Athletics Australia – Junior Sport Policy Consultation

Rather than treat any of this as a private, secret matter I thought it opportune to do another ‘share’ of information to my colleagues and anyone else who might be interested. I write this at a time in Australian Sport when major bureaucratic changes have been presented (the demise of Australia’s Winning Edge strategy for example) in a variety of sports. New Boards, new reviews, new appointments have been taking place yet I am convinced that a decade from now the sporting community will be asking the same questions of the Development to High Performance continuum. Rather than succumb totally to my cynicism I have spent the last year sending my views to the decision-makers and this is another example of what I have submitted. Read, ignore, criticise, support – go ahead, it’s up to you.

As far back as I can remember in my career some sports, having finally realised that there could be smarter ways of dealing with things, embarked on a review of some kind. Some reviews were conducted by the sport themselves and became a self-serving audit that maintained the status quo (and maintained the lucrative jobs of certain bureaucrats). Other reviews were conducted by a neutral entity and often highlighted a number of issues and recommendations that could have been appropriate for the participants and the long-term viability of the sport. Other reviews created a landslide of information coupled with loud (and expensive) fanfares that heralded ‘change’ only to see the effort dwindle, the resources disappear and the participants left to continue to find their own solutions. Regardless of my cynicism I decided to make an effort to try to help the Athletics Australia decision-makers understand some of the problems they and many of the participants and coaches face and potential solutions to consider. One seldom gets the chance of being listened to by career bureaucrats so everyone should take these seldom offered opportunities and send in ideas, recommendations and observations. If your NGB does not know what is reality in your coaching / teaching environment then you cannot expect any change.

I am sure you will find parts of this submission to be clumsy and certainly parts that you might think to be irrelevant – we are each driven by different experiences – but I hope that you can appreciate the spirit with which it was written. The least I hope is that others will use this opportunity to send Athletics Australia their ideas and comments. The governing body has given us a small window of opportunity to let them know what is happening in our coaching world – have a go!

Submission

Having read the preamble for this topic and having been involved in the recent UK examination of the Development Pathway in a number of sports it is clear that most organisations have an understanding of the prevailing limitations and subsequent detrimental effects on individuals and national strategy outcomes that surround this topic. The key issue is whether Athletics Australia is willing to find answers to these problems and deliver the required changes. Can I suggest that as well as your already chosen personnel you consider some external, neutral observers to also peruse the submissions? In this way you might get a more balanced interpretation of the submissions as those already working within Athletics Australia, and who are charged with delivering a Junior strategy, will, no doubt, interpret submissions in the light of current practice. One of the outcomes of this request for submissions surely is to assemble the best ideas and not only those currently in existence.

Your selected background information, coupled with recent research (such as SPANS 2015) illustrate many of the contributory factors to the ever-repeating participation, progression and high-performance problems the sport faces. One weakness of recent quoted reports that may be relevant to your project is the academic reference to “Sport delivery should focus on fun and enjoyment rather than competition”. In a general guidance sense this may have some value but in a practical sense it is missing an ingredient that other reviews have highlighted as being very relevant – participants will stay the course if they experience improvement (as well as the fun and enjoyment). Put another way, the participant will, more than likely, remain committed as long as progression in some or all of the components of performance appear regularly in the journey. It would appear sensible to ensure that any philosophy and subsequent action-plan has at its centre some reference to improved performance across the training ages. It would be very easy to continue the current drift towards mediocrity by adding an unqualified, warm-and-fuzzy element such as ‘fun and enjoyment’ at the expense of progression. As already experienced, the road to progression in performance is an arduous one that demands repeatable excellence in a range of matters. In this sense this task, and the responsibility of the national governing body, cannot be underestimated.

Let it be understood that this is not the first review taken on this matter in my lifetime and one of the mistakes that has become very apparent in recent decades is the lack of worthwhile action after each review. This is especially well illustrated by the lack of change being delivered at the site where it would be most effective – ‘where the rubber meets the road’ – ‘the coach / athlete environment’ – the training session.

I am sure that this project will assemble a width and depth of information from well-educated and experienced practitioners, administrators and scientists as well as from people whose views are completely irrelevant. The two key points that should coordinate all this effort to some form of logical, effective conclusion must be (a) to see effective changes in the coach development environment (b) to see appropriate change in position statements, philosophy and infrastructure of the sport. The current and next generation of coaches and athletes will not be aware of, or interested in, theory and, in fact, have not had a positive view of the sports administration for a long period of time. They will, however, react positively to high quality outcomes across all the aforementioned pillars of participation and performance (Behavioural, Physical (mechanical and metabolic), Technical and Tactical (Arena skills). I would advise that you do not allow this project to become an academic exercise that leads to a theoretical position with no follow-up to the actual world that the developing athlete and their coaches exist in.

By the way you have announced this project many people who love this sport will be expecting some positive changes. They will not be too tolerant of a fanfare of announcements followed by nothing that changes their environment.

This document starts with comment on the most potentially effective element of the sport – the coach / athlete inter-action. It is here in this environment that failings in participation / retention and performance attainment / progression are either created or eradicated. We can be pretty sure of what the athletes will bring to the table at the different training stages in terms of their maturation and behaviours in physical, behavioural, technical and tactical elements. As a coaching fraternity nothing should surprise us with regard to these parameters and understanding these ever-changing parameters should from an important part of coach education content. For this to be an effective inter-action, and one to which many other elements should gravitate philosophically, then the environment must be optimised.

A. Coach Development and Retention

a. The coach development program (as opposed to a coach education / coach certification program which, in its current form, is less than satisfactory when one observes what is actually being coached in training sessions) must be redefined as one that creates coaches who can create a learning-centric environment as opposed to an information-centric or competition-centric one with its archaic focus on contest-based outcomes. The key is to create an appropriate athlete development pathway that is fully supported by an appropriate coach development pathway. Critical items:

i. The success of this element can only be measured in one way, and it is not the number of certificates that are given out at the end of a course. The coach development program must be assessed by growth in participation coupled with improved quality and depth of performance in every event in every age group. Put another way – the process should see every athlete progressing at a rate that is appropriate to their unique individuality.
ii. It must be understood that the development of coaches should START when they have received their initial certificate and that the governing body will ensure that the coaches CPD and ongoing mentorship happens at session level. Creating an on-going learning experience in the actual coaching sessions in the presence of a mentor coach will see the coach experience live learning opportunities as opposed to the more contrived ones seen in formal courses.
iii. Human, physical and financial resources must be found to create the ‘in-session’ quality control for Clubs and squads.
iv. The content of the program must be in a language that is understood by the majority of practitioners. This means that those chosen to deliver the courses must be educated in the full process and experienced in keeping the information in context.
v. The course content should progress from ‘general’ to ‘related’ to ‘specific’ so that it ensures that the fundamentals of physical, behavioural and technical elements are firmly seated in the journey. Creating a course content and structure in this way will see the creation of a syllabus that epitomises an appropriate ‘health and well-being’ element in the formative stages and a healthy high-performance element in the later stages.
vi. The course content should ensure that all candidates are observed in a direct coaching setting on as many occasions as possible. This is particularly important for the ‘learning skills’ components. In this way the delegates will learn more than what appears in the lecture notes.

