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!
Anyway onto the blog....
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 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.
Or listen below
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.
Over the next few months I will be running a series of webinars and will be producing some online courses that go into much more depth as to how I actually do this and many other things. If you would like to hear about these first and never miss another blog post, sign up for the email list and I will make sure you are the first to know.
In my previous post I explained how I experimented with constraints to see if I could help my son to develop his ability to hit a cricket ball to different areas and develop some different shots.
In this post I wanted to share how I tried something similar with my 4 year old daughter Isla...with surprising results.
My daughter is 3.5 years younger than her brother so when she wants to come and play cricket with us we have to adjust the game so that she can play. I bowl under arm to her from much closer and also bowl slower so that she can hit the ball more easily. She is pretty impressive in the way that she can judge the bounce of the ball and she does hit the ball pretty well.
But like her brother (and most young kids) she always wants to hit the ball baseball style across her body to her left.
Now she is only 4 and I don't expect her to be able to develop technique and I wouldn't do that anyway. But I did think it would be interesting to see what happened if I gave her the same challenge as her brother and take away the option of her being able to hit the ball to her left and only hit the ball to her right.
In this scenario I didn't do any modelling I just wanted to see what she would do..
I made this video to show you the process she went through and the way she chose to solve the problem for herself.
I was fascinated...she just played the same shot but the other way. That was the way she chose to solve the problem.
It is interesting that this method is now being adopted by T20 players as a means to get maximums over the off side of the field as pioneered by a certain Mr Pietersen,
I was fascinating watching her refine the technique all on her own. At the start it was a direct switch hit but after a few unsuccessful attempts she was going for more of a reverse ramp shot!
I could have taught her the 'proper way' but she came up with something else.
I think I might let her carry on and see how she gets on!
It is magic giving kids problems and seeing how they go about solving them!
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This week I am featuring a guest blogger in the shape of the genuinely awesome Bob Wood. Bob is a physical development specialist who can be found ranting about the world of sport and in particular how people move on his website http://www.physical-solutions.co.uk. I would highly recommend this super sarcastic and hilarious poke at the sports shoe world
I worked with Bob several years ago to development a series of movement games to help young golfers develop the physical capabilities to be able to play the game at the highest level. He has a sharp mind, a cutting wit and a genuine passion for what he does and i think this comes through in this repost he wrote in reply to my recent article on 'Why coaches like drills and why they are killing creativity'.
I really enjoyed this article and wanted to share it with you all. Bob comes at the discussion from a different perspective and I think it adds some interesting balance to the discussion.
I will let you read and then throw up some thoughts about this at the bottom
A word of advice if you ever meet him or work with him...
Never play him at Table Tennis!
Enjoy the post
Stuart Armstrong’s excellent blog article “why coaches like drills and how they are killing creativity” can be found here. It is bang on the money. A message that needs to be heard, and you could opt to read it before this. My favourite line is:
“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.” I’ve seen a lot of that.
Now I know Stuart and he sees the bigger picture, but he likes poking people with thinking sticks, which is a good thing. In this blog he is playing advocate for “Creativity”. It’s like an episode of courtroom drama Suits and Stuart has slicked back his hair, pulled on something sharp, and is taking on the giant corporate coaching mantra of “repeatable predictable automaticity”, or in short the drill. So it’s quite a brave move and rattled my cage enough to write this repost.
In the blog, Prof Kaufman describes these incidents of creativity as being “original, meaningful and surprising”. He’s giving the loose and unpredictable nature of creativity some structure. He describes the creative incident as going beyond the standard repertoire and transcending expertise. And the very appearance of the creative incident is a surprise “not only to oneself but to everyone”. A surprise! It’s not often you hear the profs talk about those… they generally don’t like or take to surprises… it’s not what we pay them for. The problem is that you do get a lot of surprises in sport. Thankfully. I tend to ask my students to steer clear of too much logic and cold reasoning when it comes to thinking about sport. In fact I encourage them to apply and accept some “messy thinking”. That way they might find some sense.
