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!
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.
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.