Video Game Designers can Teach Coaches a Thing or Two

Picture two teenagers.  One an aspiring elite volleyball player and the other a hard core video game player. Both spend a significant amount of time year round plying their trades.  The volleyball player we praise for his commitment and focus.  The video game player?  Well, we call him an addict and wish he didn’t waste so much of his time.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Why do so many kids show the tenacity of Olympic athletes when it comes to playing video games but are mere recreational participants in youth sport?  How is that even possible to be so motivated and engaged for one but not the other?

Kids aren’t stupid.  Maybe we see video games as a potential waste of time but they obviously enjoy them.  And, if the conditions are right, it’s obvious that kids have the ability to commit hours and hours of practice towards a single field.  Video game designers are stupid either.  The really good ones design games that the world wants to play.

I was watching a video clip the other day about 21st century education.  The person speaking was talking about the power of video games.  He referred to the game designers.  He said that the most important person in the life of the game designer is the game player.  The game player tells the designer how good the game is by how much play the game gets.  The game designer searches for that right combination of factors to keep the player engaged.

As a coach, I know I’ve lamented about the amount of time kids play video games and wished they put that sort of time into sport.  But maybe I missed the obvious.  Maybe the reason they were playing video games more than they were training or competing in sports was that the video games were satisfying their needs for fun, challenge and learning.

Isn’t that what we as coaches are trying to do?

Maybe, as a designer of sorts myself (designer of practices), I needed reminding that the most important people to a coach are the kids involved in your program.  Maybe we have been designing games and practices that we liked and that we thought would be good for the kids.  Maybe the problem is they just didn’t like what we designed.

Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the folks that design really good video games.

A video game is just a series of problems that the player needs to solve.  If they get solved, the player wins the game.  To finish a game means that player has learned.  The player wouldn’t have finished it otherwise.  And that player is willing to fail over and over and over again until the game can be finished.   Is that really any different than the learning environment that we want to establish for the kids we coach?

I think it ‘s worth contemplating.  Video game designers have a lot of good things they can teach us youth sport coaches.  I won’t hold you in suspense.  There are a few posts below that cover in more detail the things that good video game designers do.

Next post Saturday, July 26th.


If you enjoyed this post then you may also enjoy reading:

Add Game Designer to your Coaching Resume, Part One

Add Game Designer to your Coaching Resume, Part Two

Digital Natives Conquer the Games Frontier


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An Evidence-Based Approach to Changing Coach Development

These blog posts are often a mixture of facts and personal opinions.  While I will quote and use other sources in my writings, I don’t spend a great deal of time specifically referencing those sources to prove their existence or that what I’m saying is believed to be true by more than just myself.  Throughout most of this blog, I ask that you trust me in that I’m not making this stuff up – it all comes from the inspiration of everything else that I read and study.

Today though, I’ll bring out the references.  Today I want to make sure that I can say, “See, I’m not making this stuff up – this is not just my opinion.”  The premise today is simple.  The way we develop youth sports coaches has to change and the more than a decade of journaled research that’s out there on coach education and development would certainly confirm this.

This all began for me a couple of months back when I ran into this document from Sports Coach UK – a study completed on 417 youth sports coaches over a four year period.  Yes, the very same coaches were tracked and interviewed over a four year period.  The information that this study conveyed resonated with me.  For example, the table below shows the ranking of the various forms of learning sources used by coaches in the fourth year of the study compared with their change in value from the first year of the study.


Coach Tracking Survey Ranking of Learning Sources Year 4 vs Year 1

It’s amazing to see the significant drop in importance of formal education methods (e.g., courses, clinics, conferences) from year one to year four.  The more experienced the coach, it would appear, the more is the preference for informal, unmediated forms of education – like reading coaching books and magazines or observing other coaches in action.

It really is a fantastic piece of information.  The only problem?  It’s a British study and I live in Canada.  Could the same things that were being said in there about preferred methods of learning for coaches be the same here in Canada, and to a larger extent, North America?  As a coach educator with over twenty years experience in training soccer coaches, I was certain the answer was yes.

However, I had to find out for sure so I went about looking for a similar document through the Coaching Association of Canada.  I found nothing there so had to dig deeper and went into the world of academia to find some more answers.  While a great deal of the international coach education research repertoire can be attributed to Canadian universities (hurray for us!), I could not find any evidence of a Canuck version of the same scope and merit as the Coach Tracking Study.

