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  • Toby Sinclair

The Coach's Guide To Teaching Summary by Doug Lemov

Coach's Guide to teaching doug lemov

⭐ Toby's Rating: 9/10 - Recommended For: Leaders and Managers

3 Big Ideas from The Coach's Guide To Teaching 💡

The Coach's Guide To Teaching by Doug Lemov helps you to coach better:

  1. Decision making is improved by learning to see better. Perception is a crucial skill to faster decision making.

  2. Experts and novices learn differently. You must adjust your teaching approach based upon the skill level of the person. However, you must teach everyone with the same belief of their unlimited potential.

  3. Teaching is knowing the difference between “I taught it” and “They learned it.” Leaders must learn how to check for understanding, so they can confirm team members can apply what they've learned under pressure.

2 Best Quotes from The Coach's Guide To Teaching Summary by Doug Lemov 💬

As soon as training completes, forgetting starts.
Consistent vocabulary enables consistent execution.

Tobys Top Takeaway

I'm rethinking everything I know about coaching.

Doug Lemov has written an excellent book on how to teach in an elite sports environment. I found that although the context was sport, many of these principles and ideas can be used in business. I believe that great leaders are great teachers. However many leaders have never learned how to teach. In fact, most teaching in the corporate world is truly terrible. It very rarely leads to mastery.

I have already started to apply the ideas from this book. For example, this week I have improved how I "check for understanding". What is great about this book is the depth of theory but the clear examples of application. The video resources that supplement each idea are incredible. In fact, this is a key teaching principle. Observing others apply the skill in question enables you to learn better. You'll leave with a better understanding of the science and application of learning.

My takeaway: I have a long way to go, to become a better teacher.


Applying in Business - The Coach's Guide To Teaching 💡

Learn how The Coach's Guide To Teaching can be applied to business:


Great Leaders Are Great Teachers

“Less certainty, more inquiry.”

Erik Seidel

Learning to teach better helps you lead better and increase your impact. Great leaders are great teachers.

When you improve your teaching approach, you'll find improvements in:

  • Giving feedback to help people learn better and faster

  • Confidence that what you have taught, people have learned

  • Ability to help people who are not "getting it"

  • Reduce the impact of forgetting what has been learned

  • Improvements in your team's decision making

  • A greater intrinsic desire from the people you lead to learn

Many leaders will associate teaching with telling. Most corporate training is based around PowerPoint slides led by a trainer. It's focused on knowledge gathering rather than learning. It assumes that if people are told they will do.

The teaching explored in The Coach's Guide To Teaching is very different.

The best teachers go beyond telling people what to do. They understand the science of learning, how to manage cognitive load, master the skill of observation and communicate clearly.

Don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side!


Improving Decision Making and Problem-Solving

Leaders must understand the difference between decision-making and problem-solving. One (problem-solving) is generally slow and the other (decision-making) is often fast.

Each requires different teaching and learning approaches.

“When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster.”

Johan Cruyff

The ability to decide is crucial to performance. Part of being “fast” is making better decisions. This is mostly done unconsciously.

Learning To See

Decision making is the result of perception.

“You must first see effectively in order to decide effectively.”

Leaders must understand the importance of perception. Coach-like leaders help people see better. When people see better they make better decisions.

Perception is improved by moving skills from the working memory into long-term memory. The execution of the skill becomes unconscious. You want team members to execute skills with little effort.

A sporting example that highlights the importance of perception:

For years, people presumed that reaction time was the key to hitting; faster reactions for faster pitches. But as David Epstein describes in The Sports Gene, the great slugger Albert Pujols was found, at the height of his prowess, to have a reaction time that was below average for the adult male population. Something else must have allowed him to hit a ball moving that quickly. That something turns out to be perception: a batter-like Pujols perceives visual cues from the pitcher’s motion as and before he releases the ball—angle of the shoulder, the position of the wrist, rate of hip rotation. The batter’s brain processes these visual cues and predicts the pitch without his ever intentionally looking for them or even his consciously being aware of them. Many batters, even successful ones, still think it’s about reaction time, and this is profound. The typical batter never knows what the true drivers of his success are and is not even aware that they happen. He has learned the tools of his greatness accidentally and without knowing it.

📹 Video Example

An example that demonstrates how experts and novices see differently

Leaders can help teach perception. It's important to understand that experts see differently from novices. Expertise is knowing what to look for and where to find it. Research has shown that experienced teachers in the classroom look less but see more. Expertise is in the eyes. You cannot make the right decisions unless your eyes are in the right place and know what to look for. Experts look and see underlying principles at work; novices see superficial details.

