The Heretic Coach Changing Course (Slightly!)

I will soon be back in the coaching trenches again.  I’ve been off coaching for over a year.  It probably doesn’t sound like that long a time but it’s the longest period I’ve gone without coaching since I started almost thirty years ago.  It has felt like a very long time away.

I’m going to start using this space like a journal.  It will be a chance for me to treat my writing here as a reflective exercise to aid my coaching and, for what it’s worth, provide you youth sport voyeurs with some cheap entertainment if you are so inclined.  I’ll still write about disrupting the youth sports world when the need arises.

I think this new addition will allow me to talk about both disruption and doing what is developmentally appropriate but from a very practical point of view.  The latter being the key concept  I wanted to target when I first started the blog back in 2010.  I have some definite unique strategies that I want to employ when I start up coaching again.  So I’ll share that content and its rationale in the first post of the new style as well as throughout the coaching year whenever it makes sense to do so.

It will be an opportunity to see in words the ideas I have for being a 21st century coach and my reflection on their implementation with the kids.  More importantly that shared reflection will then lead to iterations on those ideas.  That will then lead to changes in the old ideas or completely brand new ones thereby starting the cycle all over again with me sharing those ideas.

Create.  Plan.  Implement.  Reflect.  Repeat.

An even better descriptor of the process is this 5-step approach from the website Design Thinking for Educators (

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 6.14.03 AM

I hope that my direct and regular experiences and interactions with a group of youth soccer players, following on with this sort of design thinking approach, will provide for entertaining and informative reading.

Next post Saturday, September 20th.

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What Writing a Blog has in Common with the Hair Salon

What sensible person would ever choose to write?  Why do I write?  What purpose does it serve me?  What purpose does it serve others?  Does anyone out there really care?

I’m feeling quite philosophical lately about the Heretic Coach.  Most likely because of an article I read via Twitter not too long ago on the abundance of poor writing prevalent on the internet:

Well, the tweeter did say it may offend.  I wasn’t offended by it as much as I felt like it shone a very powerful light directly at me and into me. I found myself saying, “Is this guy talking about me?”  Not that he’s ever read my blog, I just meant am I one of those nonsensical writers he thinks is creating the noise that’s drowning out the writers that are worth reading.

Since the beginning, I’ve always wondered just how many people followed my blog.  A few months back I stumbled across Google Analytics here on my site. So now I have a very candid measurement of this blog’s reach.  Looking at the numbers is enough to make me think about quitting (or at least question why I bother).  I wrote this blog faithfully for two years and then took a little more than a full year off before starting again this past March.  I’d stopped because I questioned the value I was providing.  Seems I’ve reached another day of reckoning.  Here’s what I mean, an excerpt from that Twitter article:

“…the entire blogging world is now saturated. And it’s not because there’s an abundance of great content; much the opposite. There’s too much mediocre obviousness, and it’s taking away from the great writers who dedicate their time and effort into researching pieces that open our eyes, empower us, and inspire us.”

I couldn’t help but think to myself that good writing generates comments and bad writing generates comments but mediocre writing just disappears into the abyss that is the world wide web.

Except for the occasional popular post, my site numbers are pretty darn low. Those good days show up on my Google Analytics chart like a faint pulse in an otherwise lifeless entity. Those sporadic blips on the screen give me hope that if I keep going they’ll only continue to get stronger and stronger.

Why do I write? I write because I want to help people. I want lots and lots of people to read this blog and benefit in some positive way. That’s why I started up again this year.  But more importantly I write because I enjoy it.  That’s the purpose it truly serves for me.

And what if people don’t like it?

I look at a blog like I look at a head full of hair.  First off, everyone could have one if they wanted (well, present company not included).  Second, what you do with it is completely up to you.  Third, not everyone is going to like what you do with it.  And finally, who cares if not everyone likes what you’ve done with it?  The point is it’s yours and you can treat it however you like.

