Tuesday, 7 May 2019

How I developed coaching superpowers - by shutting up!

I was blessed with a loud voice and I like to talk...(no kidding I hear many of you cry!)

Not surprisingly, I could also be a very loud coach... a loud coach that spoke a lot! 

I used to use my voice as a major tool in my coaching toolbox. I would provide a lot of feedback to players in an effort to create a high energy, motivational climate. I would fill the airwaves with positively descriptive words and phrases like "good", "excellent", "I like it!", "good thinking!", "good effort" Sometimes I would go further and start throwing in the odd instruction like '"watch the back post", "use the space" or sometimes..."give it" or "carry to space". 

Then somebody gave me some feedback about my coaching and questioned my use of voice and my constant communication. I was made aware that I was probably just filling the session with an incessant barrage of noise which the players would just tune out. It was explained that the players either ignore me or they start to become dependent on the feedback which could prevent them from truly exploring different ways of doing things for fear of not receiving a positive reinforcement message.

Either way it meant that my delivery was less effective and there was no space for the players to learn through exploration. 

I went into a bit of a meltdown...

I went through all of the classic stages of the Kubler-Ross change curve. 
MThanks to www.peopleinsight.co.uk for use of this image
The initial shock left me reeling...

At first I rejected it and looked for examples of why it was wrong...'there are other top coaches who give a lot of feedback...why is it OK for them and not for me? 

I got frustrated when in my sessions and felt that I was way less effective as a coach...'why wasn't my natural style good enough?' 

I was depressed and really had a bit of a crisis of confidence...'I am clearly not all that good!'...

Then I started to use it more and more and slowly through experimentation I became more comfortable with this approach...'maybe their is something to this!'...

I began to read about the technique and found some very interesting research into implicit learning and using feedback. I realised that I had become overzealous and had become a bit of a 'joystick coach'. I decided that this was something that was going to make me a lot better...'this could take me to the next level'...

I became comfortable will saying a lot less and realised that it was a potent tool to shape learning. I have integrated it into my coaching toolbox and it is  now a standard methodology...'this is great, why haven't I use this before? 

 That said making the adjustment to saying less hasn't been without it's challenges...
  • I have found myself questioning whether learning is taking place when I see certain actions in a game and I suspect that the player isn't even aware that there were other options that they could take. I had to fight the urge to step in
  • I have found myself silent for long periods of time and I couldn't help but think that I am just being a passenger and not really adding much value to the session.  
  • I have had to really work to find the right balance point between allowing space for learning and ensuring that learning moments are not lost. 
So what was I to do? 

I heard Professor Keith Davids use this phrase recently on the excellent 'Perception & Action Podcast' hosted by Dr Rob Gray.. 

"you can't adapt to an environment you don't inhabit" 

So I have adapted...

This change to my environment where I have not been able to use my voice as much as an instrument to coach has forced me to adapt and has enhanced my coaching a lots of ways so that my abilities feel more like superpowers. Here are a few examples...
  • Preparing like Batman - Batman does not have superpowers so he has to be really well prepared both physically and also in the way he would tackle a group of bad guys. His planning both before the engagement and also during is key. My planning has become even more essential and I have had to really dial in my preparation work to make sure that the tasks and games that I am using in the session are hitting the mark from a learning perspective I am also much more prepared to adjust the plan in the moment if I think that something isn't working or could work better. 
  • Using my 'Spidey sense' like Spiderman - Spiderman could sense if there was a problem before it happened. Being constrained by not being able to issue instructions as meant that I have upgraded by intuitive side which has become much more tuned in to what is going on in the moment and I have become much more creative in using task constraints within the sessions to draw players attention towards the key learning area. 
  • Challenging like 'Nick Fury' from the Avengers - Nick Fury was famous for bringing together the Avengers by putting them in a stressful situation . I agree personal challenges related to the learning theme with each player before the session starts so that they are developing as individuals as well as a group. I also set group challenges so there is pressure 
  • Create connection like 'Professor X' from X-Men  - Professor X mentored a group of young people with special abilities. He used his ability to connect with people to tap into their inner motivations and help them develop. I have a lot of 1 to 1s with players so that I can ask them questions about certain moments or certain phases in a game and/or draw their attention to an element within their personal challenge that may need reinforcement (I often use this as a task constraint also to deliberately create overloads or underloads for periods of time)  
  • Listening like Daredevil - Daredevil lost his sight as a child but his other senses developed as a compensation. Saying much less has enhanced my listening skills a lot more, either in the reviews that the players lead or in the game where I am listening at what the players are saying so that I can pick up what they are learning or feeling. I will often reference this in a review "I just heard Owen say X, tell me more about that..."
  • Observing like Superman - Superman has X-ray vision and also super sight where he could spot danger from high above the ground. My observation skills have become way more attuned so that I can spot moments that I want to reference or draw players attention to. I am also seeing the gaps in the task so that I can tune it in even more and challenge learning as much as possible. 

