Using Five Whys in Your Coaching Toolkit

“There comes the point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in”. ~Desmond Tutu

Often in a practice session, I will ask a player why they might be struggling with their hitting, defense, or pick any skill. Most times, they will generate a response that is not inaccurate but somewhat one-dimensional. It’s not unusual for me to follow with, “that’s not the problem; that’s the result of the problem. Now, what might be the problem?”

Little did I know, I was using a concept called “The 5-Whys” inside my coaching routine. At the time, I didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing. Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. This concept became popular in the 1970s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today. I was unknowingly using a successful industrial problem-solving concept. The concept is explained in the video below.

The Five Whys is a process designed to drill down to the root cause of a problem. In a nutshell, for every challenge, you ask “Why” five times. An on-court example might be:

Player- “I got aced again.”
Why? – “My platform was poor.”
Why? – “I didn’t move my feet.”
Why? – “I was slow, reacting to the serve.”
Why? – “I didn’t focus on the server with any intensity.”
Why? – “I didn’t use specific cues when watching the server to anticipate where the ball was going.”


Root Cause- coach and passer need to spend more time implementing visual keys into the passing routine of all passers with the goal of those keys becoming habitual.

The first impressions as to the nature of the passing issues were the result of the problem, not the problem.

Another example, coaches have embraced the importance of statistical analysis of performance. Having objective data to evaluate performance is an enormous step forward in how coaches view the game. However, I also see a downside. Often, a coach will have data but is not exactly sure what to do with this information. Again, the 5 Whys might be useful. An example:

Coach- “We don’t sideout very well in rotation 1”.
Why? – “Our hitting efficiency is low.”
Why? – “We rely too much on the left side attack.”
Why? – “We are often out of system, and our setter has limited options.”
Why? – “Our best passers do not have the most attempts
Why? – “Our passers do not communicate very well.”


Root Cause – “The coach needs to be more specific with seam responsibility in the serve receive pattern. There is also a need to have our best passer be more assertive on the court and be responsible for more court area.

Many will argue that when faced with a problem, the focus should be on the solution, not the problem. I don’t see it this way. Without a firm grasp on the issue, solutions will most likely be mere band-aids that will break down in pressure situations.

If a coach pursues the root cause, they will discover that what might seem to be the problem is only a result of the root cause. As you drill down to the root cause, you may not need all 5 “whys”. You also may discover multiple root causes. This is okay! The important aspect is to effectively solve a problem or a challenge, it will be helpful to go through this process.

I would suggest that coaching staffs examine several problems inside their program and as a collective group pursue “5 Whys” and pursue the root cause. This process can be implemented into player meetings, practice routines, and team goal setting.

I would be interested in any feedback that you might have if you pursue a trial with the “5 Whys”.

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