Guided Discovery For the Fitness Professional

As a former physical education teacher I had the opportunity to hone my teaching skills and develop many teaching styles. In the 80’s I became intrigued with fitness and watched virtually every fitness related program and read all the magazines and journals available to me. The one stark difference that I would notice between my profession as a teacher and my new passion, fitness, was that there didn’t seem to be a solid base of teaching methodology in the fitness arena. Most trainers were giving their clients the same workout routine they did that morning, plus they were using more of a motivational without instruction teaching style. In other words there was a lot of yelling but not much teaching.

As time went on I became more serious about the fitness industry and I began teaching athletes to improve their athletic abilities. Because my past exposure was from other coaches and what I has seen on TV and read about, I basically adopted those methods for my teaching style. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that there had to be a better way of tapping into the athletes learning abilities to get more natural results. What I mean by natural results is that I wanted the body to move as it was intended and not so robotic and rehearsed.

Relying on my teaching background I began to use a method of teaching called guided discovery. I remembered back in college taking a class called movement education. It was based on experimenting and figuring out how to accomplish a task. So what I began to do is use this form of teaching to get my athletes to move correctly and more natural. The other important aspect of guided discovery that always benefited me as an athlete is when I did something correctly due to feel, it was an instantaneous kinesthetic understanding of my body and how it should move. It didn’t matter how many times a coach or teacher told me how to do it, I had to feel it to learn it and reproduce it.

So I began to incorporate this style of teaching and learning into the athletes. Over time I became more adept at recognizing what skills needed a more direct approach to teaching and which skills needed to be figured out through kinesthetic awareness. Some skills required a little of both and some athletes varied greatly on how they needed to be taught. The most important benefit I wanted all my athletes to gain from the learning experience is empowerment. I wanted them to take charge of their bodies and mind and try to draw a connection that would be ingrained. I truly felt if I could empower athletes to realize the basic balance and body positions to perform movements they could make needed adjustments for virtually any athletic skill.

So how did I use guided discovery? What was the basic foundation of this teaching method on a day to day basis of learning? First off, I had developed a set of rules that fit my personality as a teacher and made sense in the role of using guided discovery. Listed are 6 basic ruled I adopted over time:

1. Never put the athlete in an injurious setting. If the athlete has a potential for hurting them self, it is your responsibility as a coach to reduce this potential.

2. Always set your athlete up for success. The athlete must be placed in a position that they can achieve success. This doesn’t mean they don’t have to work for it, but never give them a task that will guarantee failure.

3. Give them as little cuing as possible to guide them in the correct direction. The goal is for the athlete to figure out how to properly move through feel and guidance.

4. Ask questions that give you as much input as possible as to how they physically feel during the skill as well as make them figure out what you want. For example; “Can you feel your glutes fire when your heel is in contact with the floor”? This will give you the answer you want, but also guide them into making sure the heel in contact with the floor with out actually saying, “get you heel on the floor”.

5. Reward the correct movement pattern with strong Phrases or words. “Fantastic, you got it” or “You nailed it” or “Great job”. Psychologically this is more powerful and rewarding and attaches a good feeling to the correct movement.

6. Don’t reward sloppy or poor movements. You don’t want to chastise either. You simply use terms like; “your not quite there yet” or “you can do better than that”. Give them the feeling that they have to concentrate and deliver a better performance than the one they just did.

Guided discovery is used in such a way that instruction is limited to the point of making sure the athlete understands what the skill is and what it should look like, but the athlete must use his or her feel to perform it correctly.

Important points:

  • The coach must recognize immediately if the skill is not correct even if it feels correct to the athlete. This is where the coach must have adequate working knowledge of what the skill should look and feel like.
  • The coach can give cues that will guide the athletes into performing the skill correctly but not actually give them a step by step approach that may enter more confusion due to too many instructions. Sometimes less is more.

Another important aspect of guided discovery that hasn’t been touched on yet is the act by the coach of physically forcing the athlete to self-correct a poor movement. Gray Cook, highly notable physical therapist and strength coach, uses reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) to guide his clients into a correct movement pattern. This is done by pushing the client into their mistake and forcing the client to self correct. This can be done by using the hands or by using an elastic band. An example of RNT would be to force a client that goes into valgus (medial collapse of the knees) into further values by placing the elastic band around the outside of the knees, to obviously force the knees inward. The only cuing that needs to be given is to not let the band collapse the knees or keep the knees over the middle of the toes.

As you can see guided discovery is about putting the obligation of correct movement on the individual. The responsibility of the coach is to guide when needed. I have always felt that too many coaches try to find something to say because they feel it is there job, when, in actuality, saying little can get quicker and more resounding results.

Now, I am certainly not advocating that guided discovery is used as the only teaching method, but if used properly it can create a lasting learning effect. It can establish a framework of understanding by the athlete to make self corrections when needed.

I strongly encourage coaches to become fully educated on the skill or movement pattern they are teaching. For the foundation of education is knowledge. A coach can not guide another if they have not gained a working knowledge of the task at hand. Enjoy the results you will unearth as a result of guided discovery.