The studies that I have found so far, when put together, paint a collective and resolute international perspective when it comes to mass coach certification courses.

We need to move away from accepting uniformed accreditation courses that spit coaches out in batches and reward them for the amount of time they spend in the course, not for how well they can actually coach as the sin qua non of coach preparation.

Here’s a link to a page I now have on this site that lists all the research articles that I have read so far that provide support for what has been said here.  When you start to look at those articles, you see that some of the other research that gets quoted in these articles  goes back to 2001 and even into the mid 90′s.  Alas, the academic world has been telling the rest of us that this is the way it is for a while now.

So what are we waiting for?  It’s time to change things up.

Next post Sunday, July 20th.


If you liked this post, you may also enjoy reading:

We’ve Only Recognized the Tip of the Iceberg in Coach Development

Bringing Disruption to Coach Development

To Increase Learning you must Stop Watching the Time

The Development Disparity: When do Coaches get to Practice


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Be Wrong as Fast as you Can

Toy Story.  Finding Nemo.  A Bug’s Life.  Ratatouille.  Cars.  Wall-E.  The Incredibles.  Up.  Recognize the names?  They’re all movies created by Pixar.  Pretty good ones too.  The creative process in place that allows Pixar to come up with so many consecutive hits is key.  Much of it isn’t of use to a youth sports coach but there is one piece that is of the utmost importance.

In the coaching environments I’ve been in over the years, I’ve noticed trends that have been motivated by fear of failure.  I’ve heard comments from adults to kids telling them of all the things they shouldn’t do because if they do them and they do them wrong then that would be a mistake and making mistakes is bad.  Only do the things you know for sure will work.

In a leadership article posted by Fast Company, Pixar’s President Ed Catmull, talks about how their team does not try to avoid failure.  In fact they try to be wrong.  They just want to be wrong as quick as possible so that they can get to the better place that making mistakes can get them.

In fact, Pixar just assumes that their movies will suck until they don’t suck.  Interesting (and liberating might I add) point of view.  I think about coaching with that exact phrase and I know the response I’d get from parents would be less than warm.  “Yes Mrs. Smith, your child will suck until he doesn’t suck but that’s a good thing.”  How you say it can be modified.  Most important is what we say to parents about the role of failure in success.  We really have so much to do in convincing the average person that failure should be embraced.  And yet companies like Pixar do it willfully with great success.

So the image you get of the Pixar creative team is a far cry from a bunch of Ivy League school grads effectively nailing every movie script on the first try without ever making any errors.  It’s hard work, and as the Fast Company post says, the possession of a healthy type of perfectionism.  The kind of perfectionism driven by the pursuit of excellence and not the fear of failure.  We need to show the everyday mom and dad that, as Seth Godin says, it takes years to become an over night success.

As the Pixar article states:

“What we see is not effortless genius. Through tireless iteration, toil, and (often) sleepless nights, the films start to come together.”

So if this mindset is good enough for Pixar then why can’t it be good enough for kids learning to play sports?

Next post Saturday, July 19th.

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Great Explainers: A Timeless Trait for Coaches

Two hundred or so years ago, Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection.  You’re probably familiar with it I’m sure.  He said in order for a species to survive, it must produce variations in its traits throughout the generations.  If no adaptation takes place, the species will die off.

Coaches are susceptible to something akin to natural selection.

Coaching in youth sports is changing in the 21st century.  As coaches, we need to be ready to adapt and adjust our coaching traits.  Some of those traits we’ve hung on too may have come from the coaches that coached us when we were playing.  Reflection on and adaption of our coaching traits keeps us relevant and preserves our ability to continue coaching into the future.

While some coaching traits get replaced altogether and others evolve with time, there’s one trait that I believe is timeless.  That is the ability of a coach to be a great explainer.  Being a great explainer means doing two things – adding context and engaging your learners.

When working with kids, we’ve already got our jobs cut out for us as the ability to think abstractly develops slowly into the teenage years.  That means complex topics like tactics and strategy, for example, can go over their heads.  Even trying to understand how the drill you have them doing at practice relates to the game may leave them with a fuzzy screen full of static in their mind’s eye.

