Yes but what does it all mean? (For #ECB #CoachingInsight).

A confession.

Having been asked to contribute something to ‘Coaching Insights’, I not only went back to re-read the last issuebut also re-watched ‘Wings to Fly 2018’. This, I think, something to do with that inclination to feel (and of course be perceived as) ‘kosher’, informed, ‘worth listening to’.

Setting aside the Coach/Ego phenomenon for a moment –we’ll return to that – I’m glad I did that revision-thing, for several reasons.

Firstly, both resources made me think; think about the richness and challenge that inevitably accompanies the phenomenal range of things coaches do. From being selflessly paternal or maternal guide-mentor to (for example) an autistic child, to hosting conversations-through-practise led, in fact, by athletes at a kind of intellectual as well as physical peak. (See both in Wings to Fly, 2018!)

Secondly, because I wanted to hug or buy beers for one or two of the coaches featured – such was their obvious human decency.

Thirdly, because (in the example of the England Women’s Hockey section) there was a powerfully contemporary, almost provocatively demanding feel to the coaching activity that I felt asked questions of all of us – whatever our level.

The apparent transfer of almost all responsibilities across to the players during Thinking Thursday sessions made me wonder about transfers between coaching levels generally. What, if anything is common?  What can we take and re-calibrate around ability and experience and meaningfully plant somewhere else?

(Do recommend a watch, by the way: you will see brilliant, international coaches – hockey, in this case – really challenge their players. It’s exciting. It may be uncomfortable; it’s very much in line with what we might call the Grow the Athlete, Test the Athlete principle – to enable growth and resilience through player ownership – but it’s exacting, exciting stuff).

So I read and I watched right through and thought wow. Amazing. What a responsibility. What a privilege. How can all that stuff be the same job?!?

Then I thought some more – on and through the labels.

A digression if I may. Anyone else a tad concerned about Jargonistas? Meaning folks who quite possibly being social media fiends like myself, seem to load up any post or hypothesis with impenetrable terminology? As though the need to justify/authenticate/‘establish’ is as urgent as the need to share?

I know in a sense I may be guilty of something similar. However it may be that looking to out-rank or outflank the Ordinary Coach is a rather mean-spirited thing to do –imho.

Of course specialisms and elite spheres of practice have technical terms/jargon, but I for one am slightly discomfited by the air of superiority and separation that can accompany missives from the Performance Posse. I’m not an elite-level coach but this doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the higher stratospheres: seems a shame that language can be used to exclude me/us.

Get that much of this really is a function of the times, the dangers of Social Media and yes, language… but back to labels. In particular this notion of ‘player-centred’ coaching. What does that mean, anyway?

Let’s let the ideas, the connotations tumble out.

It means or implies that ‘it’s all about the player’.
That the coach must sacrifice some part of his or her ego… because the player is key.
*That means being deeply generous…
and humble, in a sense – even when as coaches we may be likely to be extrovert or ‘vocal’ or ‘opinionated’…
even when we’re sure about a way of playing that feels utterly right – that would ‘sort the issue quickly’; we might have to ask a further, better, more generous question, as opposed to direct things a tad more sharply.
It maybe also implies a particular way of coaching?

There are so-o many things to think about, here. Player-centred coaching might mean in-cred-dibly different things at different stages or strata of the game… or it might mean the same. Or it might be more a philosophy than a practise?

We could go on. We could look for scenarios, for definitions which fit. They could be ace or awful or banale or something. Everything is interpretation.

The fact that this conundrum-fest implies a kind of openness or arguably uncertainty is best seen as a positive. It’s great that questions kinda swamp answers; that though we coaches may never lose our certainties, we learn (hopefully) to treat them as supporting material rather than gospel to be spread noisily, urgently far and wide.

This restraint is a fabulous challenge. At a time when half the universe surely wants to crowd in to Surrey CCC nets to unpick the brilliant secrets of what feels like a return to Traditional Inviolables, shouldn’t we be ditching some of the new-fangled generosity and get back to drilling in timeless, simple truths?

Good question.

Surrey are flying (at the time of writing!) and they are openly trumpeting intensive rehearsal of (and I think trust in) The Basics. Meaning playing straight; being conscious of the value of your wicket; having a ‘sound technique’: the basics, in fact, as commonly, traditionally understood.

(Appreciate that our friends from the County Champions may well argue with some of this interpretation – perhaps particularly the third of those alluring soundbites – but it seems to me a fairish translation of what many cricket people are thinking).