The joy (and the power) of experimenting in the 'gamified garden'

I like to think of my back garden is a lab in which I conduct experiments in skill acquisition...

My experimental methods are backyard games...

My children are the lab rats!

So here is a story about my latest experiment...

My little boy Evan is 8 years old and he is mad about cricket. He's not fussed about watching it (he doesn't know who Alistair Cook is and has no concept of what scoring 10,000 test runs would be like!) but he loves to play.  

Almost every day he asks to play and most days I am only too happy to indulge him and his 4 year old little sister Isla (although she always has to bat first and then has a massive strop when she gets out and storms off).

We have been playing off and on for the past 2 years or so. He has a plastic bat and we play with either tennis balls or plastic 'wind balls' which bounce a bit lower and are better for development. 

One of the interesting things for me has been watching his technique develop with me giving him hardly any instruction. 

We play games, a lot of games...

We have loads of them...

"Pressure 6"
"12 balls"
"Runner runner" 
 the latest one we called...
"Maker's name"...

Evan has developed a really effective 'pull shot' (a shot which he hits to his left in a baseball style for those that aren't into cricket). But the problem is that he wants to hit it every tine and their are times when the ball is in the wrong position to play that shot and him trying to play would get him out which was frustrating for him. 

The problem is that he is a product of his environment...in this case and 'L' shaped garden.

Let me explain...

This is what our garden looks like...


The diagram (hopefully) shows that the best place for even to score his runs is to his left towards the patio. If he hits it straight then there is a chance that I will run him out or I will catch him out. So hitting to his left means that he can always score and is pretty safe from being run out. 

I have been trying to get him to play other shots by bowling the ball in a spot to see if he would work out a way to adjust on his own. I have asked him questions about whether the pull shot is the right shot all the time. I have tried modelling a lot of other shots when it has been his turn to bowl but he always seemed pretty keen on hitting that pull shot. 

So I got all 'Dr Frankenstein' on him and decided to do some experiments...

The ingredients that I used when mixing my experimental concoction were game constraints in the shape of rules, restrictions, targets and scoring.

First I said that he could get 6 points for hitting the ball over the fence over my head (previously it had been 6 and out!)

Next I gave 4 points for hitting the ball through the A frame of the swings or under the trampoline. Previously they were just runs. 

Then I said that he didn't have to run if he hit the ball (previously we played that you had to run if you hit the ball which meant that he could get run out if he hit it straight back at me)

Then I said that he couldn't hit the ball to his left. If he did he was out. 

And finally I showed him a shot where he presented the face of the bat towards the bowler and held the finish. I described this as showing the bowler the 'Maker's name' on the front of the bat. If he showed me the 'maker's name' then he got 10 bonus points. 

He started playing shots on the other side of his body and trying to make contact to get the ball at the new targets. He had a bit of success and he also struggled a bit. I modelled a couple of times for him and reminded him of the makers name concept. 

And then the constraint based 'chemicals mixed' in the just the right way...


If he didn't smash the next ball over by head for 6, hold the finish like a pro and claim that he should get 16 points (the little monkey had found a loophole in my clever scoring system). 

Oh...and the delight on his face! He bounced up and down like a pogo stick and had an amazing smile on his face coupled with a great big giggle as he watched me walk out of the gate to go and get the ball from the front garden. 

What was interesting about this experiment was the way in which he got so absorbed in the process of working out how to get the ball to the other side of his body. He did need a little bit of guidance, it helped him to have the 'makers name' as a visual image of a way to get success but the rest he worked it out for himself. 

He couldn't get enough of the game and was asking me when we could play next the following morning. 

Like Frankenstein I may be in the process of creating a monster...

It is a total joy though!

I highly recommend it! 

So here are my takeaways....
  • Playing backyard games are great to develop skills. 
  • Change the aim of the game and the game can change the techniques that the player uses in order to solve the problem presented. 
  • This can be way more powerful in engaging the player in the learning process. It is exciting for them to think that they have discovered a method for themselves. 
  • Having the emotional connection with that experience is more likely to see the learning retained.
  • This method is also powerful in getting them engaged and wanting to come back again and again. 'In the ongoing battle against the highly addictive digital narcotics that are video games this is extremely important'.  

The secret to skill development - let your kids lose

I love coaching children...it is a real privilege. I honestly believe that it is one of the most fun things that you can do.

Yes it's a challenge and yes it has it's ups and downs but if you want to do something that gives you a genuine sense of contribution and personal well being I challenge you to find something better than coaching a group of children.

