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.
Sir Clive Woodward has written an interesting article in his Mailonline column (click here for article) today about the 5 Live broadcast ‘Inside Lancaster’s England’ (click here to listen) that was aired on 5 Live on Tuesday evening. Woodward claims that opening up to the media was a ‘mistake’ and something that he would not have (and didn’t) do in his tenure. But is Sir Clive missing some of the more subtle points at stake here.
We are more aware nowadays that coaching is a complex environment that requires coaches to act in different ways when faced with different contexts and situations. Times change, the game evolves, the people involved are different (players, staff and fans) and expectations change based on the context. It is rarely the case that one system fits all, all of the time (especially over a 10 year period). I’m sure Sir Clive Woodward understands this in the sense that what worked for England to achieve a fantastic World Cup win in 2003, did not quite work out for the Lions Tour that he headed up in 2005 to New Zealand. Coaching requires us to be aware of context and expectations, understand our players and support staff and in high profile cases, know how to play the media game.
I agree with Woodward in that Lancaster lacks experience at this level, but my question is, how do you gain that experience if not in the thick of the role and playing it out every day one day at a time. I’m sure that since the start of the 6 nations campaign Lancaster (and his support staff and players) have gained a wealth of experience, they will have a lot to reflect on and there will be things that they will wish to have done differently if given the chance again. This is coaching, whether it be at grassroots or at the very pinnacle of the game. I’m fairly sure though that one of those reflections will not be whether letting the media in was a ‘mistake’. I think this is all part of a bigger plan by Lancaster.
Lancaster is a big fan of Bill Walsh’s book ‘The Score Will Take Care of Itself’ in which Walsh recalls a policy of ‘connection and extension’, bonding as a team and a squad of players and reaching out to the fans and public that will support them. In my eyes this is working very well and I think whilst there are suggestions of this broadcast being ill-timed, I think this is just another stepping stone in the direction of extension and building a squad that ‘might’ be able to challenge in 2015 when the world cup arrives again. As Sir Clive rightly puts it England were in disarray following the 2011 world cup. It was a mess that needed cleaning up on the inside and the image from the outside needed to be changed dramatically and very quickly. This is something that Lancaster tackled immediately, with limited fuss and brilliant execution, so much so the failures and bad impression of 2011 seems a distant nightmare long forgotten about.
Lancaster’s job was to make English supporters love England rugby again and just as importantly make the players love and respect playing for England and all that comes with it. I know I’m sold, and judging by the public reaction from Saturday’s game against Wales, I’d say it’s working very well. Considering all that was at stake before the game on Saturday, I don’t think the public are in any way outraged, disgusted, or ‘anti’-England following the game, result and consequently the outcome of the tournament. Is there disappointment, yes, I’d say there was from all parties, but this is a positive and natural emotion for a team that came so close to something, a Grand Slam, that had not been achieved since the glory year of 2003. This isn’t a ‘papering over the cracks’ exercise, like what followed 2003. I truly believe Lancaster is trying to build something that is a bit more sustainable than a one off year of winning. What England supporters want is an England team that is at the top of world rugby year in, year out. I think in the current context, to have a nation that is, not happy, but accepting of a loss to a (though it pains me to say, a very good) Wales team is some achievement. This all comes from this notion of extension. Get the fans and the public onside, let them in, let them be a part of it and let them make their judgements based on that inclusion (apologies Sir Clive, I know this goes against your Elitist philosophy… and on that would you have written this article if England had beaten Wales on Saturday, with a 6 nations championship, triple crown and grand slam to their name…?)
I guess my overriding point it that coaching is complex and is never going to be the same from one situation to another and as coaches we have to make the best of what we are presented with and the skills that we have. No coach should ever see themselves as the finished article as for me this is the time to give up (and perhaps this is why some do??). As such we find ourselves as coaches in continuous cycles of learning, always looking for ways to develop. Lancaster and his staff are learning, as are the players, as are the fans. I think it is great that we, as England rugby are growing together and I for one like feeling that I have been allowed to be involved in that and will continue to feel welcome in those developments.
England and Lancaster especially, will be judged in 2015 in a WC on home turf. Until then I think we should enjoy the ride as much as we are allowed to.
Just the other day I followed a link on twitter to a blog post from @jasondevos titled ‘DEVOS: A COACH’S PRIMARY OBJECTIVE SHOULD BE TO TEACH’. Whilst there was some interesting content in the piece, I was intrigued by the title and wondered to myself ‘why a coach’s primary objective should be to teach… and not to coach’?
This brought back a few incidents from the past couple of years where, on a number of occasions, I have heard the dreaded phrase that you find in the title of this post ‘Bad Teachers Coach, Good Coaches Teach…’. When questioning those who had delivered this fairly public ‘sledging’ of the coaching profession, the common reasons that come back are surrounded around the ideas that:
teaching is about developing the whole child…
coaching is simply about improving performance of skills and techniques…
For me this notion that teachers are wise in the ways of ‘holistic development’ and coaches are simply ‘in it to win it’ is a bit of a dated (idealistic) view of the nature of the 2 areas and actually fairly unrealistic in my own experience. Is it realistic to assume that in schools, where P.E. teachers (bless them) can often be faced with up to and sometimes more than 50% of a class who really don’t want to be there, are actually developing the individual health, decision making, political, environmental and religious aspects of each of the 32 children in that class?. In the same sense, do we simply view coaches as groups of win-orientated beasts that drill participants into the ground without care of consequence, in search of their next competitive scalp. I liken this to an impression that teachers are producing large, wholesome free-range eggs, whilst coaches simply manage the battery hens, because more is better… More so, if teachers are doing a bad job then we need to label them as a lowly ‘coach’ and as soon as a coach begins to care, well they must be a teacher.
So why such a stark difference in the opinions of each of the professions? Is it because of this notion of being a profession? Do people view teaching as a profession, yet coaching as only a pastime? If so, then why do we make these assumptions (coaching as a profession is a title for another blog post).
Many researchers are beginning to acknowledge that coaching is moving away from simply being a process of improving physical and psychological attributes. Cross & Lyle (1999) suggest that defining coaching effectiveness as contributing to enhanced performance, or being synonymous with success does not do the concept justice. More recently too, Robyn Jones produced an interesting paper on the holistic side of coaching (Coaching as caring (‘The smiling gallery’): Accessing hidden knowledge) looking at the importance of caring in the role of the coach.
I guess my question is ‘what we understand the difference between coaching and teaching to be’? In my opinion/experience, the constraints of the teaching environment focuses on curriculum/teacher-led, instruction-based technique development or skill acquisition, across a myriad of sports, some in which the teacher has ‘expertise’ or they identify as specialisms, many though in which they do not. Coaching on the other hand allows for a more player centred approach to understanding the use of skills in the context of the sport with a practitioner that tends to have that sport as a specialism. I believe that the environment in schools is geared towards developing physical literacy, whereas in coaching settings there is a better opportunity to develop an understanding of skills in the context of the specific sport. By this I am not suggesting that coaches do not develop skills nor that understanding is not developed in school settings as I know that this can be the case. In reality, I think that a lot of what happens in coaching and teaching settings is very similar. In my experience there is as much teaching that lacks ‘development of the whole child’, or an holistic approach as there is coaching that does not develop skill and improve performance. But to say that coaching is a poor person’s teaching is not entirely fair to either profession.
Why can’t good coaches simply be good coaches? And bad teachers… well they need to be coached to be better!
I’d be interested in your views on this topic.