b. Many of the federations in the UK Sport / UK Athletics investigation into the development pathway created an abundance of comment, observation and position statements that, while academically sound, did absolutely nothing to improve things. UK Athletics did make a lot of ‘noise’ about what they found but initiated nothing new in terms of coach development and support in the light of the findings. Apart from two beacons of light created by Scottish Athletics and England Athletics little change took place and, 6 years on, UK Athletics is still struggling to overcome the limitations that prevail in the sport. These two initiatives maybe worthwhile considering in your project.

i. Scottish Athletics – Created a new course structure that supported the idea of becoming learning-centred across the four pillars of technical / tactical / physical and mental development. As the co-author of this course structure I have initiated several meetings with personnel at Athletics Australia to show them the background and rationale of the course content and how it applies to the limitations listed in your project background. I am told by your representatives that the current Australian coach education content is indeed ‘a holistic one and that all seems to be well’ and that ‘we do most of the things outlined in the Scottish Athletics course’ (which you plainly do not). As previously stated to your colleagues in the Coach Development arena, you will soon know when you have your content right – coaches will coach better and your participation and athletic development limitations will cease or be drastically reduced. (See example below of the result in depth and quality of performance after coaching interventions of this nature.)

Since my return to Australia I have had the chance of observing coaching sessions at Athletic and Little Athletics Clubs on a regular basis and what I see leaves a lot to be desired. I am afraid that the self-serving interpretation of things by some of your staff illustrates the problems that you face. Unless the issues and faults are clearly understood and accepted as fact then little will change. Your current coach education platform is a certification-centric one and must become a learning-centric one if things are to change. Coaching development demands practitioners well versed in ‘How’ to coach and not just ‘What’ to coach.

ii. England Athletics – Created a Coach mentoring program where much was done to share information and support the coaches in the field to better practice. While a lot of support took place nationally some event-groups created their best improvements when the delivery was at regional and local level. The interpretation of the concept at event-group level appears to be the key element in the efficacy displayed. Some event groups simply repeated what they had always done and passed on adult competition-specific information at the expense of ‘learning’ and ‘progression’ information. One event group (Sprints and Hurdles) approached things differently and offered services to the coaches on how to improve the ‘How to Coach’ elements. This event group quickly realised that the most powerful mentoring support was that delivered in the actual coaching session where the ‘soft skills’ of coaching could be enhanced by the mentor and learned by the coach. The key message from this interpretation is that the majority of coach development takes place after the initial lecture / information / certification session that forms the current coach accreditation process. The other vital component of this success was the quality of the personnel who led the mentoring. Whatever strategy this review recommends will only be as good as the people you appoint so an appropriate staff education / selection process must be created.

c. Coach retention is a key issue in all this and could be viewed as a responsible succession plan for the participants. Currently the 8-14 age groups are serviced by volunteer coaches many of whom are attracted to the sport because of their children’s participation. It is this group of coaches that is so quickly forgotten once they swell the certification numbers in most audits. This is the group of coaches who simply must deliver all the fundamentals yet they are the most ignored group when it comes to quality control and ongoing CPD. Several models are recommended in this document that might allow for better quality and quantity of coaching provision at this critical development period. Some illustrations follow but it is not an extensive list of topics:

i. One illustration is the creation of a quality control service that sees coaches and athletes regularly supported at session level by qualified and experienced practitioners. Firstly, to this end, all Clubs must be in a position to embrace the concept of repeatable excellence in all they do. It will mean that all facets of the sport, including the Little Athletics movement, must bring themselves up-to-date with best practice. An example of this can be seen from the UK system where in certain regions groups of Clubs were encouraged and supported towards the creation of ongoing weekly CPD. By creating and supporting each Club to appoint the right person as honorary Coaching Director, who then became an integral part of a national drive to information sharing, each Club at least had a person to act as a catalyst for CPD and quality control. Secondly, there was an increased investment in Development Officers. These practitioners were appointed and trained in the ongoing CPD of all coaches and incorporated into a regional network of coaching quality control.

ii. It is time for the National Governing Body to know what is being coached and how it is being coached and to be the arbiter of best practice in this respect. Some form of National Coaching structure linked to an effective National Event Coaching structure that can deliver nationally, regionally and locally is suggested. It would be this body of practitioners who would be charged with delivering the initial and on-going education to all coaches at the session level.

iii. It is opportune to mention the High-Performance (HP) sector here. With High Performance being dependent upon the quality of ‘what has gone before’ and not isolated in a silo that concentrates on ‘what is yet to come’ it is wise to move towards a system where HP is less of a burden on resources. In this sense the plan should be to improve the quality of coaching regionally and locally whereby HP does not mean a completely separate, resource-hungry, isolated entity that is forced to be serviced centrally. By all means consider centralised, specialist squad training opportunities where appropriate but HP should be serviced primarily through the National Coaching and National Event Coaching structures. The failure of so many coach / athlete units at international competitions in the June to September periods is an on-going problem. It is a problem that can be resolved by the education of relevant coaches, at an appropriate time, in the demands of High Performance production. While new coach education / mentoring structures are put in place (and will take some time to bear results) the current high-performance layers will need some fast-tracking and quick-fixing in terms of the preparation of athletes for the following competitions:
1. 2019 World Championships
2. 2020 Olympic Games
3. 2021 World Championships
4. 2022 Commonwealth Games
5. 2023 World Championships

B. Aims, objectives and position statements

If the majority of solutions are to be found in the content of coach development processes then there must also be an equal investment in the infrastructure and strategy where all the other related processes and protocols are housed. In other words, the sport must set out position statements AND compliance agreements AND education processes leading to this compliance on those elements that currently are the source of limitations. It is a proven error to think that the creation of a position statement on an element of the sport without also creating the education and tools to deliver the meaning of the statement will have any positive effect. In addition, there must be an administrative support system to allow the creation and delivery of the aims and objectives contained in the position statements. Examples of strategic position statements:

a. The type, frequency and density of competition must be appropriate to the biological age of the developing athlete. This will require that coaches are well versed in activities that expose athletes to indirect competition as well as formal competition. Formal competition is not a problem until the result becomes more important than the process. We must teach young people to compete against themselves and also against others in the rigours of appropriate competition rules BUT the competitions must be used as performance development tools and not as end in themselves in the development years. The position statement for this element must be more than a written theory to be ignored. The language, vocabulary and behaviours of parents, teachers, coaches and athletes must reflect the process of attaining a personal best in training and competition activities.