You can avoid writing altogether which I think is like shaving your head.  Why would anyone who has hair ever want to shave their heads, asks a guy who wishes he still had some.  In a similar vein I ask, why would anyone not want to write?  You can be phoney when you write which I think is like wearing a wig, a toupee or extensions.

Am I taking this analogy too far?  Okay, one more.  The most important one for the point I’m trying to make.

A final (I promise) commonality between blogging and a head full of flowing locks is that you can change it when you feel like it.  It can be styled to suit who you currently are or who you’d like to try to be.

And that’s what I’ll be doing here – changing my style.  

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post (Sunday, August 31st) in order to get more details on the change.

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The Little Big League

I don’t get it.  Well, I get these two big news events that have come out of this summer’s Little League World Series.  Chances are, you’ve seem them too.  It would have been hard to escape them.

Mo’ne Davis – Pitcher Extraordinaire

It’s a great story.  She’s not just played baseball either.  She plays basketball too and wants to play in the WNBA one day.

Dave Belisle – Mr. Positive Coach

It was a lovely speech he gave to his team.  Definitely an example of the things you’d want to hear coaches saying to players after they lost a tough game.

On Twitter – where I discovered both of these stories – there are some really big name accounts (people with a thousand or more followers who’s whole modus operandi would revolve around positive youth sport and appropriate long-term development) featuring these two stories as amazing examples of positive youth sport and appropriate long-term development.

And that’s what I just don’t get.  What I can’t get out of my mind – what ruins these nice stories for me – is that they come out of the Little League World Series.  Am I the only one that looks at this event and sees anti-LTAD written all over it?  How can these big Twitter names that I religiously follow for their valuable content on positive youth sport development not acknowledge that?

I guess it’s just me.

So I tried to find info that would put my unsettled mind to rest and show me that the Little League World Series is a developmentally appropriate event.

I looked for some sort of mission-vision-values statement.  I wanted to know what the overall purpose of the Little League World Series was.  I’d hoped to find something about how this event is set up entirely to provide healthy long-term development for 13-year-old baseball players.  I couldn’t find one.  I found a mission statement for Little League baseball but not for their World Series.  What I did find on one of the World Series’s affiliated websites (Little League, Big Legacy) was this:

“In 1947, Mr. Stotz and the first local Little League Board of Directors, decided to organize a tournament for all Little League programs (there were 17) and called it the National Little League Tournament, later to be known as the Little League Baseball® World Series.”

So a bunch of adults got together and figured it would be a good idea to imitate with kids what professional adult baseball players do.  Hmmm.  That’s not a great start.

Then I found this Fox Sports news report quoting the following:

“Mo’ne Davis’ mother compares her daughter to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant”

The reporter in the piece sides with Mo’ne’s mother saying that that’s how any mom who’s daughter has made the cover of Sports Illustrated should respond.  Yikes (to Mo’ne’s mom).  Double yikes (to the reporter).

Oh right, and there’s the fact that Mo’ne Davis Mo'ne Davis on the Cover of SImade the cover of Sports Illustrated. There’s still a SI Kids, right?  Isn’t that the cover she should be on?  I wonder how many Mo’ne Davis’ are out there that we don’t know about?  Should we know about them?  Does the Little League World Series deserve credit for making us aware of her? Is that what makes this event valuable? What happens to this girl when her time under the spotlight ends (and by all accounts it has ended with the elimination of her team from the tournament)?  Will anyone be saying her name in one month’s time let alone one year’s time?

LLWS Press ConferenceAnd the Little League World Series also seems to have pro-style press conferences complete with Gatorade (boy’s, you’d better make sure next time you get the labels facing TOWARDS the cameras.  Have your agents not taught you anything?).  According to my crack investigative team, less than 1% of players who played in the LLWS go on to play pro baseball (or pro sport in general).  67 years of the event, 16 teams per year, about 12 players per team and out of that about 60 have gone on as pro ball players and an undetermined amount have gone on to play in other pro sports – mainly hockey.

