Questioning Skills for Kayak and Canoe Coaches
‘Questioning’ is widely used by coaches and has many purposes. However, questioning needs to be used carefully. Poor use of questioning can be a bit like shooting in the dark. I use a model of questioning to allow students to recover information from autonomous (unconscious) actions and bring it into their conscious awareness. In this article, I will outline this model of questioning and give some practical examples.
This model of questioning is useful to us as it builds intrinsic feedback loops within our students, moves their performance up the improvement cycle from “unconscious competence” to “conscious uncompetence” (necessary to move from competence to mastery), allows us to coach skilled performers (who may be technically more competent than us) and encourages reflective practice by our athletes.
The model borrows techniques from Neuro Linguistic Programming, utilising aspects of “clean language” linguistic patterning. A sound understanding of this model of coaching will allow you to use a style which can unlock an athletes performance and take their learning to a new level.
What is Clean Language?
Clean Language is the use of questioning in a way that allows the athlete to explore their own experience and recover the detail of specific unconscious actions taken within their sport – be it to develop technique, tactics, strategy or mindset. This allows the athlete to develop a model of their own performance and once recovered, skillful athletes will often ‘self coach’ and identify ways to improve themselves without imput from the coach. It fits well within the current thinking and use of the ‘Fundamentals’ within paddle sport as it directs the athletes attention towards ‘feel’ with direct links to posture, connectivity and power transfer.
Aims and Objectives
The process starts with the athlete stating the intention to change some aspect of their performance in a beneficial way (goal setting and deliberate practice).
The next stage is for the coach to ask questions designed to allow the athlete to gather information and assemble a model of their performance. Very often, the athlete can provide a model of their behaviour in general/macro terms, and the quesions are used to recover the specific subtleties, actions and sensations which the athlete is unaware of at a micro level.
In their simplist form, the questions are designed to illicit information from the athlete about three things- a description of what they do, a sequence and order of event and a location of where things happen.
A description – We direct the attention of our athlete to a particular area and ask questions to allow the athlete to become more familiar with their actions by describing them.
The questions are -
“And x, and what kind of x is that x?”
“And x, and when x, x like what?”
A sequence – we direct our athletes attention to the order in which events take place. The questions are -
“And when x, what happens before x?”
“And when x, what happens next?”
A Location – we direct the attention of our athlete towards specific locations. The questions are -
“And when x, where is that x?”
“And when x, whereabout is x?”
There is no set order in which to ask these questions, and some time will be taken following leads and perhaps going down blind alleys. The aim is to gather enough information to allow the athlete to construct a detailed model, bringing information from their unconscious to conscious awareness. If the athlete does not know the answer to a question, you can ask them to go and find out.
Using the information
The information is now reviewed, examined, explored and probed for relevent connections and detail. The experience of the coach and the response of the athlete will help guide this process.
At some point within this process the athlete experiences the ‘lightbulb’ moment, and wonders how they ever missed something so obvious. This leads to an adjustment in the athletes model and the role of the coach is to now guide this adjustment and help explore how appropriate it is.
What is meant by ‘Clean’ Coaching?
The ‘clean’ aspects refers to the fact that the questioning directs the athletes attention within themselves and is not contaminated by presuppositions made by the coach. In all of the questions the first part (” And x, and when x…”), the x is the use of the athletes own words feeding back their own experience to them. This is particularly important as many people answer the questions using metaphor. Metaphor has particular meaning to an individual, and even a small change to this metaphor can change the experience considerably. If the coach uses their own words rather than those of the athlete they can ‘contaminate’ the athletes experience – using ‘dirty’ words!
For example, clean coaching would be ( ‘A’ denotes athletes words, ‘C’ the coach’s)-
A “I want to improve the wind up and my power stroke”
C ” The ‘wind up’, and when the ‘wind up’, that’s ‘wind up’ like what?” (seeking a description)
A “Like a coiled spring”
C “And when a ‘coiled spring’, whereabouts is that ‘coiled spring’?” (seeking a location)
A ” In my torso”
C “And when a ‘coiled spring’ in your ‘torso’, what happens next? (seeking a sequence)
A “I take a breath”
C ” And when you ‘take a breath’, then what happens?” (seeking a sequence)
A ” I drive out of the eddy”
C ” And when you ‘drive out of the eddy’, what happens just before you ‘drive out of the eddy’?” (seeking a sequence)
A “Uuuur, oh, I’m not sure….”
C “Ok – go and find out and come back when you know.”
After finding out
A “I feel for the paddle gripping the water”
C “And what kind of ‘feel’ is that ‘feel for the paddle’? (seeking a description)
A “It’s like a jerky check – I know, I need a more solid pull, I need to pull more steadily”
C “OK, let’s do some exercises to experiment with how to pull more steadily…”
So the athlete has ‘filled in the blanks’ and developed sufficient self awareness of their skill to be able to self coach and identify a useful change in their performance.
This style of questioning is particularly useful when coaching skilful performers who have the knowledge to decide how to change their performance. I am now increasingly using this model with cognitive learners too (relative beginners). I find that these people do not have the ‘eureka!’ moment, but the quesioning style develops feel within paddlers very early on in their learning.
For more information or training in how to use Clean Language please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.