“The mark of expertise is the habit of consistently and unconsciously looking in the right place: find the signal; ignore the noise.”

To teach well, leaders must develop masterful observational skills. To do this, you must make this observation intentional. The key is planning. Prior to the session you will observe, make a note of the things you will notice. Create a checklist of these items. For example, if you were observing a team collaborating you might notice:

  • How many questions are asked?

  • Who asks these questions?

  • Who speaks and who doesn't?

  • How often disagreements are raised?

  • How often people are interrupted?

You must be intentional about the things you plan to observe.

📹 Video Example

In a sporting context, you can give substitutes observational tasks. Give each person a very specific thing to observe, passing technique, use of open space, player positioning. This has three benefits. It keeps the substitutes active, developers their observational skills and gives the coach additional insights into what is happening during the game.

Though it is rarely acknowledged, the ability to see accurately is a coach’s first skill.


How To Design Training Activities

“Doing simple things at speed makes them seem complex.”

Johan Cruyff

Learning occurs when problems are challenging but not unsolvable. (Desirable Difficulty)

Most organisations are Wicked learning environments. There are mismatches between decisions and feedback. You can do the right thing and be unsuccessful. You can do the wrong thing and have it appear to have been right.

Many organisations claim victory for a certain method or approach they have taken. In reality, this might have been the wrong action. It's just on that occasion it seemed to work. When others apply the same method, they might experience the opposite results.

Be aware of this when training. Seek to understand if the correct method was applied to get the desired outcome.

Most corporate training focuses on knowledge-building activities. These do not lead to changes in behaviour in the workplace.

Three types of training activities leaders should do:

  • Skill-acquisition - Learning to execute a skill, under pressure without thinking.

  • Game-based - Applying skills within the context of a constrained game environment. For example, a game of 11 vs 8 or a smaller pitch.

  • Tactical - Recreating specific situations that may occur during a match.

Any coaching should be a mixture of these activities for the learner.

Be aware of installation costs.

When you introduce new learning activities, it takes a cognitive load to learn. This might distract from the thing you are helping people learn. For example, switching between tools in a training session can add a cost. Kahoot for activity 1, Menti for activity 2, Miro for activity 3. Instead, how could you use Miro for all three activities?

The ideal training activity is a platform: a basic setup that players can master. The coach then builds up variations within that platform. The installation cost is lower and the learning is high.

Training exercises must phase in complexity and learning in stages. Introducing people to one idea and letting them apply it right away, then adding another. As they start to execute more fluidly and with less strain on working memory, a new challenge or a new idea can be added. This keeps challenges at a level that engages players and helps them enjoy learning but that avoids asking them to do too many things at once.


Developing Shared Mental Models

Doug Lemov Game Model

A “game model” is the name for this shared understanding of how teams want to play in a specific context.

A team with a shared understanding of how they want to play and what options are preferred in specific situations will be able to “read” one another’s actions faster and better than the defence can. If they have a clear shared understanding of their goals and priorities in specific situations, they will read one another’s signals and communicate through their actions. They will read the game in a similar way, using a similar visual vocabulary. They will appear to have second sight.

You can develop a game model in business. How will we play to achieve this business outcome? Teams that have a shared model of how they will play, perform better. These might be scenarios such as:

How we will play when:

  • New business opportunities arise

  • System issues occur

  • Deployment of a new system

  • When a new team member joins

The best teams encode their game model into long-term memory. They attach precise names to the model. This helps them clearly communicate it to each other. Teams can only make coordinated decisions if they can communicate the game model clearly.

A game model is encoded into principles that the team embody. These should be clearly described for everyone to understand.

A Sporting Example:

  • When our team wins the ball from the opposition we will:

  • Play immediately away from pressure

  • Spread the field—fast (to stretch the defence)

  • Find numerical advantage in as few passes as possible

When a team has a game model, teaching and feedback can become more powerful.

An Example:

Pause. Blue team. We have just won the ball. What’s our first principle? Play away from pressure. And if I don’t have the ball? Stretch the defense. OK, so Carlos won the ball. Where is the pressure? Here, where Kelvin and Paul are. Yes. So a better first ball would be? To Matty. Because? It’s away from pressure. And Matty, when you get it, where are you looking to play? Where we’ve got numbers. OK. Let’s see if we can do that. Play again from Carlos. Go! Or: What phase are we in? We just won the ball. OK, so assess our decision as a team there. We played back into pressure. OK, what’s the best way to fix that? Or: Our first principle is to play away from pressure. Look at how we were positioned. Why were we unable to accomplish that goal?

