“Why wait for a disaster to have a really open and frank conversation?”
Wade Gilbert asked this at the GAIN conference in his presentation on reflection and debriefs for coaches. (This was two days after the Grenfell tower disaster where many people were asking the same thing).
Wade said that systematic reflection could be the separator between good and great coaches. He then took us through a series of exercises to help us start the process of reflection.
Exercise 1: What is quality coaching?
We wrote down one word that best captures what we think is the essence of coaching. We then held it above our head and looked for anyone else in the room with that same word (mine was empathy).
This exercise can be done with athletes too. It teaches the athletes to reflect in their training and realise that “you don’t just show up and have something done to you.”
Wade often refers to John Wooden, and he quoted from the “Wooden revisited” study. Almost everything that came out of Wooden’s mouth was teaching. He had an “economy of talk” with key instructions he used.
Wooden also had incredible attention to detail when planning his sessions.
Planning your sessions well and giving fewer instructions, but better ones, will improve the athlete experience.
Defining coaching effectiveness
Wade then quoted from a study he did with Jean Cote focussing on coaches’ knowledge.
It looked at 3 components:
More to coach knowledge than technique
If the coaches’ knowledge doesn’t transfer to successful athlete outcomes then it is redundant. This knowledge was broken down into 3 areas and the outcomes into 4 areas.
(How many NGB coaching courses refer to the 2nd / 3rd areas of knowledge?)
By using reflection and debriefs the coach can become more self-aware and understand better their relationship with others.
Here we worked in small groups and evaluated our strengths and gaps which were divided into the 4 parts of the season (see Wade Gilbert coaching process).
We then tried to find someone whose strengths matched our gaps and vice versa. I chatted to Greg Gatz (University North Carolina) about how to make our gym sessions “Game like and demanding”. We are going to share some fun challenges between our 2 groups of athletes to help create this at some point in the week.
This was a good opportunity to practice “purposeful and systematic reflection”. It was especially useful as we had been on “receive” mode for 4 days and time for reflection and discussion was most welcome.
Do Simple Better
Reminder before coaching
This phrase became a bit of a mantra after GAIN. Rather than looking to add the “shiny new thing”, it was a reminder from Wade that doing the simple things better often worked wonders.
An example of how to improve practices is to write down “advanced noticing cues”: what everybody should be looking for at the beginning of the session. Look for leverage points that make a difference and.
This also makes athlete and coach evaluation easier and more pertinent because we have something to evaluate against: “did you manage to keep that bar close to your body?” “Did your hands and head make an equilateral triangle in headstand?”
Exercise 3: Post practice reflection sheet
We were given a checklist from Wade’s book which has 17 different questions to ask under 4 areas:
Set challenging & specific practice goals.
Keep athletes physically and mentally active throughout practice.
Give athletes choice and ask them for input on practice design.
Create competitive gamelike practice activities.
It is a simple tickbox exercise and can be done very quickly. I had Tom Hardy, one of my assistant gymnastics coaches, do one “live” on my coaching in one of our sessions. He picked up on 2 points that I had missed and so I adapted for the next session.
These simple exercises were useful and easy to initiate. Wade then said the next step was to “think about how we think”: meta -reflection.
The goal he set us was to “Understand and challenge mental models of coaching and athlete development.”
Reflective practice helps this journey
He quoted from John Medina’s “Brain Rules”: “we do not see others with our eyes, we see them with our brains”.
Deliberate reflection would allow us as coaches to move along this continnuum.
Part of the innovation process is “It’s okay not to finish things.” This may help retain information as proposed by the “Zeigarnik Effect”. Finishing a task then allows the brain to relax and switch to a new task. Having things unfinished may allow the brain to work subconsciously on solving the problems.
This seminar was a perfect way to spend the final Saturday morning of GAIN. Our brains had been filled up with new and challenging ideas and information, what matters most is how we can transfer that knowledge to athlete actions.
I have spent much more time focussing on scheduling tasks since this seminar 5 weeks ago. My idea is to do 1-2 things each month at different points of the season that will allow me to develop as a coach. This then will help the athletes at Excelsior ADC.
“If I want to get better, I need to know what better is.”
Wade Gilbert at GAIN
Wade Gilbert gave an excellent overview of the coaching process at his GAIN seminar. This also served as an overview of his excellent book of the same name.
His talk was split into 4 parts:
Examine: End of Season
Enhance: Off Season
He gave practical examples of what has worked from great coaches, and quoted liberally from many books. A good coach is “a teacher with a high energy level.” Said Tony Dungy in “Uncommon”.
