There has been a lot of past research focusing on developing the reflective skills of coaches through a technique called reflective practice. However, there’s now a growing body of evidence that suggests the use of reflective principles and frameworks will contribute towards the successful development of players.
But what is reflective practice? In essence, these are mental practices through which individuals revisit and learn from their own experiences. Reflective practice pioneer Donald Schon defined the reflective learner as someone who explores their own experiences of learning through a questioning approach, to better understand how they learn and therefore improve how they learn in the future.
We know that ongoing learning and development is essential in football. The ability to learn a new move, skill or tactical framework is crucial to becoming, and remaining, an elite player. Consider, for example, Steven Gerrard at Liverpool and his late-career shift to a deeper-lying midfield role. But learning isn’t just about accumulating information, it’s also about how new knowledge is processed and combined with experience and knowledge we’ve gained in the past. And this is where reflection comes in – it’s the crucial link between processing new information, making sense of it in relation to existing knowledge and gaining a better understanding. For the footballer, reflection allows players to clarify their thoughts, gain insights and deepen their understanding of decision-making skills and tactical frameworks. With that in mind, the ability to inspire reflection could represent the most important modern innovation in player development.
There are many benefits evident to players who practice self-reflection, in addition to helping them to learn. Recent research suggests that players with a greater understanding of competitive experiences are more likely to be able to adopt a positive mindset during competition. This mindset gives players a high level of control and confidence, and allows them to positively interpret any anxiety.
Reflection also helps players evaluate their performance and become more aware of themselves. Players who are more self-aware have been shown to display more effective arousal control, have improved self-confidence, are more successful at goal setting and have improved self-actualisation.
Reflective practice may also encourage players to engage in problem-based learning, a technique which is particularly useful for reinterpreting and learning from negative incidents. Some players may let an incident fester and affect the rest of the training session or match, or even future sessions or matches. Problem-based learning based on a period of reflection helps players overcome this negativity by encouraging them to address what went wrong and how they might overcome it. This leads to players developing greater independence, who are better at resolving conflict without needing the intervention of a coach.
The use of modern technology, mobile apps, social media and online communities could revolutionise the use of reflection practices.
Using reflection practices with a view to enhancing player reflection and independence often needs some sort of formal framework, a method by which players can examine their own experiences and learn from them. And it’s usually the case that the more engaging the experience, the greater the benefit. It’s important that players engage and buy into the experience if behavioural changes related to skills and tactics are to be internalised and anything more than superficial changes in behaviour are to be achieved.
There are several methods available to encourage reflective techniques in players, and these mainly come down to the coach embracing concepts of reflection and empowerment in their direct work with players. It’s crucial that coaches know which ways are best for enhancing particular aspects of performance, either in the player or in themselves. Some of the ways of reflecting on performance are by talking (alone or in a group), writing (alone or in a group), reading (alone or together), observing (alone or together), or holistically – using a performance analysis framework.
However, the use of modern technology, mobile apps, social media and online communities could revolutionise the use of reflection practices. Modern self-reflection tools could be used to better meet the needs of the modern player, who may find it difficult to access these practices if they aren’t in an elite environment. Accessible engagement using innovative delivery models could help create a generation of intelligent, self-determined players who use self-reflection and increased self-awareness both in their sporting and personal life.
It’s clear that many of the traditional practices may need to be re-thought for the modern era, to reach the modern player. This is important to make sure players engage with the experience. One such practice is the reflective journal. Reflective journals can be used to focus on a wide range of topics. Ideally, players need to be asked relevant questions to probe at concepts of interest and further their understanding. But reflective writing in journals can be seen as time-consuming and boring by some players, so it’s important to both engage, with innovative tools, and also educate the player on how reflection could help their performance.
Journals can also be used as a monitoring device by coaches. It can serve as a window to the learner’s mind, so coaches can monitor players’ understanding of concepts and give assistance where required. However, this external evaluation comes not from the player themselves but ultimately from the coach, and so we need to question how legitimate this model of reflection is, and how valid a player’s answers become because of this.
Similar to reflective journals, reflective sheets can also be used that offer a series of guiding questions, rather than the free-form of a journal. They ultimately offer insight into each player’s perspective on game incidents, training methods and their own opinions of the most important areas for development. This can assure each player of their importance within the team, enable the coach to develop strong and effective working relationships, and generate a feeling of empowerment in individuals and, therefore, the team as a whole. Using reflective sheets focusing on the design and attainment of individual playing style could therefore be essential for long-term player development. Players can identify development areas and create their own mental model (understanding), vision for performance or playing style that guides their development.
As with reflective journals, however, there’s still a lot of work for players to undertake. Questions remain as to whether this type of process would be appropriate for players who aren’t full-time elite players, or with young developing players. However, the innovative and engaging use of app-based technology removes these barriers and may allow a whole generation of young players to benefit from reflection-based mental skills training, previously only available in elite environments.
Football in the rain in China. Photo: See-Ming Lee