Exploring the planning process in coaching – Paul Kinnerk

Planning is a critical part of the coaching process. Expert coaches report thoroughness in planning as having great impact on the success of a coaching session. For example, John Wooden (renowned basketball coach) noted that he would “spend as much time planning a practice as conducting it”. In addition, in a study carried out by my colleagues (Dr. Mark Lyons, Dr. Philip Kearney and Prof. Stephen Harvey) and I with a group of high performance Gaelic football coaches (n = 12), planning emerged as a principle theme. The coaches revealed spending significant periods of time in planning their coaching session along with revealing a multitude of factors that influence their decision-making within the planning process. This blog takes a look at the critical factors coaches may consider when planning and offers some ways in which coaches may use research to assist or inform their planning.

The choice and design of practice activities to be included within the coaching session is a key pedagogical consideration for the coach during the planning process (Harvey et al., 2013). Team sports coaching literature advocates the predominant use of open practice activities that involve the player making decisions in game-related environments as opposed to closed practice activities that typically involve players practicing skills in prescribed movements (Farrow et al., 2008; Ford et al., 2010; Pinder et al., 2011). Coaches may benefit in the design of game-related activities by considering guidelines outlined in the games based coaching research. For example, games based approach research suggests that coaches should consider four fundamental principles (task representation, task exaggeration, sampling, tactical complexity) when planning games. Ecological dynamics, a theory focusing on the performer-environment relationship, provides a set of principles that can assist coaches in their design of games. For more information, coaches can read blogs (e.g., https://footblogball.wordpress.com/category/mark-o-sullivan/ ) and research papers (e.g., Tan et al., 2012) that outline how coaches may practically apply these within their planning process. Coaches may benefit by considering such guidelines when planning a practice session.

Contemporary sports coaching involves a multitude of people feeding numerous sources of information to the coach (Stoszkowski & Collins, 2016). For example, the application of player tracking technologies in the form of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have been commonly applied in high performance sports coaching settings to inform coaching staff regarding players’ physical exertions and tactical behaviour (Beasley, 2015). While such data presents valuable information to coaching staff, it is important that coaches do not become slaves to numbers. Player learning objectives should act as the primary starting point for session planning. In our study on the high performance Gaelic football coaches, there were numerous examples where the coaches reconciled their pedagogical approach due to pressures to meet GPS demands. For example, coaches felt restricted in small-sided game design and the time they could dedicate to discussion/questioning periods. Within the planning process, it is important for coaches to give due attention to all information they are fortunate to receive, but not to neglect player’s learning or compromise their pedagogical approach.

Integrating information from previous and upcoming competition is another key consideration for coaches. This extract from one of interviewed high performance coaches highlights the value coaches attached as regards competition informing their planning process:

“Whereas we have progressed with [team name omitted] you’re reacting to what has happened in the previous game, you’re reacting to the next opposition and you’re trying to make your games or whatever you’re doing in training specific to that, to learn and add to what you’ve done in the last game, to improve for the next game”

When planning, coaches may reflect on specific aspects of previous games where they were particularly successful. They may be assisted in this with information from stats personnel. Consequently, through such reflections and statistical analysis, the coach is well prepared to identify successful patterns of play and to then reinforce/implement these in their session plan. Equally, a similar process may be adopted for working on areas of weakness. In addition, other areas such as upcoming competition and their particular strengths/weaknesses can provide vital information for a coach’s session plan.

The above points reflect just some of the areas that a coach may consider when planning. Coach engagement and awareness with pedagogy and research may facilitate a systemised approach to planning ensuring that the coach has given due consideration to the critical factors for a successful coaching session.


  • Beasley, K. J. (2015). Nutrition and Gaelic Football: Review, recommendations, and future considerations. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 25(1), 1-13.
  • Farrow, D., Pyne, D., & Gabbett, T. (2008). Skill and physiological demands of open and closed training drills in Australian football. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3(4), 489-499.
  • Ford, P. R., Yates, I., & Williams, A. M. (2010). An analysis of practice activities and instructional behaviours used by youth soccer coaches during practice: Exploring the link between science and application. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(5), 483-495. doi: 10.1080/02640410903582750
  • Harvey, S., Cushion, C., Cope, E., & Muir, B. (2013). A season long investigation into coaching behaviours as a function of practice state: The case of three collegiate coaches. Sports Coaching Review, 2(1), 13-32. doi: 10.1080/21640629.2013.837238
  • Pinder, R. A., Davids, K., Renshaw, I., & Araújo, D. (2011). Representative learning design and functionality of research and practice in sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(1), 146-155.
  • Stoszkowski, J., & Collins, D. (2016). Sources, topics and use of knowledge by coaches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(9), 794-802.
  • Tan, C. W. K., Chow, J. Y., & Davids, K. (2012). ‘How does TGfU work?’: Examining the relationship between learning design in TGfU and a nonlinear pedagogy. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17(4), 331-348. doi: 10.1080/17408989.2011.582486


Paul Kinnerk is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.  His current research interests include sports coaching, sports coaching pedagogy in team sports and game-based approach pedagogies.  You can follow Paul on twitter @Kinnerker or contact him via email at paul.kinnerk@ul.ie     

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