Vision, values & standards
This is the time to set out where you intend to go in the upcoming season. Having a vision of where you want to be is essential to have a successful season.
A good coach will have a vision and be able to outline core values and corresponding behaviour standards for themselves and the team.
Standards ≠ Rules
Wade said it was better to look at the best principles that underpin successful teams and organisations rather than best practices.
Principles endure and can transfer to your team, practices are more likely to be environment, people and context specific.
No need for Iron Fist
“Accountability doesn’t require an Iron Fist, just a mutual understanding of what’s being asked and what’s at stake.”
Having behaviour standards for how you start training and competition help you become successful This can often include rituals at practices and competitions and serve as value reminders.
A great coach will be a visionary: “you have to be able to see round corners, see what athletes could become and see things that aren’t there yet.” It is important to outline this vision and bring people with you.
Enact: In- Season
“Never mistake activity for achievement”
meeting athlete needs
Said John Wooden. It is common to be busy in season but becoming a better coach and team is hard.
Wade emphasised the importance of athlete learning and motivation in getting the team to perform better. Prior knowledge can help or hinder the learning process, whilst motivation directly influences learning.
Coaches who use guided discovery and give immediate feedback can help their athletes learn more effectively.
Athletes will be motivated to learn more when they are within a “sweet spot” between challenge and accomplishment. Too easy and they get bored, too hard and they get frustrated. “Stretch learning” is where the athlete can almost touch the end “with support”.
This is something I have tried to incorporate within all our club sessions, balancing the need for a sense of accomplishment and “getting tired” with a sense of challenge and slight frustration at not being there yet.
stretch learning at Excelsior ADC
For example, we might be working on handspring preparations which require shoulder mobility and the ability to “pop”. The drills are easy and can be done by everyone whereas the whole skill is technically difficult and be done by a few.
I then follow this with a simpler skill such as through vault, so the gymnasts can then unleash themselves and get rid of any residual frustration.
The challenge of the activity may have a “High perceived risk, but low actual risk.”
How you give feedback also affects learning. Wade used a push versus pull analogy.
Push (solving problems for someone else) ↔ Pull (helping someone solve their own problem).
Both methods have merit, but that could be situational dependent and as athletes develop, pulling is more beneficial.
Quality practice design
As this is where most of the interaction between coach and athlete usually occurs, it merits more detailed attention.
Wade talked about “Practice efficiency” which he defined as “Do less better”. He outlined the following features of quality practices:
Have you evaluated your practice design recently?
Wade then moved onto competition coaching. He quoted research that looked at successful competition coaches who spent time “listening to the match” and had “complex problem solving competences.”
They could react to the live situation effectively and adapt.
Encouragement is often undervalued. Genuine praise for quality performance leads to athletes performing better and having greater enjoyment. Athletes in these environments raised their effort levels and rated their coaches as more effective.
3 roles for coaches
The coach then needs to wear three different hats and have 3 different skill sets to be effective.
Whilst most coaches will be good at one of these, it is rarer to find people comfortable with all three.
Examine: End of Season
“It’s like having a bazooka to kill a mosquito”
Having evaluation tools available to use doesn’t mean we have to use them.
(I would question how many coaches do a formal end of season evaluation: many justifiably run for the hills or slump into a heap exhausted. Some may have a chat in the bar at the end, and then gear up for more of the same next year).
James with Wade and his book
Wade gave some good advice on how to evaluate your own coaching using a “strengths based approach.” (His book has got some great checklists in there). Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:
What are my coaching strengths?
What was your best day of coaching this past year?
Why was this the best day?
This can form the first of three parts of your end of season evaluation.
Coaches: magnify their strengths.
Programme: analyse the practice design and preparation
Athletes: reinforce values.
I like this because it is achievable for coaches who actually coach, rather than academics pontificating from their Ivory Towers!
“Charge your battery before you charge someone else’s”
Coaching is hard work. Dan John described feeling at the end of the week as if he had “been pecked to death by a thousand crows”. I describe it as “starting the session like a grape and finishing like a raisin”: there’s not much left in the tank!
At the end of an emotionally, intellectually and somewhat physically demanding season, coaches need to spend time enhancing themselves.
The offseason should be partly spent on wellness (refreshing) and then setting up new routines that are sustainable in the long term to allow you to reload.
Part of this time is to spend time with people who will help you achieve your goals.Wade quoted from Pep Guardiola’s book about changing the culture of your team.
