At the weekend I found myself at an impromptu ‘Go Canoe’ session at Chester Canoe Club with a mate of mine. This is a great initiative by canoeing’s national governing body to get more people into canoeing on the back of a pretty successful Olympic campaign for GB. In my humble opinion, everybody should have a bit of a go at this (click here for a session near you) especially with CCC down on the River Dee (in the glorious April sun that we had on Saturday) and especially if you have Simon as your ‘Go Canoe’ instructor. And here is the reason why…
Since being involved in coach education I find myself quite often watching other coaches in their settings and then trying to analyse what they are doing and why they are doing it. Initially this was just a bit of a bad habit, now it has become more of an obsession, but it arms me with plenty of anecdotal evidences that I can then share with students. So on Saturday, not only did I set foot back on dry land a more accomplished canoeist, but I was also fascinated by Simon’s (the instructor) approach to dealing with absolute beginners in little vessels in pretty deep, busy waters.
After being launched from the jetty (I’m working on the lingo…) a group of about 7 of us sat around as Simon embarked on his delivery and my analysis was already underway. In fact it had started before we had got into the water. Apologies Simon if you do ever read this but you’ll be glad to hear that I was quickly proven wrong. My first impression of Simon was this very nice old chap, that was clearly into his canoeing and the sort of person that looked like he had been running canoeing trips for the Scouts for about 40+ years. My intuitions had totally taken over (System 1 if you have read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) and all of the coaching stereotypes began forming in my head, old school, lots of instruction, not much actual canoeing. This was a pretty poor judgement to make on my part as I didn’t know the poor bloke or anything about his ‘coaching’ background. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We were underway in less than a minute after Simon had introduced us to a paddle. Now whilst this is not verbatim the instruction went something like this, ‘this is a paddle, it helps to propel you through the water. The flat side needs to go in first. Let’s take 3 strokes on each side and see if we can go straight’. Well, whilst it didn’t occur to me at the time, I was pleased with the minimal instruction and happy to be off gliding through water. His next offering was to ask ‘how did that feel? Did we all manage to go quite straight?’. At this point I was thinking, nice, a bit of Q&A, good coaching. This was just the tip of the iceberg of Simon’s extensive coaching repertoire. I will try in the next few paragraphs to highlight some of his other approaches and why I was so impressed.
After the 3 strokes and the Q&A he asked us next to do as many strokes as we could before we stopped going straight. Of course each individual in the group could achieve a different number of strokes but nevertheless we all veered off course somewhere between 5 and 10 strokes. This approach allowed each person a certain amount of challenge and success within their own ability, success being that we could all go straight for a certain distance, the challenge being how long we could make it last. Differentiation is not an easy skill as a coach, especially with a group of beginners, that you don’t know, but something that Simon achieved in a short space of time.
An important aspect of coaching with regards to motivating participants and again something that is very individual, specifically in individual sports like canoeing. ‘Can you beat the amount of strokes that you did last time before going of course?’ Goal-setting at it’s simplest… but oh so effective (I was off desperately trying to beat my score, if that was the carrot, I was the proverbial donkey). This wasn’t the only time that this came up during the session and each time he had all participants in the palm of his hand, eager, motivated and enjoying the various challenges.
‘Head for the tree on the opposite bank, just focus on the tree nothing else’. The idea behind external cueing or external focus has it’s roots in psychology and specifically attention. The notion is that when focusing externally, the attention of a performer is on the effects of the movement outside of the body. Research suggests (click here for a basic example) that focusing on the effects of a movement rather than movement execution provides for improved levels of learning motor skills. Well to support the research, suddenly we had 6 (pretty much beginners) canoeists gliding in straight lines across the Dee. Once again, top coaching!
For any of you that have canoed before you will know that there is a lot of ‘feeling’ going on whilst you are on the water. Being on an unstable surface (a river) the main feeling that I had was ‘how long before I end up getting wet?’. The canoe rocks about a lot, one pull too hard on a the left hand and you are off right, then a corrective stroke right and you are too far left, by now the boat has a bit of a wobble on. ‘Take 2 or 3 strokes to get going then close your eyes and paddle 5-6 more strokes trying to stay straight’. OK Simon, now you are having a laugh… but it works. The body’s proprioceptive systems are activated and suddenly you become very aware of every movement and you begin to ‘feel’ what is going on and of course you try to correct each movement in an attempt to stay going straight. To put this to the test, stand up straight with your feet together… fairly stable?? Now close your eyes…
Did you feel a bit of a wobble?
But I’m guessing you didn’t fall over, as the body/mind is not that daft.
Now, eyes open, stand on one leg… a little less stable, but manageable for most of us?? Now close your eyes again…
Did you feel a bit more of a wobble? Were you more aware of muscles contracting than before?
I’m guessing you didn’t fall over again, more importantly did you suddenly feel muscles contracting that you were not aware of before?? Especially lower leg, specifically around the ankle? This is your body’s natural balance taking control. By closing your eyes you are internalising and amplifying the feedback on the movement, allowing better recognition of how to correct it. Another interesting approach to motor skill development.
This is my final bit of ‘geeking out’ over someone’s coaching I promise. On pitches, courts and tracks nation-wide you will hear coaches barking all sorts of instructions to their willing charges. Simon wasn’t a huge fan of giving out lot’s of technical instruction, ‘this hand here, that knee there, lean that way…’, instead he was more about what ever feels best for you. How I got from A to B was very different from that of my mate, but we both got there, we were pleased and Simon was impressed. I am buying into this style of coaching more and more where we focus on what the end product is, regardless of the individuals technique (safety and efficiency accounted for), unlike a maths test, I am becoming less bothered with the working out, as long as you get the answer right. The highlight of this was after about an hour when Simon announced ‘I’ve not really told you how to hold the paddle yet have I, perhaps I should have done that at the start. Oh well you all seem to be doing pretty well, in the old days you would have been told to hold it above your head and make sure your arms are at right angles. Just hold it however it feels comfortable’. My point exactly Simon… Bravo!!
It’s so nice to see great coaching, especially in different sports and perhaps when you (wrongly) least expect it. What was even nicer was that I’m not really sure he knew how good he was, either that or he put on a great show of hiding it. I’d be interested to find out what his background is and where and how he learnt to coach the way he does, so Simon (or colleagues at CCC) if you are reading this, it would be nice to hear from you. Finally if this is how the British Canoe Union are educating their coaches, then we could all learn a little (read a lot) from them.
As ever, comments, questions and reblogs are always welcome.