‘Speaking in Riddles’ – Are we asking too many questions? – By Jack Pattinson

Much like my last blog had nothing to do with Star Wars (‘Attack of the Clones’), this post doesn’t have much to do with The Riddler (or Batman). But I liked the image of a cartoon character surrounded by question marks and I wanted to write about the different coaching strategies and methods that I have been learning about over the past year…

I recently caught up with a coaching colleague and we had an interesting conversation about the art of asking questions and I explained that at times, I found myself asking players unnecessary (or perhaps, poorly thought-out) questions, when in fact, if I had used a different and more direct method, this could have been of more benefit to the learner.

My colleague shared a great anecdote of when he took part in a golfing lesson and how the coach had tried to teach him to drive the ball simply by asking him a plethora of questions. He explained that after 20 (painful) minutes and despite his best efforts to answer the questions from the coach, he was having no success whatsoever. Shortly after this experience, another coach joined him and simply ‘told’ him a couple of key points to consider when swinging his club… He noted that even to this day (10 years on from the experience), he can still remember the exact information and subsequent success the coach had ‘given him’.

Typically, a number of questions sprung to mind:

Why do we ask the players questions?

At times, do we ask too many questions when other strategies/ methods could be used more effectively?

What if the learner simply does not know the answers to our questions? 

How many other strategies/ methods are there that we could use? And how do I learn more about this!?

As a matter of good timing, a few days later I was listening to the Player Development Project podcast (which I would strongly recommend) and they discussed the different strategies that can be used, regardless of age and/ or environment. The content and depth of this podcast really struck a chord with me as they went into detail of how each of these different strategies can be broken down. Subsequently, I began to reflect on the relationship between these different methods:

  • Command:
    • This is where the coach informs the players what they are going to do.
    • An example of this would be a direct instruction with limited interaction between the coach and the player. This method is all about the coach getting information across to the player as quickly as possible.
    • A potential challenge with this method is that it restricts the players ownership of the information as they are being ‘given’ the answers from the coach
  • Q&A:
    • Far more interaction and dialogue between the coach and the player. The coach will ask a number of (open & closed) questions from which the player tries to respond with the answers.
    • A challenge they highlight with this approach is that we are assuming the players always have the answer. What if they don’t? (The golfing example described above).
    • Are we asking the individual too many questions and as a result of this, actually drowning him/ her with far too much information/ problems to solve/ decision-making?
  • Observation, Analysis & Feedback:
    • The coach makes a deliberate decision to step back and allow the player(s) to ‘have a go’ and solve problems/ make decisions for themselves for a set period of time. Having observed and analysed, the coach then delivers feedback to the player(s) based off of what they saw.
    • This may simply be a case of highlighting good practice, for example: “Your decision to pass the ball back inside there was great because I observed it and I liked why you did it because of X, Y and Z…”
  • Guided Discovery:
    • This is where you set the player(s) a number of challenges (e.g. constraint or scenario-based) in which they must solve, i.e. “Can you show me how to score when faced against a team who defend with a high level of pressure and line speed?…PLAY!”
    • The challenge here for the coach is knowing when to step in and support the player(s) in the problem solving process and when to sit back and allow them to continue to solve the scenario/ constraint themselves…
  • Trial & Error:
    • Arguably the most free-thinking method where the coach sets a challenge/ problem/ constraint/ scenario and allows the players to solve the matter with very limited support. The coach simply sits back and observes how the players respond and adapt.
    • The onus is on the player(s) to try a variety of methods until ultimately, they begin to ‘discover’ success.

Having listened to each of these methods being broken down into more detail, I began to reflect on my own coaching and what I have observed from others. I feel it is fair to say that (as things stand) the predominant method is Q&A and I am definitely a big advocate of this approach. If we are asking players questions, we are asking them to take ownership of their learning. I wish I had been exposed to more coaches who had used this method when I played the game; as opposed to monotonous and repetitive ‘drills’ followed by direct command-style feedback, with very little interaction (and subsequently at times, relationship) between the coach and the players.


However, the challenge that lies with the Q&A approach comes with knowing what questions to ask and when to ask them…Too often, we overlook ‘questioning’ as a skill. What I am definitely guilty of, is asking the player(s) a question and then having to rephrase and re-shape it almost immediately. Over the past few months, I have been working very hard to develop this skill so that when I decide it is an appropriate time to intervene and ask a question in a session, it is a powerful one, which really engages the player(s) and makes them think (I’m also fed up of asking poor questions, which generate stock answers such as ‘Communication‘).

As with all these things, I am learning that it really does come down to a matter of balance. Yes, the Q&A approach is a great method to encourage players to own their understanding and development but there is definitely a need for the other methods to be employed alongside it too. The majority of the strategies discussed above are very much inter-twined with one another and in fact, this blog is more of a discussion around Q&A vs Command. In the past, I have been worried about using the ‘command’ strategy for fear of robbing the player(s) of learning themselves but if used sparingly and in the right way, it can definitely have a positive impact (again, reference to the Golfing example discussed at the beginning).

To come full circle on this, it is not necessarily a case of asking too many questions, more knowing what questions to ask and when to ask them. If we are able to find a positive balance between allowing the players to explore, supporting their learning through Q&A and giving them direct snippets of information (perhaps not like the video above!), then we are taking a holistic approach to supporting the player(s). If we are constantly asking poor questions that we have to repeat and/ or re-shape then while we may not necessarily look like The Riddler, we certainly run the risk of beginning to sound like him!


2 thoughts on “‘Speaking in Riddles’ – Are we asking too many questions? – By Jack Pattinson

  1. Thanks for that article. You pointed out what coaches have to deal with as well as players too. I met a player yesterday, who decided to step back from playing rugby. I think he was a good player and he still could develop more to come. I asked for his reason to leave the club. His answer was quite simply. He said, that he didn’t want to answer questions, he even didn’t want to hear much talk. He had finished his studies and he just want to train hard for two hours, he doesn’t want to think about decision making, cause he had to decide every day in his job.
    The other day I was visiting a coaching session, when the coach had to pass his level 3 exam in Wales. The coach wanted to develop decision making. There was a ruck situation and the players should decide between three options to play. While the exercise was going on, the Coach loudly and directly shouted the decisions he thought they should go for, what they did. It was a mee from my point of view, cause no one did dcisions than the coach.
    After the session I asked several players how they felt during the exercise. They were satisfied with the success, cuase they felt they were able to go for their own decisions. They didn’t realise, that there wasn’t just one decision different from the coaches calls.
    I know one Coach who likes to ask players,but if there isn’t the right answer, he comes out with ridicolous comments and stops questioning at all. Then he gives straight orders what to do and sometimes he will explode if the players fail. The players fear and hate his unexpected misbehaviors, as they told me. But they absolute respect him as a coach and by the way he is quite successful.
    Similar situations and behavior could I notice in France at two professional clubs. If I would be a player there, I would quit my contract for sure.
    What do we learn out of this?
    From my point fo view, we may go through a coaching education and learn about all these coaching styles, techniques and ideas to bring them in. At the end of the day it’s seems to be the person with all it’s little defects and goods to come out who makes the failure or success. As long as you are a character to lead as a true person, you might reach the players, even if you do it all wrong technically.


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