b. The early specialisation syndrome needs to be addressed in practical terms. To this end the early selection to squads and special competition opportunity must be delayed as long as possible. The earlier that athletes are exposed to ‘selection’ the greater the problem of early specialisation will be – as it is proven already. Errors in this current early specialisation syndrome are as follows:

i. Selection / retention decisions are usually based on size, speed and strength which is more dependent on the relative age effect (RAE) than talent development. Such selection criteria create only a temporary advantage.
ii. Late developers are often neglected.
iii. Early focus on competition results and an athlete’s ranking are not the means of assessing the efficacy of the development program. Allowing these elements to prevail simply drives the start-age for competition-specific work lower and lower and training volume and intensity higher and higher. The result of this error is that much time is wasted on outcomes that should be used on consolidating the fundamentals.
iv. There continues to be a significant conflict between how children learn and how development programs operate.
v. Many processes are included in the strategy that satisfy adults misguided needs as opposed to the actual needs of the developing athlete.

c. Another example of a position statement is illustrated again by the content of coach education courses in relation to the provision of activities appropriate to (a) the learning rhythm and pace of the individual (b) the biological maturation rhythm and pace of the individual. Every coach must be able to appropriately use progression and regression as tools for coaching. To this end coaches will need hand-held, multi-media resources that illustrate general mechanical (movement) progression; metabolic progression; event actions and postures progressions. Currently these resources are being used in the Scottish Athletics course structure and are listed as:

i. A progressive Movement Library of video clips that illustrate progression across the foundation movements of Squat, Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge and Landing. This will encourage the creation of a wide and deep movement vocabulary from which the event-specific actions and postures can grow.
ii. A progressive Technical Library of video clips that illustrate progression in the event specific skill acquisition program. This resource arms the coach with a library of Running, Jumping and Throwing puzzles that form the initial movement vocabulary framework. The syllabus must also contain further progressions for each set of event postures and actions. This library allows the sport to create position statements on the HOW of technical development e.g.
1. As part of the skill learning process add layers of variability to the technical model.
2. Do not teach Block starts until acceleration and maximum velocity techniques have been mastered
3. Do not teach full approach runs in Javelin until standing throws have been mastered
4. Do not teach trail and lead leg hurdle drills until the ‘rhythm’ components have been mastered
5. Do not use volume as the sole bio-motor quality especially in middle and long-distance events
6. Ensure that more time is spent on External Focus cues than explicit drills.

Note that these coaching resources, and instruction on their use, form part of the Athletic Development Course mentioned in item A(b)(i).
iii. A Physical Competence Assessment (PCA) journey has been created as the formal assessment aspect of the Physical component of the strategy in relation to the Foundation Movements that act as the cornerstone to athletic actions and postures. The PCA journey offers standards across age-group layers as follows – 8-10 years, 10-12 years, 12-14 years, 14-16 years, 16-18 years, 18-20 years. Again, this detail can form the background to a position statement on aspects of the Physical journey.

C. National Administrative Structure

It would be unwise to attempt to create a new strategy based upon the qualities and titles of existing staff. This exercise must see a strategy designed for the short, medium and long-term needs of the coaches, athletes and officials and not designed around the qualities or titles of current staff.

As impossible as it is to recommend a complete restructure of the sport (based on the human failing of no-one being willing to fall on their own sword for the sake of the sport) I would strongly suggest that a small executive be brought together to create a model of governance for the sport on behalf of the athletes, coaches and officials.

By creating a series of operational requirements that are a reaction to the needs of the athletes, coaches and officials a new administration can be born. It cannot be stated more clearly that it would be a mistake to think that the people who have created / perpetuated the current limitations seen in falling participation; poor retention in the transition period from junior to senior participation; poor coaching standards across all age groups in terms of technical, mechanical, metabolic and behavioural efficiency and resilience; poor results at senior international level, would be able to find solutions to these problems.

See this as a ‘bottom-up’ process where the ‘needs’ of the athletes, coaches and officials are determined and prioritised first and leadership and administrative support for these processes and protocols are then put in place.

For example, every coach will need to (a) be initially educated (certified) appropriately (national, regional and local opportunities) (b) frequently and consistently mentored locally at ‘session’ level by appropriate practitioners. This will mean:

a. The creation of appropriate coach education content vertically and horizontally that guarantees:
i. efficacy across the main pillars of Physical, Behavioural, Technical and Tactical elements.
ii. A balance between the ‘How’ and the What’ of training’ with the emphasis being on the ‘How’.
Note that the vertical structure would see coaches specialising in, say, the Development layers and have the opportunity to enter at the basic level of certification at this level but them have the opportunity to advance over time to being Master Coach at Development level. Adding kudos, respect and support mechanisms to these layers of coaching will encourage coaches to stay and excel at this level of participation.
b. The recruitment and education of appropriate educators (national, regional and local) for this system.
c. The recruitment and education of appropriate Coaching Development Officers to deliver the ongoing ‘quality control’ at session level.
d. The coordination of the above components into a National Event Coaching structure where education and performance are equal bed-fellows. It is this coordination that should bridge the current gap between the potential of Australia’s athletes and their current inability to perform in the international arena

The above 4 elements would need leadership and administrative support that is coordinated seamlessly from National level through each State and into regional and local structures. This is illustrated thus:

1. National Director of Coaching
a. National Event Coach
i. State Event Coach
ii. Development Officers
iii. Regional Event Coaches
iv. Area Event Coach
v. Club Event Coach
vi. Club Event Coaching Team
vii. Club Group Coaching Team

These Coaching team pathways are responsible for:

1. The assembly of appropriate information on event development along the continuum from ‘health and well-being’ through to ‘high performance’. This needs to be a two-way process where information is passed along the pathway in (a) response to issues and (b) as an on-going CPD process.
a. Note that one element of the performance pathway has been effectively enhanced by such a system of sharing. The PCA element in a number of sports is a shared set of data that gives a snapshot of how one element of the ‘Physical’ pillar is progressing. Where a sector of one organisation was seen to be falling behind in their quest for physical competence by the regular exchange of PCA results, a special needs response took place to support the coaches to better results. A good example of quality control.
2. Along with others to deliver national, regional and local Coach Education components in courses and mentoring services. These other practitioners would include (a) those appointed primarily as Coach Educators (b) interns as created by regional and national links to the University system.

Summary

While administrative and bureaucratic elements will, no doubt, be foremost in many submissions I would like to re-iterate that the coach / athlete environment is the key element in this project. I agree with some that without a strategy or set of processes and protocols little can be achieved but I would emphasise that every sport exists for the sake of the participants. It must also be stated that nearly every piece of background information furnished in support of this project has at its centre the coach / athlete environment. Whichever sport optimises the coach / athlete environment will gain the high ground when it comes to solving the sports-wide limitations of falling participation and reduced performance quality and depth. It is also possible that future investment of public monies in national sporting organisations may well demand a more demonstrable effect on the improved health and well-being of the community. It is here that the ‘general’ to ‘related’ to ‘specific’ pathway may well be an advantage.

These comments and observations are but an outline of a strategy that might be considered. There is much detail to add to this to keep the narrative in context. I would be happy to spend time with the appropriate decision-makers if more clarification were needed.

Yours sincerely

Kelvin Giles

Sharing is good…..

One of the pleasures of communicating and sharing with ‘giants’ is that I am so fortunate to know such a lot of really experienced and sensible practitioners who always seem to have their heads in the best places which, in turn, sees them giving out appropriate guidance. If you didn’t catch this on Facebook here is an excerpt from a recent statement from Vern Gambetta and the great follow-up from Peter Vint.

