The Socratic Method has been a mainstay in classrooms for a long time now, however it really hasn’t made its way onto the courts, playing fields and weight rooms in the same way. Coaches frequently call themselves “teachers” but rarely evaluate the methodology with which they teach; usually regurgitating strategies or cues that were used by their coaches, with little effectiveness.
The best coaches compel intrigue and draw curiosity out of their athletes using pointed questions that force them to create a kinesthetic and neuromuscular feedback loop. “What am I doing and how does it feel?” “What is this movement supposed to feel like?” “What are the ideal conditions I need to create to maximize effectiveness?” I like to call this the Socratic Method of Coaching as it creates an environment where athletes can safely question habits, previously learned motor patterns, and conventional coaching wisdom. Motor learning is obviously a neurological process that requires a high level of kinestethic feedback, but if an athlete has no contextual lens through which he/she can “see” (re: feel) a movement, the learning process grinds to a halt. Specific lines of questioning and cueing develop that lens for our athletes. Here’s a conversation I had recently with a collegiate baseball player as we were doing some maximal velocity work:
Me: “Do you feel that ‘bounce’ when your foot strikes the ground forcefully under your hip as opposed to in front of your hip?”
Him: “What do you mean ‘bounce’”?
Me: “How does it feel when you hop on one foot.”
Him: “Ah, I can’t hop if my foot doesn’t hit the ground under my hips.” (as he hops on one foot)
These light bulb moments don’t happen nearly as frequently as I’d like with my athletes, but when they do, it’s like turning the effectiveness of the movement up to 11.
One psychological component of Socratic Coaching is to approach questioning and cueing with a completely open mind, not allowing criticism to affect our ability to communicate with our athletes. Our athletes depend on us for emotional support far more than we realize so any perception of negativity by them in this process will compromise its effectiveness. Athletes need to feel safe to make mistakes without realizing it because ultimately, we’re leading them to coach themselves. Non-judgmentalism is a critical piece that allows athletes to get to the point where their own feedback loop corrects their movement. The intangible aspect of an open-minded approach is that it helps us build an almost unbreakable rapport with our athletes, leading to even more effective coaching.
I’ve been around many sport coaches and performance coaches, who subscribe to the “coach every rep” methodology. I think this method leads to proverbial paralysis by analysis, and kinesthetically-speaking, it really is like paralysis because the athlete is so overloaded by external verbal feedback that they can’t feel their own movement. When we ask our athletes to execute highly technical and neurologically demanding movements, the most important component of that process for them is cognition. As Buddy Morris has said thousands of times, “Awareness creates cognition creates motor learning.” We develop our athletes' awareness by creating an optimal learning environment free of excess stimuli and negativity, which allows them to freely develop cognitively and kinesthetically, leading eventually to successful execution of motor patterns completing the motor learning process.
I would implore you as coaches to really evaluate your own methodology and processes; ask your athletes how they learn best and how they feel. Lead them to learn, rather than pushing them to learn.