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A move towards reconceptualising direct instruction in sport coaching pedagogy

Written by: Ed Cope and Chris Cushion
10 min read
Ed Cope and Chris Cushion, School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, UK

As Lyle and Cushion (2017) argue, sport coaching is a ‘hybrid discipline’ that reflects its own theoretical and practical struggles as well as being a proxy for wider debate over what constitutes legitimacy in practice and research. Approaches to coaching are historically situated in the changing conditions within wider academic and applied cultures, such as educational studies, physical education and psychology. Indeed, sport coaching pedagogy has regularly borrowed from these sources as frameworks for coaching practice and understanding athlete learning.

Following the educational literature (e.g. Tobias and Duffy, 2009), coaching has experienced an increased interest in constructivist-informed teaching approaches. In particular, ‘hands-off’ approaches to coaching, such as ‘discovery-based’, have received particular attention (e.g. Pill, 2015) and have become synonymous with ‘athlete-centred’ coaching (e.g. Light and Harvey, 2017). Indeed, this approach has become a sine qua non for coaching practice and is now routinely embedded in programmes and privileged in professional discourse.

Such ideas provide links ‘between how learning occurs and how the learning process is facilitated’ (Schuh and Barab, 2007, p. 76). However, increased awareness has also led to some misinterpretations about how discovery-based approaches are beneficial in supporting learning and, curiously, are presented as a ‘one size fits all’ approach. This seems to reside in a failure to recognise the contexts for learning, and distinctions in learners’ capabilities in dealing with problems free of guidance.

As the prominence of constructivist approaches has grown, a ‘turf war’ is occurring in relation to instructional approaches. Commonly, coaching approaches labelled as direct instruction are disparaged or dismissed (e.g. Light, 2008). These arguments suggest that direct instruction disempowers athletes, provides limited decision-making opportunities and fails to stimulate athlete interest and engagement (e.g. Light and Harvey, 2017).

Significantly, constructivist-informed and direct instruction approaches are poorly conceptualised in the coaching literature, and it is often unclear what is being described. For example, direct instruction is discussed interchangeably as coach-centred and coach-led, but these are different things. In addition, direct instruction is linked to behaviourist learning theory (Light, 2008). Direct instruction is rarely positioned in relation to the wider educational literature or evidence. Instructional approaches are all too easily dismissed because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Without conceptual clarification of different coaching approaches, the field is vulnerable to pseudoscientific methods and ideas (Bailey et al., 2018). Therefore, the purpose of this short article is to take a critical stance on how direct instruction and constructivism-informed approaches, such as guided discovery, have been conveyed in coaching, in a quest for greater conceptual clarity. This is with the ultimate aim of promoting pedagogic approaches in coaching that are evidence-informed.

Confusion in the field

In coaching, a number of models of practice are routinely conceptualised as ‘constructivist’. As Cushion (2013) argues, this can be problematic for practitioners, as a lack of conceptual clarity creates difficulty in understanding what ‘constructivism’ means. All learning activity is constructive (we all construct the cognitive schemas in our heads and how we see and relate to our worlds based on what we’ve experienced), so practice in drills or passive receipt of instruction construct knowledge (von Glasersfeld, 1993). Therefore, all coaching is constructive: ‘because all pedagogy results in some kind of “construction” by learners it is technically inappropriate to identify particular approaches to teaching as constructivist’ (Windschitl, 2002, p. 136). A key issue is that while cognitive constructivism, social constructivism and social constructionism are separate concepts, they have often been subsumed under a generic and undifferentiated ‘constructivism’ (Cushion, 2013). As Raskin (2002) points out, ‘one comes across so many varieties of constructivism that even the experts seem befuddled. Terms like constructivism, constructionism and constructive, are employed so idiosyncratically and inconsistently that at times it defies definition.’(p. 2)

This situation is not helped when coaches’ understanding of learning can be confused and superficial (Cushion, 2013). For example, coaches often conflate philosophies, methods and ideologies under a broad banner of ‘coaching’ and ‘learning’. The result for coaching is a ‘naïve constructivism’ (Prawat, 1992, p. 357) where little or no guidance is provided, placing an inordinate faith in the ability of the learner to structure their own learning (Cushion, 2013; Windschitl, 2002). This equates learning exclusively with activity and with a belief that involvement alone is a sufficient and necessary condition for learning and that guidance interferes with the natural processes by which learners draw on their prior experiences and construct new situated knowledge (Kirschner et al., 2006). Already, phrases such as ‘roll out the ball’ or the ‘game is the teacher’, synonymous with discovery approaches, have become popular folklore in coaching, despite limited empirical support.