A great explainer has an ability to take the abstract and makes it concrete.  Great explainers help children clear up the fuzzy picture in their mind’s eye.

Engagement.  In order for that static to clear up inside the mind’s eye of a child, he or she has to want to clear up the picture. That kid has to show an interest in learning.  Hopefully the curiosity is innate as most young children have this characteristic in spades.  Unfortunately, it gets sucked out of most kids as they get older.  For that reason you may need to model curiosity in order to help the kids find it again (depending of course on how old the kids are that you coach).

It starts with your energy and attitude towards the topic you want them to learn.  You may have taught the topic you a re working on a thousand times before but you have to teach it with all the enthusiasm and amazement as if you too are just understanding it for the first time.  When the kids see how passionate you are about the topic, it will be contagious.  Seriously, if you don’t seem excited about the topic, why should they?

Second, you’ll want to play the curiosity game.  If the kids you coach require some curiosity cajoling then build the level of suspense and inquisition within the kids towards learning the new topic is helpful.  How?  Let’s say you want to teach your basketball team zone defending.  A week or two weeks before you start teaching them that topic, you begin telling them at the end of each session, “Get ready kids, in a week’s time (two weeks time) you’ll be in the zone” and leave it at that.  When you finally start the training on zone defending, their interest will have been piqued.  They’ll want to know the secret.  They’ll want to solve the mystery.  They’ll be ready to hear what you have to say.  They’ll be engaged.  For a while.  Now, keeping them engaged.  That’s the next challenge.  The way a great explainer does that is by being a pro at adding context.

Adding context.  Adding context is what clears up the static and turns it into a clear picture that the kids can see within their mind’s eye.  Adding context takes the complex topic that the kids can’t relate to, shows them something that they do know and relates the advanced topic to the thing they already know.  For example, analogies are excellent ways to create meaning by turning the obscure into the known.  Stories too, that show how you or someone else has been able to benefit from the topic you’re trying to get them to learn.  For example, a personal story about how letting an opponent get into your head during a game can have all around negative consequences on you and your performance.

Finally, the continued use of the complex topic in plenty of different situations by the kids is vital.  It’s like trying to peg down a canopy tent on a very windy day.  Just tethering one leg – understanding the topic in particular situation only – is not enough.  You want the kids to be able to transfer that complex idea to all the potential scenarios it could be used in.  That shows that they’ve unravelled its complexity and now see how it relates to all aspects within the game or competition.  That’s what adding context is all about.  It’s about making something that is meaningless at the time to the kids meaningful.

Don’t become a statistic of coaching evolution.  Understand the importance of being a great explainer and strengthen your ability to both engage and add context.

Next post Sunday, July 13th.

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We’ve only Recognized the Tip of the Iceberg in Coach Development

In the April-May 2013 edition of the Soccer Journal, the Manager of Coach Development for Triathlon Australia, Wayne Goldsmith, wrote about the current global state of coach education.  You can see the article here on Wayne’s website.

In n his observations of coach education around the world, the former Australian Rugby Union high performance sport and coaching manager notes that the “Big Four” c’s are in decline.  There are fewer people commencing courses.  For those who begin a course, there is a lower percentage who are completing it.  Those who continue to coach do not renew their credentials.  Finally, the number of already certified coaches climbing the accreditation ladder is also very low.

His conclusion?  The way we’re developing coaches isn’t working.

I couldn’t agree more.

Here in soccer in Canada, we need to provide coaches with additional development if they want to to be able to successfully make the jump from the community coaching stream to the elite coaching stream.  That gap for most coaches is too big to traverse.  The elite coaching system is far more about what a coach can actually do whereas the community coach system is more about giving the coach information to know.  It’s that gap between what a coach knows and what a coach can do that nullifies the ambitions of most community level soccer coaches in Canada once they see what the licensing system of the elite coach development pathway requires them to be able to do.

Research into coach preferences shows that new and novice coaches prefer the formal method (i.e., coach accreditation courses) whereas more experienced coaches that have already attained some certification prefer informal learning methods, such as reading and viewing information that they find and talking with or observing other coaches.

When we ask coaches to take an accreditation course, we are just scratching the surface of coach development.