Vern

Three ways to absorb information
Absorb it implicitly
Be told it explicitly
Discover it ourselves
We remember things better when we discover ourselves. From: The Organized mind by Daniel J. Levitin p. 367

Peter Vint

Unfortunately, far too many coaches rely far too heavily on explicit (command and control) instruction. They may see an immediate response that validates their approach. However, it is rarely “learned” or deeply embedded and as a result tends to dissolve under the speed, pressure, and dynamic situations that are present during actual competition.

The goal of practice should rarely, if ever, be focused on performing well in practice. It should be about performing well when it matters. This requires a highly variable, challenging, learning-centric approach to athlete development. Implicit learning and guided discovery, often supported by “deliberate play”, small-sided games, and contraints-based types of experiences, provide this in far superior ways compared to explicit learning. It is unfortunate that despite a century of peer reviewed scientific and empirical evidence, this is completely underutilized.

To quote Atul Gawande in Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, “We have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us. And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that”.

Time to change that.

Kelvin Giles

“Learning-centric” – Peter – great guidance for the content of Coach Education. Some NGB’s are slowly making the changes to their Coach Education content but too many still (a) tell me they are ‘all over this concept and working very holistically’ (b) have failed to go and watch their sport being coached in the development stages. The coaching at this level is not learning-centric. It is winning-centric; adult-centric; fast track-centric; drill-centric. Hardly any patience and appropriate progression. Sad

At last, Physical Literacy hits the big-time in Australia

I know – more cynicism from me but I will remain hopeful that this project moves from an informative academic exercise to one that actually makes a difference. After all, it is commissioned by the organisation that has full responsibility for the future of Australian Sport.

Congratulations to the Australian Sports Commission and the delegates chosen to create the Physical Literacy documents (https://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/physical_literacy). To all those involved I thank you for the huge amount of work you have obviously done. Someone at least gave enough thought to put the Physical Literacy question front and centre and everyone’s contribution is appreciated and respected.

We now have another substantial government document (40Mb+) that is designed to act as a support framework to the required improvements in the quest for community physical literacy across Australia. It will be of great assistance to those who need to learn new definitions of Physical Literacy or for those who have no idea that the term exists.

It follows on from the many similar actions I have seen in a number of countries who themselves are struggling with the continuum from community well-being through to elite performance in the international sporting arena. As stated in the videos that accompany the documents this is but a first step. I am trusting those who wrote it and invested in it that it is really a first step and that much more is yet to come. If this is all that we can expect then we have all fallen for the political trap so often dangled in front of us. Promises that never reach fruition; promises that attract our early support and then die the usual death; promises that make us see the decision-makers as truly being on our side only to see these hopes dashed again and again.

As with most government orchestrated projects a range of experts have been assembled to get the terminology accurate and the message attractive. Some of the contributors are extraordinarily experienced in this field and so we should expect their drive and leadership to take us to great places as a nation. We are invited to understand new ‘Domains’ that the framework encompasses as we grapple with the definitions and to see this project as a supporting guide for us all. Not a bad aim for a project but woefully short of what is really needed.

The worry is that the creation of a document that does a great job in giving us all a definition and/or a guide to how to interpret physical literacy will simply finish up being just that – another glossy document.

The more I read the sales pitch the more I see the exercise as academic posturing. I keep on reading all the jargon with the expectation that somewhere in all the layers will be the key elements that are to be taught to all our parents, teachers and coaches. I am praying that this massive project actually has some teeth being prepared for delivery in a Coach / Teacher / Parent Education strategy. Surely it can’t stop here as an academic exercise? If any of this is to have a chance of leaping off the page and appearing in the language and vocabulary of teachers and coaches then a parallel education strategy must be created and delivered. The practitioners who appear to be finally responsible for the delivery of this project in sport will be the usual suspects – the thousands of volunteer coaches who turn up at all the Clubs twice a week and in whose hands the future of Australian sports rests. Yes – the same people who we give a certificate to after a day or two sitting down in a few lectures and then expect them to coach all the foundations of every sport. Yes – the same people that we give a certificate to and then ignore for the rest of their coaching life. Yes – the same people who get a certificate that focuses on technical and competition elements at the expense of learning and behavioural development. Yes – the same people who cry out for support from their NGB during the session when they are faced with circumstances they were not “trained” for.

It is a project that is about “definition”, a project of “message’, a project designed as a “supporting guide” and although I am appreciative of such a document I am convinced that it is doomed to being just that – a document, created by academics with little or no chance of it ever making a difference where the rubber meets the road in the actual teaching / coaching / learning session. It will be yet another example that government uses to illustrate their commitment to the community while, at the same time, knowing that little or nothing will change in the world of the so-called recipient. It will be another of their “get-out-of jail” cards so often used as an illustration of why they should keep their jobs.

We know that participation is dropping. We know that ineffective coaching is part of this problem. We know that coaches are ignored once they get their certification. We know that “winning now” over-rides long-term development. We know that the fundamentals of physical development and behavioural development are sacrificed at the altar of technical, tactical and winning development. We know that early engagement has been lost to early specialisation. We know that early developers are given more opportunity than late developers. We know that we choose “sports specific” before “athlete appropriate”. We know all this, and more, yet never give the teachers or coaches the tools to deliver what is right. We continue to fail our development ranks yet find the human, physical and financial resources and energy to produce 40Mb of theory which will never reach the coach / athlete environment.

Somewhere in the corridors of sporting power here in Australia there needs to be a department that doesn’t exist as the creator of academic exercises, or ‘corporate-speak’ based projects (language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning), or nebulous strategy, or “guidelines”, or warm and fuzzy support mechanisms. The nation needs a department that will utilise the same degree of effort, the same human resources and the same commitment to actions that will make a difference where the rubber meets the road – the actual lesson or coaching session. Stop doing expensive, time-consuming, irrelevant projects and do the things that make the teachers and coaches deliver consistently the best learning for all students and athletes. Start all your expensive effort where it counts – where the coach and athlete or teacher and student are battling to get better at something.

By all means have a department that deals with words by academics, glossy documents that are endorsed by a Minister, but for goodness sake do something that makes a difference outside academia and the bureaucracy. Start at the cutting edge where the athlete/ student meets the coach/teacher and not just where the theory and buzzwords predominate the landscape. Stop looking for new things to put into the theory before we have even started to deliver what we already know.

If this endeavour does make a difference then we should all see the content of lessons and sessions that actually deliver physical literacy improving. Improving in its quality, its density, its frequency of occurrence and, more importantly, the measurable improvement in physical literacy of all members of our community. If the project works then all our teachers will be fully trained in this delivery as should every coach in every sport. We won’t just be left hoping that all this is delivered we should see tangible changes very quickly. Every Coach Education system should display effective change in content and process. Teachers and coaches will no longer be left to their own devices – they will be part of an effective pathway where they receive ongoing professional support and development after they get a certificate.