One of the main arguments here is that ‘discovery’ pedagogies promote active learning, whereas direct instruction does not. Mayer (2009) calls this ‘the constructivist teaching fallacy’, which assumes that active learning is caused by learners doing lots of doing, rather than observing, listening and thinking, thus conflating coaching with learning. However, meaningful learning occurs when the learner is able to connect to, and make sense of, what is to be learned, identify relevant knowledge and information, organise it into a coherent structure, and integrate it with other knowledge (Mayer, 2004). Merely playing a game does not guarantee connection with the to-be-learned material, and some form of explicit guidance is required (Cushion, 2013). Geary’s (1995) classic article argues that complex skills, those based on cultural practices, require explicit teaching as they will not develop naturally.

Moving towards greater conceptual clarity

Evidence from educational psychology questions the empirical basis for constructivist-informed approaches (Sweller, 2009), a point made 25 years ago in sport pedagogy (Rink et al., 1996) that remains unchanged. So why has constructivist-informed pedagogy rather than direct instruction received widespread support? A narrow and misunderstood conception of direct instruction seems to be a reason, both as an approach to coaching and also in regard to its link to learning theory.

The spectrum of teaching styles (Mosston and Ashworth, 2002) has been one of the most prominent and influential in creating uncertainty regarding direct instruction in coaching. The spectrum suggests a range of different teaching or coaching styles to ‘select’ from the definitions of 11 listed styles, ranging from command (abusively labelled direct instruction) to self-teach (aka pure discovery). A notion of ‘styles’ has become far-reaching into vocational and academic coach training and certification programmes and research, becoming an accepted discourse throughout the coaching landscape.

Two styles in particular have received attention: command and guided discovery (featuring in the middle of the spectrum, while in coaching seen as the two ends). Definitions of each style are not provided; rather, the interaction that the coach has with the athlete, the role of the coach and the role of the athlete are described. For command style, the coach makes decisions and the athlete copies and complies with decisions and instructions. The role of the coach is suggested as one of ‘instruction’ and the athlete one of copying. In coaching, ‘command style’ has become synonymous with ‘instruction’ and portrayed as a ‘traditional’ pedagogy characterised as highly directive. For guided discovery, the coach uses questions and tasks to gradually direct athletes towards a pre-determined learning target. The coach takes the role of questioner, with the athlete responsible for uncovering information. A common thread throughout is that instruction is defined poorly and in restricted ways or, more commonly, not defined at all. For example, it is unclear how many times a coach needs to instruct for this to be classed as a command style of coaching or teaching, or how many questions have to be asked and the type of these for this to be considered a guided discovery approach. The reality is that an effective coach uses a range of styles as the situation requires, yet this is rarely appreciated. It is important to be reflexive and consider our role in providing this clarity. Having researched coaching behaviour, we have allowed slippage between the term ‘instructional behaviours’, a combination of behaviours to create an approach, and the singular and narrowly defined behaviour of ‘instruction’, thus inadvertently reinforcing narrow conceptions of instruction.

Given these issues, it is easy to understand instruction’s poor representation and negative position in coaching discourse. Importantly, authoritative and unethical practice, such as constantly ordering players what to do in a negative manner, has no place in coaching, but this too has been associated with an ‘instructional’ approach. Importantly, this is not direct instruction. Indeed, drawing on the extensive work from educational psychology can help to reconceptualise direct instruction in coaching. In particular, the work of Rosenshine (2012) offers coaching conceptual clarity.

Thinking with Rosenshine

Rosenshine’s (2012) 10 principles of instruction are a useful framework for coaching. Firstly, as an instructional approach, it is much more than a single coaching behaviour and includes a range of behaviours and strategies. Secondly, it is an instructional approach where task proficiency increases while teacher support is gradually removed, including independent practice (Kirschner et al., 2006). For example, as learners achieve success, coach or teacher guidance and support is reduced, with greater emphasis placed on engaging learners in problem-solving activities. Therefore, concepts such as scaffolding and questioning are critical parts of an instructional approach. Moreover, direct instruction includes practising increasingly complex versions of the whole task. For example, the whole skill is still practised within context; however, modifications or conditions are put on these practices specific to the development status of the learner. Yet in coaching, such strategies are associated exclusively with constructivist-informed approaches. Thirdly, and arguably most critically, there is a clear theoretical and empirical basis for direct instruction (Sweller, 2009) in cognitive load theory, which explains how human cognitive architecture works and why direct instruction is required, especially for novice learners.

The argument here is not that a direct instruction approach is necessarily better, but rather that there is strong evidence to show where direct instruction is most appropriate in supporting learning. Coaching, however, continues with conversations regarding which approach is ‘best’ that only confuse practitioners and create ossified coaching dogma.


The purpose of this article is to call for a reconceptualisation of direct instruction in sport coaching. The last two decades have seen exponential growth and support for constructivist-informed approaches based on limited evidence. At the same time, direct instruction has been branded as an approach that coaches should avoid. Many of the issues lie with how such approaches have been misconceptualised or not conceptualised at all. We consider this a dangerous position for the field, given the empirical basis underpinning the approaches being promoted. We contend that drawing upon the work undertaken in the broader educational psychology literature offers scope to rethink direct instruction in coaching, and thus to continue the drive towards evidence-informed practice.


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