Recently I moved to Brisbane, Australia to take up a new role as an MPhil scholar at Queensland University of Technology. As part of the scholarship, I have been working in Ambrose Treacy College, originally as an Athletic Development Coach, but my role was adapted to Coach Developer due to the nature of my previous experience, my studies QUT, and the gap that was present in the school. I have come to the end of my first term at the school (which happens to be the last term of the school year), and I now have an extended period away from the school. This provides me with a great opportunity to ruminate on my first 7 weeks as a coach developer.
Performing a coach observation at the school.
1) Context is king
Throughout the term, I worked with a couple of high-level Volleyball coaches in their program. On one particular session, I enquired about the coach using a very directive heavy approach with his players. My point of view was that I would have preferred to see verbal instruction as a method to guide the learner towards finding a functional solution, rather than the direct, prescriptive and corrective instructions that the coach was using. Through the provision of large amounts of feedback, do players become dependent on the coach input? Will players be able to adapt for themselves, or learn to identify their own errors? Augmented feedback can be useful to enhance or aid player learning, but too much can lead to negative effects (See Petancevki et al (2022) below for an in-depth review on augmented (external) feedback).
Presenting these questions to the coach brought about some interesting responses, and for me highlighted how skill development is one aspect of coaching. Coaches need to balance learning and performance, player challenge and player confidence, implicit and explicit learning. As the team had a competition a couple of days later, this provided a major time constraint that called for a more direct and explicit coaching approach. There was not the time available for players to explore and discover functional movement solutions at that time. Skill learning was not the primary objective of the task, performance preparation was.
Another example of context playing a big role in coaching behaviours came in a separate Volleyball session with a different coach. The task that the coach had set was to develop players' spike shot (similar to an overhead smash in badminton). One player in particular was performing the spike reasonably well, but he was timid and seemed to lack confidence. The coach took this player to one side and explicitly told the player to be aggressive with his shot. This had an instantaneous impact. It was like the player needed permission to be confident and express themselves, and through explicit instruction, the coach provided it. The coach followed up after the session by affirming the player how coachable he is and how well he did to improve over the session.
These two examples highlight that there is a place for everything on the coaching spectrum, coaches just need to be aware of what behaviour suits any given context. Not an easy thing to do, and takes a lot of experience as a coach to get it right, as evidenced by the experience level of the two coaches mentioned.
2) Relationships take time
Cricket was the sport I spent the most time at over the term, and through this, I spend a lot of time with the Cricket coordinator, who was present at every session across all age groups. I don't watch cricket. I had never seen a Cricket training session. The whole experience was a massive learning curve for me. However, I tried to add value as the principles of skill development are the same across every sport. Cricket was in a different place to Volleyball; in that it was pre-season with no competitions. This provided a massive growth opportunity for the players, the coaches, and the program as a whole. In spending a lot of time with the Cricket coordinator, we were able to build a relationship where we could have an open dialogue around what was working and what could be improved.
Given the challenge I will face (and many coach developers face regularly I would have thought) in working across many sport programs, with many different people; it is important to be able to build a positive space for learning as soon as possible. One strategy for this is to add value immediately. For me, I tried to ensure that this occurred on session one. I observed all coaches on their coaching behaviour within a session, and their practice design. I provided this to the Head of Sport, who relayed back to the coaches. Moving forward, I will provide feedback directly to the coaches and this requires a careful delivery. Two things I have to try and be clear about is that I am present to:
help coaches design better sessions for their players - I am not present to criticise or condemn their practices, I am simply present to aid.
learn more about the sport - the more informed I am, the more informed my assistance can be.
By clearly demonstrating that I am not a threat, we can progress into a learning dialogue. A then our relationship becomes the foundation for growth.
3) Failure is key
This is vital from a player development AND a coach development point of view. Many coaches struggled with the idea of letting players fail. Traditionally, a coach coaches a player to not fail. Failure is seen as something that should be avoided. If a player fails under the guidance of a coach, then they haven't done their job well. However, it is important to view failure for what it is, a crucial step in the learning process. I have written more on failure and errors here. This was also an obstacle for our coach development program. If we allow novice coaches to take sessions, we run the risk of sessions "falling over". If this happens, kids won't have an enjoyable experience, parents will send their kids elsewhere. If player attendance drops, then the need for coaches also drops. Good coaching breeds greater opportunity. This is a crucial balance to get right. How can we allow young coaches to develop, and still ensure a high quality session.
