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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...

" 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 explored the work of thinkers in sports coaching such as Ian Renshaw, Keith Davids, Rob Gray, Duarte Araujo

I was fortunate to spend time working with practitioners like Russell Earnshaw, Ric Shuttleworth, Mark Upton.

They showed me that I the problem was 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.

My recent podcasts with master golf coach, Kendal McWade also covered this approach in some detail. Download part 1 and part 2 here

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.

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