However, as one journalist writes:

“This year’s 2014 Little League World Series could, according to one hopeful actor’s inspiring dream, potentially develop into a real life American story; the kind that inspires hope and encourages men and women to dream.”

The reference was to African-American players in the tournament and how they could positively impact other African-Americans around the USA.  And I love an inspiring story for its power to make us dream as much as the next guy (and reduced pitch counts and rest days for pitchers and anything else that might be done to make the LLWS a player-centred sporting experience and not an adult-driven one).

Yet I can’t help but ask what has happened to imagination?  Have you ever seen the documentary called Two Ball Games?  It was created by the University of Cornell in 1976 and compares structured little league to unstructured sandlot baseball.  Almost 40 years later there is an eerie familiarity with the things that go on today in an organized environment versus a free play environment.  Here is the documentary uploaded by Yolanda Medina onto Youtube:

My favourite moment comes at 9:20.  Kid power in action!  And the comment made by one of the kids at 16:33 trying to understand what the adults were arguing about is brilliant.  Everything is summed up very nicely through the scenes that transpire with the emotional reaction of one player in particular starting at the 20:00 mark.

I wonder if those kids playing the pick-up game of ball on that neighbourhood patch of grass ever had any trouble dreaming?  I don’t think so.  I certainly didn’t and that’s pretty close to my era.  They didn’t need then, nor do I think they need now, adults organizing pro-style sporting events in order to help fuel their imagination about “possibilities”.

The problem is, I really don’t think it’s about enabling the future.  I think events like the Little League World Series are the way adults see themselves helping kids to deal with the big and cruel real world that they’ll one day have to face.  You know, the one where they’ll never ever amount to anything as dreamy as a pro baseball player because that’s just not how life works.  If all kids dream of greatness but will really never have the opportunity to fulfill that greatness, then events like the Little League World Series give them a taste of that dream before they have to grow up and face the truths of adulthood.

It’s just another way for the organizers and parents involved to justify the fact that their trying to relive their own childhoods and unrequited dreams through the joystick control they have over kids like the ones in the Little League World Series.

I say this because of a coaching experience from a few years ago.  The event was a summer Olympics-style provincial games.  I was coaching the male and female soccer program (12-year-olds) representing one of the regions of the province in this event and an issue had come up around the uniforms.  They didn’t have as much cresting on them as they should have to identify who they were and where they were from, according to the parents.  And after all, as one parent did say, this probably was to be the biggest sporting event/experience that these kids would ever participate in so let’s make sure they remember it.

We increased the cresting and then went to the event that, according to the parents, could be the single biggest thing these 12-year-olds would ever do in their lives.

Next post Saturday, August 30th.

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Personality Traits for Youth Sport Coaches

In the last few months from within this blog, I’ve talked about the various characteristics – creativity and a growth mindset, for example – that establish what 21st century learners should be getting in their sports programs.  Well, if you don’t already do those sorts of things in your coaching then what type of a person do you need to be in order to change?  You need to show self-determination in your search for this content and to change to this modern approach.  You really need to be a self-directed coach who can do the following.

Comfortable being uncomfortable.  Even though you are a coach, you can give up control.  Your open to opinions whether they’re similar or not to your own.  You’re a perfectionist but only a moderate one.  You’ve got high stability, and low anxiety.  You’re optimistic.

 Drive a big band wagon (so there’s lots of room for people to jump on).  You can dream up a great vision and you have the communication skills to sell it.  You understand what the kids you coach want and what their parents want.  You’re empathic.

Design-based thinker.  You can define the right problem to solve.  You aren’t attached to always solving a problem in the exact same way.  You can create the environment conducive to incubating different ideas.  Even when you’ve created something good, you’re still willing to evolve your ideas into something better (or even something completely new).