When you are standing on a sideline watching the play, worrying about making sure that everyone gets enough pitch time and whether they will be able to compete against the much bigger, more experienced kids they are playing against and one of the kids turns to you and starts telling you all about the laser quest she is going to do for her birthday party a week later, it kind of puts things into perspective.

I smile, crouch down and and say, "wow that sounds awesome...now, see this game over here, tell me what is going on and what you are going to do when you get on?"

I have to raise my voice a little bit...not in any kind of chastising way...just to make myself heard over the noise coming from nearby.

About 15 yards away from me are the opposition 'coaches'...they haven't got time to be talking to the kids on the sideline, they are in the zone...they are passing on their knowledge to their players...they want to make sure that they are all following the instructions and doing the 'correct' things.

"Charlie, pass, pass to Liam...pass to Liam...PASS IT."
"Maria...watch out for him...watch out for him....good tackle....pass it".
"NOOOOO! Sam...don't do that!"

They are what a great coach and communication expert, Reed Maltbie (check out his TED talk on communication here) calls 'joystick coaches'. They want to control what is going on on the pitch and their instructions are designed to ensure that the players do what they want them to do.

Now some readers might be thinking..."that is fair enough isn't it...the children don't know what to do. They need to give them instruction otherwise they wouldn't be coaching and the children wouldn't be learning...they are kids after all...they don't know what to do!"

This is where I would differ...telling kids what to do isn't coaching...telling kids what to do is instruction...and I would argue that following instructions isn't learning...the kids aren't making decisions...they aren't exploring the best way to do something...they are just trying to comply. In my view, getting kids to comply with instructions isn't coaching...coaching needs to have an element of learning and development within it!

As a general rule I try and be really quiet on the sideline (not easy for me!). If I do say something to a player it is in the form of a question....

Olly where is the space? Reuben who can you pass to? The questions are designed to raise their awarenes and to engage their minds, the question needs to be answered with an action, they have to think about what to do...

An instruction, on the other hand, needs to be obeyed, carried out, followed. It involves no mental engagement...it doesn't encourage thinking and understanding.

I don't want the players to follow or obey...I want to help them become more aware... I want to draw their attention to things that they might not be aware of and make them more aware of the problem they need to solve. I want them to explore how they can solve the problem through play and exploration...

I want to help them to learn!

I like to think of it like a detective story and I am the crime writer...I am asking them to solve a mystery...the mystery that is the game...I provide them with clues to help them solve the mystery but they have to piece together these bits of information to work out how to solve the mystery.

Instead of a 'who dunnit' I present a 'how dunnit'.

If I give them the answer too soon by instructing them or telling them what to do then where is the intrigue? What is the hook to get the individual engaged and wanting to find out more? Where is the satisfaction of solving the mystery?

After each game we explore how they solved the problem...I help them to review the things they did to find a solution. I see this as a gift...the gift of problem solving, the gift of awareness. By becoming aware of the problem they can start to develop the tools to tackle the challenge.

It's like when Sherlock explains to Watson how he arrived at a specific conclusion...all the little clues that he picked up that wouldn't be noticed by anyone else and how he pieces them all together... except in this case the kids are the amazingly intuitive Sherlock...and all to often, I am the bumbling unaware Watson...

Just as Watson is constantly amazed by Sherlock's ability to see and sense the solution to the problem...I am amazed by their ability to identify what they need to do and to work it out for themselves.

It is so rewarding to see some of the things they come up with...the creative ways that they try and play the game...some of the techniques they come up with to get the ball where it needs to go...some of the ways that they try to pass to find the space...how they get out of tight spots...

It is genuinely a joy to behold! It is truly wonderful!

There is only one snag....

They lose all the time!

This isn't actually a problem for me...I just love watching them play...I am enthralled by the things that they try and do. I love seeing them struggle to work things out...sometimes I can actually see them wrestling with what to do...they are waiting for the picture to look right...they are trying to find the way.

Quite often they try to do something but they don't quite get it right. Quite often this results in the opposition getting the ball and scoring.

I just applaud them for the effort...this is the only time you hear me get vocal on the sideline..."awesome guys...that was a great effort...try again..."

I can see other coaches staring at me like I am mad...my team has just conceded a goal...why aren't I telling them to do something else? What kind of a coach am I? What would I actively encourage my players when they fail and suggest that they do it again?

But that's the point isn't it? The learning comes in these moments...they tried to do something but they didn't quite get the execution right...I definitely don't want them to stop doing it just because it didn't work out...I want them to do it again and find a way to succeed.