This player and coach development paradox is an important one. Coaches need to be agile to ensure that players do not become overwhelmed by challenge, but at the same time experience enough challenge to learn and develop. This is a delicate balance, and it can look different for each player, and can look different for each individual player over different timescales. It is even more testing when coaches have been brought up in an environment to avoid errors, and steer players away from errors. From a coach development point of view - how can we through coaches in the deep end, but ensure that they swim? It is important that coaches do not have such a negative experience early on that they do not ever return to coaching because of the scarring impact. Many of our coaches are 1 or 2 years out of school. How can we manage their initial coaching experience to maximise learning (for the players and coaches themselves) AND enjoyment (for the players and coaches themselves)? A couple of strategies that may assist, and that we will be trialling in 2023:
ensure coaches have relatively small groups to coach (where possible);
focus on the components of the self-determination theory: autonomy - coaches plan their own sessions, and they must be provided with the support to do so; perceived competence - positive feedback and affirmation from their coaching mentors; relatedness - create a strong coaching "clan" (Irish for family) or community within the school;
formal education - workshops, presentations, seeing more experienced coaches coach.
This really is a massive component of development in my opinion, there are no quick fixes. But this will be a key point of development in our space.
4) Finding the right challenge point is the biggest challenge
Following on from the previous point around optimally challenging players and coaches to maximise learning and development, this is one of the most complex components of coaching. The challenge point of a task is dependent on the skill level of the learner (coach or athlete), and the difficulty of the task. But to add further complexity, the mental status of the learner can also impact the optimal challenge point on any given day. For example, a player could do the exact same task one week after another, but depending on the day they have had at school, they could react very differently to the challenge that they face. If they have had positive interactions all day, the player may be in a joyful mood, and is willing to experience more failure or be stretched a bit more during their after school session. If their interactions have been negative, they may not cope well with a high level of failure. Coaches are human too, and they too are susceptible to mood swings and changing behaviour patterns. With this in mind, it is always important for me to be a positive source of energy for your players or your coaches, and provide them with a safe space to offload.
If I was to sum up skill, I would say it is the ability to adapt. Variability must be included in sessions so players learn to adapt. With variability also comes failure, and coaches must be able to monitor their players' responses to failure and adapt accordingly. Outside of the tasks coaches set players, they must also be aware to adapt their coaching delivery. When to turn the energy up. When to take a step back. When to adjust their tone. When to step in. When to stay out. As mentioned, this comes with experience, and providing all key members of our clan with positive learning experiences will be crucial in our continued development.
5) Tradition is the biggest obstacle
This is a wider point around coaching and coach development, but I find it fascinating how enculturated practices persist over long periods of time. Whether that be typical warm-ups, sessions plans and drills or coaching behaviours. I always go back to a quote I heard from Dan Pfaff previously:
"When under pressure, we coach the way we were coached."
This applies to everyone, and if we put ourselves in the shoes of a young coach starting out, faced with 20 players, they will naturally apply what they experienced as a player. Introspection and reflection takes a lot of work and it can take years of graft to result in meaningful change in coaching practices. As a coach developer, this is something I try to facilitate with questions for coaches, and feedback and reflection sessions. A framework I have shared with coaches to use after sessions, either individually or as a coaching group is:
WWW: what went well?
EBI: even better if?
As much as possible we try to allow a safe space for reflection and allow the appropriate time for it too. Reflection is critical for growth and to align beHaviours with values. This is why I have written this piece, and it also serves as a preparatory piece for what will hopefully be a big year.
A few people have made a big difference in my initial 2 month period here in Brisbane. Jarrod Turner and Bryce Rankin have provided a great platform for me to have a positive impact in the school. Vince Kelly and Adam Gorman have provided a lot of support regards to my MPhil project so far and I am looking forward to data collection commencing in January.
Here's to 2023 and the best one yet.