Six coaching pitfalls, and how to avoid them

Something that I have noticed over the years of running coach and instructor assessments, is that the candidates are normally good at making plans that seem to make logical sense, but as soon as they try and implement those plans with real people, things go downhill pretty quickly.

So what goes wrong?

1. Not meeting the individual needs of the clients

There are many ways that coaches fail to meet the needs of the clients, but generally it boils down to the coach lacking a robust diagnostic process – verbal questioning, observing activity or ideally a combination of both.


§ Asking some very specific questions, this could be done in a café or via the phone or email beforehand, and then collect evidence to confirm the conclusions drawn from those questions. This could even be done beforehand via footage recorded on a mobile phone. If this isn’t possible, start your session with a period of observation, allowing you to work out their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, this does mean that you need to watch them and yes, it does mean that you shouldn’t be speaking to the clients, as that will affect their performance!
§ During this period of observation, setting some open tasks (while you deliberately observe their performance) and when you have some ideas about what weaknesses you have observed, test your observations to confirm your results before making an action plan... it may be that what you have seen in one context isn't replicated in another...

§ Categorising each of the elements that the clients need to work on, into Low and High Priority.

If there are multiple areas for development, a theme needs to be selected for the session giving focus to the coached activities and always for learning around this key theme. Too often a coach tries to develop too much at once. Ideally the first area for development is the High Priority one that has the biggest impact... depending on the clients’ requirements.

If a client has come to a coach, they will normally want something specific, but this may not be the same as what they need. As part of the negotiation following observation, it is worth taking the time to establish if the client wants to work on the elements that the coach has identified. During this negotiation it would be worthwhile to:
  • Clarify exactly how the areas that you have identified will aid the clients to reach their short/long term goals
§ Consider offering the clients three or four key areas that you can help them with, and let them choose one. Client buy-in through choice is a very important (and often over-looked) factor from a motivational point of view. At a Mountain Training Development Coach and British Canoeing Performance Coach level, a coach would be expected to be able to do this for two or more different clients at the same time.

2. Inappropriate Progressions

The coach gets over-excited and tries to fix everything at once, and ends up just telling them what to do - see further detail here.

The coach also needs to decide if they are coaching for safety or performance.


§ Referencing back to the categorised observation and negotiation outcomes and deal with the High Priority elements first, particularly if they are related to safety.

§ Starting with simple approaches that can be built upon, that are logical in their progression/application, but develop understanding, so that the clients can make their own decisions. Remember the whole point of coaching is to get the clients to be able to do things without you being present.

As a coach you need to understand that any ‘coping’ processes that is put in place early on will not be helpful long term, so the coach needs to wean them away from these before these processes become ingrained and therefore problematic. Common examples include ensuring that the rope is piano string tight before lowering off a novice climber, which manifests into struggling with falling when the rope is loose on lead. Or tapping the bottom of a kayak three times when capsizing, develops in to being not sure which to do when stressed 6 months later - try a roll, or tap when they capsize at the bottom of rapid.

Remember that there are many reasons why clients seek out coaching, they may wish:
  • to ‘Enjoy’ their sport more independently,
  • to ‘Explore’ new ideas or concepts,
  • to ‘Embed’ those new skills fully into their normal practice,
  • to ‘Excel’ in their chosen discipline – this may be at the standard they wish to perform at, or national/Olympic standard.
A coach needs to choose appropriate methods for helping their clients to develop; the type, duration and variation in practice methods will need to be very different.


§ Taking the time to plan the logical progressions for the different elements that you could be teaching, for example a rock-over, a track stand or a cartwheel. Start simple and build levels of complexity as required. This requires lots of experimentation and true technical understanding of what it is that you are doing.

3. Understanding of Learning

Coaches often fail to understand the crucial difference between how a person takes on new information and how someone learns.

Do you liked to be talked at? On the whole the answer seems to be no, so why is this the default setting for coaches? Even when clients are trying to do tasks, the talking doesn’t stop, let them have time to focus on what they are doing.

A measure of learning having occurred is that the clients can recall a process, adapt that process to the current situation and then be able to reflect on how effective their adaption was weeks or even months later, without the safety net of their coach standing over them.

Take the time to have a look at a range of different learning models, but remember that these are just models at the end of the day, so don’t take them as gospel. A couple to start with include –
  • Mosston & Ashworth Continuum
  • Constraints led learning
  • Constructivism, Behaviourism, Cognitivism, Connectivism.
  • The Cone of Learning – Edgar Dale
Humans’ predominantly learn by doing, meaning that our clients need to be able to make mistakes and decide what to do differently next time. This means that coaches need to give them time to experiment and to try different options, in a progressive and logical way.