The key here is that principles of play make questioning productive and efficient because they reduce guessing. If there were no principles of play and you said, “We just won the ball, what do we want to do here?”, the team members would likely guess wrong, which wastes time and dilutes focus from the real problem-solving of figuring out the execution.

The Power of Langauge

“Being concrete and clear through vocabulary builds understanding.”

Jesse Marsch

For knowledge to be shared, it must be captured in consistent precise words that everyone can use. It is very difficult unless everybody understands the concepts the same way and has the same name for them. In many cases, a leader will assume that players have a shared model. They refer to an idea and hope that most of their team members know what they’re talking about. This assumption of shared mental models often leads to confusion in high stakes situations.

Standardizing vocabulary usage across a team is one of the fastest ways to accelerate learning. The best coaches create a shared language that’s instrumental in their teaching. The phrases stick with players and staff. They spend hours thinking about words.

Consistent vocabulary enables consistent execution.

An example of specific shared language:

“We developed other phrases. Like ‘Roger Bannister,’ This was intended to evoke the story of the famed distance runner, who set out to break the four-minute mile when people said it could not be done. “When, after years, he finally broke it, something like 23 other guys broke it in the next ten years. It tells you that fatigue is mental. Break that barrier! That’s what the word means. I had them read the article and then we talked about it. Then we started using the word ‘Roger Bannister’ to capture the idea in the story.”


Working with Forgetting

As soon as training completes, forgetting starts.

Forgetting Curve Example

What a person demonstrates in training does not indicate what they will do under pressure.

There are five ways to reduce the effect of forgetting:

  1. Retrieval practice - Going back to the old material to ensure people can retrieve it

  2. Interleaving - Mixing topics together instead of blocked practice, one topic at a time.

  3. Elaboration - Drawing connections to what you are learning now to what you have learned in the past

  4. Randomized practice - Increasing the pressure of recall, similar to a game environment. Removing the predictability of learning.

  5. Low stakes assessment - Simple tests to verify learning that are scored but not graded. The consequences of failure are lower. The intrinsic motivation to get it right is high.

📹 Video Example

These techniques are explored further in Super Learning by Peter Hollins

If you were to study 15 minutes for a test each day for three days, for a total of 45 minutes, using carefully designed retrieval practice, you’d likely do better than if you studied for 60 minutes all at once a night or two before the test.

Decision making in training should be harder than the game.

Novices and experts learn differently. Experts can execute with little load on the working memory. They can more easily and rapidly incorporate new ideas. Experts are generally more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. Novices are less aware of the skills they lack and tend to overrate performance.

“Experts faced with a complex problem see deep principles that help categorise and solve it. Novices, in contrast, see superficial features.”

Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick


Mastering Feedback and Questioning

“When you chase five rabbits, you catch none.”

Dilbert on Feedback

The goal of giving feedback is to help people see how they can do something differently to improve the outcome.

A common leadership error is giving multiple points of feedback at once.

When you do that, it’s likely people will do nothing with sufficient focus to achieve mastery. There’s a decent chance working memory will be overloaded and performance will get worse. Another challenge is that feedback is often not acted upon. This can create a culture of ignorance. Build a culture of accountability by noticing if feedback is acted upon. Be intentional about feedback. If you cannot remember the feedback you have given the person receiving it definitely won't.

Giving feedback on one thing at a time builds habits of concentration and follow-through.

“When we concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feeling of control so crucial to performance.”

Shawn Achor - The Happiness Advantage


One of the most important factors in the effectiveness of the feedback is how quickly the recipient gets the chance to use it. The ideal sequence for recipients is receive-try-reflect rather than receive-reflect-try.

📹 Video Example

Stop Over Talking. It Reduces Learning.

A common mistake by leaders is they talk too much. When they do, people stop listening. Many leaders don’t pick up on these signals and continue talking.

Today team members need crisp and clear messages. Seconds, not minutes or even worse hours!

A common reason that leaders over-communicate is that they are worried they will forget it.

Become a master of language economy.

“Economy of language”—the skill of saying something in the fewest possible words

One effective way to improve is to plan better. Prepare for what you want to say. Refine and trim your message. Prioritize the one message you must say rather than saying the things you should say.

Learning to say less gives people more space and autonomy and ownership.

The best coaches, coach by not coaching.

Every team member needs to have one most important thing that they’re being given consistent and timely reminders and encouragement about. And it’s critical when you have multiple leaders that everyone has to know each person one thing. That consistency of messaging is vital to the learning process.


