By Vincent Granito Jr., Ph.D.
How do you know if your coaching techniques are having the desired effects on your athletes? How do you know if an athlete is improving? How can you demonstrate that an athlete is playing hard? To answer these questions, coaches may need to borrow a tool from education – assessment.
Assessment is some type of objective measure to examine if an individual has acquired a desired skill. Formal assessment in education has been researched during the past 20 to 25 years to demonstrate to parents, politicians and administrators that students are learning and benefiting from their education. The principles of assessment can be a valuable instrument to aid coaches in the development of their athletes.
Most coaches already do some type of informal assessment by determining players’ strengths and weaknesses; however, formal assessment involves developing and collecting objective data that can be used by both coaches and athletes to make changes in athletic behavior. However, assessment is not the same as simply keeping statistics, although it can involve some of the statistics already kept for the team. Rather, assessment entails taking some skill or behavior and devising a method for measuring the improvement of the skill or change in behavior.
For example, this past season our extremely young varsity basketball team had some players who would have benefited from another season at the junior varsity level, but because of the small numbers in our program, they were forced to play on the varsity. There was a belief on my part that they were not playing hard enough. My players looked at me in confusion because of their lack of experience. We had different perspectives about what it meant to play hard. This is often a problem in coaching – players and coaches being on different pages with different agendas.
Our solution was to develop a rating system that took some of the traditional statistics we already kept including steals, forced turnovers and offensive rebounds, and paired this with new things we started tracking—deflected passes, diving on the floor for a loose ball, tying up an opponent for a jump ball, and hustling back on defense. We titled this our Intensity Quotient (IQ), and assigned a point value for each of these categories:
Offensive Rebound = +3
Steal = +3
Forced Turnover = +2
Deflected Pass = +1
Dive for a loose ball = +2 or fail to dive = -2
Tie up for jump ball = +1 or if player allows an opponent to tie up for jump ball = -1
Fail to hustle back on defense = -3
An assistant coach tracked these points over the course of a game and a total score was added at the completion of the game. Players would receive a sheet after the game with their total IQ score, as well as the scores for every player on the team. By sharing everyone’s IQ scores with the entire team, the players learned accountability by their teammates. The players quickly recognized the connection between high total team IQ scores and how well we played as a team.
Coaches who want to incorporate assessment into the work they do with athletes should follow some simple procedures to make it more meaningful and effective for the players. First, coaches should prioritize the elements or skills they wish to assess. Research has shown that trying to assess too much can confuse and decrease the success assessment can have. Choose one or two behaviors or skills that can help your athletes grow.
Second, define the variable to be assessed and find a good way to measure that variable. In my example with the basketball team, we wanted to assess playing hard, but this is a vague term. I picked some aspects of play that I thought made up playing hard, and then assigned a rating system to measure these elements.
Third, coaches need to provide feedback to their players. This means not only sharing the assessment data, but instructing how they can learn from the numbers. Sometimes this is best done while watching game films. Some of my players did not believe their scores and doubted the validity; however, when we watched films and I pointed out examples, they had a much better idea of what I was talking about.
Finally, athletes have to make the changes necessary to improve performance. This becomes easier now, because the assessment has focused their awareness onto an aspect of play of which they were unaware.
Assessment can be more effective when coaches create a data collection procedure that takes the team and athletes’ situations and individual personalities into account. For example, if a soccer team is not assertive enough at the beginning of a contest, then weighting the scoring for greater scoring opportunities at the beginning of games can help athletes make the connection to correcting the behavior. This also can be helpful for athletes who need to be more forceful in contact sports.
High school coaches already have very busy schedules, but assessment might be able to reduce the problems that sometimes are associated with this demanding timeframe. Troubles such as parent complaints and player grievances can be diminished if a coach has some type of objective data to back up his or her argument.
A coach could make a detailed assessment of the basic basketball skills of all the players in the program several times during the season. This assessment could be conducted by not only the head coach, but also all assistant coaches. Each player then rates his or her individual skills. In combination, all this data facilitates a portrait of each player. The coach can use this information when parents complain about playing time to prove that objective decisions are made when it comes to playing time. The assessment data can also be beneficial to defend decisions made when players have to be cut at the beginning of the season.
Another area where assessment can be helpful is in evaluating a coaching performance during the course of a season. Some high schools have started evaluating their coaches and even have parents and players evaluate the coach.
Elements of coaching behaviors that can be evaluated include communication skills with athletes, parents and school administrators; ability to develop and carry out practice plans; knowledge of rules; attendance at all required meetings; demonstration of sportsmanship; and appropriate game climate behaviors.
At the very least, a coach should always go through some type of evaluative assessment of their performance. A coach could write a letter or e-mail to himself/herself at the end of every season to document the changes he/she wants to make the following season and how he/she would like to alter the approach to coaching in the following season.
Assessment also can be very constructive when dealing with poor seasons. During poor seasons, players and coaches tend to get very negative and might miss the opportunity to find ways to grow and progress. The problem is that all the focus centers on the team’s record instead of the process.
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden advocated a constant analysis of coaching behaviors and players’ skills. Furthermore, he said that programs should be governed by the results of this analysis, and not the outcomes of games. This takes the focus off the wins and losses, and places the focal point on the fundamental skills necessary to improve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Vincent Granito is a professor of psychology at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio. His specialty is sport psychology, where he has published articles and presented to various coaching groups. He also has been a boys and girls high school basketball coach at the freshman, junior varsity and varsity levels for the past 21 years. He is currently the head girls basketball coach at Wickliffe (Ohio) High School.