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 reductionary....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'!
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Here is my latest Vlog in the 7 part series looking at the biggest mistakes and traps that people can fall into when helping young people develop their potential.
This one centres on our desire to correct mistakes which robs the young person of the learning opportunity that is created by the error and also creates a motivational climate that encourages 'learned helplessness' where children are discouraged from trying things out because they know that someone is going to come along with either a correction or a solution at any moment.
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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".
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