“While there may still be a tendency towards thinking of professional development as occurring on particular days and involving attendance at organized courses, in educational arenas the emphasis is now upon engagement in a professional learning process that is ongoing and an integral element of one’s professional work.” - Dr. Dawne Penney, coach education researcher
In last Saturday’s post, I provided some evidence to support the claim that the primary way we certify coaches needs to change. It needs to change because the outcomes of the research states that coaches get more out of informal and unmediated forms of professional development than they do out of the institution-driven mass coach ed courses.
In developing youth sport coaches, we must do an all around better job of not only educating them with what to know but also training them so that they can show that they can effectively coach what they know to the kids. That means working in contexts that are specific to each coach and that my friends is something that large scale coach certification courses will never ever be able to do.
In this February 2011 post, I referenced the origins of the mentor-apprentice relationship. In learning a trade, a young person apprenticed first with a mentor. After achieving a certain level of proficiency, that individual became a journeyman, traveling around the country side and looking for opportunities to continue to develop his or her trade. He or she learned secrets from others in the trade and he or she also shared secrets with others. At the end of that journeymanship, the apprentice became a professional.
It is that social give and take between practitioners that I wanted to focus on here in this blog post. That is exactly what we need more of from the coaches involved in youth sports. It would be good for coach development and, just as importantly, it would be good for the overall development of youth sport.
Dr. Etienne Wenger would call this interaction between coaches a community of practice (CoP). He and Dr. Jean Lave are the scholars behind the development of the concept of CoP’s. Wenger, the Social Learning theorist and current consultant with Wenger-Trayner defines a CoP as:
“...groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
So while your neighbourhood where you live may be what you refer to as a community, that does not make it a community of practice. CoP’s share three specific characteristics: the domain (i.e., the shared interest that creates the community’s identity), the community (i.e., the social interaction) and the practice (i.e., the act of problem solving to improve or sharing of best practice).
Through the interaction of these three characteristics, CoP’s achieve the following activities: problem solving, requests for information, experience seeking, recycling assets, coordination/synergy, discussing the latest developments, documenting solutions to problems, visits to others in the CoP and mapping knowledge and identifying gaps.
When you look at that list, it’s easy to see those are all activities that the professional development of coaches could benefit from. So what stops us from sharing? Not surprisingly, ego. As I’m sure you no doubt know and have experienced firsthand, the youth sports milieu is a tad competitive. Your opponents are seen as “the enemy” and the opposition’s coach should never be helped. Instead, work to keep what you know secret from him or her so that you have the element of surprise on the battle field and can gain victory from it.
Seriously, are we still talking about kids sport here?
What you and I already know to be true has also been discovered in the coach education research too. For example, Gilbert, Gallimore and Trudel profess similar through their findings of a review of the teaching and coaching literature. Therefore, in order to make CoP’s work to benefit coach development, they require the following five guiding items:
- A stable setting dedicated to learning and development – Coaches go to games, practices and meetings. While it may not be possible to schedule more meetings in order to cover all the topics coaches need to cover, it could be possible to adjust season schedules. This would ensure that once every couple of weeks coaches had a specific date and time where they would have already been committed to attend a practice or a game now used for participating in a CoP.
- Homogenous groupings - The coaches that gather for the CoP must be in the same sport, coaching the same age and same competitive level. That way all the problems discussed and potential solutions provided are context specific.
- Written protocols that guide, not prescribe – Most volunteer youth sport coaches work in isolation to each other and do not have the professional background necessary or years of experience required to know how to make a CoP work. A set of guidelines that define the function, scope and etiquette of a CoP are required.
- Trained peer facilitator – Even with the protocol from #3, these groups will not run themselves efficiently and effectively. The research suggests that leadership is required. However, that leadership needs to be familiar. It needs to be someone the coaches recognize and respect. Second, that peer needs to facilitate as opposed to dictated. Finally, to lead a group of your peers in a facilitated manner requires the appropriate training to do so.
- Persistence at a problem until tangible improvement is achieved – Whatever the problems in athlete development for their specific context are that the CoP chooses to address, they must stay intently focused on them until they show themselves to be improving and no longer problems. There cannot be movement onto other areas while existing areas still remain open.
It’s a tall order no doubt. However, I cannot help but see the immense value once that initial hump has been cleared. I think that initial hump, and you can agree with me or not, is getting coaches to check their ego at the door and recognize that we’re all in this together. In one particular example of research conducted on CoPs it was found that the technical lead for the league that initiated the community of practice did not start with a facilitative approach or have a protocol filled with guidelines.
In fact it was quite the opposite. His approach was very much one of you’re in this league, you’re part of this CoP and you WILL share what you know with each other, dammit! The feedback the researchers got from participants indicated that they don’t think it would have worked any other way. The participants noted that they were glad he did and that in the end the CoP was of good value. However, when that technical lead left his position while the study was still ongoing, the researchers were able to learn that the CoP fell apart as the next person hired to do the job neither had the same familiarity with the coaches nor took the same hard-nosed approach.
A CoP that gets all coaches working towards the development of all players/athletes should be our prime directive. The only way to make that happen is for each coach to unselfishly help the others. In the summary of their paper, Gilbert, Gallimore and Trudel say it best:
“When youth sport leagues are framed more as educational systems where athletes are students of the league – not the ‘property’ of one particular coach in a league – then the learning community approach can become a natural and an extremely valuable part of the youth sport experience.”
This will not be the nicest way of thinking about it but a CoP may be the best way to force the most important adults involved in the development of athletes/players – the coaches – into working together.
So could your club, league or region benefit from the establishment of a community of practice?
Next post Sunday, July 27th.