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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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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OK so I might have slightly over reached here...but there are some very interesting recommendations being proposed in this paper which has some really strong challenges for the talent development community.
The paper presents a consensus position based on a 'meta-analysis' of the available research into talent development in sport that has a number of wide ranging implications for the sporting landscape including some interesting conclusions that may raise a few eyebrows.
Below I have lifted the headline recomendations and added some thoughts and field notes under each one.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners consider the possibility of using genetic profiling to help athletes make more informed and appropriate decisions about sport type and discipline during their development years”.
This is something new and it is the first time I have seen an academic paper make a recommendation if this type. It suggests that the genetic research has now reached a point where there are certain elements that can be reliably tested for which could assist practitioners, children and parents to make informed decisions about sports to persue.
The concept of sport selection based on some genetic markers starts to move away from the idea of the 'mixed sport diet' advocated by supporters of the late specialisation model. This represents a potential paradigm shift in sports development where we move away from a broad participation model where the child selects the sport that the enjoy the most towards a concept where the 'sport selects the child' based on their genetic propensity to succeed.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of physiological testing for purposes of informing the training process, and make use of anthropometric profiling and physiological tests for both talent selection and development purposes, but policy makers and practitioners should ensure that such action is accompanied by appropriate procedures (considering biological maturation) to ‘re-capture’ lost/missed late maturers”.
Dr Sean Cumming from the University of Bath is leading a global team of specialists in assessing growth and maturation of players to assist in providing competitive opportunities that are based on biological age rather than chronological age. Some early findings provide some interesting support for this recommendation. I did a vlog on this a few posts back.
It is important to stress that, as the authors point out, this is very dependent on the sport. For example, Dr Ben Jones and Kevin Till at Leeds Beckett University have some interesting research in Rugby League that shows physical size to be a less reliable predictor of elite prowess than agility and power. Sir Steve Redgrave was famously deselected from the GB rowing programme at the age of 14 based on his lack of hieght.
Sports will need to have some relaiable and clear ideas of which measures offer reliable predictions of elite success. My concern is that the tape measure will replace the coach as the mechanism to identify those with potential.
“We therefore recommend that practitioners make use of psychological profiling for talent development purposes. Key questions for future research include examining the causes of exceptional levels of motivation, resilience and mental toughness, including assessing whether and how psychological skills at junior level influence long-term adult elite/super-elite performance. How do exceptional performers use their anxiety in a positive way? How do the world’s best performers maintain focus and concentration, while avoiding lapses into conscious control? How can these skills be trained?”.
My observation is that we seem under resourced here across the landscape! I see very little provision for psychologocal support for the talented athlete and even in the elite space the provision feels like an after though in comparison to the resources allocated for other more 'hard science' domains. It seems that everyone wants physically robust players but they are less interested in mentally robust players!
Having spent several years working in the talent field with a range of sports organisations I see the lack of dedicated resources to support young athletes develop the behaviours and mental skills
Surely this needs to be addressed if we are going to really produce athletes with the qualities required to reach elite levels?
“We therefore recommend that practitioners might make use of personality profiling for talent development but not talent selection purposes. Future research could focus on whether there are other important (combinations of) personality characteristics that are necessary for the development of a strong competitive personality and how these characteristics might be best developed”.
I have often felt that if coaches are to truly be player centred and begin to understand how players respond to various environmental influences or coaching methodologies then these tools become crucial to supporting this process. At the moment I think that many coaches do this intuitively but if this can be supplemented by insights then we can refine and improve our ability to engage with an audience of players.
Nick Levett (@nlevett) wrote about this in his blog recently when talking about how so many academies invest heavily in analytics to track visible performance metrics but don't invest the same in insights that will help to enhance the learning process and drive performance.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners at least take consideration of birthplace when designing talent search initiatives as well as profiling athletes during talent selection and development. Understanding more about the physical and social environment, organisation of resources and the number of participants competing for available places in sports are key areas for research—i.e. understanding more about the environments and neighbourhoods that potential sporting talents are exposed to, and less about birthplace population size.”
I have been campaigning for talent coaching to become more mobile for a long time. At the moment we tend to be very facility driven and we then require the players to come to us when in actual fact we should be looking for ways to take our best coaches to the players. In my mind this would offset many of these location specific disadvantages and challenges.
We also need to make sure that we get the right amount of provision according to the number of potential players in a given locatuon rather than using historical geographic boundaries.
