As I near the end of my PhD, I’m starting to realise how little impact most of my work will have on its own. The publications on talent development frameworks and amateur task design will always be behind a paywall, where my colleagues and coaching community will struggle to access them or find it difficult to get though their 8000 word density.
So I decided to establish myself back in the community where it all started, in local cricket clubs. I was lucky enough to build some strong relationships with previous participants in my studies, who continue to ask for new ways to keep training interesting, constraints-led and engaging. The pandemic has taught me that genuine connection is sometimes just as important as being there for someone, so being able to consult online with fellow coaches and draft new philosophies and guidelines for the upcoming cricket season has been invigorating.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. My perspective differs greatly from traditional approaches to coaching and I still find it difficult to control my emotions when I come up against controlling, prescriptive coaches; the exact kind of coach that thrives in the environment I’ve just re-introduced myself to. It’s not that I don’t see value in their approach to coaching, I’m just hyperaware of the consequences. This is compounded by my lack of status within the new environment as well, as an outsider to the club and a 24yo woman coaching male and female amateur cricketers.
I’m also never the loudest coach at training. I’ll never jump in to take over something, but I still have a wealth of knowledge that I wish to share with this wonderful group of athletes who keep coming back every year. There are also a lot of other people who wish to share their knowledge in more forward ways, and this has formed the basis of my most recent challenge.
I am a big believer that the best athletes are fundamentally two things: adaptable and great decision makers. This places the emphasis on the player themselves to explore their movement capabilities and solve game-related problems while they are preparing to perform. When an athlete approaches me and identifies a scoring opportunity they wish to harness better, I take the time to design the activity with them and make sure to integrate adaptability and decision making.
For example, if a batter is struggling to play on the legside with strength and confidence, I can challenge them by throwing 5/6 balls outside of that desired scoring zone, and randomly throwing one ball in that does suit, forcing them to respond to the ball they’re receiving and identifying that scoring opportunity they’re looking for. This gives the player enough room to explore and grow while I look for any limiting factors in the task design or batting behaviours that might contribute to the lack of confident execution. This eliminates the ‘lecture’ that often happens before starting a task, the technical talk which is limited by our individual differences and my ability to explain, and keeps the focus on player learning to move.
The alternative to this approach predominantly features the coach’s voice, overloading the player with instructions about how to move, where to go and what to do; all the things they need to do alone while batting in the game. When coaches interrupt the athlete-centred learning environment that I create, especially one like above, I don’t know how to respond. When a coach comes running over, yelling from a distance, then pulls the bat out of the players hand and proceeds to demonstrate what they “should be doing”, it makes me so mad but I don’t say anything, I feel like I can’t. And ultimately, it’s the player’s learning that gets sacrificed and I’m not okay with that.
I’ve always struggled to communicate with these types of coaches, even as a frustrated athlete. I could never understand why squashing the curiosity out of someone is gratifying but from their perspective, they have all this knowledge to share and they want to be able to help you ASAP. The limitation of this approach is how it limits holistic and long-term learning instead of fostering it. Instead of creating a variety of meaningful, functional behaviours, we’re giving the learner a view that’s restricted by the experiences, vision and understanding of the coach. I like to start my sessions by highlighting that my solution to a problem may not suit anybody here, so I rarely provide it, but I am very good at helping each individual find their solution by supporting them along their learning journey. When I sat in my first motor control class and learned that people can perform perfectly in training and tests but not show any evidence of learning weeks later, I wanted to make sure I never left someone in that position.
So I guess it’s worth helping people see the connections between their actions and outcomes as coaches, as well as athletes. My goal now is to spend more time with these coaches instead of being frustrated and meet them on their level. We may not see eye to eye in our approaches but ultimately we’re trying to achieve the same outcome. Ideally my work with an athlete would not get interrupted by other people but unfortunately that’s a reality of being a young female coach for now. One day we may get to the stage where learning truly focuses on the athlete experience, and as learning designers (aka coaches), we can provide stimulating, challenging and supportive environments to help them along the way.