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What is “it depends” coaching?

What is “it depends” coaching, and should you use it?

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Coaching is complex. Although many wish it was as simple as giving athletes instructions and feedback, there is a lot more to it. It would be great to have a “one size fits all” approach, a golden bullet technique to turn your athletes into elite superstars, but unfortunately one strategy will not be applicable to all athletes. Different styles and approaches can produce different outcomes. And that’s where “it depends” coaching comes in.

Here at InnerDrive, we have been researching “it depends” coaching to assess whether this style can help to enhance coach and athlete development. Here’s what we found…

What is “it depends” coaching?

“It depends” coaching is generally defined as the ability to decide on what coaching tool to use and what context to use it in. Scientifically, this is known as “Professional Judgement and Decision Making” (PJDM), a core skill for every coach to have if they want to improve their athletes’ performance.

Whilst there is generally a positive view of PJDM, many have shone a negative light on the approach as they believe it gives coaches license to do whatever they want. However, a recent research paper aims to offer a more current and up to date view of PJDM, to better inform coaches of this approach.

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The 3 core constructs of PJDM

This recent paper identified three core constructs of PJDM that can improve and develop both coaching and athlete performance…

1. Nested planning

The concept of nested planning and thinking is central to coaching. With nested planning, coaches use their existing knowledge to help them plan the steps needed to achieve the desired outcome. To do this, they must work backwards. This involves looking at their athletes’ long-term needs and goals before planning what can be done on a day-to-day basis.

Two factors have an impact on nested planning:

  • Weighting of agendas – With athletes’ competitive and busy schedules, it is important for coaches to show some degree of flexibility. They need to be able to prioritise different agendas and help all stakeholders, such as the friends and family of the athlete, to better understand where their coaching fits with the athletes’ overall agenda. If a coach can do this, then the stakeholders and athletes are more likely to engage with their methods and trust the coach.
  • Integrated nested thinking – A strong element of nested planning is nested thinking. This refers to a coach’s ability to think ahead of a situation and consider their athletes’ future needs. This is done through “shared mental models”, mental representations of knowledge between the coach, stakeholders, and athletes. This group approach takes advantage of external judgement and decision-making, encouraging adaptability and flexibility whilst introducing coaches to a range of new methods and thinking styles.

2. The nature of knowledge

A considerable base of knowledge is required to use PJDM, as informed decision-making is needed to achieve the best coaching intentions. That’s why it’s essential for coaches to explore different types of knowledge, to help them to shape effective learning environments.

Knowledge can be separated into two domains:

  • Declarative knowledge – Declarative knowledge is all about the “why”. Understanding the “why” is incredibly important in coaching – if a coach knows the reasons behind their actions, they can become more adaptive and innovative. Coaches with declarative knowledge engage more with their thoughts as they need to be more aware of their existing knowledge. This allows them to improve their planning for appropriate situations.
  • Procedural knowledge – This is the “doing” knowledge. It is possible to have procedural knowledge without having declarative knowledge. This could look like implementing a new condition into a training session but not understanding why that condition is most appropriate in that scenario. This type of knowledge is usually obtained through copying someone else but, by itself, could be a potential weakness of coaching.

Understanding why they are using a certain approach or intervention will have a positive impact on a coach’s decision-making and judgements, allowing them to be more innovative and adapt better to changes. However, without declarative knowledge, a coach’s ability to adapt to a situation will be limited.

3. Adaptive Expertise

Adaptive expertise is just what it sounds like: having the ability and expertise needed to adapt. This is a very important component not just of PJDM but of coaching in general. It’s an attribute that allows coaches to respond quickly to the needs of the athlete and the demands of the environment.

Coaches with adaptive expertise continually acquire new knowledge and skills, and reflect on their application to increase their adaptability. It is also built in complex and hyperdynamic environments which coaches often face.

A few strengths of adaptive expertise are:

  • It allows coaches to accommodate the athlete’s situation.
  • It allows for effective changes in response to an altered situation.
  • Increases a coach’s decision-making.
  • It allows coaches to embrace new approaches.

4 tips to improve your PJDM

So, now that you know the basics of PJDM, why not try this approach in your next training session? Here are some tips to get you started…

  1. Don’t knock down new ideas or techniques.
  2. Remember that the actual application is key, not just the approach.
  3. Try to assess what strategies are most optimal for your athletes’ situations.
  4. Consider alternative solutions to your athletes’ problems.

Final thoughts

PJDM or “it depends” coaching recognises that athletes have unique needs that need to be adhered to. There is no single method that can be used with every single athlete, so coaches need to be able to adapt to changing situations. A lot of this will be based on their prior knowledge, thoughts, and planning processes.  

If applied with consideration of the three core concepts it can be a valuable tool for both coach and athlete development and can help individuals achieve their goals in sport.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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