The Tip of the Iceberg in Coach Development

Coaching is a trade and like any trade the way you get better at it is by doing it and observing others do it and talking with others that do it.  And those could be individuals that are better than the coach already or it could be individuals that are at the same place in their progression as that coach is right now.  There is plenty of value in learning from both.

Those running organized youth sport have been fooled by what they see on the surface.  They are placated in knowing that coaches have completed a course and so they move on with other duties of running their organization.  They don’t see what is really below the surface.  They don’t understand how much work still remains to be done.  So much of a coach’s development – that which happens after the certification – is on going.  So much of a coach’s development – that which really determines whether or not the coach can actually coach – happens on the field and not in the classroom.

Youth sport organizations must be prepared to continue the coach development process once the certified coaches come back from their education component.  This training of coaches happens on field and in real time, while the coaches are coaching.  They should receive mentoring.  They should be able to discuss topics of relevance with their peers or observe their peers coaching in these situations.  They should continue to either upgrade their certification, take other coach clinics, attend conferences or take courses that contribute continuously to their evolution as a coach.  And they should be engaged in the process of thoughtful reflection about what they’ve seen and what they’ve done in service of improving their coaching ability.

Most likely, there are large numbers of uncertified coaches out there that are coaching youth sports.  We don’t need more uniform accreditation courses for them to take.  We need to provide them information on demand (i.e., when they want it and need it most) and that is context-specific (i.e., that applies directly to that coach’s everyday coaching environment).

The future of coach development is collaborative, online and practical.  We should be starting that future today.

Next post Saturday, July 12th.


If you liked this post you might also enjoy reading these other posts on coach development:

The Development Disparity: When do Coaches get to Practice?

Why do we no Educate Coaches on how they Learn?

Bringing Disruption to Coach Development

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Wayne Gretzky vs John Terry

Last Saturday, I wrote about the need for youth sport coaches to work towards developing athletic intellect along with athleticism.  Performers who are physically advanced and/or technically proficient are only part of the story.  To continue along with that theme today, I want to look at a couple of quotes from professional athletes that contribute nicely to this theme.

First off, a little something from English soccer player John Terry.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 9.59.02 PM


I remember watching John Terry get kicked in the jaw and knocked out doing exactly what he says in this quote.  A strong leadership presence on the field, he’s been the archetypal English central defender for all of his career.


And then former hockey player Wayne Gretzky gives us something else to think about.

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 10.04.18 PM


I loved the Edmonton Oilers.  Interestingly enough it was not because of Wayne Gretzky but their main goaltender at the time, Grant Fuhr.  Gretzky was truly amazing though.  He was the only player I can remember at that time who would actually skate back towards his own end with the puck when he couldn’t go forward.

So, does your sport need more John Terry-types or more Wayne Gretzky-types?  Or does your sport need a combination of both?  Or maybe you need someone else altogether.

When I think about youth soccer in Canada, I think about another Gretzky quote – I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.  Most youth soccer players in Canada that I have witnessed go to the ball.  The end result is that you have a crowd around the ball.  The way coaches have typically chosen to solve the problem of crowding is to find and/or develop athletes.  If you’re the biggest and strongest one in the crowd, you’ll come out with the ball.  If your the fastest one in the crowd, you’ll come out with the ball.

Maybe it’s similar in other team sports too.  Pure athleticism is coveted and then exploited.

I wonder what would happen if more youth soccer players were trained to think about where to go as opposed to being only trained to fight the physical battles?  Gretzky said it himself, he was not a physical player.  The rest of the League knew this to be true as well so he often needed protection (e.g., Dave Semenko, Marty McSorley).  John Terry doesn’t need any protection when he plays.  John Terry has been an important and impactful player in the English Premier League but it was for completely different reasons than Wayne Gretzky’s influence on the National Hockey League.

Not all team sports can afford the luxury of players who lack exceptional physical qualities.  Soccer is great at rewarding the human condition – it accepts plenty of shapes and sizes.  Great Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff said it best when he talked about people’s misperception of his physical speed.  He said it was his insight into the game (Gretzky-style) that led him to start running sooner and therefore appear faster than those around him.  He appeared to be more athletic than he was.

