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Developing Mindsets Organising and Planning Participant centred coaching

Using Challenge Cards to Put the Athlete at the Centre of Their Learning

Canoe Slalom Coach at British Canoeing Craig Morris explains why the use of challenge cards is so important in a person-centred approach that develops independent athletes and an effective learning environment

Canoe Slalom Coach at British Canoeing Craig Morris has worked across the canoeing pathway for many years, recently supporting multiple paddlers to the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Canoe Slalom is a highly dynamic sport that challenges your skills in an ever-evolving environment. It demands high levels of adaptability and effective decision-making. In 2019, after many discussions with coaches and deep consideration of his coaching practice, Craig decided he needed to commit fully to doing things differently. The Challenge Cards were ‘born’.

‘Breaking the shackles’ to promote learner-led environments

Based on a desire to enhance the paddler and coach experience of development, over 100 cards have been designed to promote learner-led environments that enhance skills both relevant to the sport and to real life in fun, collaborative and playful ways.

These sport-specific challenges all reside under the umbrella of a non-linear approach to skill development. Flexible in nature, learners learn by exposure to different environmental situations over time, with a high degree of freedom. The emphasis is on the exploration of solutions through self-directedness and self-organisation and the cards were designed to incorporate a lot of fun, putting the person and creativity in the centre of their learning.


What would the challenge cards look like in your sport/physical activity? What would be the areas you would focus on and develop first?

Craig wanted to put the paddler in the centre of the cards, encouraging independent thinkers who were creative and able to self-organise and direct their own learning. What would be the centre of your card design?


Designing the Challenge Cards 

The cards include Coach, Paddler and Connect challenges, and may be used in many ways. They were designed to allow the user to adapt them as required to meet individual needs and to flex to differing environments.

To help the paddler and coach we have provided some ideas to get started:

  • Select one card to build on a strength and one that would stretch you.
  • Share the cards with paddlers and ask them to pick a challenge relevant to their goals.
  • Share the cards with a peer asking them to pick a challenge for yourself. Have a discussion as to why they chose that particular card for you.
  • Spread cards in front of your paddling group and have them pick a challenge for each other.


How would you use a set of cards? Could you add anything to Craig’s ideas?


Challenge Cards in action

Here's an example of a Paddler Challenge Card: 'On the back foot: Start each course from a challenging position.'

This card was developed by Adam Burgess, a member of the Canoe Slalom Olympic Team. The process of selecting a card was made easy as the paddler designed it to add to an existing skill that focused upon enhancing ‘in run’ (during the performance) adaptability. 

The intention of the card was to expose paddlers to the experience of arriving at a gate sequence in different ways, which more accurately represents what is likely to occur in competition. The dynamic, changing nature of the individual/environment in the sport means that paddlers require a strong ability to adapt – and quickly! Evolving from being ‘off plan’ (and freezing) to noticing what has become possible and adapting. 

The card encourages problem-solving and choice, but also offers the coach an insight into what the paddler perceives as difficult and as a possible priority for future co-creation of practice design.

Once comfortable with the ‘shape’ of a skill, playing with the approach is a great tool to increase repeatability in different race situations and confidence in ability to deliver it."

Adam Burgess, Team GB

Maximising the Challenge Cards

As a coach you can then begin to deepen the use of the card through observation and analysis. The use of well-placed questions to encourage reflection, explore decisions and movement solutions and help the athlete become attuned to specifying information is essential within your coaching practice.

Here are a few questions for you to consider asking your athletes:

  • What did you notice when…?
  • Show me what you mean?
  • What would happen if?
  • I’m intrigued by how else it could be done.

You can design a ‘menu’ of learning based on the cards, threading learning from one practice to another with skillful reflective practice. As athletes and coaches become more comfortable and confident with the cards, they begin to further explore their own solutions, becoming more independent, self-directed and self-organised in practice and competition.

Have a go

What would your first three coaching cards look like in your environment? What areas would you focus on first and why?


Craig Morris’ top tips for your journey into developing your own Challenge Cards

  • Collaborate. Go on a journey together with other coaches and your athletes.
  • Actively seek feedback from the athletes, other coaches and look outside your sport for ideas.
  • Be curious and stretch yourself. What’s the worst that can happen? The card doesn’t work!
  • Explore your individual and collaborative ‘why’ with others. This will help you further shape your challenge cards.
  • Create your own challenges to suit the needs of your athletes and you.

Visit the British Canoeing Challenge Cards webpage for more information.

Research Journal

Craig Morris wrote a piece on the British Canoe Slalom Challenge Cards for Volume 6 of our Applied Coaching Research Journal.

Read the journal or download the article PDF.


Expert Opinion

Craig Morris also appears in an expert opinion to discuss coaching and his use of an 'ecological dynamics' approach to skill development.

Login or subscribe to read.


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Related Resources

  • Skill Acquisition Podcast (EP 1): Craig Morris - Skill acquisition transformed my coaching

  • Developing Independent Participants

  • What is the Impact of ‘Over-Coaching?’


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