“Evidence from non-elite, junior elite, elite, and super-elite athletes attests to the influence of support networks (including family, coaches, other athletes/ peers and support staff). In addition to their key role in the provision of expert coaching and training, coaches can help to enhance the development of psychological skills and mental toughness in athletes during their developmental years. Non-elite data suggest that the supportiveness and feedback effectiveness of coaches is dependent on a unique fit (and common identity) between the characteristics of the coach and the personality of the athlete.”
I have written previously about how well equipped our youth and talent coaches are to develop these psychological skills in players? Current coach education hardly touches on these areas and the vast majority of coach education course do not allow enough guided learning time to truly explore these concepts.
In so much of my work as a talent coach I find myself working to try and help young athletes overcome mental challenges that are holding back their development. I have had zero formal training provided by any NGB coach education system in this area but have spent my own money to develop the capabilities having recognised the need.
In most cases psychology support comes in once a player reaches the elite ranks but this is a 'retrofit' model of development where we are 'back filling' definiciencies in the athlete once they get selected. In my view this both is enefficient and inneffective. If the development of mental skills are important to futire performance then shouldn't these be core to our development curriculum in the same way that technical and tactical abilities are?
Should we be advocating for 'mental literacy' as well as 'physical literacy'?
Deliberate Practice - 10,000 hours?
“Despite wide variation across sports, most junior elite, elite and super-elite athletes have accumulated enormous volumes of organized practice and training [149, 230, 241– 260]. Extensive sport-specific deliberate practice (DP) is thus a pre-requisite to world-class performance in sports with a large participant base”.
“We therefore recommend that policy makers and practitioners continue to promote deliberate practice, but consider the present evidence before routinely increasing practice volumes with junior athletes, and acknowledge the potential benefits of automaticity, implicit learning and also enjoyment in practice and play”.
“Future research should also further explore the roles of explicit and implicit/incidental learning in the development of expert performance. This implies scrutiny of the intentions and specific activities performed during practice/training and play, their combinations, variability, potential interactions and relative influence through different developmental age ranges”.
The paper expressed support for the idea of practicing deliberately but is not supportive of the existing definition of ‘Deliberate Practice’ proposed by Ericsson, et al. Instead it is suggesting that the practice construct should move towards a more exploratory 'implicit learning' approach which I would suggest would require highly skilled coaches capable of using constraints led / game sense approaches. This may necessittate a radical overhaul of the coach education and coach development system in many sports. I would question whether the current linear, 'competency based' approach is producing coaches that are able to use these methods confidently.
“Both early specialization and sampling (and play) may be routes to expertise under optimal conditions. However, the probability of attaining elite or super-elite level may be enhanced by the coupling of a large volume of intensive, organized specific training/practice in the main sport with appreciable amounts of organized training/practice and competitions in other sports and/or non-organized play in the main or other sports.”
“We thus recommend policy makers and practitioners to draw on this evidence, bearing in mind the need to minimize the potential hazards of early specialization when such specialization is necessary, and with regard to promoting opportunities for young athletes to experience non-organized play and sampling in a variety of sports”.
“Future research is needed to understand how participation in various sports benefits super-elite performance in one main sport. Further, how does the process of late specialization following prior diversification or ‘talent transfer’ proceed? Are there certain sports or clusters that lay the best foundation for super-elite success in a final sport”?
This message chimes well with a post a wrote on the subject recently and is is a shift away from the rigidity of ‘early specialisation is bad and late specialisation is good’ message towards a more nuanced position around ‘it depends on the individual and the sport (with caveats)’ position.
It is also saying that we might start looking at complementary sports and start to recommend them to support a 'main sport' which I think is a very dangerous recommendation as it presupposes that kids would have a 'main sport' which leads to the early specialisation model that many have been fighting to avoid.
I welcome the idea that 'one size doesn't fit all' in this area but I want to urge caution here. There are strong correlations between later specialisation and better performance as well as reduced drop out rates. We definitely don't want to throw out the late specialising baby with the potentially early specialising bathwater'!
The upshot of all this is that the paper has some pretty strong recommendations that will present a challenge for a number of sports that will need to respond with some fairly significant system changes if they are going to act on many of these recomendations.
It won't surprise readers of this blog to know that I am pleased to see so many of the recomendations having such heavy emphasis of the role of the talent coach and the need to develop and support this army of unsung heroes far better than at present!