So in the lawsuit we have “freewheeling creativity” on one side, and “predictable automaticity” on the other. Could be a sticky and long case. I thinks it’s best we settle out of court. Here’s why...
Let’s present some messy thinking arguments. Here’s one you will all be familiar with. It’s anecdotal. Anyone who knows me knows that I rate myself as a table tennis player. Anyone who’s played me may find otherwise. Anyway down the village club during the knock up I often find myself attempting and sometimes achieving creative incidents. I have a good knock up mentality… I just loosen my goose and let it happen. Wild slamming looping forehands off the wrong stance whilst pinned up against the wall are pulled off. I honestly don’t know how I do it (which is a good title for a sports psychology book). It is certainly a surprise to me and by the swear words a surprise to my opponents. And then the dreaded phrase is uttered; “are you ready?”. The match proper commences and I play in earnest… far too earnestly to allow the goose out. Safe backhands, chop returns, keep it in play, trust what I know works and what I feel I am reliably capable of. If its enough I may scrape a win, but infrequently. The messy thinking phrase here is “reliably capable off”. What I am capable of is knock up magnificence, but it is shackled by my current level and perception of competitive competence. Messy.
Lets try a contribution from an expert in the field of creativity… Michael Jordan. He was outstanding and undeniably creative in his approach to his sport and the basket. I remember a press interview during his peak when a reporter asked a simple question… “how come you are so much better than the other guys”. Jordan took quite a long moment and gave an equally simple answer… “its because I do the basics better than anyone else”. I don’t know whether he came up with it, but I’ve heard it used an awful lot since. It’s a different kind of a surprise when a mercurial creativity merchant such as Jordan credits his mastery of the basics as his cornerstone. Messy.
We could look at a move. Let’s take the Cruyff Turn. Surely one of the most recognisable creative incidents within sporting history… an I was there moment of genius. I found it described in the book “Sports Around the World: History, Culture and Practice”:
“He pioneered a move which has been dubbed the Cruyff Turn in which he looked as if he was moving to pass the ball but instead dragged the ball behind his planted foot leaving the defender off balance.” Perfect, I can see it, and anything pioneering must be scoring very high on the creativity scale. But then there’s the next sentence: “This move is commonly taught to young soccer players around the world”. That’s gone and messed me up. The most famous incident of football creativity has become a drill. So is the creative incident only creative once, and then it becomes common practice via deliberate technical practice… reduced to a drill skill?
I’m getting proper messy now. Is the creativity expressed as an incident or is it really an attitude. Is the creativity a skill itself, or the willingness to attempt to use that skill. Are there actually any new skills, or are there new ways to use established ones. The latter would really mess the court case up.
Stuart’s blog lists some of his own favourite sporting “new moves” and describes them as “techniques 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.” He goes on to describe this as “creative endeavour”. I like that… he’s straightened up my mess a good deal.
So how do they do that? Quite clearly it’s because they can… but that isn’t an acceptable answer. I can pull off occasional ping pong miracles, but never genuinely appropriately, when it matters, reliably, accurately, under pressure, or as successfully as these great players and their moves. The astute will have just noticed I used the word “reliably” whilst describing creativity. Council for the defence would be objecting. But I think it’s appropriate. I’m a movement man. I want my athletes to be creative, but I need them to be reliable. They need to stay athletes for a long time, not just have moments. But they will be playing other athletes who may be equally well prepared. So they need to be more reliable and have more moments.
Jordan was probably right. What underpinned his proliferation of creative moments was his own homage to his foundation of basic reliable skills. We could argue that these are fundamental movement patterns, acquired technical competency or rehearsed higher level game specifics… it doesn’t matter, they are basics. Somehow they were honed. Freestyle or guided. Definitely repeated. Always revisited. The basics are the foundations that allow him to express his creativity… and his basics were better than yours. Even if they weren’t he believed they were and he was gonna get creative on your arse anyway. See how this works… it’s messy.