The personal qualities you need to succeed as a modern youth sport coach really aren’t any different than those associated with good leadership.  Then again, what’s the difference between coaching and leading?

Next post Sunday, August 24th.

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Scared Stiff: What to do when the Kids you Coach Lack Confidence

It’s so ironic.  The coach who I owe the most to for teaching me to be a great soccer player was also the coach that did the most emotional damage.  How is it possible to both think so positively, and so negatively, about the same person?  His style was old school cursing and swearing.  Rage and threats.  Plenty of punishment when we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.  But none of us blinked an eye at the treatment we received.  We simply accepted it as is.

What’s worse, this person was coaching me when I first started coaching soccer.  So guess who I modelled?  And for a few years I got away with it (probably because the teams I coached won a lot, just like his teams).  However, times were changing and as they did I realized I needed to change with them or else disappear into the tar ponds.  Old habits die hard though.  I continue to reinvent myself as a coach day by day and season by season.  I’m happy with my progress.

Not too long ago, I was watching a webinar on the neuroscience of how our brains learn.  It was given by a neuroscientist turned teacher, Dr. Judy Willis.  I was fascinated at the discovery that our ability to act on the information we are receiving is driven by our emotional state. In a person who is scared or fearful, the information that comes in does not make it to the prefrontal cortex – the place where the real learning that humans are capable of happens.

Instead, in times of duress, it gets shunted into the lower parts of our brain.  The lizard brain, as author Seth Godin refers to it in his books, is all about invoking the fight or flight mechanism.  This is classic self-preservation response and, interestingly enough, is also activated when the learner is bored, not just scared, fearful or apprehensive.

Dr. Willis talks about the science behind this notion here in this video.  The first minute and thirty seconds is an introduction to how she left medicine and found teaching.  The next minute or so is where she gives you the science of what I just tried to explain (only better).

So based on science, the best learning environment is one that is positive, happy and probably even playful.  The old school coaching that many of us may have received growing up no longer has a place.  Is this a concern for you like it has been for me?  Maybe as a coach, you’ve never had to work at improving in this area.  Maybe you have always coached in a very positive manner.   Maybe the neuroscience of learning serves only to validate what you’ve always intuitively felt.

But what if some of the kids you coach arrive with behaviours that are the result of adults that weren’t so good at bringing their coaching practices into the 21st century?  Each of them, when they receive feedback of any kind and in anyway construe it to be negative.  They get scared and that activates their lizard brain.  Fight or flight takes hold which manifests itself in different ways within the youth sport arena:

  • Apathy towards training and competition
  • Not willing to try new difficult things
  • No desire to be curious or creative
  • Talks about how they aren’t capable of doing this, that or the other thing
  • Always looking for short cuts or an easy way

Who’d have thought that the adults involved, and not the kids themselves, may be the ones responsible for creating those behaviours?  More importantly, how do you go about helping those kids to change so that they can maximize their potential through appropriate learning environments?  You’re already positive approach in these situations may not be enough to bring the most impacted back around.  What to do.

A great idea comes from an article written by Terry Heick on children in school lacking confidence.  The proposed solution is helping the affected child reflect and develop knowledge of self.  When faced with a less than optimal environment, they have to learn to recognize their triggers and what behaviours that they then implement when those triggers are activated.  Here are four questions that kids ask themselves which Heick suggests will help to generate that self-awareness:

  1. How do I respond when I’m challenged, both inwardly and outwardly?
  2. Which resources and strategies do I tend to favor, and which do I tend to ignore?
  3. What can I do to make myself more aware of my own thinking and emotions?
  4. What happens if I don’t change anything at all?

It can be a long process to bring a child back from the scared stiff state.  Plenty of practice and patience are key.  I can’t say enough either about the topic of metacognition (thinking about thinking/learning about learning).  I’m amazed at how much my perception has been impacted by learning about how we learn.  It’s helped me become a better coach and coach educator.  On top of teaching your athletes or players how to be self-aware, you absolutely must teach them about how they learn.  It’s time well spent.

