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My biggest constraint to coaching and teaching: hearing

A few weeks ago, I put this out across my social media platforms:

I'm going to dive into some of the issues my hearing difficulties have created for me, and some of the strategies that other people have been kind enough to share with me. Whenever people have seen me with hearing aids on for the first time, the response has always been along the lines of "Are you deaf? I never noticed!" This could be fully genuine, or it could be they are just trying to be nice, or a combination of the two! Even for me, it is very difficult to recognise if someone has a hearing difficulty unless they are wearing a hearing aid device, or they actively say they have a hearing difficulty. But when people are aware, 99% of them positive in their response, and they actively try to make life easier for me. There have been a few isolated incidents that I can remember where responses have been quite hurtful, but that will be a feature of life whatever the circumstance. What do you choose to invest your energy into - the positives or the negatives?

A side note: I think this speaks to the importance of being kind. You never know what is going on in someone's head, and the hidden struggles they are facing. They could be hard of hearing, they could be having family troubles, or they might be going through financial strains, As the quote goes: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about."

The challenges

Ultimately, the big challenge for me is taking in information through listening. It is pretty common knowledge that men cannot multi-task! But for me, when anything I'm doing requires me to listen and hear, I can barely do 1 thing at a time! The Monkey Business Illusion (see video here) comes to mind here. Making this relevant to some of the things I currently do frequently:

  • Listening in lectures, I have to really concentrate on what is being said for it to register. Which sounds obvious, but as a learner in a lecture there are 3 possible roles: listener to the speaker, reader of the speaker's slides, or writer of my own thoughts. I can only do one of these things at a time. So I have to be very strategic about when I write notes and what I write. It becomes especially problematic if there is a lot of information on the speaker's slides, and the speaker is speaking really fast. This exceeds my optimal challenge point. (Guadagnoli and Lee, 2004)

  • Listening to podcasts for me is an activity I must engage in, not something I can do passively - I would find it difficult to listen to a podcast while driving (particularly in busy traffic), as I would end up missing most of the podcast because I was concentrating on the roads. (The Monkey Business Illusion in action again,)

  • Walking down the corridor in school, a student would have to call my name multiple times if they are behind me, because it doesn't register with me that they are trying to grab my attention.

  • The Covid pandemic has been a major disruption to everyone's life for obvious reasons, but one of the most challenging aspects for my day-to-day life has been the introduction of masks. I find it incredibly difficult to have a conversation with someone wearing a mask because I typically lip-read to an extent. This is obviously not possible with masks on. (This post comes just as it's announced that students are required to wear masks in classrooms again.) - this is a link to a post on LinkedIn by Jodie Ounsley, an England 7's and Sale Sharks 15's rugby player, which raises awareness on some of the struggles that people may go through if they struggle with hearing.

The final point is an illustration on how it can impact my ability to form deep and meaningful relationships. Something which I have not been truthful to myself about until recently has been the impact it has had on my ability to build relationships. This was highlighted to me during my first placement block in my teacher training. I typically use open questioning to a group. Whereas for high quality assessment for learning, I need to use targeted questions to individuals. This is difficult with a new group as

  1. you do not know who to ask a low-level question to (to appropriately stretch and challenge lower level students) and who to ask a high-level question to (to appropriately stretch and challenge higher level students);

  2. you do not even know names of your students.

To focus on point 2, the solution is simple - ask a student what their name is! But something which I have not acknowledged or been honest with myself about is that I am afraid to ask someone their name, in case I don't hear it. Even typing that sounds ridiculous, but that is the reality of how I have felt, and the things that go on inside my head. This is an issue that transcends any encounter with someone I don't know, I am somewhat afraid to engage in conversation. With any new group I have ever encountered - a new team to play on, a new class to be a part of (school or university), a new group to coach, a new class to teach - I am somewhat "slow to warm-up" - as in, it takes me a while to relax in a new environment and actually start to build relationships. This is a challenge everyone faces I'm sure, but it feels particularly daunting for me.