Whenever this happens I think of a brilliant quote that I heard from Professor Carol Dweck, when she spoke at a conference I organised for a load of rugby coaches...she said, "we need to free children up from the tyranny of now...and lead them towards the power of yet".

What she meant by this was that children should not be stopped from doing something because they aren't able to do it at that moment...they should be encouraged to try again so that they understand that there is value in the struggle of learning and improving.

Instead of thinking "I can't do this..." they think..."I can't do this YET!". They aren't deterred by the failure, they don't shy away from it...they embrace it and use it as a means to get better.

If we correct them and offer solutions too quickly then they just take the easy way out and follow orders...they can opt out from engaging in the learning process.

And I can't deny them that opportunity...I don't want to short change them by making it too easy...I want them to receive the gift of learning and getting better.

And that, in my opinion, is what coaching children's sport should be all about...learning...exploring...developing...improving...trying hard...getting things wrong...trying again...getting them wrong again...trying again...finding the way...

And competition is like a test...it is a way of testing what they have learned...it is a way of measuring progress...it is a way for me to see how the children are developing their understanding of the game and how they are creating methods to exploit that.

Competition for children shouldn't be about seeing how well they can follow orders...how well they comply...how well they do what they are told.

Where is the fun in that? Where is the exploration? Where is the joy?

And just as importantly...where is the skill acquisition?

This is the problem with competition...it becomes about the result...as coaches it is easy to start doing things that are counter to our goal of developing the players abilities because we are fixated on the outcome.

It would be really easy for me to give the players structure, get them to practice playing within a structure, give them the tactics and the solutions and we would probably win some games.

But that would rob them of the learning opportunity...

So we learn and we lose and we learn.

As the World Cup winning coach of Jonny Wilkinson, Dave Alred, once said "learning happens in the ugly zone".

Monday, 6 May 2019

Why coaches like drills and how they are killing creativity

Scott Barry Kaufman is one of my favorite scientists! Not only does he host the fascinating 'The Psychology Podcast' weekly where he talks to leading people in the world of psychological science but he also founded and edits one of my favorite blogs, 'The Creativity Post' as well as being the author of several books including my bedside ever present 'The Complexity of Greatness' and 'Ungifted: Intelligence redefined'. 

In a recent article for Scientific American, Dr Kaufman reviews Anders Ericsson's latest book co-authored with Robert Pool "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise".  Dr Kaufman makes a reference to a passage in Ericsson and Pool's book which he thinks is key. Dr Ericsson and Pool suggest...

"...the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to "highly developed fields" such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation."

But Dr Kaufman feels that deliberate practice is best suited to specific activities that are limited in variability and require repeatable actions instead of creative ones. 

"Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success."

As Dr Kaufman further argues, creative people "...are under constant pressure to surpass what they and others have done before, and it is precisely this pressure that drives them toward ever increasing originality". 

He goes further by saying...

"Creative products, by definition, are the antithesis of expertise. This is because creativity must be original, meaningful, and surprising... 

Original in the sense that the creator is rewarded for transcending expertise, and going beyond the standard repertoire. 

Meaningful in the sense that the creator must satisfy some utility function, or provide a new interpretation.

Surprising in that the original and meaningful creative product must be surprising not only to oneself, but to everyone".

All this got me thinking...

Have we been looking at sport from the perspective of expertise when we should be looking at sport from the perspective of creativity? 

If you look at sport from an expertise perspective then you will agree with Prof Ericsson's standpoint that Deliberate Practice is important as the rules of the game are fixed and the techniques are the techniques. Master the techniques or face the consequences later. 

On the other hand if you look at the development of sports people as a creative endeavour then you would want to work to avoid providing technical information and allow techniques to emerge as an adaptation to problems presented by the ever changing and dynamic environment. 

Witness the emergence of Dwayne Bravo's slower ball bouncer or Tilekaratne Dilshan's 'ramp shot' in T20 cricket or Christiano Ronaldo's dipping free kicks or Sonny-Bill Williams one hand offloads or Tiger Wood's 2 iron 'Stinger' as examples of originality that is meaningful and also surprising.  

All of these techniques are being created by these great players as solutions to problems that are presented by changes to the rules, changes to equipment or changes to the nature of the way the game is played in order to find a technical advantage. 

In other words they are adapting to their environment....

In his latest blog post the excellent Mark O'Sullivan talks about how this methodology works against the way human beings are designed to navigate their way through the world. He argues...

"Humans are not systems that behave like machines. They are dynamic, not static and not predictable in their behaviour. Humans (in this case as individual athletes and sports teams) are complex adaptive systems"

So the more we try to use methods that encourage players to behave alike and in predictable ways the more we are likely to produce players that cannot adapt to changes in the game effectively and yet it is precisely this adaptation that is at the heart of the creative process. 

