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Sports coaching has for too long been based on the dominance of a reductionist approach - the insistence on analysing everything down to its basic components - and lines of authority between coaches ‘in the know' and those supposedly without knowledge. This approach goes hand in hand with the denial of the natural, the instinctual and the intuitive, and it has held back sports coaching in UK and elsewhere by 25 years. That is a large claim and a strong accusation to level at the sports establishment, but I will lay out the charge in this article and invite you in the process to question long-held beliefs, think for yourself, engage your emotions and make your own decision. In so doing, you will be putting into practice the very elements of good coaching that I contend are so undervalued and underused. The beliefs and assumptions that coaches grow up with are the very ones that undermine learning, performance and enjoyment. They can be illustrated by the following statements:
Of course, these are unlikely to be stated as absolutes in a debate, but it is in this absolute form that they underpin the position that the vast majority of coaches adopt, consciously or unconsciously. Though tempted by my emotions to scream that they are all wrong, to do so would be to fall into the authoritarian trap that I am challenging, so I will express it differently. It is my view that retaining such beliefs severely restricts our ability to be effective coaches. It follows, therefore, that most coaches - and that includes many who are renowned for their expertise and achievements - are not nearly as effective as they could be. Nor are they as effective as they think they are, for they only have for comparison the results of other coaches practicing along similar lines. Alternative approaches are not on their radar screens.
I believe that the fundamental psycho-physical basis of coaching as practiced in sport is flawed and needs to be challenged. I have no doubt that most coaches do the very best they can with the training they have: it is the governing bodies of individual sports and their coach education programmes that need radical review. The role and influence of the National Coaching Foundation, for example, has been disappointing because of its lack of understanding of the bigger picture. Change is made more difficult because academics, analysts and reductionists still dominate our broader educational culture. They will only evaluate interventions within the limits of their own outdated model.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, it could be said that an experience is worth two thousand! But let's start with the picture. I deliver programmes lasting 2-5 days for business managers on the topic of ‘coaching for performance in businesses` I make the theoretical case for what I call ‘new coaching', but at a certain point I show a seven-minute video (spontaneous and unscripted) of two beginners learning to hit a golf ball for the first time. One is being taught traditionally by means of technical instruction, and I am coaching the other without giving any instructions or even telling her how to hold the club!
Comparing the two processes and their results always has a great impact on the course participants. They regularly laugh at the traditional instructor's efforts, but often someone adds: ‘I had one lesson just like that. I hated it and gave up golf on my very first day'. Needless to say, the beginner with whom I used ‘new coaching' was delighted and amazed by the results of her self-learning progress. A picture is worth more than a thousand words! If weather, time and facilities permit, I then take the group outside and set them up in pairs with an inexperienced ‘new coach' coaching a beginner player. The progress often surprises again, but more importantly it breaks the traditional assumptions and beliefs listed earlier. The still inexperienced coach, who knows nothing about golf, is thrilled at the ability discovered by the player and the implication that it is perfectly possible to coach someone in a skill that he himself does not acquire. For the player, discovering that she can learn a new skill without being dependent on an expert is also thrilling.
An experience like this is worth more than two thousand words. If this ‘new coaching' really were new, one might have expected sports educators to be anxious to take it on, even though the British sports establishment is renowned for being unadventurous and resistant to fresh ideas. But in fact there is nothing new about ‘new coaching'. Socrates, who died in 399 BC, was probably the first ‘new coach'.
More recently, some 35 years ago, the Californian tennis coach Tim Gallwey renewed the early philosopher to help with tennis. Tim wrote a book, The Inner Game of Tennis that became a best seller not just among spare time players but people from other sports. Many coaches were more sceptical, though, perhaps because the book's message seemed to threaten their livelihood. Here I reword Gallwey to summarise the Inner Game principles. You start to play the Inner Game when you realise that the opponent within your own head is more daunting than the one on the other side of the net. The outer game is played with a racket and a ball against another player; the Inner Game is played against anxiety, self-criticism, tension, frustration, a lack of self-belief, fear and anger. Your performance is your potential minus your internal obstacles.
The Inner Game process aims to eliminate these internal obstacles to performance, learning and enjoyment and thereby liberate your potential. All sports people are familiar with such internal obstacles and keen to overcome them, but far fewer share Gallwey's confidence that, as these obstacles withdraw, a natural, technically talented player somehow emerges from within, without expert input. How does this happen? The best illustrations of this process come, in my experience, from skiing, because skiers of all standards are beset by fears. There is fear of falling, fear of getting hurt, fear of looking foolish, fear of losing control, even fear of getting left behind or lost. These fears generate huge amounts of muscular tension and inappropriate defensive body postures. Remove the fear and the posture becomes natural - in other words, it self-corrects.