Unless it makes a measurable difference then it is irrelevant. By framing the issue in a very creative way it gives the appearance that solutions have been found when in real terms all that has happened is the government has written a glossy document.

Nowhere in these documents is mentioned any measure of how the volunteer army of coaches is ever going to be supported to not only knowing what to do but also being taught how to do it. How to organise the session? How to prepare the coaching area? What to say? When to say it? How to progress and element? How to regress an element? When to drill? When to let them experiment? If the promise that this project is but the first step is to believed then I remain hopeful that these vital components are on the governments production-line. Reality? Don’t hold your breath if you are working at the coal-face of physical activity – you are on your own.

Jumping Development

As with all movements the ability of the athlete to connect from ‘toenails to fingernails’ during the jumping action is vital. Even in a pure ‘jump’, such as Long-Jump in Athletics, the athlete has a variety of things happening before take-off, at take-off, during ‘flight’, before ‘landing’ and at ‘landing’ so the ability to control a variety of factors while jumping is important.

I was taught by my mentors that it was always best to teach ‘Landing’ before take-off to a Jump. I didn’t get an explanation for this mantra but quickly understood when I coached my first High Jumper when it became very clear why landing is part of the vocabulary of Jumping. As a preparation for take-off nearly every jump is preceded by a ‘Landing’ of sorts. For example, in the High Jump the take-off foot is planted on the floor and the free Knee is driven up and across the body. It is this ‘plant’ that sets up the actual take-off. Get this wrong in terms of “where, when and how” and the subsequent take-off and flight of the jump will be less than optimum.

Above you can see examples of an athlete just prior to take-off having ‘landed’ on the floor on the jumping (take-off) Leg. If this ‘force-reduction’ or ‘force-stabilisation’ or ‘shock-absorption’ landing is not controlled throughout all body parts then the next action – the take-off – is going to be a more difficult action to get right. Don’t just think that Athletics jumping activities need this high-quality action. A Cricket Bowler has to land when getting into the delivery part of the action; a Basketball lay-up shot starts with a landing; a Hurdler landing from a hurdle needs quality in this landing; a field and court team athlete who needs to change direction will have to have this ‘landing’ prior to changing direction; a Soccer player jumping to head a ball will need these take-off mechanics to be first class; a Ski-Jumper will have to land correctly just as an Ice-Dancer will need to land perfectly.

Landing just prior to take-off is the key action that must be done well if the jump part is to be successful. Lose control of this contact with the floor and not only might the following jump be compromised but joints and tissue can easily be injured.

Landing & Take-Off

2 Feet take-off to 2 Feet landing (Jumping)
One Foot (L&R) take-off to 2 Feet landing
2 Feet take-off to One Foot landing (L&R)
One Foot (L&R) take-off to same One Foot (L&R) landing (Hopping)
One Foot (L&R) take-off to opposite Foot landing (Leaping / Bounding)
Combinations e.g. repeated Jumping; repeated Hopping; repeated Leaping; the principles of Hop Scotch; Hop-Step-Jump; 2Hops-2 Steps–2 jumps.

Forwards
Lateral (L&R)
Backwards
Diagonal

With pause
Continuous
Restart e.g. Jump forwards twice then immediately jump backwards once.
Landing Deep
Landing Shallow

Carrying objects e.g. Medicine Balls; Aqua Bags
Catching and Throwing at landing
Arms Overhead

On to a Box
Off a Box
On and off and on combinations
Over a Box; Witches Hat; Hurdle; Bench
On to different surfaces e.g. Sand; Soft Mats; Up-slope and down-slope

While Landings are being adapted to, the actual Take-Off exploration can begin. The direction can be manipulated along with the amplitude from shallow jumping to jumping for height. Actions can be added during and after the ‘flight’ phase of the jump.

Vertical Jumping (Jumping – Hopping – Leaping / Bounding)

Jump & Reach
Jump & Rotate
Jump & Tuck
Star Jump
Jump & Catch
Jump & Throw

Jumping forward for height
Jumping backwards for height
Jumping laterally (L&R) for height
Jumping diagonally for height

Over obstacles e.g. Hurdles, mini-Hurdles, Boxes, Canes

Reactive – mirror a partner’s jumping actions.
Reactive – tag games over obstacles.

Horizontal Jumping (Jumping – Hopping – Leaping / Bounding)

Forwards
Backwards
Lateral (L&R)
Diagonal (L&R)

Along a line
Across a line
Over obstacles e.g. Hurdles, mini-Hurdles, Boxes, Canes

For height
For distance

With Pause
Continuous
With rebound
With Rotation

Reactive – tag games

Throwing Development

It is suggested that, prior to teaching the specifics of Shot, Discus, Hammer and Javelin throws (and, come to think of it, Cricket throwing and Bowling; Handball, Basketball, Baseball, Netball, Volleyball spiking and passing, etc) the athletes are immersed in a range of throwing movement patterns as part of their physical literacy development.

If one knows the destination then it is easier to create the journey as long as this journey is appropriate for the individual concerned. While one outcome might be to see how far a person can throw a given implement the ‘how far’ element is but a small piece in the jigsaw of throwing actions.

There are a few ‘must-do’s’ when it comes to throwing and although some sports specific actions and postures might be a different there are some movement patterns / actions / postures that appear in most throwing activities. Use these as the focus of the vocabulary you are seeking so you always have a destination in mind.

1. Strong, slow forces work first, fast forces last (check out how the Legs, Trunk and Shoulder all act before the throwing Arm and Hand gets involved
2. In many cases there is a transfer of weight from rear to front foot.
3. The forces start at contact with the ground and travel through body segments to the final release from the hand.
4. The Hips lead the Trunk leads the Shoulder leads the Arm leads the Hand in the direction of the throw (often creating a ‘torque’ between Hips and Shoulder).
5. In many cases one-side (non-throwing side) is ‘braced’, braked, or stopped so the throwing side accelerates ahead which creates a stable pillar for the throwing action to work
against.
6. Note that these comments are for able-bodied athletes so ‘thinking / creative hats’ on for the less able athlete.

The aim is to build a wide and deep throwing pattern vocabulary from which the final sports-specific destination can grow. The longer the athlete spends developing a ‘general’ throwing movement ability the more effective they will be when, later, they are pursuing the specific movement and force patterns of their chosen sport. Stop thinking that a measured throw is the only focus of things – not yet – give them a full education in all related movement patterns that lead to the final competitive throwing choice.

What variables are in your toolbox?