By looking at skill acquisition as a creative endeavour we force ourselves to design challenges that will challenge players to come up with ways of performing that will be original, meaningful and surprising. 

Imagine a world where young people are given permission to create their own methods without being told by adults. Imagine a world where there is the freedom to try things out and fail again and again without fear of being given 'feedback'. Imagine a world where trying new things was applauded rather then met by side of the mouth whispers by arm folded tracksuits on the sideline. 

This world sounds a lot like the world inhabited by kids in underdeveloped nations where access to 'coaching' is limited and facilities are sparse. This world also sounds a lot like a world inhabited by kids in nations that have adopted game based or constraints based coaching methods decades ago. The youngsters from these places are forced to adapt to their surroundings and work it out and then some of them mesmerise us with their abilities to do things that others can't. 

The problem is I still see a lot of coaches who are using techniques and approaches that are clearly designed to generate automaticity and replicability. The very concept of a 'drill' that involves repeating a movement pattern again and again can only be used to create players that will behave in predictable ways.  

I imagine that coaches feel that they can then establish a tactical game plan for these players who will execute effectively and with a good degree of consistency.

The irony is that these same coaches will go crazy when players do something that isn't in the game plan but they are then surprised when the players fail to react to something that the opponent does that is unpredictable.  

I wonder how many coaches are out there using methods that are killing creativity without realising? 

How long will it be before we wake up to this and change the way we do things? 

Can we ever become a nation that goes from producing a lot of good players to a nation that produces' great players'. 

Here's hoping! 

Kill the cones, start using 'koans'

If there is one thing that I wish someone had told me in the early days of my coaching career it is the title of this blog.

'What is a Koan?' you ask....

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A kōan (公案?) (/ˈkoʊ.ɑːn/; Chinese: 公案; pinyin: gōng'àn; Korean: 공안 kong'an; Vietnamese: công án) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and test a student's progress in Zen practice

If you want to find out how I use them, then that is a puzzle I have set for you and you will have to read to the bottom to find out!

For years I had loads of cones laid out which were used to direct people where to run to next while we rehearsed some 'patterns of play'. My thinking at the time was that I wanted them to understand where they needed to be so that we had structure in our attack or defence. Or I would set out cones so that people could dribble around them simulating a defender. 

In most scenarios this worked for us. We were more organised than most other teams and our organisation gave us an advantage, we had a plan and when we executed that plan we would generally win. 

I felt like a drill sergeant. If I got my troops to follow orders then we would succeed.  My forces needed to be better trained, have superior planning, our tactics were superior. We were usually up against teams that weren't as organised and we would win. The players loved the structure and it gave them confidence and comfort that they knew where to be and what to do. 

Only one problem...

Every now and again we would come up against a team that did something we didn't expect and we wouldn't be able to cope. Even though we were superior in lots of ways we would crumble and not be able to recover. I usually put this down to to the players crumbling under the pressure or being unable to adapt to the tactics of the opposition.

They 'lost their shape'...they 'reverted to type'. 

I would wrack my brains trying to work out why this happened. I would spend time analysing video. I would have meetings with the players and we would explore what happened and try and work out how we could avoid this in the future. 

I always felt like I was missing something...there was something staring me in the face but it was beyond my grasp. 

My usual solution was to double down...I would be more structured...more organised...I would create even more prescribed rehearsal practices. If we were organised perfectly...if we executed the game plan perfectly...we couldn't be beaten. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong!! 

Every year there would be those games where the wheels came off. It wasn't usually catastrophic, we still won the league but I knew that it wasn't good enough. I knew that something wasn't right

My research around this problem took me to start to research complexity theory, dynamical systems theory and ecological psychology. I stumbled across the 'ecological theory of development and affordances' by Eleanor and James Gibson who stressed the importance of the environment...

"...in particular, the (direct) perception of how the environment affords various actions to the organism".

Gibson suggested that humans adapted to the situation that they find themselves in and their awareness of the situation and what was possible determined the actions that they took

I explored the work of thinkers in sports coaching such as Ian Renshaw, Keith Davids, Rob Gray, Duarte Araujo

I was fortunate to spend time working with practitioners like Russell Earnshaw, Ric Shuttleworth, Mark Upton.

They showed me that I the problem was me...my methodology was not helping the players to become adaptable. I adopting a 'reductionist' approach that was creating an environment that was sterile, it was precise, it was robotic. 

My pre-programmed, precision choreographed movement drills had created a situation where the players didn't have to adapt, they didn't need to think, they just did what was instructed.

All very well when our opponents did what we expected them to do. Disastrous when they did something that we hadn't prepared for. 