“Focus on the believers” and do more with them. They will help spread the infection of your culture like a virus.
This was a great thought to finish on. Wade’s talk had lots of practical advice in it that can be implemented immediately, as well as some longer term philosophical ideas that can be reflected upon.
I have previously written about “effective preseason planning” for the nuts and bolts of training. This seminar was more about the coaching effectiveness and I have written a plan to implement over the next few months.
I recently spent 5 days in Houston, Texas at Vern Gambetta’s GAIN conference. In this post, and those to follow, I shall attempt to share some of the main ideas and reflections gained whilst there. This should be of interest to fellow coaches and some to parents of athletes too.
Opening address and overview by Vern Gambetta
Vern set up this conference 10 years ago looking to harness ideas on athletic development from professionals with different backgrounds. Sports coaches, athletic trainers, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, Doctors and physical education teachers were some of the people in attendance.
By looking at the same problems with different sets of eyes and brains, many different solutions can be found. This was summarised by Vern as
“Making connections to foster meaningful change and innovation.”
Conversation with Surgeon, Navy Seals trainer, wrestling coach
This was my 6th visit to GAIN and the highlight for me is the intelligent conversations with passionate people. Rarely do I get spend time with people who are experts in their field willing to share ideas and ask great questions without trying to sell me something or tell me how brilliant they are!
Vern’s opening address was a passionate call to arms to become better as coaches so that we can help our athletes better. This means sharing ideas and analysing what we do, rather than just follow herds or folklore.
He suggested that deep ignorance was a problem in the world today. We should look for the blank spaces, the holes in the knowledge. The answers may be there. “The right question is intellectually superior to finding the right answer.”
Vern wanted to us to focus on possibilities when working with athletes:
What can they do?
How can we get them to do it?
Do no harm!
Beware of being seduced by data
E.O. Wilson said “we are drowning in information, while striving for wisdom.” The onset of data analytics means we can gather ever more numbers. This can be seductive and we can then train to improve these numbers.
Vern emphasised that we should coach the athletes in front of us, rather than the numbers on the spreadsheet. Because you can measure it, doesn’t make it meaningful (more on that later from Dr Joyner).
The internet has become a problem: parents, coaches and athletes are often unable to filter out all the noise.
Call to action
“We are more likely to overcome our struggles and difficulties to find out what we are looking for when we are willing to take others with us on the journey.” Simon Sinek.
Vern’s concept is to create robust, resilient and adaptable athletes. His mission is for the athletes to eliminate all physical limitations.
This was a much needed jolt in the arm for me. Setting up the Excelsior Athletic Development Club has been a harrowing process. I have started to run parent/ volunteer workshops to help them understand what we are doing. Those that have attended have given great feedback and I need to do more.
Not everyone “gets it”, the prevailing wind is for parent driven competitive tournaments for 7 year olds and “win on Saturday” mentality. Rather than fight this tsunami, I am attempting to build something different and give hope to the future.
GAIN 2017 allowed me to spend time with people who reassured me that I wasn’t alone in this endeavour. Thanks to Vern and everyone who attended for helping me get better.
I try to learn more than 7 things a week, let alone a whole year, but part of reflective practice is being disciplined and accountable. Limiting myself to listing the 7 things in a year helps focus my mind and stop readers from being bored.
Speaking on the phone to Mark Sheppard yesterday (whom I last saw in 2014), I said to him “I haven’t been standing still for the last 3 years Mark!” as we discussed formative versus summative fitness testing. “I wouldn’t expect you to” he replied.
Conversations with coaches like Mark, attending conferences like GAIN, reading, observing, listening to the athletes I coach and my own training are all fertile breeding grounds for ideas and reflections. Although I am unable to stop getting older, I am able to stay feeling young by continually learning. I may well be learning more at 47 than I did at 17.
1.The older I get, the less I know.
I am continually dumbfounded by the way in which young people deal in absolutes: “This session will work, 100% for sure” or “The hamstrings don’t go below your knee, they are in the middle part of the back of your leg“. These were two quotes given to me by different cyclists. No room for middle ground here.
I seem to be telling athletes who come to train with me “Maybe” or “perhaps” or “we’ll try it and see” a lot more than I did 10 years ago. Maybe it is the short attention spans created by too much screen time, or maybe it is the ability to shut out people who have different opinions from us, but young people (and some coaches) are rarely able to dig deeper than asking “is yoga good” and expecting a one word answer.