Environment

Rebound off a wall
Throw to partner(s)
Throw for distance
Throw for height
Throw to a target (Watch out! This is a very regressive activity which often sees the throwing action reverting back to a less effective pattern as the accuracy component takes over – use it sparingly)

Body position

From Seated (Feet ahead on floor or Knees bent)
From Kneeling (sitting on Feet)
From Kneeling High (Hips above Knees)
From Split Stance on Knees (L&R)
From Kneeling Split Stance (L&R)
While / after Squatting
While / after Lunging
While / after Jumping
While / after Hopping
While / after Walking
While / after Running
While / after Pivoting
After catching – Two-Handed and One-Handed from different directions

Action & Direction

Push forwards
Push upwards
Rotate and push forwards (L&R)
Rotate and push sideways (L&R)
Rotate and sling forwards (L&R)
Throw forwards from overhead
Sling forwards
Sling backwards overhead
Sling Horizontal (L&R)
Sling forwards diagonally from low to high (L&R)
Sling backwards diagonally from low to high

Hands & Feet

Two-Handed – Two Feet
Two-Handed – One-Foot (L&R)
One-Handed (L&R) – Two-Feet
One-Handed (L&R) – One-Foot (L&R)
Sling with Arms close to body
Sling with Arms long

Implement

Quoits
Sand-Bags
Sand-Socks
Golf balls
Tennis balls
Basketballs
Medicine balls
Short sticks
Longer sticks
Turbo-Javelins
Mini-Javelins
Shot
Discus
Short Hammers
Long Hammers

A simple start might be – Seated, legs ahead on floor – in pairs – push pass from Chest – catch & return. This could evolve to a more complex activity e.g. Single Foot Hop (L&R) forwards followed by diagonal (Right to Left) backwards overhead sling.

It is known that ‘variability’ in training / learning leads to skills being more robust in later settings. By mixing and matching all these variables you have in excess of 60,000 puzzles with which to challenge the learning process.

On-Feet Locomotion Development Thoughts

I have always said of our teaching and coaching world that while we tell them ‘how far’ and ‘how fast’ to run it might be better if we actually taught them ‘HOW’ to run. With a high proportion of physical activities demanding some type of running quality surely the ‘HOW’ should appear in the pathway far more than it currently does.

By all means start with some instruction. When we first learn or relearn a motor skill, all performers need some feedback and instruction. By giving instruction and feedback initially there are less errors in these first stages of learning. The less errors, the more confident the learner can be. The trap is that if all you ever do is get them to learn robotically by explicit drills their learning will be slowed.

In recent conversations, I have told some coaches that “Variety is key. Find as many solutions to as many movement pattern puzzles as you can while eliciting the main movement aims.” In other words, it aids learning when you drive at a required outcome using a variety of methods and activities. By adding this variability the entire system of learning is enhanced.

While we consider all this variability it is wise to take some time to understand some of the other elements of learning that will prevail. At the centre of every skill the athlete is trying to learn are a set of characteristics that do not change no matter who is doing the movement; or when they are doing the movement. These are the most relevant parts of the movement and, in some cases, are the parts of the pattern upon which many other parts of the sequence depend. In other words, these are the basics (or “attractors” which is the new sexy terminology you might come across).

For example, my main aim to develop correct running mechanics is to concentrate on how the foot hits the ground, in what direction, with what force and then how it leaves the ground, in what direction – the foot moves violently downwards from above for each foot-strike and then leaves the ground with the heel moving towards the upper-Hamstring as the two thighs move past each other. If this action is done right then the Knees follow, the Hips follow and the Trunk and Arms follow via a self-organising process. I can have this foot-contact and recovery element as the main focus when the activities change as seen in the list below. By having to concentrate on this foundation movement of ‘contact’ while navigating a huge range of activities that revolve around on-feet locomotion the learning process is enhanced.

Our job is to prepare the young person for ‘what is yet to come’ whether their journey is to all-round health and well-being or to high performance sport or a combination of both destinations. To give them the tools to be effective in a wide range of sports would appear to be a sound aim in all this. This means that we can’t just give them running skills for a track (running forwards in a lane where the only decision is to react to a gun and/or to turn left). Preparing them for the on-going decision-making they will experience in just about every other situation of locomotion they will face is the best thing we can do.

The ‘track’ running process is a decent enough starting point where you can develop the PAL layers of the technique (Posture, Arms and Legs). It will give a good start to the process but certainly not a wide or deep enough set of experiences to arm them with the tools for all the other circumstances that participation in field and court sports will bring.

On-feet locomotion can obviously be developed through walking and running but skipping and galloping can also act as very relevant puzzles to solve. As the journey continues to the more robust elements then jumping, hopping and leaping should also appear in the journey.

If you want to create a wide and deep movement vocabulary for on-feet locomotion then consider such things as:

Walking; Running; Skipping; Galloping; Jumping; Leaping; Hopping

Forward; Backward; Sideways (Side-step; Cross-over)

Round circles clockwise; round circles anti-clockwise

Short strides; long strides

Low Knees; High Knees

Stop and re-start in different direction

Start the locomotion from stationary; from walking; from running at different speeds (this is the start of the Acceleration journey); from running at different speeds in different directions.

Stationary start locomotion from different positions: Standing facing forwards; facing backwards; facing sideways; standing 2 feet; standing one-foot; kneeling; sitting; lying prone; lying supine; lying on side; on hands & feet prone (4-point); on hands & feet supine (4-point); 3-point; 2-point.

Arms at sides; Arms ahead; Hands behind Head; Arms overhead; normal Arm action

Trunk bend; Trunk rotate; Trunk bend and rotate

Carry load low; carry load at waist; carry load at chest; carry load overhead; carry load and bend; carry load and rotate. Carry load and push out; carry load and push up

Catch an object; pass an object

Go around obstacles; go over obstacles

Add relay races and ‘tag’ games to all of the above.

See this list as a range of ingredients that you can mix-and-match in all sorts of combinations, at all sorts of training-age levels. Think of static to dynamic; slow to fast; simple to complex; unloaded to loaded as a guide. Progress and regress the activity based on what the athlete can or cannot do. Fit the activity to the competence level of the individual. This can be viewed as a list of locomotion puzzles for them to (a) create (b) solve.

Each of these progressions / regressions gives the coach the opportunity to elicit change in the PAL process and in particular the opportunity to focus on the chosen aim for the movement (my example – foot contact and toe-off actions).

The Journey – An Example

A simple starting point might be – Run Forwards with a normal action of arms and legs.

After adaptation to a variety of activities over time the activity can develop to one of greater variety and complexity – In a race in a 10m square; from a kneeling start position; Run backwards around a square of witch’s hats; clockwise (opposition is in the same square running anti-clockwise); hands above head; carrying a ball; pass the ball laterally to a partner.

Example Race with Decision-making

2 Teams of 2 per square
A (Black Line) Starts bottom Left – runs diagonal to top right – runs to left – runs diagonal to bottom right – runs to left to tag next person in the team
B (Red Line) Starts bottom Right – runs diagonal to top left – runs to right – runs diagonal to bottom left – runs to right to tag next person in the team

Note that major movement decisions will have to be made when the teams cross each other in the centre of the square and along the top and bottom sides. Now we have speed and change of direction plus some decision-making.

Consider using activities from the list for each of the races.

Some home truths from a great professional

In the formative years of my coaching career I was fortunate to be surrounded by a group of coaches who, through the kindness of their hearts, supported my first faltering steps into what turned out to be a near lifetime of coaching. In those heady days of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games I spent hours and hours with my fellow National Coaches Frank Dick, Wilf Paish, Malcolm Arnold, Carl Johnson, Bruce Longdon, and a host of experienced National Event coaches. Each of them gave me time and support as I slowly learned the ropes of what it was like to not only coach athletes but to mentor and support other coaches. We were all part of a National Coaching Strategy that invested heavily in the well-being of all coaches and we were stimulated to create better and better opportunity for all the local coaches in each of our regions.

