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.

More thoughts on Coach Education

Coach Education should contain more explanation and practice of outcome-based learning; constraints-based learning; using analogies; the implicit spectrum. It is far more than quoting PhD research and using inappropriate scientific jargon. Coaches need to know what these processes are in terms they understand and then have them demonstrated in a practical setting. They should then do several sessions where they actually coach using these methods in the presence of a master coach who can guide them to better practice.

The structure and content of Coach Education courses should see the delegates learning more than the Educator / lecturer is delivering. Adapted from Per-Goran Fahlstrom

Course presenters must go beyond passing over information and then hoping that something ‘sticks’. In the case of these ‘learning’ strategies (surely the cornerstone of all coach education content) there should be an understandable explanation; a high-quality demonstration in a direct coaching session by the instructor (illustrating what to say, where to stand, what to look and listen for). This should then be followed by each delegate having the opportunity to coach a colleague or a small group while under scrutiny from the instructor and their peers. They must be allowed to try again and again in this setting with constructive criticism prevailing.

They then need to be mentored further when they are coaching their squads. Their education must be appropriate enough to encourage them to do things different and do different things. They must clearly understand and build up experience in things other than explicit, drill-based learning. Some NGB’s think that by mentioning implicit learning in the course the coaches will automatically begin to coach this way. Coach Education is more than the transfer of information – it must become a process of learning for the coach. Just as athletes need adequate time to learn (slow vs fast learners; slow vs fast adapters) and apply new skills into their environment so coaches need the same frequency and type of exposure to learning. Coach Education should be changed to being an “all-time” thing and not a “one-time” occurrence.

This process will undoubtedly mean that the current construction of courses and what follows them must be questioned. I can accept an over-arching initial course that sets out background, rationale and arguments of the world of teaching and coaching. Even this ‘first steps’ course should contain practical work that matters and that can be immediately delivered into the next session by the coaches. It is probably best to offer less in terms of content and more in terms of arming the coach with deliverable experiences. By offering ‘less’ in these early stages means that there will need to be ‘more’ in the follow-up, on-site education that should be present in a quality coach-mentoring strategy.

Without such an on-site mentoring strategy then the status quo will prevail. We will have to continue to ‘instruct and hope’ as is the current coach education process. The new Scottish Athletics Athletic Development course does much of what is illustrated in this text. The initial course (2-Day), while covering a range of information, deals practically with things that can be delivered in the very next session by the coaches.

The theory / background / rationale elements set the scene for a long-term view on the four pillars of coaching (technical, tactical, physical and mental); the role of foundation movements in the journey; the maturation journey; how they learn (from ‘puzzles’ to drills); constructing the session; progression tools. Nearly every one of these elements contains a practical experience where the coach is under some scrutiny.

.
The Coaches Toolbox at the heart of the course content.

Each of these elements is then followed up with regional workshops where more depth of knowledge is attained and more practical work is undertaken. The final ongoing cycle is that which sees on-site mentorship of the coaches in the practical setting of their coaching session. This is the role of the Development Officers who need to be recruited and trained in this direct mentorship process.

Scottish Athletics has gone some way to creating this multi-layered education process. The on-site mentoring layer is the most difficult for them as it requires another giant step away from the status quo.

With Australia’s Government asking for submissions on the nation’s National Sports Plan there is the opportunity for someone to be brave enough to create this final layer of coach education, recruitment and retention.

Some Elements of my Australian National Sports Plan submission

For those who have asked here are some of the main elements I expanded on in my submission.

It is opportune to state at this juncture that the elements important to community health and well-being are the same as those required to commence the journey to high sports performance.

Based on these common elements, we can no longer think that it is sensible to divorce the health and well-being of the community from the pathways to international sporting success. Build international sporting success on a formidable foundation of community health and well-being.

Evidence in the lack of mechanical, metabolic and behavioural foundations when athletes arrive at the cusp of senior international level.

Participation is still dropping at every age group. Little has changed from the 1980’s regardless of all the money being spent.

The obesity crisis is cloaking the problem of the current lack of fitness of the younger generations.

Too many actions are short-term and are usually based on the timeline of the bureaucrats and not the timeline of the athletes.

Athlete pathways are seldom linked to equally powerful coaching pathways.

Coach Education and coach development pathways do little to encourage coaches to remain at development level. They either quit or move on prematurely to the later performance stages where reward and recognition are more evident.

The best coaches are seldom seen in the development stages.

Coach education is geared to “winning now” with an emphasis on technical and tactical elements.