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Confidence causes us to adopt a forward attitude, which is essential for skiing. By contrast, fear encourages us to lean back, causing skis to increase speed and become unstable, so compounding the fear, and so on, leading to the expected result. This is a fairly simple example of how internal obstacles compromise performance. Now let's consider a more complex illustration. When traversing a slope on skis, the correct technique for retaining ski-edge grip is to turn the shoulders outwards and face down towards the valley. At first this seems an unnatural position. Beginner skiers find it frightening and want to turn inwards to get closer to the mountain for safety, which causes them to lose ski control. Is this a technical issue, or an internal obstacle? When we help skiers to remove the fear, they naturally adopt the position that gives them the best grip, something they discover from the feedback they get from the skis.
That feedback, or ‘sensory awareness', is inaccessible when one is overwhelmed by anxiety. Equally, asking a person what he or she is feeling at the edge of the ski - the point of contact with the snow - forces them to focus their attention to find the answer. This, in turn, leaves no space for other thoughts and emotions, such as fear and the tension that accompanies it. Non-critical focused attention on experiencing (awareness) thereby dissolves internal interferences.
The increased quantity and quality of feedback and the absence of fear delivers the technically correct position for that person. There is no one correct position for everyone because we all differ in terms of size, weight distribution, strength and flexibility. There is an optimal personal style for each of us, which we only find through self-awareness. Any observer, however expert, sees only the surface, the symptom, and can offer only general advice. The problem is, though, that a learner will often take a generality as a specific and struggle to apply the advice firmly, overriding his or her own self-awareness, leading to a counterproductive increase in tension.
Let's consider one more example from skiing. A skier's legs are his suspension, and flexible knees with plenty of free movement up or down would seem advisable. The most frequent technical instruction ski instructors give is ‘bend zee knees', in response to which skiers tend to adopt a fixed bent position, which gives rise to stiff suspension and poor ski grip. The instruction was technically correct, but the effect of giving it was counterproductive. This paradox is often unrecognized by conventional sports coaches, who repeat their commands ever more passionately. The most effective way to achieve the desired soft suspension effect is to ask awareness-raising coaching questions, such as: how much do your knees bend?, when do they bend most in a turn? or what happens when they are most bent?
I am often asked how long this learning lasts if the technique is not explained. Learning or performing better through awareness and discovery is massively different from being told what to do. What you are told enters the mind, but it is the body, not the mind, that plays tennis or skis. Awareness results in body-learning and, as we all know from riding a bicycle, the body forgets far less easily than the mind. Tactics are largely intellectual, but technique is physical.
There are a multitude of other important differences between new and old coaching, but I will restrict myself to one, which I think is probably the most important of all. When we learn through discovery, we feel totally responsible for our own learning. We feel that we did it ourselves, and that builds our self-belief and self-confidence. If I could give one gift to a practitioner of any sport it would be self-belief which, as the engine of success, is a bigger driver than technical ability and physical fitness combined. So how well does conventional instructional coaching serve as a method of building self-belief? Not well! And if you add to that the frustration that some coaches have and the criticism they deal out to their students, especially children, we have an excellent formula for reducing self-belief. Of course, many coaches are moving away from old methods, but that is on their own initiative rather than because coach training is leading the change. In some circles, they are still regarded as mavericks. Change is coming and it will come, but it will be a case of too little, too late. Some 25 years ago I went with Tim Gallwey to meet a leading figure in British tennis, and we were speedily shown the door; 25 years ago we ran ‘inner skiing' courses in Zermatt, until we were run out of town by traditional ski instructors who considered our methods bizarre. Seven years ago, the British Tennis Coaches Association asked me to set up Inner Tennis training for coaches; also seven years ago, a ‘new coaching' ski school started up in Zermatt and the old ski school is now struggling to survive as customers desert it for something better. Twenty-three years is a long time, but much of sports coaching still sleeps on.
While struggling to penetrate the establishment in tennis and skiing, I was happy to find an open door in an unexpected area: business. Coaching was not a term that had been used before in business, so it had not gathered the baggage of long-held beliefs and assumptions. Consequently, some 20 years ago we were able to apply ‘new coaching' to business performance and learning with trainers, managers and executives. I wrote a book entitled Coaching for Performance, to define coaching practice in business. It soon became a bestseller, published in 12 languages, and is now in its third edition in which I refer to the next frontier for coaching. It will be nice when sport catches up with the last one!
Changes in coaching should keep pace with evolution in psychological understanding, but coach education is slow to respond. Old coaching was based upon long-standing behavioural and cognitive principles, which were discovered to be incomplete and were enhanced by humanistic principles as far back as the 1960s. Tim Gallwey grew up in that era, and the Inner Game parallels humanistic principles of which awareness was the key. But Tim and others were already looking ahead to the next evolution of psychology that was waiting in the wings; known as ‘transpersonal psychology', this embraces the will, choice and personal responsibility and takes an even more holistic view of people and their development. It is fast finding its way into business practice. In my view, psychological evolution must lead coaching methodology. People from every sport pay lip service to the idea that ‘it is all in the mind', but for some coaches technical knowledge remains the be-all and the end-all.
Af: Sir John Whitmore
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