§ Having multiple ways of doing things or getting the same point across. Only having one single solution that is usable in many different situations can be a useful ‘coping’ strategy, but removes the decision making process and with it important understanding is lost.

4. Venue choice

Often the venue choice plays a big role in the learning outcomes for the clients. Coaches who only work at single/limited venues will struggle with adaptability, as will their clients. The focus should be the clients learning, and to do that they need a supportive environment that allows them to make mistakes, in a constructive manner and in relatively safety, even within the confines of an adventure sports context. The coach needs be very selective with their choice of venues, as it is hard to learn if you think that you are going to hurt yourself.


· Trying to teach in context, this allows clients to fully understand why they may be doing something. For example there is little point in teaching someone how to place camming devices, if there are no suitable placements on the route that they are about to climb. Or teaching them the differences between dynamic rope types while they are already two pitches up a route. “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.” As a coach you need to spend some time getting to know venues, routes etc well, so that you can teach appropriate skills in the appropriate context.

5. Lack of Practice at Coaching

When you were learning your particular sport, how much time did it take you to get to the point when you performed well? Coaching and instructing are skills in their own right and you need to practice to get better. This can be daunting and to get good takes time.

Try to:

§ Loose the ego. Even if you are good technical performer, you are initially going to be new to things, which means that you need to accept that you are going to get it wrong. Be honest with yourself and others. Being a good performer and being a good coach are two totally different things – one does not lead to the other!

§ Find a mentor (or more). Someone inspiring who has a depth of experience delivering at the level that you are wanting to work at. Deliver with them watching and discuss the sessions afterwards.

§ Create or find a community of practice with like-minded individuals and share new ideas, your recent discoveries, progressions or concepts. They may be able to learn from you, while giving you valuable feedback.

§ Find real people to go out with and practice on. Friends and family will do initially.

§ Be reflective.

6. Lack of Self Reflection

The real learning occurs once we have carefully reflected upon the sessions that we have delivered as coaches, then adjusted plans and delivered those topics again to different clients. This process can (and should) continue indefinitely.

Reflection is not self-criticism it is about reflecting on what you did well as well as well what didn’t go well. It isn’t just about actions and processes it is about improving your self-awareness and impact of your actions and behaviour on others. Everything you say, do and project via body language impacts the clients you work with and you will need to adapt yourself to get the best out of other clients. For instance when you asked your clients to reflect on the learning outcomes from a specific task, did you maintain silence when you could see they were thinking about it or step in with follow up questions because you felt awkward? If you weren’t impressed with something the clients were doing did you control your body language and facial expressions so they could analyse their progress themselves or did you give it away?

There are many different models that can be used to reflect on experiences, but one of the simplest is the use of three stem questions – ‘What?’, ‘So What?’ and ‘Now What’. For more information see here

Another useful model is:

Q1. What did you do?

Q2. How did that impact the client/s?

Q3. How many other ways could you have done it?

Q4. Describe them?

Q5. What factors would have made you choose one of these, other methods?

Q6. What would you do if.....?

Once a coach has learnt to effectively reflect on learning, they are in the perfect position to help their clients become more reflective using the same or similar processes.


To develop as a coach takes time, the key to avoiding the majority of the pitfalls highlighted above is developing an appropriate and effective self-reflection processes. If you don’t value or use this process, your ability as a coach is going to be limited, and with that the impact you have with your clients.

Excellent coaching is about setting stimulating and appropriate tasks to develop your clients' skills while developing your client's ability to self-reflect. Not directly telling them the way to do something or even giving them the solution! Throughout this article the term ‘Coach’ has been used, but this can be easily substituted with ‘Instructor’. All of the content would be more than applicable to Climbing Development Instructors as well as Mountaineering Instructors.

About the Author

Paul Smith has been an active climber for over 20 years and currently runs Rock and Water Adventures. He specialises in providing Technical Advice to range of climbing walls, centres, schools and small businesses, alongside the delivery of the Mountain Training Rock Climbing, Rock Climbing Development Instructor, Climbing Wall and Climbing Wall Development Instructor awards, the Climbing Coaching scheme and elements of the British Canoeing Coaching scheme. He has written a number of climbing related books – ‘Climbing Games’ and ‘Top Tips for Climbing Coaches’. Paul is proud to recieve support from Pyranha Kayaks, Venture Canoes & Kayaks, Peak UK and Salewa.

Acknowledgements – Thanks must go to the following for their technical suggestions, advice and feedback – Dr Rebecca Smith, John Kettle, Alan Halewood, Tom Laws and Daniel Wilkinson.

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