2. Getting under the bar is hard for most athletes.
Maybe I knew this already, but it has come into focus this year as many of our weightlifters can pull high, but struggle to get under the bar in the snatch. Thanks to Keith Morgan who reminded me of these exercises.
3. Predicting 1 mile times in children.
The best indicators are faster 50m sprint time,taller and lower body fat percentage compared to peers. Too much emphasis is spent on trying to “train for the test” by running further and slower. Children who eat healthily and are very active will run faster over distances. We need to allow them to do more of this.
4. Summative versus formative testing.
I got this from “Physical education for children: a focus on the teaching process.” (thanks Greg Thompson). In a rush to replicate “elite sport“, children are often subjected to the dreaded “battery of fitness tests“. However, they are normally in a developmental stage and are either learning the exercises, or still growing. In this case any testing should be formative: assessing how they move through good observation skills.
Summative testing is the common feature now, even taught in schools for children to perform on other children. It measures the absolute and assumes that the skill is robust enough to be tested. This is suitable for athletes experienced at that activity, rather than just experienced athletes.
For example, testing back squat on International Rugby players is fine as they are experienced in the weight room. Doing the same test on 12 year old girls who look like new born foals when they try and squat is completely inappropriate.
5. “Fascia is like a onesie for your body”
So said Dr. Homayun Gharavi at breakfast one morning at GAIN. After reading “Anatomy Trains” earlier in the year (thanks Joe P) I became much more aware of how fascia works in our body. At 47, I need to get moving more and more to counteract the influence of gravity which is beating me into a slumping Trogladyte at every opportunity.
The connections that fascia have, and how they adapt to continual postures and positions is something I have really found interesting. My training now includes getting into as many different varied and continued patterns as possible.
6. Rudolf Laban was a genius.
This Hungarian immigrant spent about 20 years in the UK where he had a big influence on teachers through his observations of movement. This started in dance, but was then applied to other disciplines such as gymnastics, which is where I became interested.
Unfortunately, all his good work seems to have been forgotten, in a race for schools to either just talk about p.e. or to play competitive sport (I see this first hand in Devon, ironically as Laban spent much time at Dartingotn School near Totnes).
Nowadays you will hear much talk in coaching circles about “constraints led coaching” as if it is something ground breaking. Laban was using guided discovery and environmental and task constraints 70 years ago. The work by Logsdon, Mauldon, Layson, Morison et al. built on this and created “Educational Gymnastics”.
I am using a lot of their work and approaches not only in my gymnastics coaching, but in everything else I do (works wonders on the fascia too). I am standing on the shoulders of Giants.
7. If you have to measure one thing, measure attendance.
3 of our best attendees with lanyards
I got this from Steve Magness at GAIN. I took it on board and have been diligent in recording and rewarding attendance publicly. Every athlete who attends 15 sessions gets a club lanyard: from the youngest gymnast to our Senior Internationals. As John Wooden says “I will give you the treatment you earn and deserve“.
This has really highlighted who turns up regularly, including many “ordinary” athletes, but who continue to improve. If they keep this up, who knows where they might end? But, they are getting into good habits.
The downside of this has been parents having a pop at me when their children don’t turn up and they don’t get a lanyard: they can’t be bought, they have to be earnt!
Thanks for reading and helping me with my reflective practice. If you have anything special that you have learnt in 2016, please add a comment below.
I look forward to doing better coaching and learning more in 2017. Merry Christmas to you all.
When delivering strength and conditioning coaching courses, we always discuss coaching philosophy and how to develop a club culture. Two books I have read this year have helped with this process, both by NFL coaches. Here is a brief review of both.
Win Forever by Pete Carroll (recommended by Mike Bahn)
A frank and revealing tale of how Pete Carroll developed his coaching philosophy. Fired by the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, Carroll has gone on to be a very successful college coach at USC and is now with the Seattle Seahawks.
His philosophy was developed in response to adversity, rather than through unparalleled success from the start. As you can see from this picture, the philosophy starts with some simple rules: no whining, no excuses and be early.
It then expands into style of play and practice and beliefs.
When these foundations are in place, the focus on competing emerges with a “relentless pursuit of a competitive edge”.
Where the book might be useful to coaches and people outside of sport is in the application of this philosophy and making the athlete accountable.
“It’s the individual himself who ultimately is the only one who has the power to develop his fullest potential.”