Today, some 40 years later, it is encouraging to hear some of these voices from the past still working hard to effect change for the better. In recent days one of my mentors, Malcolm Arnold, has cast off the current self-absorbed falsehoods of the modern sporting bureaucracy and told it like it is. He has encapsulated what we as a previous coaching generation saw as the cornerstone of any sporting success – the coaching network and the coach education strategy. Current bureaucracies, with their jargon-filled, ‘corporate-speak’ narration, continue to enjoy their days-in-the-sun at the expense of those who are the engine that keeps the sport alive – the volunteer coaches and volunteer officials and administrators. These volunteers turn up day after day to do the best they can to help all those young athletes continue along the pathway to improvement and continued participation. While we see lots of ‘quick-fix’, ‘fast-track’ actions and processes from the professional decision-makers that often just paper over the cracks of the faltering sporting plan we seldom see the volunteer ‘engine’ being fully recognised, serviced and supported in a meaningful way that will stand the test of time.

For all those interested in the dialogue going on you can do no better than to read Malcolm Arnold’s take on the state of Track & Field in the UK. You may recognise some of his illustrations and observations as being pertinent to your own sport.

Article 1

Article 2

The Australian Government has called for submissions in regard to a National Sporting Plan. I hope that those experienced practitioners with something to say hold their nerve and ‘tell it like it is’ just as I hope that the Minister in charge of the project has the nerve to recognise and act upon the truth. I am hoping that the Minister sees the need for the most effective people-to-people initiatives; the ‘HOW’ of coaching and not just the ‘WHAT’; not just resource technology initiatives but leadership initiatives driven by real leaders and not career bureaucrats. Why we continue to drift away from the human elements that forge all pathways to improvement and hitch our wagon to “vision” that is clouded and deranged I will never know.

I have little use for consensus building in times of genuine crisis (a camel is a horse designed by a committee) and I truly believe that the physical well-being of our younger generations is critical to the international high-performance results that the nation craves. With the right leadership we might begin moving (visibly, actively, forcefully and publicly) in a positive direction and encourage those who turn their heads toward us and seem curious to come along. It will take some direct enunciation of the state of play at the moment (as Malcolm Arnold has done) and some sensible leadership towards the multi-layered solutions that are required. All thought must go initially to the place where the ‘rubber meets the road’ in the volunteer environment of well-being and performance improvement and not only to the resource-guzzling elite levels.

Others Words

Realised today how lucky I am to have such great practitioners to turn to and learn from even at the ripe old age of 70.

While having a think today about what to say to a person who is intent on getting leaner and fitter I remembered Steve Myrland’s epic overview of this topic:

“You can’t exercise your way out of an unhealthy diet and you can’t diet your way out of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Then there is Bill Knowles who got my feet back on the ground many, many years ago when he asked us all involved in rehabilitating the injured athlete to:

“Treat the athlete not the injury.”

Then Dean Benton gave me the cornerstone of the Brumbies very successful season in Super Rugby back in 2013:

“We agreed to do things different and try different things.”

My early mentor and ongoing friend Frank Dick always encouraged me to:

Know what you know; admit what you don’t know; and know who does know!”

Loads more mates for me to quote as time unfolds.

Progression (For all those Primary School Teachers at the latest Workshop)

Thanks to all who turned up the other day to have a look at building the movement vocabulary. It seems that you and your colleagues in High School are part of the accountability for the development of Physical Literacy in the younger generations. As we discussed in the workshop it is tough to have this accountability when you only spent a short number of hours in your Teacher training doing the PE stuff which was nearly all about competitive Games. Your enthusiasm to learn was infectious and I thought I should follow-up with a little more detail and some reminders on one of the elements we covered in that all-to-brief 2 hours – Progressing the movement experience.

The teachers PE toolbox should contain a variety of tools that allow you to select and teach an appropriate type and level of exercise to the individual in the class. Unfortunately, too many coaches and teachers have only three tools in their possession – 1. Volume (lots and lots of mindless repetitions that just get the kids tired) 2. External resistance (a Barbell a Dumbbell or Medicine Ball or Sand-Sack) 3. Volume and External Resistance together. No doubt that there will be some adaptation to these methods but they are limited when put into the context of most individual and team field, court and flotation sports and the physical competence they will need to do them. In many sporting situations they will have to execute the movement pattern in various directions, at various speeds, at various amplitudes, in multiple planes while doing other actions like lifting, reaching, carrying, catching, passing, jumping, kicking, pulling, pushing, etc. Sometimes they will have to do all these movements while reacting to opposition or to a ball in flight. If this is the world they will have to live in then it is up to us to give them a vocabulary of movement experiences that prepare them for this environment.

To illustrate some of these tools let us look at the Squat movement where the athlete conducts the ‘triple-flexion’ movement (sitting on a chair) and ‘triple-extension’ movement (standing up from the chair). It would be remiss to think that this single plane (sitting and standing) movement pattern will be sufficient to aid the athlete along the pathway to what they will face in the sports-performance setting (apart from Power-lifting athletes).

By all means start the journey with the conventional Double-Leg Squat to parallel where the following will be seen.

1. Head up, Chest up
2. Back straight and parallel to Shins
3. Feet Shoulder width apart, Heels down
4. Thighs parallel to the floor.
5. Ankle, Knee and Hip aligned

It is suggested that before you start to reach for the volume and external resistance tools you might want to consider the following:

Change the Amplitude of the movement –

Shallow; Deep – and all stations in-between.

Change the Speed of the movement –

Static; Slow; Fast – and all stations in-between

All the above – Change the position of the Feet –

Wide stance; Wide stance Toes out; Wide stance Toes in; Wide stance one Foot ahead (L&R); All the above – to Toes.
Narrow stance; Narrow stance one Foot ahead (L&R); All the above to Toes

All the above – change the Trunk position –

Bend; Rotate; Bend and Rotate
With Broomsticks
With Medicine Balls

All the above – change Arm position / action

Hands behind Head
Hands ahead
Hands overhead
Hands across Chest
Catch an object
Catch and throw / pass an object
Bounce a ball
Juggle a ball
With wide Arms
With tight to body Arms
Push an object up; out
Pull an object or an elastic rope high to low; low to high; diagonally low to high

All the above – change how they arrive in and leave the position

Land from a small jump (Forwards, Backwards, Sideways (L&R), Restart in all directions e.g. Jump forwards x 2 and jump backwards once to the Squat landing
Land from a small Hop
Land from a small Leap
Land off a box
Land on a box
Jog, brake and stop into a Squat – in multiple directions
Run, brake and stop into a Squat – in multiple directions
Land going up-hill
Land going down-hill

All the above followed by a jump –

For height
For distance
With 90 Rotation
With 180 Rotation
With 360 Rotation

The coach will not have to always show them all these variations or coach them robotically. Challenge the athlete to change a body part or shape or speed and applaud their creativity. Let them observe another athlete’s solution – they have great observation and mimicking skills that help create the vocabulary.