Maybe the solution for a team sport coach is to find the right combination of Gretzkys and Terrys and forget about training to create a hybrid.  The blue collar players do the grunt work and the white collar players do the creative and insightful stuff.  Get the right balance of those two and you’re off to the races.  And if you account for the genetic factors involved in human potential, it is probably still impossible in this day and age to take a non-athletic type and turn him/her into a sporting gladiator (but who knows what advancements could be coming in the future).  The less athletic will continue to have to find their strengths in other ways.

That being acknowledged, I would just like to see more of the athletic specimens that show up in team sports develop to a higher degree their technical abilities and, more importantly, game sense and awareness to compliment their physical prowess.  I’m just so tired of seeing them solve (and be encouraged to solve by their coaches) every problem with their size, strength or speed.  I would also like to see coaches stop cutting players because they aren’t the sport adonis types.  Instead, work to help them realize that they’ll have to learn to solve the problems of the game differently than their bigger and stronger teammates.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask of youth sport coaches looking to develop kids for the long-term.

Wayne Gretzky knew he had to adapt in order to stay competitive.  He had no choice.  Wouldn’t it be nice if one day the young John Terry’s of the world saw the importance of adaptation as well?

Next post Sunday, July 6th.

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Who would you Help?

A child asking you to throw back a ball.  A woman asking you if you know the time.  A man asking you to hold the elevator.

Would you help them all?

What about an individual who comes up to your car in a parking lot while you’re sitting there updating your calendar and asks you if you have any spare change?

Would you help that person?

What if someone phones, emails or tweets you asking for help?

Would you help?  Do you help?

Do you have to know the person to want to help them?  Of course not.  Who hasn’t helped that child with the ball, woman with the time or man with the elevator?  Maybe then it is an issue of how willing you are to help someone that you don’t know.  If you are like me, than you’ve been asked plenty of times by plenty of people for spare change.  Sometimes I’ve helped, sometimes I haven’t.  And when I didn’t help I always looked those individuals straight in the eyes and told them that I could not or would not be able to help them today.

Helping a complete stranger in that situation may be a result of the stranger’s level of boldness.  Have you been more willing to help a change seeker that sat propped up against the base of skyscraper and simply held up an old coffee cup with change in it versus the individual I mentioned above who, in a way, directly confronts you?

We’re all on the help food chain.  We all have people asking us for help and we all have people that we can ask for help.  Sometimes, I’m sure, we don’t ask for help.  We talk ourselves out of the act.  In my case, I have an intense desire to learn, improve and contribute to the development of organized youth sport.  It is beyond a passion.  And for that reason, I don’t mind asking total strangers for help – people who I can see have the ability to make a difference.  I don’t mind asking because I know I can’t do it all on my own.  I don’t have all the answers.  Yet I want to do everything I can to grow and improve.  For that reason, I don’t mind being bold in addressing high profile strangers for their assistance.

There are some really great people out there.  People like John Kessel, Paul Varian, Trevor Ragan, Joe Baker, Seth Godin and the guys behind Coaching Badges and Planit Coach (on Twitter).  These are people who at the time, when I asked them for help, either knew me very little or didn’t know me at all.  And yet they were still prompt in their responses and kind with their time.

They’ve been inspiring and make me want to help others that look to me for advice, feedback or resources.  After all, what’s the worst that can happen when you ask for help?  The person says no, right?  Well, hearing no isn’t the worst thing for me.  Hearing nothing at all from the person you ask for help is.  However, I must admit that I’ve been as inspired by those that have not helped or even responded to my queries.  It’s generated in me the I-know-how-this-feels-so-I’m-not-going-to-do-it-to-someone-else kind of response.

So to those of you who are fickle with your assistance, please consider at least extending the requesting individual the courtesy and classiness of a response that says you can’t help or won’t help.  After all, on the end of the phone, email or Tweet is a human being just like you.

Every time you ignore, that makes an impression.  And every time you help – even to say you can’t help - that makes an impression too.

Next post Saturday, July 5th.

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My Bully can Beat up your Nerd

Jocks, preppies, punks, geeks, hicks, band geeks, smart kids.  These were some of the well known group classifications when I was in high school.  Jocks and preppies were the popular kids.  Band geeks and smart kids were most often at the other end of the popularity spectrum.