I realised that my prescribed and structured approach and my use of drills as a means to create automaticity were not very useful as a means to help people learn and develop, particularly if we want them to be able to adapt and solve problems presented by our opponents on our own. Essentially an unopposed drill is just a rehearsal of a movement pattern, this is fine if the activity that you are undertaking is just about rehearsing a movement pattern.

If we won games of football or netball by a panel of judges deciding which team had the best looking running patterns or passing moves then drills would be a great tool to train that. 

If we won games of tennis or badminton by having the most visually appealing shots then drills could work just fine.

If we did any sport in a sterile environment with no variables from the environment then a drill could be just the ticket.

But we don't...

We succeed in sports by finding ways to overcome an opponent that is trying to stop you from achieveing your goal. That opponent moves...they react to you...they have ways of stopping you from scoring...they are unpredictable...they don't stand still... 

Even in sports where there isn't a direct opponent their are people trying to distract you, there is the crowd, there is the pressure of expectation, there is weather, there are variations in surface, equipment, space...

Our interaction with the elements around us determine the actions that we should take to achieve our goals. Our awareness of these elements determine our ability to make effective decisions that help us to overcome these environmental challenges. 

Establishing the right environment with enough of these variables in place is critical to the development of skill. 

Trying to learn how to play a sport in isolation of these variables is like learning to drive by sitting in a car, operating the pedals and turning the steering wheel without looking the road in front and having to avoid other road users. The driver could become extremely adept as changing gear, pressing the clutch, using the break, turning the wheel but the minute they were required to do all of these while also dealing with the information coming from other cars and pedestrians would overwhelm them. 

Which is why we learn to drive in the environment that we are going to drive in. Not in isolation. 

So now I don't use cones to prescribe where players should run to. I don't lay them out as obstacles for players to run around. I only use them to create the space that the players can play within. I use real people to act as obstacles, and what they do determines where the players need to run or pass to. I give use specific rules or specific limitations in space  to manipulate the situation and I then explore what what the players become aware of when their opponent does something different and we explore how they might react.

I once heard an amazing talk from a movement specialist called Ido Portal, who takes a naturalistic approach to movement development.  In the talk he talked about creating 'Kinetic Koans', movement puzzles that require the individual to find a movement solution to the problem created by the environment. In his mind, movement and the learning of movement cannot be decoupled from the context in which the movement might occur.

Taking this further I started using designer games and practices that I referred to as 'Perceptual Puzzles'. In this way I would be creating an environment that required the athletes to be aware of what was happening around them in order to devise ways to adapt and solve the problem being presented. 

So I ditched the cones and started using koans....the experience is truly magical...

I'll never go back. 

Why coaches are addicted to drills

Unopposed drills are the drugs of coaching...

...a lot of coaches are addicted to them...

they are like alcoholics or maybe 'drill-aholics'...they just can't get away from the lure of the drill.

Deep down, they know that the drill is not doing their athletes any good but they keep getting called back to them...it makes them feel better...it offers warm relief...it is safe...they can feel good about themselves.

Why are they so addicted to drills? If you ask a 'drill-aholic' why they use them then they will say the following 
  • Drills give lots of repetitions 
  • Drills let participants gain a feeling of success and build confidence
  • Drills allow for movements to be embedded into 'muscle memory' 
  • Drills are the grounding for techniques that can then be built upon in games.
But if they are really honest with themselves...they would probably have to admit that the real reason they like drills is because: 
  • They are structured and organised. 
  • It makes the parents think that the coach knows what they are doing
  • They love creating them and working out the movement and the choreography. 
  • It's comfortable and easy
  • It's what they have always done. 
I know this because...I was one of them...I was one of the biggest drill addicts out there!

At the end of a session that involved a load of drills, I would feel that I had delivered a good session. Parents were smiling at me, the kids had moved around a lot, they even have got better at the drill itself and were pretty pleased with themselves. 

Everyone was feeling pretty good about the situation...everyone was happy...everyone was on a high.

I got that euphoric 'hit' of dopamine and the feel good factor that  I had done my job...I have delivered a session...I am a good coach...

Happy customers and happy coach...what's not to like?

But I was deluding myself....worse, I was poisoning myself!

Just like alcohol or drugs ...if they are used too much, they become toxic. 

They destroyed my coaching creativity, they killed my ability to think critically, innovate and improve...drills are numbing...they dull the senses...they reduce the user to a limited version of themselves. 

I had box files full of drills that I had painstakingly drawn out and described. I would have my favourites and would go to them time and again. It was tried and tested, it worked...

Except it didn't...

If the players couldn't perform the drill I would get frustrated at their lack of application or lack of attention to detail. If they weren't focused or engaged by the activity I would demand better application. It wasn't the drill was boring, it was their lack of application and it was my job to get them to apply themselves. 

