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Reflective Practice in Coaching

What is reflective practice?

Reflective practice is the process of reflecting on our actions in order to engage in continuous learning and gain meaningful insights that impact our future behaviours. 

Reflection in action v reflection on action

Something I have learned from my time working at the English Institute of Sport is to turn ‘events into experiences’. In other words, taking what could be a passive life event and turning it into something meaningful that we can learn from. This process helps us to learn about ourselves, how our actions impact our outcomes, and inform future experiences. 

It is easy to passively move through life without reflecting on what, how, and why events have occurred. If we don’t at least attempt to learn from them, we are more likely to repeat these behaviours and achieve similar outcomes in situations we face later down the line. 

By framing events as experiences, we are encouraged to seek out opportunities for daily learning and growth. 

Two scenarios play out every day in our lives:

1. We act without thought, and approach events in similar ways that we have done previously, whilst not reflecting on our approach to each situation

2. We use previous experiences to inform how we might approach each scenario we face, and use a framework to help us learn from each one on an ongoing basis to refine our behaviours 

The first person adopts a fixed mindset and is limited in their learning potential. The second person demonstrates a growth mindset and has a much higher ‘development ceiling’. 

There are two distinct styles of reflection – reflection in action and reflection on action

Reflection in action is a process we follow whilst in the moment, such as subtle changes in behaviour in response to body language. This often happens with less conscious thought. 

Reflection on action is a more conscious process we go through following an experience, which is where we rationalise events and begin taking lessons from them. 

Both processes are important, but it is perhaps reflection on action that is most impactful. This is something that we do after the event has taken place, which enables us to analyse the process and outcome. 

Gibbs Reflective Cycle



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There are many theoretical models to structure the process of reflection, but Gibbs’ reflective cycle is the one that I have found to be the most impactful. In this model, we are guided through a logical process of reflection, moving from what happened to an action plan for what we could do next time we experience similar situations.

The model is broken down into 6 stages:

  • Description 

  • Feelings 

  • Evaluation 

  • Analysis

  • Conclusion 

  • Action plan

Description is where we simply describe what happened during the event that we are reflecting on. At this stage we are not trying to analyse the events, rather we are simply stating the facts. This might include factors such as what happened, the outcome, who was involved, and where the event took place. 

Feelings are where we identify the feelings that we had before, during, and after the event. This might include questions such as how did the outcome make you feel, what were you feeling during the event, and looking at the event in hindsight, how do you feel about it now?

Evaluation involves the process of beginning to make sense of the events that took place. This enables us to break down the events that unfolded rather than simply stating the facts of what happened and how it made us feel. The key here is to begin with what went well (the positives) and also what didn’t go so well (the negatives). Another important consideration here is how your own previous experiences and insights can help you to make sense of the events that took place. 

Analysis is the stage where we take the details of the events that took place and begin to make some sense of the overall experience. Rather than ‘what’ happened, we now look at ‘why’ these things happened. For example, we may ask ourselves questions such as ‘why did this happen?’, and ‘why did this not go well for me?’ Overall what sense can you begin to make of the events?

Conclusions of the events means summarising what led to the outcomes experienced. Taking the evaluation and analysis stages a step further, try to identify very clearly what it was that produced the outcome. This can be challenging if it was your own actions that caused something negative to take place, but it’s important to be as honest and objective as you can. 

Action plan is the stage at which you extract the learning and meaning that you have gained from this experience to inform future actions. It’s important to consider what behaviours, actions, and approaches you may need to adopt in the future to act differently next time. 

One small caveat to this process is that often we associate reflection with negative experiences, but it can also be useful following positive experiences. Don’t just use this process to identify what went wrong and how your actions led to this, but also consider what you did well that led to a positive outcome. We often find it more difficult to reflect positively and give ourselves a metaphorical ‘pat on the back’, but we must learn from positive experiences too so that we reinforce these behaviours. 

Case study

Putting this into a coaching context, here is an example of how I have used the reflective process to extract meaning from experiences to inform future practice. 

Description - When I was working at Hockey Wales as a strength and conditioning coach, I regularly organised physical assessments to inform our programming decisions. On one occasion, a player who had recently been injured and wasn’t cleared to perform the full battery of tests was about to perform a maximal bike test but was stopped by our Head Coach before she was able to. I wasn’t there in the gym as I was setting up on the pitch, and had completely missed this key detail which could have led to a potentially dangerous outcome for this player. The coach was rightly very angry and made this clear to me in no uncertain terms! I immediately apologised and took full responsibility for this oversight on my part. 

Feelings - I felt guilty that I had put a player in a position where she could potentially have injured herself further, and I was frustrated with myself to think that I had missed a key detail in this process. I pride myself on my attention to detail and organisation, and this didn’t sit comfortably with me at all. I felt like I had let the player down, but was also relieved that she didn’t do the test and was fine. 

Evaluation - It wasn’t easy to identify the positives from this experience, but I gave it my best shot! The main positives from my perspective were that the player didn’t do the test and our physio felt that she could potentially have done the test without any major issues, but that it would have been a risk. The negatives were that it had tarnished my relationship with the coach in the short term, had put a player at risk, and had been an unusual oversight from me. Based on previous experiences, I knew that I was tired that day having had a particularly busy week.

Analysis - This was where I began to extract the meaning and cause of this experience. On reflection I was very tired, I hadn’t slept particularly well having to get up early for the camp and my week had been incredibly busy juggling several commitments. With all of these factors involved, I hadn’t been diligent enough with going through each athlete’s profile before testing to ensure that I had the right considerations in mind before completing testing. I had a lot of focus on the detail of the tests themselves (set up, equipment, data collection) for the 30 athletes in the squad that I hadn’t checked in with the physio as normal and had therefore missed a key detail. 

Conclusions - Ultimately what led to this outcome was a lack of attention to detail caused by tiredness and too much focus on the logistics of the testing rather than the individual players. I had taken on too much responsibility for all of the testing and hadn’t delegated certain tasks to other staff members which would have alleviated some of the pressure on me and potentially meant that this key detail wasn’t missed.

Action plan - Moving forwards in my coaching practice now, I ensure that I never assume that all details are covered before testing. I also try to delegate some roles and responsibilities to other staff members to free me up to focus on the details that matter (the players) to avoid this outcome from happening again. In terms of self-management, I also plan ahead and ensure that I don’t take on too many things during busy periods such as those involving testing. Prioritising sleep, and giving myself space and time to ensure quality of delivery is also key in my coaching practice now. 

Putting this into your own practice

Initially, this model requires a little bit of upfront work in order to formalise the process and practice the cycle so that it becomes more intuitive for us. Personally, I began by writing out the process on a laptop using a table with a column for each step, but this may be a bit much for some people. Instead, you could list it out in paragraph form, or jot down some notes, to begin with. The important thing is the process of reflection, not the method that you select. 

Moving forwards and once this process has become more autonomous for you, you can begin to do this without the need to write down on paper what happened. This is personal preference, however, and some may find that writing it down helps to articulate the experience more coherently. 

The important thing is to begin practicing this process in whatever format suits you best. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more meaning you will begin to extract from experiences. 

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Henry

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