What Coaches Want to Learn, and When

There is a parable (urban legend?) about rocks, pebbles and sand. I'm sure the one I heard also included water at the end, but I can't find a reference to that at the moment.

The story is that, you fill the bottle with rocks, and it seems full. But then you can add a heap of pebbles, full again. But you can still add sand to fill the jar. And then you can add water to fill it up.

The essential points are
  • what might seem full is not necessarily
  • the order you do things is important
I do a lot of work in coach development at the moment, which I love. The thing I love most about coaching is the idea of how to coach better. How to be better at changing the behaviour of the children (or adults) in front of you.

When working with beginner and intermediate coaches I often get disappointed that they don't seem as interested as I am with how to coach. What they want is technical knowledge. Which got me thinking.....


Rocks are technical knowledge. What are the skills of the sport? In some sports there are 3 skills. In some there are hundreds. But coaches want to know what these things are. When they look around at other coaches who are more experienced, it is the thing that jumps out at them and they feel they lack. Coaches won't do anything else until they feel comfortable in this area and realise there is more to know.


Pebbles drills and/or tactical knowledge. Once I know what the skills are involved in the sport, I want to know how to teach them. What drill can I use at training. And for those sports which involve basic tactics, what are they? Coaches won't do anything else until they feel comfortable in this area and realise there is more to know.


And this is the important stuff. Sand is how to coach. Coaches don't realise how important this is until they have the other knowledge. Until the jar is full of rocks and pebbles, coaches don't realise how important the ability to coach, to teach, to combine individuals' skills and traits. It is clearly the distinguishing feature of successful teams at higher levels.


Water is high level sport science support. All Rocks, Pebbles and Sand are based on sound scientific principles and the coach must be open to science to get to the point where they need water. It is important, but only once the other things are done.

Note - this is, of course, a huge generalisation. For any coaches reading this, I am, of course, not talking about you.


  1. This makes perfect sense! If you went in reverse order and learned to coach first before knowing skills, technical knowledge, tactics, etc... it would almost be useless. One important thing that should be included in your "water" (from my perspective anyway) would be helping teams work together. Different personalities don't always get together especially if you coach higher level athletes. The mental part of being a coach is exhausting. You can have perfect practices and perfect game plans and have it all fall apart if the team doesn't get along!

  2. Thanks very much for your comments Steven. The point for me was that it does, indeed, make sense. But in my impatience to get to the end point I was trying to skip over some steps (perhaps like coaches do with athletes at times ;) ).

    Regarding helping teams work together, that is the pebbles.

  3. Alexis - Really like this analogy, I too do some work in coach education and you are right coaches want to feel comfortable with the technical side first, however, certainly in England there is a an emphasis to push the 'how to coach' part early in coach education courses and run it in parallel with the technical and tactical knowledge. I think I could use this with new coaches as an analogy but maybe suggest they fill the jar in stages i.e. Rocks, pebbles, sand, water to fill a quarter and then keep repeating till full - and then of cause explain that as Roy Scheider sort of said 'You're going to need a bigger jar!' Good read and right up my KISS (keep it simple stupid)street. Thanks Dave

    1. Thanks Dave. I'm glad you liked it.

      For me it was definitely about understanding that coaches didn't really want to know what I wanted them to, and why. I still think learning HOW to coach is critical, but I structure things differently now.


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