It has taken me a long time to accept this, but only now that I accept it can I deal with it, instead of avoiding the issue. To illustrate my avoidance of an issue, over the summer of 2021, I ran an 8-week athletic development program with 4 different groups, roughly 80 players in total. I didn't ask one player their name, and I rarely addressed anyone by their name. I got everyone to write their name on the whiteboard as they came in, and I would watch them as they write it, so I know who is who (this did not turn out to be hugely successful). Looking back, this is poor behaviour on my part, and I need to do better.

All of these challenges are somewhat related to cognitive load theory. More on this in a later post.

Some solutions

I posted this on social media (Linkedin and Twitter) and many people were kind enough to reach out to me with solutions they have implemented, and some of which I have begun to use myself, and also some that I have developed myself over a number of years.

- Be transparent: although my hearing aids are visible because they sit outside my ear and I have short hair, many people do not pay attention to another person's ear. When they meet someone, they engage with their eyes for the most part. I have only met 2 people who have noticed them straight away - one wore hearing aids himself, and the other was very attuned to his surroundings! But the majority of people will not pick up on it initially. When I first speak to a new group on players or students or work with a new group of coaches or teachers, something I can do to help myself is to be transparent about my difficulty. If a person decides to look down on me for it, that is their issue and not mine. As I mentioned, I anticipate 99% of people won't bat an eyelid and this will only enhance the relationship that you have, by building trust and creating an understanding.

- Encouraging people to annunciate this is something I should practice myself, but even wearing hearing aids helps me to annunciate better. I remember working as a strength and conditioning coach for a team in Hong Kong, and my accent was hard to understand for many at the best of times, but one of the players always used to tell me to annunciate. Only since I started wearing hearing aids again, have I really understood how to speak clearly.

This is a life skill that all young people should develop regardless of who their teacher or coach is. Being able to speak well is a skill that will positively impact people in any walk of life, let alone when they are presenting, and it is important that people work to cultivate their ability to annunciate.

- Positioning: When speaking to a group, I make sure there is no one standing behind me. If this is a class, when I call everyone in for a plenary, or a post session recap for example, I will make sure everyone is in a position where I can see them and their face. If a team is in a huddle before a game or during a session, I will join the huddle if I am required to speak and engage with the team, I won't stand in the middle and talk.

Positioning in classrooms (when I am a student) is also something I have thought about a lot. 3 things impact me -

  1. The way I face - I want to always make sure I am facing the presenter in a classroom.

  2. What is behind me - As much as possible, I will make sure there is no one behind me, so I will sit with my back to a wall.

  3. the distance I am from the speaker - I will also try to manage the distance I am from the speaker - if it is a particularly long room, I won't sit at the back (this may mean there will be people sitting behind me).

It is sometimes difficult to tick all 3 boxes but I try and at least tick 2.

- Ask for a visual & verbal response: role calls can be difficult depending on the positioning of the group. I ensure that everyone is stood in front of me and facing me. I sometimes ask for a visual as well as the student saying "here", that may include a hand up as they say it, so I know where the call is coming from.

- Use of MatchPlay cards: I purchased these off and I look forward to using these moving forward. These cards will help drive engagement and motivation, which will help make students and players more attentive. They will also drive ownership and it will support my delivery of game-based teaching and practice. I have written previously about ecologically valid practice previously regarding acceleration, conditioning and agility.

Moving forward

This is not something that will ever be fixed, and even if my hearing was perfect, I have no doubt that there would be times where I would struggle (as I said in my previous post - struggle and failure should be embraced). All I can do is implement strategies to try and minimise the negative effect it has on my day-to-day practice. I look forward to continuing to explore what best practice looks like for me, and I would be happy to discuss further with anyone with or without any such hearing difficulties.

If this is my biggest issue, especially given what is going on in the world currently, then I consider myself lucky.

If we threw our problems in a pile along with everyone else's, we'd take our own back. - Regina Brett


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