Talent identification must come second to talent development. Selection decisions must be delayed as long as possible.

Coach education efficacy is measured by the number of certificates given out rather than the quality of improvement seen.

There is no Coach mentoring process in the nation.

Physical Education must be put under greater scrutiny as part of this issue. This includes the role of Universities in the training of teachers where we currently see more and more ‘pseudo-scientists’ being trained.

‘Top-Down’ strategies have failed because by the time the bureaucracy has finished creating their own resource-guzzling infrastructures there is little left for the coaches and athletes. Time for a ‘Bottom-Up” strategy where we invest where the rubber meets the road – the training session or lesson.

Swim-Bike-Run – What happens next?

Yes – I am still excited after watching the weekend’s Swim-Bike-Run!

When I chatted with the very young athletes at the Lawnton, Queensland Try-athlon last weekend the majority said they would “do it again” which is really good news. Considering that they come from a generation that is spending a lot of time sitting and gaming and who have a very limited Physical Education exposure this response is heartening. It means that their experience was not traumatic and that their personal confidence is intact. So, what do we now do with those who actually “do it again”?

What do we do with those who now look seriously at joining a Triathlon Club and who want to be coached to improve? From what I have seen in this 7-15 years’ age-group in most sports there is probably a continuum of service that they might receive. At one end of the continuum there is:

Winning at all costs and winning ‘now’.
Competition-specific technical and tactical, mechanical and metabolic actions and intensities predominating.
Learning only through drills and explicit instruction.
Delivering watered-down adult programs.
Everything revolving around the fixture list.
An inappropriate Talent Identification system that sees selection criteria and ranking lists driving the program (Why identify it when you can’t develop it?).
Attempts to “fit the athlete to the program”.
Overzealous parents adding pressure to stress.

And at the other:

The patient development of Physical, Mental (including ‘Grit’), Technical and Tactical elements (the 4 pillars).
The appropriate use of ‘Outcome’, ‘External Focus’, ‘Implicit’ learning environments alongside the ‘Explicit’ versions.
Continuation of the athlete competing against themselves.
The appropriate use of formal competition as part of development.
A demonstrated understanding and coordination of the program with the individual’s maturation rhythm.
Integrating the sport with other activities and life-skills.
Delaying selection to special squads for as long as possible.

To ensure that the latter process gets the upper-hand may I suggest all coaches of this 7-15 age group be well educated and practised in all the components they intend to deliver across the four pillars? Might be a good idea to check the content of coach education courses to see if they truly are being prepared to coach in this layer. Go on NGB’s have a close look and see if you have a seriously effective development and mentoring program for your coaches for this layer of the sport.

Swim-Bike-Run

Another remarkable day at “Development“ level! Today I watched 1300 young people (7 – 15 years) embark on a journey of Swim-Bike-Run – a “Try-Athlon” as it was called – and boy did they all have a try.


The 9 Years age-group waiting to go. They started to chant – “let us in” while they were waiting – priceless.

The key ingredient that made it so very special was that it was about a personal test with no podium at the end. Each athlete did their own competition with themselves. The perform-or-perish brigade will probably wonder what the point was if ‘winning at all costs’ was out of the equation. The point was that every athlete just got on with doing their best. There were kids there who were poor swimmers but still had a great experience (pool-noodles to the fore!) There were kids on little BMX bikes peddling like fury with no gears – no problem, they just got on with it. There were runners with the stitch who overcame the adversity and finished with a smile.


Transition – all sorts of Bikes

A well deserved Cooling-Off tent

Very few adults added any pressure – they mostly watched and applauded and encouraged not just their child but many others.

The volunteers – my word what a crew! They were there in their hundreds and just kept on supporting and helping every athlete not matter what their performance looked like.

I was looking at the future of Australian sport and community health and well-being. I was seeing a generation of kids having a go. Many were taking their first faltering steps along a journey to a variety of destinations. Some just might keep going into adult-hood – and wouldn’t that be a great benefit to the nation in terms of health and health services? Others may use the stimulus to just stay generally healthy for now. Others may be stimulated into a serious journey into high performance. Whatever the long-term outcome I saw a load of self-esteem, satisfaction and personal pride on the face of each athlete as they finished.

If we want a generation who are enthusiastic and disciplined; show perseverance and personal fortitude; can overcome adversity and show some humility and respect then maybe letting them explore such personal tests as this might help. Sure, we need to expose them to the ups-and-downs of winning and losing at some stage as we prepare them for adulthood but why not build this on a foundation of personal achievement and self-worth.

