Ditch the cones - start using 'koans'

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".