Next post Saturday, August 23rd.


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The Culture of Good Youth Sport Programs

Over a number of years of observing various sports teams and clubs in action, one comes to realize that there are some common factors in how they go about their business.  If you look closely enough at a few, what you notice are the ingredients of a high performing culture.  That includes:

Values – The really good sporting groups recognize that developing good human beings off the court, rink or field is just as important as developing good athletes/players.  Good character starts with the adults involved in those programs and what they model.

Inclusion – The best sporting groups provide quality learning experiences for all participants, not just a select few.

Frontier-Driven – Leading sports groups don’t waste time or spin their tires.  They strive to conquer the development frontiers of player, coach, official and governance.  Never resting on their laurels, they search continuously for best practices.  Never afraid to fail, their iterations eventually lead to innovation.

Good Habits – The adults involved in excellent sports programs model hard work, persistence, belief in continuous improvement and mastery.  They model these not because they have to as part of their involvement but because they want to.  It is what they believe in.

Care – The best sports programs put the participants first because the adults involved care deeply about seeing them happy and thriving.

Support – Those tasked with the coaching of participants in exceptional sports programs have the mentorship and guidance they require to grow as coaches.

Collaboration – There’s no “My team-your team” mentality  inside great sport programs.  All the adults involved work together to deal with the challenges around the development of all the athletes/players.  In larger organizations, this takes the form of collaboration within a particular age group or ability level group.  It takes a village to raise a child goes the saying.  The best sport programs seem to implicitly understand and do this.

What separates the greats from the rest?  Execution.  Many will say they focus on the establishment of culture.  Only the best make good on those words and don’t leave the formation of their culture up to chance.

Next post Sunday, August 17th.

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Bad Habits that may be Stifling your Growth as a Coach

Bad habits.  We all have them.  When it comes to being a youth sport coach, do you think (or know) that you do any of these things:

Not learning from other coaches – There’s just too much to know, you can’t know it all so look around you and ask questions of others about what you see being done well.

Assuming that because you taught it means the kids have learned it – You own the teaching, the kids own the learning.  You can teach them but you can’t learn them (unless of course you’re from the American South).  The answer to this bad habit resides in another tip a little further down (hint: it starts with ‘assess’ and ends with ‘ment’).

Not establishing relevance – Can the kids you coach relate what you’ve just taught them back to the game, competition, meet or event?  If they can’t then it’s back to the drawing board for you.  You must keep iterating until you find a way to make meaningful for each and every kid you coach what it is you need them to know.

Lacking a Kid-Centred approach – You need to have the empathy necessary to put yourself in their size 4’s instead of trying to get them to fit into your size 9’s.  What is it that they want from you and the sport?  What is it that they need?  Make sure those two questions get answered in that order.

No innovation – If you diversify your coaching then the kids have no choice but to broaden their learning.  A win-win scenario all around.

Never assessing – You need to find ways – and not just at the end of the season or program either – to communicate to each of the kids you coach how they’re doing.  It doesn’t have to be a formal written assessment, it could easily be a word or two with the child and the child’s parents before a practice, after a game or even in the produce aisle at the grocery store.  In other words, feedback on performance should be provided informally and frequently as much as possible.

Setting low (or no) expectations – To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you think they can or they can’t, you’re right.  Expect more, then stand back and prepare to be amazed.

Freaking out over dead air – You throw something out there to the kids and…silence!  So you follow the next most logical step – you answer your own question or finish your own statement.  Perfect!  Now the kids know if they play the waiting game well, they won’t have to think at all.  Don’t let them off the hook that easy.  Tell them that you know silence could mean they’re thinking about what it is they’d like to say.  Or, if they still give you nothing, just don’t act phased by it.  Move on and come back to that particularly area at a later point.