So if this is a repost then do I think that the drills are killing creativity? They are if coaches let them. However I don’t think we should pitch the drills against creativity. We need to keep them out of the divorce court and they need to learn to live together. The drills are the strength in this relationship, the creativity is the spark. And you simply won’t get one without the other. If the relationship gets stale then it’s easier to just press on with over familiar unimaginative drills… you get my analogy. It’s a shame but sport will never be about the glorious chaos of unbridled creativity. But pushing the boundaries of performance and technique means that you do have to unbridle the young athletes regularly. Every training session should have it’s “licence to thrill” moments. But we shouldn’t throw all the drills out. It’s just that if a “surprise” pops up during a drill coaches should sometimes go with it, encourage it, learn to expect and even facilitate it… whether it’s a success or not. You never know it could be the next Fosbury Flop, or you could be watching the next Messi.
Boom! There you have it...I guess we should have expected a bit of balance from a movement specialist!
Principally I agree with the theme of Bob's post...I do think that there is a need to attend to certain activities and provide the opportunity to rehearse them to ensure that they have the level of repeatability that is required for them to perform effectively and also (in his case) be resilient enough to avoid injury.
I guess where I would challenge would be in the use of the drill as the method of achieving this level of movement repeatability. In my mind a drill has no context and without context it lacks realism and variability. I would question whether the drill actually prepares the player for the movement in the game and as such whether it has the desired effect at all.
After all we all thought that static stretches in a warm up prevented injury in games but now we have realised that this doesn't have the effect at all and now everybody is doing for functionally representative movements before sports.
I just think that the drill is lazy coaching, it is coaches reducing sport to its constituent parts and then trying to reassemble the parts and expecting that this with translate to the game. Just, whack a load of cones down, get kids to move from one to the next, do something, move to the next. It looks good (to the uninitiated), it has order and parents will think that the coach knows what they are doing. But anyone can do that! There is very little skill in that! It is the coaching equivalent of painting by numbers. As Bob says, "...it’s easier to just press on with over familiar, unimaginative drills…".
There are always better ways than that. There are always ways to make any isolated movement more representative and therefore more open to variability and crucially...adaptability.
It strikes me that while Bob wants reliability (and I totally agree that kids should learn to move better) he also wants adaptability. Movers or players that can't adapt are too one dimensional and eventually something will happen that will mean that they break.
I know that Bob believes this because I have seen his workshops and he is passionate about getting kids moving through movement challenges and games. He is genius at creating them and helping coaches understand their application. Bob's skill is in looking at the whole mover through something he refers to as "the kinetic chain".
Bob works with a lot of golfers and he laments the S&C world which has golfers doing isolated exercises in order to help them develop more power, he always wants the movements to be more representative of the whole golf swing movement and he would prefer that activities that are chosen are much more representative of the full movement. He likes to train players using the equipment that they use to play with, he likes to do it in the environment that they play in and he likes to do it from the perspective of as full as movement as possible.
All of this made me think about this video I saw with another movement specialist called Ido Portal. He believes firmly in the concept of functionally representative movement and uses a variety of methods to achieve this that I think readers of this blog will find interesting.
This approach to movement using constraints presented by the environment is very aligned to the way that so much of the coaching and expertise literature is directing us. The model for the acquisition of skill is one of learning through experience and this learning can be expedited greatly by a coach with the skill to design and manipulate tasks and environments in a way that will turbo charge the development of athletes.
"I agree that drills live on the learning continuum but in the ecology of coaching methods they are the evolutionary equivalent of pond spawn..."
I agree that drills live on the learning continuum but in the ecology of coaching methods they are the evolutionary equivalent of pond spawn and I exhort coaches to stretch themselves to go beyond the drill and design practices that are much more engaging and also much richer with learning possibility.
And here's the kicker...
If we do this then the kids have more fun. They also learn more and get better faster.
More fun and get better faster...what's not to like about that?
In the video with Ido, he talks about a concept called 'Kinetic Coans' which is a kind of movement challenge that he sets for his athletes and gets them to work towards it.
This has prompted me to start writing a post about how coaches can create 'Perceptual Puzzles' to challenge player learning. I am not sure when it is going to land but when it does I will beam it direct to your inbox if you sign up for my email alerts here.
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