By the time all the 9-year-olds from this weekend reach 16 years of age nearly 50% of them would have succumbed to a sedentary life devoid of much opportunity to discover and build on-going self-confidence. With self-esteem and confidence being a pre-requisite to attitude, discipline and commitment perhaps we should consider the vehicles that allow these traits to be experienced. The “Try-athlon” was such a vehicle – designed for the kids and with very few adult outcomes or needs being evident.

From a sports-performance perspective it is worthwhile noting that Australia has approximately 300,000 nine-year-olds – the USA has over 4 million. As a nation of only 24 million people it is wise to question all assumptions on how we develop our young generations for their time in adult sport. While everyone argues about who owns Australian sport or how many medals will be won or what the title of the strategy should be, we should all consider some concentration on these development layers. Losing 50% of all the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kids I saw at the weekend is not something to look forward to whether you are a parent, coach, or sport administrator. Adults create the environment and opportunity to either continue in or to quit sports-participation. Don’t blame the kids for opting out.

Problem is that when I ask National Federations how effective their Development layers are the answer is always the same – we are in good shape.

50% loss in the next few years??

Making Decisions

Objectively established truth (OET) is something that is true whether you believe it or not. You don’t have the option to feel it is true or want it to be true or prevent it from being true. You can’t stop it being true if your religion or political philosophy prevents it – Neil Tyson.

You can’t prevent it from being true if it is not convenient. It is quite simply TRUE and is something that you can base decisions on.

The problem is that there are many things out there that are falsely titled as being OET due to biased or flawed research or the pursuance of a selfish agenda. Tread very carefully.

The Development Pathway – some random thoughts

I have had lots of chats and plenty of reading lately on the Development pathway and a few comments come to mind as I continue to assemble an appropriate journey for all developing athletes. I am still having to assemble the arguments for some type of ‘assumption questioning’ as I meet more and more sports governing bodies. Many of them assure me that they have a world’s best practice pathway when they clearly have nothing in place that resembles anything that might actually work. They have the titles in their administrative set-up that seems to convince them that they are on the right track e.g. ‘Director’ of this or that department, when nothing has improved for the coach in the field for the last 40 years.

On the other hand, I have worked with a small number of organisations who actually had the humility to accept that they needed to do better. These brave souls stopped resisting change and realised that their status quo was not effective any longer. Human, physical and financial resources were re-aligned over an appropriate time so that real change could take place.

In the knowledge that I will learn more and more in the coming years and maybe I might modify my stance for the better I currently have the following thoughts in the front of my mind after all my investigations over the last 15 years:

Sport wastes a lot of time trying to convince people that they are developing athletes when they are clearly not.

Many programs are selling fake fundamentals.

By being an income stream for NGB’s Coach Education is often ruined by the profit-margin issue.

Early focus on competition results as a means of assessing development pathway efficacy simply drives the start-age lower and lower and the volume of training higher and higher.

There is a significant conflict between how children learn and how development programs operate.

Most development programs are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions.

The greatest enemy of progress is an environment that allows any kid to be defined as a high performer. That’s just status anxiety masquerading as development.

Probably best to invest more time in coaching the adults than coaching the kids.

The more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win.

Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different we do what all the others do. Then we feel that we cannot be wrong.

Once we truly understand how a developing athlete (8-18 years) learns things and adapts to maturation then we might be able to create an appropriate Coach Education content.

The structure and content of Coach Education courses should see the delegates learning more than the Educator / lecturer is delivering.

My thanks to all my colleagues and all those that have given me the time in recent years to discuss all this and who have stimulated me to keep learning through all their written work – Stuart Armstrong; Mark O’Sullivan; Greg Thompson; Richard Bailey; Dave Clarke; Andy Kirkland; Nick Hill; Mark Hyman; Jamie Youngson to name but a few.

Stop waiting!

My colleague Matthew O’Neil replied to one of my Tweets today and it bought some thoughts to mind.

Matthew

Don’t wait for your Federation to change / create appropriate coach education and coach mentoring. At each Club training night get each coach or a pair of coaches or a small group to present an appropriate 15-20min workshop on a subject that is vital to all the coaches. It could take the form of a ‘theme’ over a number of weeks until everyone understands and is confident in delivery; it could be a new exercise for the Warm Up; it could be an illustration of a progression or a regression of an activity; it could be some outcomes or analogies to use as coaching cues.