I was labelled a band geek even though I played varsity soccer for all of high school and was the team’s captain in grade twelve.  Just the fact that I could be spotted carrying that ugly black instrument case around was enough to make sure there was no ambiguity amongst my peers in defining who I was.  I wonder what would have happened if I’d quit band, like some of my friends did?

Is this an inevitable part of growing up or can we do more to avoid such marginalization?  Some of it is undoubtedly a rite of teenage passage.  But as a society do we over worship athleticism at the expense of intellectualism?

While I’m all for organized youth sport being touted as a builder of character, I’m not certain the way that’s happening now is the best way.  

For those individuals that play a lot of sports growing up, their identity is definitely that of athlete or jock.  And for those who don’t play a lot of sports, their identity is definitely that of geek or smart kid.  So do parents feel more proud to have a little Messi than a little Einstein?  Probably not.  But if they do have the little Messi will they see intellectual capabilities as less important?  I think some do.  Enough so that the social classification system that is such a mainstay of high schools has to be there for more reasons than “just the phase that they’re going through.”

Have you noticed that post-apocolyptic tv shows and movies seem very popular right now.  The premise is that usually the world as we know it is altered dramatically because of either some environmental incident, technological collapse or, worst of all, zombie invasion.  And on the screen, as plain as day, is the sad dichotomy that gets displayed.  Apparently the writers of these shows and movies seems to believe that in the new world, you will either be big and strong and capable of killing and hunting and protecting or you will be smart and frail and in need of protection because inside your head are the answers to the environmental or the technological crash or the zombie invasion.  God help you if you are neither smart nor strong; you’re zombie food.

Seriously?  Darwinism at its best.

DSCF6805 (768x1024)I have a two-old-son.  I know that my main job is to love him unconditionally.  After that, I’m not certain what my job is.  Maybe it is to get him to a point where he can look after himself (and not start a world-wide natural disaster, technology crash or zombie apocalypse).  But if one of those (first two) things were to actually happen, then what do I need to do now to help him?  Or, if I tone down the doomsday for a moment, I still want to ensure that he’s prepared for a future that is going to be very hard to predict – an adulthood that will be very different from mine.

To do that, I need to help him become strong in body and in mind.  I need to show him that it’s cool to be both intellectual and athletic – and one is not mutually exclusive of the other.  More importantly, I need to help bring his friends and our community into that conversation as well.

As a youth sports coach (yes, finally getting to the point here) I can do just that.  I can help any child I coach develop their athletic intellect and not just their athleticism.  I know with soccer in Canada, we still want the physical athletes and we have coaches and programs that prize themselves on their ability to either get or develop bigger, stronger, faster.

So what if at nine years old a kid is not bigger, stronger or faster?  That kid will be seen as weak – zombie food.  That kid will be corralled together with others that have been labelled the same.  And we know that once that label is given, it will be difficult to shed it.  For sure in soccer, and I’m sure in team sports in general as well, we need to start developing players who are capable of not only working stronger or faster but also smarter.

As a youth sports coach, I need to help teach the kids I coach how to think and how they learn.  I need to do that more than I need to teach them what to learn or what to think.  That way as adults they’ll be able to face complex future challenges that today I can’t possibly prepare them for.  I need to take an holistic approach to coaching – training their minds as well as their bodies.  Anything less than that is no longer good enough.

I concede that taking this mindset to organized youth sport coaching may not change the high school social scene.  I believe it will at least help  to start a generation that we can all feel safe knowing will either help the world or, if worse comes to worse, save it.

Next post Sunday, June 29th.

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Are we Coaching Kids to be Nothing more than Memorizers?

“Given the overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating the superiority of whole versus part training it is puzzling that part progression methodologies remain such a popular instructional paradigm.” – Dr. Steven Bain & Dr. Carl McGown

When I think back to my days spent in school, I was a decent student.  I certainly wanted to be a good student.  I was motivated by the prestige accrued by my peers who already had proven themselves smart.  I did well in some subjects (biology, history, social studies and parts of English).  I did poorly in others (math, chemistry, physics and parts of English).

To understand why I was both good and bad at English is to understand how education and, subsequently, learning was for me.  The parts of English that involved memorization – like definitions – I was good at and the parts that involved problem solving skills – like grammar – I was not.