Not getting to know the kids you coach – This is one that I feel, as a sometimes clueless male, I could always do a better job of.  I watch female coaches and am always amazed at the importance they place on social interaction and the act of knowing the kids as more than just little athletes.  It can’t all be business.

Next post Saturday, August 16th.


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Technical Leadership? Let’s Change that to Instructional Leadership.

Does the organization you coach for have a technical leader?  If yes, does that individual spend time providing you with feedback on your coaching?  Do you see that individual at your practices once a week?  Once a month?  Once a season?

I’m pretty certain I know what you’re answer is to these questions: a big fat no!  And I’m also pretty sure I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that that person – the technical leader – is just neglectful.  You’re thinking that that person doesn’t care about you.  I suppose that could be true.

When I think of my own experiences, I sometimes tend to feel bitter too.  There have certainly been times where I was depending on a technical leader’s help and didn’t get it or didn’t get as much of it as I’d hoped for.

And yet we have to give those individuals the benefit of the doubt.  I know in the times that I’ve served as a technical leader for someone else, I know just how futile it seemed some days to try and be able to say I was doing a good job.  It didn’t matter how good of a job I was doing, there were always other things and other individuals that needed my attention and weren’t getting it.

This current line of thought has come from an article I was just reading from the world of teaching.    Teachers, like coaches, experience the same sorts of issues in that their principals often have very little time to spend helping them become better at their craft.  The article’s suggestion was to follow something called the small schools model which aims to create a smaller and more manageable learning community.

That got me to thinking about a conversation I had with a coach recently.  He talked about a club that he had been coaching for where he and the other coaches were each assigned to a mentor.  That mentor had a certain number of club coaches to oversee and provide help to.  It’s a great idea and one I’ve heard of a few times – but not enough times – before.

We really do need to see this sort of mentor/small schools model applied more.  Every club has a few (or even a lot of)  experienced coaches.  What an honour it would be to be asked to serve as a mentor to beginner and/or novice coaches within the club.  It’s sort of like when your turn came up in school to be the hall monitor.  You felt important and responsible because for that day you were given all these extra tasks to carry out that you didn’t normally get to do.

And who doesn’t want to feel important?  That to me nullifies the down side of the ask, which is the fact that the experienced coach is already busy enough with his or her own coaching.  I know if someone presents me with this opportunity, I’m finding a way to shift around my schedule in order to help out.

This works perfectly well whether the organization you coach for has or doesn’t have a technical leader.  Every organization has some experienced coaches.  You wouldn’t have to wait for the administration to set this up for you either.  You could seek out those more experienced coaches yourself and ask for help.  Who knows.  By doing so, you might actually start something within your coaching community.

Now, I don’t want to come across as if this ideal solution to helping coaches get meaningful development.  There are still plenty of problems.  What if you get a mentor who isn’t very reliable?  What if you get an individual who is great at guiding kids but not so much at guiding another coach?  What if you get a brain full of dogma from your mentor that leaves you wondering if what’s been said is really what you should be doing?

Worst of all, as my coaching friend pointed out from his experience with this mentor-apprentice relationship, was that he received a different kind of neglect.  The neglect he experienced from his mentor came about because his mentor took one looked at him and saw that he was meeting the standards relative to some of the other apprentices.  So my coaching friend was told to keep doing what he was doing and never got to see his mentor.  The guy was so busy just trying to get some of the other coaches he was responsible for up to minimum standards that he had no time to help my friend improve his standards.

To me that is just another reminder of the importance of personalized learning.  You need to have a plan.  A plan that says I’m currently here and I’d like to get to there.  While we could benefit from discussing this plan with a more experienced peer, I think that it’s still easy enough for any of us to come up with one on our own.  A plan means there are objectives to be reached and that means that a mentor now has a framework around which to help the novice or the experienced coach.