My addiction made me behave in ways that disconnected me from the participants...I lost sight of what they wanted or needed and focused on designing even more elaborate and well crafted drills. The more complicated the better. 

If it only impacted me then that would be one thing...the parents...they were just as addicted....

They wanted to see structure, order, it needed to be neat and tidy...they couldn't abide chaos...disorder...untidiness. 

A coach that doesn't have lots of cones and players running around them or from cone to cone doesn't know what they are doing, right? 

If the players aren't doing lots of neat and tidy moves and repeating them over and over again then they aren't getting enough practice time, they need to get their 10,000 hours, right? 

Wrong and wrong again!  

Drills are not very useful as a means to help people learn and develop. Essentially a drill is a rehearsal of a movement pattern, this is fine if the activity that you are undertaking is just about rehearsing and repeating a movement pattern and there isn't an opponent trying to stop you from performing that movement pattern. 

If we won games of football or netball by a panel of judges deciding which team had the best looking running patterns or passing moves then drills would be great...

If we won games of tennis or badminton by having the most visually appealing shots then drills could work just fine...

If we did any sport in a sterile environment with no variables from the environment then a drill could be just the ticket.

But we don't...

We succeed in sports by finding ways to overcome an opponent that is trying to stop you from achieveing your goal. That opponent moves...they react to you...they have ways of stopping you from scoring...they are unpredictable...they don't stand still... 

Even in sports where there isn't a direct opponent their are people trying to distract you, there is the crowd, there is the pressure of expectation, there is weather, there are variations in surface, equipment, space...

Our interaction with the elements around us are critical to the development of skill.

Trying to learn how to play a sport in isolation of these variables is like learning to drive by sitting in a car and operating the pedals and turning the steering wheel without seeing the road in front and having to avoid other road users. 

It's quite easy to spot a player that has been coached by a drill-aholic. They are the ones who 'do a move' whether it the right time to do the move or not.. They will keep doing it until they get some success and that will validate the move in their minds. They are the ones that will keep doing this move regardless of whether it works or not. They don't seem to learn a different way even when they aren't getting success.

This is a phenomenon that Abraham Kaplan famously called 'the law of the instrument' which he formulated as...

"Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."

This was later amended by Abraham Maslow who famously said...

"I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail" 

If you present a player that has been coached by a 'drill-aholic' with a problem that challenges their abilities, they will not be able to come up with a way to solve the problem. They say things like..."what do I do in this situation?"..."how do I do it?" They want you to give them the answers. 

In a match or competition environment they look for the coach to tell them what to do. Under pressure they 'revert to type' and do things that they may have been explicitly instructed otherwise.

A player that can't adapt and can't think for themselves is not going to go very far in the cut throat world  of elite sport. 

From a talent development perspective we are in the business of maximising potential and developing the attributes and qualities that are going to give the young people the best opportunity to succeed.

Treating kids like robots and asking them to perform in a robotic way in the belief that this will help them in the future is at best misguided at worst it is horrifically negligent.

We need to be using methodologies that place the player at the centre of the decision making process and help players to adapt. 

As the brilliant guys at myfastestmile recently said...

"we believe people are not machines…

…so we take an ecological approach

…and resist the urge to employ the reductionist....methods and production line processes of the industrial age"

So we need to move away from drills because they are part of a development approach that attempts to mechanise the development of people.  

Adopting this methodology haemorrhages our humanity with every repetition. 

Just like the alcohol awareness campaign 'Drink Aware' I think we should have something similar in coaching...'Drill Aware'! 

Ditch those Drills...trust me you will feel better about it!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

10 ways to encourage young people to embrace failure

I was once fortunate enough to be the organiser of a conference where the keynote speaker was Professor Carol Dweck. Professor Dweck is famous for the development of the 'Growth Mindset' which has become very prevalent in a lot of education institutions and popular across a range of domains. During her talk she said something which has stuck with me ever since...she said, "if we really want to become great at anything...we need to learn to love the struggle"..."we tend to avoid people struggling...we want to help them...we don't like to see them struggling...we don't seek opportunities for struggle, we don't prize it...nobody comes home from work and says, 'honey, I had the most amazing struggle today'". 

In his now famous TED Talk, Major General Stanley McChrystal talks about how he learned about leadership through experiencing failure. The quote that really resonates with me is his line which says "...true leadership is allowing people to fail without making them feel a failure". 

I have been reflecting on how some of my best learning experiences have been such massive failures... 