The sad thing is, even with good grades in the memorization subjects, I never really learned the material.  If I had a test, I’d usually do the majority of my studying the morning of the test.  I’d get up really early and I had a system for memorizing lots of information quickly.  I could then spit it all back out on the test or exam but also promptly forget everything I’d memorized  before the day was over.  Still, that method got me 85-95% averages consistently in those subjects.

I had managed to get the information committed to my short-term or working memory but not to long-term memory where it would be at my beckon call not only for days after the test but for years to come.  Science and math often involved little memorization and so I struggled to apply my technique to those subjects.  When I did manage to get a problem right, say in math, I’d tell myself not to try and think to hard about how I did it for fear of confusing myself (don’t try to understand it, just do it!).

Oh boy, what a dummy.

More sad than this experience is that kids today are still being educated in ways that rewards memorization more so than problem solving.  Spitting out facts and knowledge for a test is prized more than the ability to think critically (even though that’s a prime ability we say we want kids to develop).

Do we do the same thing to kids in sports?  Do we coach them to be memorizers?  I think we do.

Look at how we train kids when they come to practice.  We do drills.  We take the game or competition and we strip away all its layers of complexity in order to get at the one small piece that we have deemed in need of improvement.  And then we have the kids repeat that action or task over and over and over again in the exact same way.  By the end of the practice, we see improvement.  All of that time spent doing the same thing in the same way over and over and over again has produced what appears to be a blip on the learning screen.

The problem?  The kids come back a few days later to train again or to compete and the task is not done as successfully as it was previously or there is a complete absence of the activity you had so expertly helped them develop only a short time ago.

Learning that is to be considered meaningful or that sticks comes from truly understanding the task or activity and how it relates to the overall game or competition.  While repetition is needed to help make things habitual and therefore automatic, an understanding of when to do that action or, more importantly, why to do that action cannot be improved by it.

Whole (i.e., game-like) versus part training (i.e., drill-like).  That’s what the quote at the start of the blog refers to.  Do you train using a more game-based or drill-based environment?  If you do train in a more drill-like environment, are you justifying it to yourself now by saying that the kids need to practice an individual action in isolation because that is the only way they’ll learn it?  Or it just makes sense to do it this way – move from simple to complex.

Unfortunately, we’ve been wrong to take this approach and as the quote at the beginning of the blog tries to encapsulate, game-based training situations are far superior to drill-based methods.  Science has known this for quite a long time now (more than two decades).  Strange why we still stick to something that is inefficient and less effective, isn’t it?

As I said, the repetitious environment of drills can be valuable to creating (good) habits though.  We just have to construct those drills in a way that takes into account what the science of motor learning tells us about skills acquisition and not based on what we’ve always done or what seems to make the most sense.

And what science tells us is that we have to get away from block-style practice and move more towards random-style practice.

Blocked practice is doing the exact same thing in the exact same way over and over again.  Like memorization in preparation for a test, it only makes you better for the day and only makes you better at that particular drill, not at the overall game or competition.  This is a point well made in a blog post by Trevor Ragan.

The variance so characteristic of the game or competition, is minimized or non-existent in blocked practice.  And it is that lack of variance, what motor learning experts call contextual interference, that produces the sugar rush-like surge in performance improvement that we see (which is only destined to disappear not long after it first appears).

So the game-based training environment has lots of variance whereas the drill-based training environment has the same isolated action happening in the exact same way over and over again.  If you can’t or aren’t willing yet to shift away from drills to games, then at least ensure that the drills you do don’t have the kids performing the action in the exact same way every time.  Each repetition needs to stress the particular action but the exact way the action is carried out needs to be randomized.

In soccer for example, you may be working with your players to improve their ability to receive the ball on the ground when it is passed to them.  So you pass it to them the exact same way each time until they show you that they can receive it properly.  Then, once they’ve got it, you change the way you serve them the ball.  Random practice says that right from the get go you should vary the service each time.

Yes, it will be messy and ugly during that practice and they won’t show the same improvement that they would if the drill was organized in a more block-like way.  However, the science tells us that in the long-term they will better retain the correct ability to perform that action.

So my ask of you is that when you coach you make sure that the training you put them through is not turning them into memorizers – capable of performing the action correctly only for the present moment and for a short time – but instead into long-term understanders.

This is just one more reason to remember that coaching kids is about long-term development and not short-term wins.