But does the stunning success of Surrey at county level and beyond have ramifications for coaches and Coach Education broadly? Quite possibly. And does it follow then, that a ‘return to basics’ undermines arguments for player-centred coaching – which might understandably be viewed as a kind of modernist, liberal nonsense? Hopefully not. Surely not?

It does, however, challenge us all.

It challenges the ECB because their lead coaching staff will be as conscious as the rest of us that plenty of sages-of-a-certain-age are nodding wisely and doing that ‘told you so’ thing. Saying that some things are non-negotiable – that there is such a thing as a solid defence and that everyone has to have that before the other stuff. In this way we might understand a surge, forward or back, towards what we might call the traditional.

That shift may happen: not that it’s necessarily the job of John Neal or Martyn Kiel to flinch or capitulate to this year’s model or method. They will nevertheless reflect – that’s what good coaches do, right?

On this point specifically I’m slightly fascinated to see how the language in ECB Coaching Courses and publications might respond over the next year or two. Will the philosophical generosity (player-centredness?) of the Core Principles be tweaked… or not? Does it follow at all that the imprint of Surrey’s successful regime will register beyond… and if so, how? 

Things are complex. Feelings run high. The coaching community, being a mixed tribe, will respond in myriad ways. Surrey may respond to this – by making an inviolably convincing argument that there is NOTHING traditional or ‘old-fashioned’ about their goals or their methods! It really could be that their coaches are as ‘enlightened’ and player-centred as anyone. It just feels like a drift back to demonstrations, in nets, might happen, on the back of whispers from the Oval.

I hope that not too many of us fall into a kind of smugness or vitriol around this. (Let’s face it, it’s all the rage!) To conflate/equate the perceived triumph of traditional values with the need to return to traditional coaching methods would be questionable, in my view. A) Because surely traditional skills and values can be supported by contemporary, less didactic coaching and B) because who knows, really, what’s making the difference?

I am fine with being uncertain about many things. I can see a difference between player-centred coaching as a method… and as a philosophy. I’m not sure where that gets me -other than to a place where I might (coaches might) recognise that the ‘player-centred’ coaching we are doing is so dominated by our own goals or expectations that it lacks utterly the generosity implied by that phrase. It’s so loaded with our perfectly-formed plans that despite our fine relationship with the player it cannot be truly player-centred.

This is surely an issue?

For the term ‘player-centred’ to really cut it, I reckon we’ve got to be talking about a pret-ty radical shift in the player-coach alliance. Inevitably the coach will have certain aspirations – patterns he or she hopes to share and follow. But I think the essence of contemporary coaching has rightly moved towards offering the player the opportunity to grow and to self-direct on that pathway. More or less. According to the individual. Because better learning occurs this way.

Being player-centred might mean providing the context, the activity, appropriate to the recipient individual. But it’s not superficial, ideally. In other words, asking questions and playing games might tick some progressive boxes but may not either really work… or be really player-centred.

The essence of the task is about using your human skills – social, psychological? – alongside those cricket coaching skills to truly, generously develop the player. (This I guess is why the word ‘holistic’ appears, at times like these). We’re back to the awesome, exciting, wonderful, challenging enormity of the role of the coach.

Let me leave you with another quandary – questions deliciously swamping answers, right? If we are now clear what Player-centred Coaching is, does that mean the coach or the player, during practice, chooses how things are done?

Onwards, with a top-end example of a particular approach. It’s widely noted that the mighty All Blacks coaches haven’t done match-day team-talks for aeons. Because the players have already done – and owned – the preparation. So no need for the Kiwi equivalent of Churchillian rhetoric from the coach. None.

Imagine the temptation, when the adrenalin is pumping, to bawl instruction or pour fire into the hearts of your players, immediately pre-match. None. Because the players have gotten themselves ready; you know that – you hosted those sessions.

In cricket the ground has shifted so quickly beneath us that the very idea of a common technique for this or that is somewhere between questionable and outright redundant. Format changes; revolutions in every aspect. So in that intoxicating flux, what might be constant?

Maybe nothing. Maybe the need to learn. Maybe in our case developing the player by understanding his or her needs and skills and idiosyncrasies as deeply as possible. 

We aim to get better. Or we should. That was a central message from both ‘Coaching Insights’ and ‘Wings to Fly 2018’ – appropriately, in my view. (I do read and do watch, by the way – you? Daft not to).

For many of us this might mean exposing ourselves to ideas which in truth may not make us more sure about what’s right. And yet that same exposure may still be hugely beneficial.

Being player-centred, like everything else, is a matter of understanding. Understanding them – as far as possible – understanding our role as coaches and offering a whole lot. A dialogue. A sounding-board. A springboard.

 

 

 

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