The other thing I would mention in closing, is the power of social media.  There are so many good people out there willing to help and share their knowledge for free.  Take Twitter for example, I can’t get over the sharing that goes on in just the few people that I have chosen to follow.  It’s another avenue for you as a coach to help yourself improve if you can’t find the help within your own organization.

Just remember that while above you there are more experienced coaches, it is quite possible that below you are coaches with less experience too.  I think it best to remember that we should all aim to be both consumers and producers in whatever it is we set about doing.  Seek out your own mentor but also see if you can be a mentor for someone else.

Next post Sunday, August 10th.

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“We’re Done, what do we do now?”: Scary Words for a Coach to Hear

You’re coaching your son’s pee wee hockey team.  You’ve got them practicing a technique by working in pairs.  You’ve asked them to complete the technique successfully 20 times each.   You’ve shown them what a successful completion looks like and you’ve set them to it.  You’ve anticipated this activity should take about 10 minutes.  About four minutes into that ten, one boy comes up to you and says, “Coach, we’re done.”  You already know that some of the group haven’t even gotten to ten successful completions yet.  Do you…

a) Accuse them of cheating because there’s no way they could be done that fast.

b) Tell them to do it again.

c) Pretend you don’t hear them and go about your business.

Maybe they didn’t quite do it to spec which is why they finished so quickly and therefore you probably picked B.  However, what if they are already proficient at it?  Does getting them to do it again make them any better at it or just keep them busy until the next activity?  And if it just keeps them busy then how does that address their individual learning needs?

If you’re like me and you coach a team sport, you’ve faced this sort of conundrum many, many times.  Even though your team is typically made up of a group of players that are supposed to be close to each other in ability, there can still be significant differences between the strongest players and the weakest players on your team.

And then add in things like motivation and fatigue and, inevitably, some will finish activities sooner than others.  For those of us who coach a team sport I think we often get caught teaching to the middle.  We don’t necessarily do a great job of challenging those that are finished first.  We don’t necessarily do a great job of helping those who are still working on things when we decide to move the session on to the next activity.  We observe that large group of players in the middle and when we see that it looks like they more or less have it, we move on.

It really is the strangest thing.  Our goal as coaches is to elevate the level of the team.  The only way we can do that though is by elevating the level of each player.  So we have to stop being entranced solely by the notion of ‘the team’ and get our priorities focused squarely on each individual player.

First step in doing that is getting players committed to checking their own progress against the standard.  That involves asking themselves a series of questions.  Have we done each of these repetitions to the standard?  What did the coach show us in the demo?  What do you (partner0 look like when you do the action?  What do I look like (through your eyes partner)?  What do our other teammates look like?  Can I give you (partner) feedback on your performance?  Can you (partner) give me feedback on my performance?  Since we’re done, can we help by giving feedback to some of our teammates who are still going?

The second step, and probably the more obvious one, is in having pre-prepared activities to deal with these situations.  You have a progression or two above what you have everyone currently working on.  You also have at least a progression below in case what you have asked is too difficult for some or for all.  Or maybe you don’t have progressions for the activity.  Maybe you can’t think of any for that activity.  In that case, could you come up with some activities that have some relation to what you have been working on that the early finishers could tackle while they wait?

Another idea is to get your players to have a to-do list.  When anyone finishes an activity early, that player simply goes about working on one of the things from his or her to-do list.  It’s sort of like an equivalent of the 20% time you see being instituted by certain businesses for helping to develop their employees creativity which is also now finding its way into the school system.  Personally, I like this one because it gets the kids thinking about where they need to improve and then gets them setting in place a plan to make it happen.  Sometimes it might even translate into the motivation to continue to practice at home.

So the next time you hear those dreaded words “We’re done” I hope you can look the little shysters right in the eyes, ask them if they’ve done their self-check and then provide them with feasible alternatives to keep their development going.

Next post Saturday, August 9th.

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Remember? We Worked on this Last Practice!