Next post Saturday, June 28th.

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What Lego’s (De)Evolution Can Tell us about Coaching in the 21st Century

“We’re entering a revolution of ideas while producing a generation that wants instruction instead.” – Seth Godin

I’ve currently been reading a manifesto on education by Seth Godin called Stop Stealing Dreams: What is School for?  I love everything that Seth Godin produces.  He’s the reason I started this blog.  His thinking has regularly influenced my writing herein.  So it reasons to stand that once more I’ve been inspired to write a post based on the thoughts of Seth Godin.

It all begins with Lego.  Yes, Lego, those construction toys that have been a popular with children (me included) for over sixty years.  If you are an alien who has just arrived on planet earth and have no idea what Lego is, Wikipedia says the following:

Lego bricks can be assembled and connected in many ways, to construct such objects as vehicles, buildings, and even working robots. Anything constructed can then be taken apart again, and the pieces used to make other objects.

Assembled and connected in many ways.  There in lies the crux of this post.  Growing up, I had Lego in that form and I also had Lego sets.  A Lego set ended up being a certain thing.  Like a plane or a house.  Something like in the picture here.

Lego 1974

There were instructions that showed you how to set it up according to the picture on the front of the box.  And there were parts – like doors and windows – that really told you automatically what it was they were supposed to be there for.  But beyond that, there was still some flexibility in how you used the pieces from that set.  You could deviate from said plan.  You could create the packaged product or you could iterate.  Even when it was completed in the way the instructions suggested, you often still needed to use your imagination to see the piece for what it was supposed to be (like our blocky looking car in the picture).

Forty years or so on and this is what Lego looks like today.

Lego 2014

More and more, sets have become the norm.  Worse, these sets have pieces that can only be used for one thing and put together in one way.  The idea of blocks that could be assembled and connected in many ways has disappeared.  There is now only one right answer.  And there is certainly no longer a need for imagination.

Today’s Lego is both an example of and a metaphor for learning methods and learning opportunities that do not truly serve the needs of kids in the 21st century.  Why?  Technology in today’s world alone is leading to progress that is exponential in nature.  Take a look at this as a reminder of what I’m talking about.

It’s absolutely staggering.  The end result is that those of us teaching and coaching today are helping to prepare youth for a future that is very hard to know and to predict.  How do you make learning meaningful?  What do kids today really need to know to be the best prepared adults possible?

A one-right-answer approach to problem solving is definitely not the solution.  Creativity and innovation are.  As a coach, you say this is all above and beyond what you need to do.  You’re job is simply to teach the kids you coach how to better play your sport.  Yeah well, here’s the thing.

It’s not the content that’s important, it’s a person’s ability to think and to learn and to understand how learning happens.

When you have those base skills, those 21st century skills, then content of any kind (even if it is here today and gone tomorrow) is far more easily mastered.  Coaching that directs and does not guide kids is like today’s Lego – there is only one right answer and one right way to do it.

Sure, the efficiency and simplicity of a one-right-answer approach means that you can get a kid to success sooner.  The end result is that he or she can in victory enjoy the learning achieved.  I see this as pseudo-coaching because it is only pseudo-learning that is happening.  You’ve helped them succeed for right now and at this very moment.  What happens when tomorrow, things change drastically and what was yesterday is no longer today?

Okay, you may then say that kids need to be successful in order to have the motivation to continue to pursue bigger and scarier challenges.  Therefore you are going to set up an environment that caters to success.  I don’t disagree with that at all.   What they need though as much or more than that success is to learn how to handle failure.  They need to see failure as one iteration that didn’t solve that particular problem and then come up with another iteration, learning from the mistakes they’ve made along the way.

As my title for this blog suggests, I’m not sure if Lego has evolved or de-evolved.  They’ve changed over time to meet the requirements of their customers and to stay in business.  And their customers seem to want success through predictability because that is how today’s youth are still being taught in schools and coached in youth sports.

Maybe this was a good enough approach for the 20th century but it’s not the right way to go if the overall goal is to help create flexible learners able to adapt to exponential innovation.

Next post Sunday, June 22nd.


Did you enjoy this?  Here are other blog posts inspired by Seth Godin’s work:

The Honour of Being a Heretic Coach

The End

Youth Sport Coaches as Artists

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