“Can you be taller in shape?”
“Pretend to sit in a chair”
“Can you be smaller in shape?”
“Can you change the position of your Arms?”
“How many can you do in 5 secs?”
“Can you land quietly?”
“Can you land with a loud noise?”
“Who can do this in s-l-o-w motion?”
“What happens if you close your eyes?”
“In pairs, copy what your partner does”
“Do the movement to this music”

With all these puzzles to solve the athlete will amass a wide and deep movement vocabulary from which their developed proprioception (knowing and controlling where they are in time and space), balance, coordination in this Squat pattern will be available to them. Whatever you find helpful here for the Squat movement can be applied to the other foundation movement of Lunge, Pull, Push, Brace, Rotate, Hinge and landing. You will have noticed that even though the Squat was the centre of attention in this document you can see many of the other foundations movements involved. You can also see some of the Running, Jumping, Throwing and Catching elements being integrated. This is the beauty of a movement curriculum, it links so many things together. Whether you offer these journeys in the Classroom with the ‘movement breaks’ we spoke about and / or in the formal PE lessons where they can learn and apply the movements in a variety of settings, all these tools are there for you to create an imaginative and varied series of learning opportunities. Have a go!

First 6-months back in Australia

In a recent presentation my colleague Steve Myrland stated, “Culture (writ large) is largely built on unchallenged assumptions and that assumptions are the rust that forms in the absence of critical thought”. These next few words are my clumsy attempt to again highlight some issues that have arisen through some of this “rust’ taking hold in the world of physical activity and sports performance. The aim is to create some thought that allows people to question their assumptions on a few of the elements in these cultural infrastructures.

I returned to Australia last November after working in the UK over two Olympic cycles. I was fortunate to have been able to work across the full performance spectrum from Development right through to the Championship / Medal Table end of things. I met many great practitioners from teaching, coaching, sports-science, sports-medicine and administration and it didn’t take me long to realise that what I had experienced in Australia was being duplicated in the UK in terms of that same continuum. My concern was that while inroads were being made in the 1% gains (where Olympic team members were improved to being finalists and finalists were being improved to being medalists) the same effort was not being seen in the development of the next generation. There was a cry for ‘legacy’ at the London Games where the word on the street was that the London Olympics would create a nation of active people; a healthier nation; and a reduced Health Service budget. It was obvious that this was a false lead by the bureaucracy as all the ‘eggs’ were being put in the ‘basket’ of high performance and the legacy was just a hope. Now I like hope and hopefulness but I am clear that unless you add some structure and action to a dream it will remain just a hope. The UK is hurtling towards a high-performance downturn in the future because it continues to fail the 99%.

I had no expectations of what I would see when I returned – just a hopeful feeling that Australia was continuing to look ahead and break new ground with its usual down-to-earth passion. The reality was different. Almost immediately I witnessed the start of the fight to see who actually ‘owned’ Australian Sport. The decline in Olympic medals that had started in Athens and continued to drop through to the Rio Games appears to have opened a sore in the sporting psyche of the nation. This examination (or attempted coup to put it another way) illustrated to me the power struggles that go on behind the scenes as the decision-making bureaucracies of sport go about protecting their fiefdoms (and their salaries and power base). I watched potential coups and counter-coups going on that ate up energy, time and resources that could have and should have been better used for others. There were polarised views on who should control and spend all the public and corporate dollars involved in Australian Sport which did little to help the 99% of the sporting community that volunteer their time and energy.

Next thing I know is that a politician is asking for submissions for the creation of a National Sports Plan which frightened the life out of me. Here was another chance for the bureaucracy to spend time, energy and money on another expensive gesture. To me any such review should be one where the decision-makers spend a lot of time shadowing all the volunteer coaches and administrators (the 99% of our coaching manpower) who are responsible for the pathway of every athlete whether the aim in well-being and participation or a journey to high performance. Find out what these people really need for them to be effective. What knowledge do they need? What training and mentoring do they need? What coach to athlete ratio do they need? What tools do they need to keep the athletes engaged? What encouragement do they need to keep turning up? What support from Physical Education do they need?

Can’t go past this PE implication without recommending some changes. A change to a movement (mechanical) and fitness (metabolic) curriculum that sees a competitive games element being a result of the former instead of being the centre of attention would seem to be in order. Add to this a school day that sees ‘movement breaks’ occurring at the end of each lesson where the aim is to finally achieve the recommended 60min of moderate exercise each day for all growing children, and things might improve a little physically, behaviourally and academically.

While all this energy, bluster and political manoeuvring is going on it is interesting to see that all the coaches, athletes and administrators (the 99%) at the early stages of the journey, the participation level of sport that covers the age range of 8-18 years, continue to turn up and do their jobs. In this world of ‘Development’ little has improved in the last two decades in terms of knowledge, support and reward and it is clear that little will improve in the next two decades unless some like-minded people start to make some much smarter decisions. Unfortunately, once the dust has settled politically and all the power-brokers are again secure in their positions I expect that the status quo will prevail.

I expect that there will continue to be a dissonance between health and well-being and the pursuit of elite performance when it is clear that you cannot have the latter without the former. There will continue to be a reliance on honorary, poorly prepared, poorly serviced, poorly regarded, poorly appreciated manpower in the coaching ranks of the Development layers when the direct opposite is required. The huge resources that are devoured at the bureaucratic layers of sport will continue to elude the coaches, athletes, administrators and infrastructures of the Development layers. Decisions will always be a ‘Top-Down’ happening where the vital human, physical, information and financial resources are first spent on the bureaucracy and elite layers while the rest of the strategy gets what is left over. One can only dream that we may see some ‘Bottom-Up” action where appropriate attention is paid to the layers where the rubber meets the road – the masses of athletes and teachers / coaches working at the level where young people take their first, faltering steps along the journey to (a) continued well-being (b) high performance.

It is always sad to see energy and resources going into a new endeavour that is titled in such a way that the 99% actually get some hope only to see the usual suspects arrive on the scene e.g. either ‘too little, too late’ or a new plan that simply papers over the cracks while being fan-fared as the ‘new solution to all problems’.

The true test of the success of any review and subsequent action is that in 10 years from now you won’t have to have another review – maybe some small adjustments but certainly not another one from the ground up. The true test of the efficacy of your coaching strategy is that 10 years from now you won’t have suffered another participation decline or further mechanical, metabolic and behavioural limitations to the progression of well-being or performance.

Time to stop the re-cycling of ineffective reviews and interventions and make some positive changes once and for all.

“While efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” Steve Myrland

Time to re-write and integrate the journey from well-being through to high performance. Time to stop regurgitating tired strategies by tired people and create an appropriate and effective strategy that is created and administered not by career bureaucrats but by those who have trodden the pathway while knowing and delivering best principles. Let the final model start at the cutting edge – where teachers and students and coaches and athletes work every day.