Checking for Understanding

“While the teacher is trying to … discover what isn’t working, the student is in some way trying to elude discovery, disguising weaknesses in order to seem better than she is.”

–Jeremy Denk

Teaching is knowing the difference between “I taught it” and “They learned it.” No matter the setting, bridging the gap between those two ideas is at the core of what teachers do and often the greatest challenge of the job.

The training environment must be complex enough to prepare people to execute under performance conditions.

To check for understanding, the leader must first must-see. You must be able to see what is happening. First, you have to perceive the error, and surprisingly, that is the step where the process breaks down far more often than almost anyone would suspect.

Three ways to observe better:

  • Tracking, Not Watching - Observation is not a passive activity but an active one.

  • Anticipate Errors - Take a few minutes when you are planning a training exercise and specifically ask yourself, “What are the things players are most likely to get wrong as they do this?”

  • Exemplar Planning - Taking the time to describe what the ideal answer looks like.

📹 Video Example

Observe how Denarius has a clipboard of things to track. He has intentionally planned the session and the observations he will make.

Develop an environment where team members study their mistakes with openness, curiosity and interest. If they can reflect on their struggles and missteps without defensiveness or recrimination, and make this a habit, you will have created a learning culture.

Developing a culture of error normalizes failure. It stops behaviours like deflecting blame onto others, rationalizing their mistakes, or seeking to hide them—from their coaches but also from themselves. The message is that mistakes are inevitable when we try to learn difficult things. This is different from a culture where coaches are afraid to call a wrong answer or a poor decision a mistake—the opposite, in many ways.

A good sign of the right culture is when your team say:

I’m doing something really challenging tomorrow and I’m not sure it’s going to go well. I’d love your feedback.

When checking for understanding, these are common questions asked by leaders:

  • “Is that clear?”

  • “Everybody get it?”

  • “Understand?”

  • “Are we good?”

  • “Do you have any questions?”

People are very unlikely to understand whether they understand something—the less they understand about it. If you ask people even something very simple like how much time they spent on their smartphone in the last 24 hours, the data will almost assuredly be inaccurate.

Better ways to check for understanding:

  • “What questions do you have?” is far better than “Do you have any questions?”

  • Fast, targeted questions to assess understanding. How long do we have? What is the first thing you need to do? When will you have succeeded?

  • Show me - Asking listeners to demonstrate a simplified version of the thing you want them to do


Building a Learning Culture

You can get a lot wrong if you get the culture right.

Culture is built in a thousand smaller moments when we’re not fully aware that we’re building it.

The sociobiologist Edward Wilson describes the success of humans as being the result of two parallel forms of natural selection. One that rewarded strength and intelligence among individuals and another that rewarded coordination and cooperation among groups. The weaker individual in a stronger group might be more likely to survive through the aeons of prehistory than would a stronger individual in a weak group.

Building culture is in large part about our ability to sustain focus on what’s important when something else feels more urgent.

The coach designs the environment and the team members own it. Culture is shared among everyone, a mindset (attitudes), and a set of regular habits and rituals (practices). It is designed and it must be shared. It must be distinct. It is expressed in habits and language is the most important habit.

It’s hard to stick to positive habits in a negative environment.

The best cultures have elements that are incomprehensible to “outsiders”. This reminds “insiders” of their belonging.

Leaders help people achieve their dreams, maximize their potential and find out what it means to pursue excellence in a team environment.


Becoming a More Coach-Like Leader

“Coaching is about developing people to become better, to reach their potential and—for team sports—to become better than the sum of your parts”

Scotland Rugby head coach Gregor Townsend

How do you respond: when a team member makes a sound decision that results in a poor outcome?

This is a critical moment in the relationship between the coach and team members.

In the great majority of cases, when the decision is right but the execution goes wrong, it is a good thing. The execution, after all, won’t always be insufficient. A good decision with an imperfect skill is not only preferable to the proficient skill with a bad decision, it’s likely to result soon enough in both good decision and good execution.

The hallmarks of great coaches:

  • Hunger and humility

  • Relishing the journey of maximizing other people’s skills

  • Relentlessly seeking to maximize your own skills

  • Focusing always on the things that can make you better

Managing one’s own ego is one of the most challenging tensions in a coach’s development.

“There are some coaches that will promote their own importance to a team’s success, but I don’t believe that is sustainable or compatible with long-term team success.”

Many teams refer to themselves as ‘management’ (coaching team, medical, strength + conditioners, operations). Instead, change the language to ‘support staff.’ It’s a simple shift in language that reminds you that, ultimately, you are not the ones going to win the games. We help and serve the team.


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