You’re coaching your seventh grade volleyball team.  Your frustration is mounting and about to boil over.  You’ve been trying to get them used to the standard rhythm of a game.  Technically the skills for that are bump, set and then spike.  Tactically the concepts are ‘to the net’, ‘along the net’ and then ‘over the net’.  Unfortunately, your team’s session looks more like ‘into the net’ ‘under the net’, or ‘away from the net’.

Why don’t they recognize that they receive a serve with a bump and try to get it to a setter at the net?  Why are they still just flailing at the ball and trying to hit it in the general direction of the other side?  They can bump.  you’ve seen them do it.  They can set too.  So why aren’t they doing them together in sequence?  You worked on this all last session.  And the session before.  And the session before that.  You can’t take it anymore and you yell out to them something like:

Remember?  We worked on this last practice!

Ah, the joys of coaching kids.  One day they look like world beaters and then the next they look they’ve never bumped a ball or stick handled a puck before in their lives.  And yet is it any different for you or me?  Is it any different for anyone when it comes to learning something new?

What I’m talking about here for all of us are the limits of human memory and as coaches we’ve got to do a better job of putting those limits to work for us.  Here’s a list of suggestions for you based on what I’ve learned about learning.

  1. Working memory is limited – Remember that phone numbers started out as seven digits for a reason.  It was because the tested limits of working memory (what we used to call short-term memory in our university psychology days) was supposed to be 7 digits plus or minus two.  While the merit of the 7 +/- 2 has been debated, the agreeable point here is that working memory can only deal with a few things that the brain sees as unrelated or as abstract.  Your job as a coach is to teach depth over breadth.  That is, learn a few things really deeply instead of a lot of things very shallowly that may end up being forgotten by next week’s session.
  2. Grouping stores more – Everyone knows that a box with properly folded and placed items will hold more than a box in which the contents were just thrown in.  Our brains work the same way.  If those concepts in working memory can be shown to relate to something else we already know about and have stored in long-term memory, then we can add that item to that existing chunk which makes it much easier to remember the next time.  Your job as a coach is to help each kid find something they already know that they can attach the new concept to.
  3. Cramming doesn’t work – It didn’t work for you in school or university so why do you think it’s going to work in coaching?  This goes to the point made in #1.  So learning a few things really well applies more to an entire season then it does a single training session.  In a one-off training session you will want to cover a few different topics.  Only working on the one concept repetitively in that session will produce the same results as cramming for the test.  You’ll know it and be able to do it for a short period of time in the present but as time passes you’ll forget it.  Your job as a coach is to make sure that those few topics you want to cover are intertwined each session over a longer period of time.
  4. The theory of different learning styles hold little water – Somehow we’ve come to believe that each of us has a different learning style and yet there is very little hard evidence out there to support that claim.  What can be agreed upon is that we all learn better when new information and concepts are presented repeatedly but using different modalities that will stimulate our brains in different ways.  Your job as a coach is to ensure that you get the kids you coach seeing, hearing, moving, touching and thinking when they come to learn.
  5. Sleep is key to memory – There’s so much out there now on the science of sleep and it probably doesn’t come as a surprise then that sleep is important.  Your job as a coach is to do what you can to educate both kids and parents on the value of sleep to learning.  This one has a nice bonus effect.  If they comply, this can carry over to the school environment too.
  6. If you want to learn something really well teach it to someone else – Why does this work so well?  From what I gather this phrase holds true because you are finding a way to say in your own words what you are trying to get someone else to learn.  It is the process of generating your own way of saying it that helps to solidify the concept or info in your own mind.  Doing that makes it more meaningful to you.  Your job as a coach is to get the kids to talk to you or to talk to each other about what they know (or what it is they think they know).  This can be done with a guiding question that gets them to reflect and then eventually put into words what it is they are thinking about.

There’s no doubt that understanding how humans learn and then using that to your advantage can save you plenty of headaches and help you cut down on the blood pressure meds as well.

Next post Sunday, August 3rd.

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