We can all wait for the Federation but, alas, some of us won’t live that long. You can ask the Federation for the Development Officers in your area to come and add to this scheme of work. While you wait for that to happen be proactive and do stuff for yourselves. Start by sharing with each other.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

The Death of Community Sports Organisations

In all my recent discussion about the content of Coach Education and how well we look after our coaches and the journey they are on, much of what happens to our honorary coaches is mirrored by what eventually happens to our community sport layers.

Just as some coaches by-pass the fundamentals as they race prematurely to the sexy, high end of coaching delivery so many NGB’s are guilty of the same mistake. More and more resources, including thought, time and energy are being used up in sharp-end, elite performance strategies. Here there is greater concern about TV, sponsorship and crowd attendance issues than there is about the one, key element to long-term viability – we need better educated and better supported coaches at the development layers of the sport.

Matt Young (Matt@personalsportrecord.com / @mattyoung101) has illustrated one of the pathways that he has witnessed and has illustrated the steps to oblivion that prevails in many situations.

C6u6gQtWoAQ6mKh

There are few bright moments in today’s ‘quick-fixing’, ‘fast-tracking’ strategies and in far too many cases the decision-makers choose a ‘top-down’ approach when they should be creating a ‘bottom-up’ strategy where the honorary coaches and athletes who are taking their first faltering steps are supported in their endeavours. When questioned on the efficacy of their ‘long-term athlete development’ plan most NGB’s will gush enthusiastically that they have a world-best practice model when in fact they have nothing in place at all but a lot of tired content and infrastructure that was put in place decades before.

I know that I have championed the work of Scottish Athletics in this topic but it is worthwhile mentioning again their new Coach Education strategy and the session-based support mechanisms that they are developing alongside the course content.

Community based structures coupled with a revision of coach development strategies are the future of the sport. Get this right and you might find more and more athletes remaining in the sport at later age-groups and an increase in those on the cusp of high performance arriving there with fewer limitations to repeatable excellence.

A nice coaching story

Greg Thompson to me is a world leader when it comes to developing a movement vocabulary with young people. He teaches PE in the Farmington Schools District at Longacre Elementary school in An Arbor, Michigan. As far away as he is I always try to catch up with him via phone or Facetime and invariably I learn something. Today was no exception and he gave me a good illustration of something that I have been working on with coaches in my recent Coach Education brainstorming.

If coaches are to deliver a progressive syllabus of technical, tactical, physical (mechanical and metabolic) and mental (behavioural) elements then they need to be well educated in each of them. Although not easy we seem to have an acceptable language and vocabulary that sees coaches at least get by with the technical and tactical stuff. We continue to implore coaches not to ignore the physical and mental elements in their delivery and there is no doubt that they need better help from their education content. While the Athletic Development (Physical) journey is a huge area to consider it is not the subject of this commentary. The mental journey is the ‘elephant in the room’ – we know it is a vital component; we know we want people to display discipline, commitment, attitude, perseverance, humility, respect, etc; but fail dismally to treat these traits with the same importance as technical and tactical.

Greg illustrated today how he dealt with one of these traits – how to encourage perseverance in a young person. The topic of the movement lesson was locomotion and Greg was getting the class (5 year-olds) to solve the puzzle of galloping while bouncing a ball. One young man was struggling and he finished up in tears when he went to Greg to say – ‘I can’t do this no matter how hard I try’. Now Greg has a system where every so often he selects and ‘Eagle’ who sits for a few minutes on the stage and looks for classmates who are doing the exercise well. It is just a brief job that gives a little task to a person who then has to use their observation skills to choose a classmate who is succeeding in solving a puzzle. He told the young man that it didn’t matter that he could not quite get the gallop + bounce task because he was winning the battle by trying really hard. He was rewarded for his effort by being promoted to being an ‘eagle’ for a few minutes with the job to look for a classmate who was trying as hard or even harder than he had been doing.

Greg rewarded effort not talent; he spent time with an individual who needed help and not just with those who were successful; he saw an opportunity and stimulated behavioural change.

There will be plenty of opportunities to effect behavioural change – you just need to know what to look for and then act. You need to give time and space in the training program to these traits.

If you want perseverance – recognise effort and reward it.

If you want discipline – get them to do the things they don’t want to do.

If you want commitment get them to self-assess and repeat those attempts that did not reach the standard they set for themselves.

If you want to develop respect then be a coach who recognises and rewards those who try hard and not those who are just gifted.

Greg – brilliant as usual.