“Getting that across to players is a constant occupation. You have to continually encourage people to the point where they feel empowered to call the shots that will position them to become the best they can be. It’s not any one specific thing but rather than an ongoing process of showing them what they’re capable of.”
I find this is the differentiation between talk and action when trying to implement a philosophy.
Carroll goes on to use words like discipline, effort and diligence in a reminder of what it takes to get it done.
Two years ago a lot of coaches were waving “Legacy” around as a good book, I wonder how many of them have implemented and stuck to a coaching philosophy since?
You Win in the Locker Room First by Jon Gordon and Mike Smith
I have lent this book to several other coaches as a really quick read with good ideas. Mike Smith was coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Jon Gordon has written “The energy bus”.
Together they have written a simple but very clear guide to building a winning team by establishing the right culture.
“Culture drives expectations and beliefs. Expectations and beliefs drive behaviours. Behaviours drive habits and habits drive the future.”
There are 8 chapters, with the first 7 each expanding on a word beginning with C that underpins the culture. It is a bit of an artificial premise, but helps with recall.
For example, the chapter on consistency explains why this is important in coaching.
“If you are not consistent, you will lose the trust your team has in you. When you lose trust, you lose the locker room.”
Players and other coaches need to know that you can be relied upon rather than erratic. Consistently being humble and hungry are important whether you are winning championships or trying to avoid relegation.
Consistency applies to players too who are expected to be stable personalities rather than moody (or at least maintain stable behaviours around their team mates).
The book is littered with anecdotes from the NFL to illustrate the points made in each chapter. Good practice and problem areas are covered, Smith is very good at sharing his shortcomings or mistakes that he has made. This makes for an entertaining and enlightening read.
The chapters have bullet point summaries, plus easily remembered quotes, which make re reading and revising easier.
“To be a great leader, coach and team member you must be more than involved- you must be committed. Your team has to know that you are committed to them before they will commit to you.”
The following quote comes from “The Consolations of Philosophy“ by Alain de Bottonand is a discourse between Socrates and his friend Crito.
Socrates: When a man is taking (his training) seriously, does he pay attention to all praise and criticism and opinion indiscriminately, or only when it comes from the one qualified person, the actual doctor or trainer?
Crito: Only when it comes from the one qualified person.
Socrates: Then he should be afraid of the criticism and welcome the praise of the one qualified person, but not those of the general public.
Socrates: he ought to regulate his actions and exercises and eating and drinking by the judgement of his instructor, who has expert knowledge, not by opinions of the rest of the public.
Questioning the status quo
Socrates challenged the then prevailing Athenian beliefs by looking at each of them logically. Just because something has always been done a certain way, by the majority of the population, does not mean that it is correct.
Socrates compared living without thinking systematically about what you are doing and why as trying to make a pot or shoe just from having a hunch. You have to know the actual process behind making a shoe or a pot, it doesnt just happen. The same approach should be taken to perform your actions in life.
Think about this before you undertake your next Coaching or training session- why are you doing what you are doing?
“To have long term success as a coach or in any position of leadership, you have to be obsessive in some ways.” Pat Riley, of the Miami Heat, is back in the news again after signing Lebron James.
What a massive amount of media coverage this trade got- a slow news time in the US. It will be interesting to see whether James lives up the hype, he couldn’t carry the Cleveland team, or raise the level of the players around him. Surely truly great players do that?
Engagement is the driving force of success: athletes, coaches, management, staff, families, supporters…everyone engaged completely and comprehensively in your program.
Never compromise on your values, virtues or beliefs for the sake avoiding conflict or to gain political advantage…it will come back to bit you sometime in the future.
Coach with passion
Coach with passion, energy and enthusiasm – your athletes deserve it.
Never, ever give up: persevere no matter what the obstacles are in your way – no matter how difficult it seems – never give up.
Be an agent of change and ignore people who use the worst eight words in sport “that’s not the way we do it here“ – people who win are unique, are different, make changes, take risks and then the rest of the world has to finds ways of catching up with them.
Be yourself – believe in yourself: you have to do this. No one wins by copying or by trying to be someone else or by trying to be something they are not. Be yourself.
Avoid anyone who talks in absolutes: there are no “nevers”, no “always”, no “musts” – there is only learning, growth, creativity, innovation, change and passion. There is no one way of doing anything.
Regularly take an honest look at yourself and your program and identify ways of enhancing the performance of both.
In the end, coaching is a personal decision to be the best you can be – now and in the future and to pass on what you learn on to others so they might in turn realise their potential as athletes and as human beings.