surprise.

Much reflection-in-action hinges on the experience of surprise. When intuitive performance reveals nothing more than was expected, we tend not to think about it. But when intuitive performance leads to surprises, pleasing and promising or unwanted, we may respond by reflecting-in-action (Schön, 1983, p. 56)

We can agree, I think, that most coaching performance is intuitive (even though academics argue that more of what we do should be planned and based on research), and that surprises are pretty frequent. I often observe students set up a practice and then have to change the space after a few minutes, or adapt the task, increase the challenge or find a different way to ask a question. These on-the-spot experiments are also often intuitive, and based on what Schön called ‘knowledge-in-action’, which is different to, say, ideas coming from books. A coach does not have time, for example, to consult a research article about effective questioning in the middle of a session; but they may have read a few bits and pieces over time, and seen other coaches operating, which, once tried out and tested in practice and internalised, may constitute knowledge-in-action. Appraisal of the outcomes of such experiments is also likely to be quick and intuitive (Did it get me closer to my intentions? Did the participants achieve better against the goal that was set?), though some coaches, of course, conduct more rigorous analysis to get better ‘talkback’ (e.g. seeking external feedback or even videoing their performance).

Implications for coach learning

So, based on this closer (re-)inspection of Schön, what did I learn to help coaches improve at doing reflection-in-action? I have tried to formulate my ideas as a set of hypotheses (so that researchers may test them if desired).

  1. If problem setting occurs when there is a clash between expectation and reality, having clearer expectations must improve coaches’ ability to begin reflection (it also helps with observation, as you know what you’re looking for).
  2. If on-the-spot experiments are based on knowledge-in-action, the more theories and ideas a coach has that have been applied in practice, the more solutions they may have to apply to a problem.
  3. If appraisal is often fast and intuitive (and therefore partial), making time for reflection (on-action) and generating more accurate feedback on whether or not experiments led to desirable or undesirable results, will help.

Some initial work with my own second year undergraduate students has suggested that novice coaches with little experience really struggle to articulate their expectations for a session (never mind a series of sessions, or even a season). But they can improve this ability with more dedicated structured planning (e.g. include a column on a session plan for “what I expect to happen”) and research (e.g. watching YouTube videos on technique).

Let’s imagine I wanted to run a basketball shooting session where the outcome was: “participants will be able to get into a good shooting-ready position on catching most of the time” and I create a game that is designed to allow players to catch shoot frequently. I may want to write down how many times per minute players will catch the ball, and how frequently I expect them to get into position, and what the quality of that position will be. I will therefore need a really good mental model of that technique and its variability, which I can get from watching video (see below).

These kinds of activities, when enacted in practicum environments, tend to help with the ‘problem setting’ part of reflection and coaches are more capable of spotting opportunities to conduct experiments. Just spending 10 minutes before a session asking questions about expectations – what do you want participants to do by the end of the session? when do you plan to intervene to give feedback? what do you expect that technique to look like? how successful to you think people will be in this game? etc.- jotting them down on a white board is a great activity to help with this. But then they also need greater ‘knowledge-in-action’ as a reference point. Again, group practicum is an excellent forum for open discussion of alternative strategies once a problem situation has been identified. We frequently ‘pause’ student sessions at the point of an ‘expectation/reality clash’ and invite the whole group into a “what could we do in this situation?” sort of discussion. Often, 4 or 5 good ideas will be generated drawing on the collective knowledge of the group, which can then be discussed and implemented. I encourage those offering ideas to explain where they came from, but frequently they’re very intuitive. A good coach developer may help show coaches where intuitive ideas have a strong basis in theory/research and signpost them to useful further study. If an experiment works, or has positive but unintended consequences it is vital that coaches take this ‘tacit knowledge’ and try to make it more explicit through further study.

Recently a coach I was observing ran a session where participants started to naturally engage in peer coaching as a result of an experiment that involved splitting a group (it was a ‘happy accident’). We identified this on appraisal and he wanted to make it more of a regular feature of his coaching, so I suggested some things to read. Peer coaching works in certain situations for certain reasons, and by raising tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge in this case makes it easier to transfer the idea into new situations because you understand why something works. This kind of appraisal is easy if you happen to have a coach developer on hand to help, but this is rarely the case. Since we know coaches are fairly poor at recalling the details of sessions, it is therefore helpful to video sessions from time to time and also seek feedback from other coaches and participants in order to get a more accurate read on whether or not experiment has worked.


To summarise this whole argument, here’s a useful diagram:


Accelerating learning through experience

Using this diagram as a basis for a coach education practicum has shown some promise in our early experience with novice coaches. Our coaches are certainly developing clearer expectations and becoming better at problem setting as a result. Colleagues have also used the same idea with far more experienced (and expert) coaches, also with some success.

So, if coaches do indeed learn from experience; and if experience is a product of reflection; and if Schön was right about professional learning as reflection-in-action; and if coaches can become better at reflection-in-action by developing the underpinning capacities (e.g. developing clearer expectations); then we can indeed accelerate learning from experience. But that’s a lot of “ifs”!


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