Two-Person Workshop

How to Improve Your Side Coaching

If you’re an improv teacher, you’re probably familiar with the concept of side coaching, where you make subtle comments to your students while they are doing a scene to give them some direction. The concept of side coaching is to help your student see something they can’t see in the moment.

Sounds easy, right? But in fact, doing it well can be tricky. Side coaching is not an exact science, but it is a skill that can be learned, and the best way I have learned is through trial and error.

Here are a few other tips that I have learned over the years that will help you give more effective feedback. See more tips from Jay Sukow, an improv teacher in Los Angeles, below:

  1. One size does not fit all
    Remember, what works for one person may not work for the rest. Students all learn differently and some have more experience than others. Take this into consideration. I’ve had students who could not be heard on stage and my side coaching for the whole term has been to “share your voice with us” until they could be louder. Until they could be heard on stage, everything else is pointless. Once they master this, then you can move on.

    At the same time, a more advanced player may need to be working on going deeper in their scene work or working on emotions. Get to know your students and realize when it comes to side coaching one size does not fit all.

  2. Remember You’re Not Always Right
    Sometimes when I am side coaching during a scene, it will put students in their heads. You can see it their face; they just look confused and then they shut down. When that happens, you just have to let it go, admit your comment did not work and move on. In my experience, 70 percent of my comments are right on the mark and 30 percent are off the mark. This can be tough on your ego, but by admitting that you’re not always right and letting it go, you are teaching your students by example about humility — something that is necessary in this work and life.
  3. Make one-word comments
    When it comes to saying the perfect comment when you’re side coaching, less is more. I have found that boiling your thoughts down to one word — preferably an action word like “attack,” “heighten” or “pounce,” or a phrase like “find the agreement” or “do less” – is the most effective tool for side coaching.

Side Coaching Tips from Jay Sukow

The two notes I give most often when side coaching: say yes and like each other. Those two will help any scene succeed.

Here are a couple of other tips:

  1. Set expectations
    Set expectations at the top of the class to let your students know what’s happening. Some may not even know what side coaching is. You can say something like, “I’ll be doing a little side coaching. Think of me as a voice in your head. But don’t break the reality of the scene to check in with me. Stay with your scene partner.”
  1. Decide what results you’re looking for
    Before you make a comment, think about what you are trying to achieve. Give clear, simple direction as to what you want to see. Do you want to push your students to take bigger risks? To become more active? And most importantly, do they even need your help? Or are you side coaching for your own ego?
  1. Don’t direct the scene
    Avoid being too heavy handed or directing the scene. I rarely side coach at the beginning of the scene, unless it’s to remind them to say yes or like each other. Remember: It’s not your scene. What are they trying to achieve? Guide them toward that. I’ll say things like “more” or “stay active” or “follow your body” or “and” or “you’re not angry with them.”

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1 reply
  1. Sam
    Sam says:

    Great notes. I read your site for the keen coaching insights. One of the few blogs on teaching improv directed to coaches and teachers I’ve encountered.


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