I failed my A levels when I was 18. I remember being crestfallen when I saw the letters D, E and U on the slip of paper that came in the envelope. All of my friends were celebrating and talking about where they were going to university and I was the chump that was considering going through the university clearing process to get into somewhere, anywhere just so I didn't have to feel that I had completely blown it! To be honest I should have known what was coming...I had been cruising and had gotten involved with some people that were not all that good for me. The writing was on the wall as they say. 

I took stock and and after a few days I decided that I would retake the whole year. It was tough, all of my friends went off to their respective universities and I was left behind, questioning whether I had made the right decision or not. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made, I knuckled down and worked hard and got way better grades than the 1st time that got me into my first choice university. My mantra throughout the whole year was 'fail to prepare...prepare to fail'. It was a big learning moment about the value of preparation and putting in the work that as stayed with me throughout my career. 

My other big fail was when I tried to start a business with a friend of mine. We both had other jobs at the time and were trying to build it up enough so that it could be our main thing. It was a brilliant idea and it got a lot of media coverage, we were also invited to do an event for TV with a number of top golfers but ultimately we couldn't make it work and we had to mothball it. My big learning from that was that if you are going to do something you need to be all in and fully committed. Ironically the main reason that I didn't quit my job and go all in was that I had mouths to feed at home and I wasn't prepared to take the risk of it not working. The failure came because of the fear of failure!

From a coaching point of view my biggest failure came ironically after my most successful period as a coach. I had had been working with a club team for a number of years and we had won back to back league championships which took us into the national league. In our first season in the nationals we had secured a strong top 5 finish when everybody expected us to struggle. I then decided to step down from that role as my work life was becoming quite challenging and I had a young family at home that needed my attention. That summer my home club came calling as they were without a coach and they were desperate for me to help out, the helper side of me took over and I agreed, even though I knew it was going to be a challenge. It turned out to be the biggest challenge ever as within 2 seasons that team had been relegated! 

I learned a whole lot from that episode, it was probably a turning point in my coaching career. The 2 big learning points were;
  • Do not take coaching roles through a sense of obligation.
  • If I am going to take on a job then I am only going to take that job if I know that I am going to be totally committed and can give my full energy.
Many young people are afraid to fail. They grow up in a world where a lot is expected of them and they expect a lot of themselves. Many come from environments where failure is discouraged...failure is seen as a lack of application or a sign that they might not have what it takes. As a result they either play it safe and stay within their limitations or they fail to explore opportunities for development because their creativity and imagination are stifled.

To me failure is really important for learning and that is why I am so passionate about finding ways for me to create a 'failure rich' environment where players are free to be expressive and explore the choices in front of them to determine what is the best option for them. I talk about failure and struggle much more..."what was the best failure team?" "What did we learn from that?" Or "who wants to share the struggle they had today". 

I have often said that I evaluate my sessions not by the smiling faces and 'great session' comments I get from the players but by the air of 'slight disgruntlement' that is in the air. Ideally I have got the the players to a place where they love the struggle and the challenge and so they still recognise the value of the session and have enjoyed it but I definitely don't like seeing players that are totally comfortable as I know that I haven't stretched them enough.

I like to use words like 'stretch', 'reach' and 'strive' liberally to surround the players with language which points towards the process of learning and really try hard to avoid giving outcome based praise like 'that was brilliant' or 'awesome skill' which feels nice short term but creates a world where the players are only interested in the outcome and avoid failing for fear of not being identified as successful. 

So how can create an environment that embraces failure and struggle? What practical steps can we take to guide young people to challenge and stretch themselves? 

Here are 10 top tips to create an environment which encourages failure...
  1. Avoid labels - "you are smart", "you are clever". Focus instead on the work that goes into what they do "how hard did you work to be able to do that".
  2. Get them to explain their process "tell me more about how you did that, what was the strategy you used?
  3. If they do something that is easy for them and they are expecting praise, offer them an 'opportunity' to stretch themselves by saying, "I want to give you the opportunity to show me how well you can learn".
  4. Apologise for creating a game or practice that isn't challenging enough for them.,,,"I'm sorry, I didn't give you enough stretch with that activity...let's work on how we can make things more of a challenge.
  5. Ask them if they want the easy task or the harder one. Use this as a test to see if they are embracing struggle.
  6. Use the 'horizon strategy' to keep the achievement of the task just out of reach but still visible. Give them checkpoints so that they can still see their improvement.
  7. Explain that 'learning happens in the ugly zone' - if a player is telling you how good they are...ask if they can 'fail harder'
  8. Create an award for the 'top struggler'. Reward the person who has tried the hardest and had the most fails. Give out 'failure points'. 
  9. Always explain that you can't make things easy because easy isn't fun. You want them to have fun and the fun comes from working hard at something.
  10. Remind them that F.A.I.L. stands for First Attempt in Learning.