Coaching is Questioning: Here Are My 3 Favourite...


So much of what we think coaching is all about—instruction, is really only a small piece. True enough, communicating how to most effectively execute a specific skill set is a big part of helping individuals improve. However, my experience as a coach has my most powerful and profound moments coming as the result of the questions I’ve asked, not the instruction I’ve provided.

I heard this common misnomer reaffirmed by a parent the other day at our daughter’s track practice. The parents were dropping off their child, and just before the young boy ran off to join the rest of his group, his dad said, “Don’t worry, son, your coach will tell you everything you need to know.”

Fair enough, depending on the situation, that very well may have been true. However, my point is this, the relationship between the coach and athlete is now beginning at a young age with the expectation that going forward your coach is the one person to rely on to tell you everything you need to know.


It’s imperative that you’re able to talk openly with your athletes, not to your athletes, if you plan on asking important and meaningful questions. The key is to get to know them—inside and out. The better the relationship, the more effective you’ll be in empowering them to take ownership of their part in pursuing high performance. From that sound and trusting relationship, powerful coachable moments present themselves more easily and more often.

During practice sessions, when the right time presents itself, the three questions that I use are simple and to the point:

1. What’s working?
2. What’s not?
3. What do we need to change to finish this practice on a positive note?

That’s it.

After a competition, the questions change slightly:

1. What went well?
2. What didn’t?
3. What do we need to change to create an improved performance next time?

Easy enough.

Mind you the effect of these three simple questions is quite remarkable, and they form the basis of how I challenge athletes to do one very important thing—get better! They cut to the core, revealing the work that requires the combined attention of you and the athlete. Any other information is usually just surface fluff and, therefore, distracting.

Keep in mind, it’s important to ask the questions in the order listed. By starting off with something positive, you’re providing your athletes an opportunity to feel good about some component of their performance. This feeling helps trigger a positive intrinsic response, which is essential for creating powerful and sustainable motivation that will serve the athlete over the long haul.

Although I’ve heard some high profile sport psyches advise against asking the second question, I believe that advice is ill-conceived. Their thinking is that it creates a moment where athletes reflect on something that’s negative. The question seems to be, “Why focus on the negative?”

Understanding that, I believe the only reason that individuals perceive something that didn’t go well as being negative is because that’s what they’ve been taught. That failure is wrong. That perception exists because it’s been learned.

When I work with athletes, I encourage them to view failure as information—nothing more. I urge them to resist the tendency of making it mean more than it is. If your team culture perceives losing or failure as wrong, than you’ll have to manage that. My advice would be to start with reading my blog on the opportunity that failure provides us.

The third question, “What needs to change going forward?” is usually an extension of the answer provided from the second question. This offers you, as the coach, the opportunity to ensure that the ‘next steps’ are in line with what you perceive to be in the athletes best interest. If their answers aren’t quite what you’re thinking, then I would explore further options with more prodding questions. Something to the effect of, “Okay, I would agree. Those are some great ideas moving forward. I can see how that will support you. However, what do you think could be some other options that we might explore?”

Chances are if you ask the right questions, you’ll get the answers that you’re looking for, and even better—some you may not have thought of. That’s the beauty of this. As your athletes take ownership of their process, they begin to bring strategies to the table that are new and exciting. When you share your enthusiasm for their input, they feel valued and empowered to be further involved.

After a while, if you persist and you’re consistent with these questions, your athletes will start asking the questions on their own. This is when the really cool transformations happen. When athletes begin to self-coach, their awareness of the role they play on this journey grows. And, so too will your relationship; it starts to resemble more of team where both parties have input.

Understand that I’m not suggesting you relinquish all control and let your athletes begin driving the training regimen and other key components; far from it. I’m simply suggesting that you value the input of your athletes in such a way as to support their development as athletes and people.

There was a fascinating experiment conducted recently where the notion of questioning versus instruction was explored. In this instance, coaches from an elite tennis team were switched with coaches from an elite skiing team. In both instances, the performance of all of the athletes involved improved. The theory is that with limited knowledge in their ‘new’ role, coaches had to rely on the information from the athletes in order to coach. Naturally, questioning was the best and only way to garner that information. It became a clear process of trial and error utilizing key reflective questioning.

This speaks to some exciting opportunities for coaches. Not only can they learn from their athletes, development stronger and more trusting relationships, but also they can achieve improved results as a byproduct.

When coaches spew endless amounts of commentary and corrections at their athletes, they become more of a source of distraction and frustration than anything else. I believe knowing when to offer critical feedback is equally as important as knowing what to say and how to say it.

Respectful and inquiring questions lend coaches the opportunity to discover ‘next steps’ as well as nurture the relationship between coach and athlete.

As for parents who’ve been told, “Don’t talk about the score driving home in the car!”—this strategy provides you an ideal formula for having constructive post competition dialogue in a non-judgmental way. Utilizing these simple questions could transform your relationship with your son or daughter, helping you to take on more of a supportive role in the development of your children’s athletic experience.


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Jason Dorland is a High-Perfomance Coach who believes the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals are the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how—contact Jason today!
Jason Dorland
Jason Dorland
Jason Dorland has dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence for himself and those he supports.