Not Colouring Inside the Lines

The one path that never works is the most common one: doing nothing at all.   – Seth Godin, Tribes

Why are we so afraid of risk?  Probably because we make ourselves believe that what we have is better than the risk involved with getting what comes with change.  Plus, there’s never any guarantees that what change brings will actually be better than what you’ve already got.  However, the thing that change brings is rarely as good in the beginning as what is already here.  It takes time and if you expect the new thing to be better or successful right away than you’ll never begin.  Without the willingness to take a risk, there is no change.  That is why it’s called a leap of faith.  And where would the human race be if it wasn’t for numerous leaps of faith over time.

And so we settle.  Settling is a bad habit that takes you down the path to mediocrity.  Honestly, who wants to be mediocre?  So many unhappy people are a product of their efforts to preserve the status quo and actively attempt to resist change.  As I mentioned in my last post, religion then gets in the way of faith.  Stuck gets in the way of momentum.  Rules get in the way of principles.

We are so lucky.  Think about all those around us with not enough to eat, or without the chance to get an education.  Advantages.  Opportunities.  With what we’ve got, how can we dare to defend the status quo?  What improvidence.  Therefore, we should all feel obligated not to settle.

Heretics don’t settle.  Life is way too short.  Yes, creating change takes a mountain of energy.  Preserving mediocrity can take just as much.  Why waste the energy and the one life you have being and doing what’s average?

Seth Godin, author of Tribes, describes this as not colouring inside the lines.   Godin says,

“Remarkable visions and genuine insight are always met with resistance.  And when you start to make progress, your efforts are met with even more resistance.  If it were any other way, it would be easy.  And if it were any other way, everyone would do it and your work would be devalued.”

The realization that the customer, in community youth sport, is not always right because they do not understand the concept of developmental appropriateness is a fine example of a genuine insight that will always be met with resistance.  No parent wants to be told they don’t understand what is best for their child.  Community sport organizations that give parents what they want (even if it isn’t developmentally appropriate) are choosing to colour inside the lines.  They fear what those parents will do with their membership dollars if they don’t.

Unfortunately many parents of youth sport participants don’t understand the need for developmentally appropriate programming.  Nor do many youth sport organizations.  Parents ask organizations to give them what they want.  Organizations comply.  What they get is what has always been done and done the way it always has been done.  Hey, it worked fine for them when they were kids so if it was good enough for mum or dad it’s good enough for junior.

But creating developmentally appropriate programming that works is a challenging mission because there is so little of it around.  While we know it is the right thing to do, we end up creating from scratch the programs which means many trials and tribulations.  When a program that attempts to be developmentally appropriate fails, the typical response is to say that it didn’t work and that the old way is better.  And at that point, there are plenty of organizations around waving us over to their programs saying that they do it the right way because they are sticking to what has always been done.

For someone that doesn’t understand developmental appropriateness, that situation can be very convincing.  For an organization that doesn’t understand the need for developmental appropriateness, that situation can be down right scary when you see your members leaving to go for what they are familiar and have comfort with.

Greatness comes from conquering fear and not colouring inside the lines.  The only true sign of greatness is an organization’s willingness to not be great along the way.  In doing what is right for the participants (and not necessarily popular for the adult egos involved) you risk failure.  This tolerance of failure on the journey to reaching the bigger goal is the true secret of success.  Tolerance requires faith.  Success takes commitment.  Commitment takes time.  This requires more faith than most organizations I have seen have been willing to commit.

If a community sport organization requires success before commitment it will never have either and will spend its time flip-flopping between numerous watered down visions for player development or latching on to a religion that puts the adult first and not the participant.  No faith in the short-term, little development in the long-term.

Mediocrity.  Colouring inside the lines.

We can and must do better.

This post originally written and posted November 15, 2010.

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The Religion of Winning in Youth Sport

If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take.  If faith is the foundation of a belief system, then religion is the facade and the landscaping.  – Seth Godin, Tribes

Even before I realized I was a heretic, as I mentioned in my last post, it was a sliver of hope that made me believe that pursuing what is developmentally appropriate and doing that through a long-term development model was the right thing to do in community youth sport.  That glimmer of hope, as it turns out, was faith.  But what’s the difference between faith and religion?  They are often confused.  As Seth Godin (author of Tribes) says, a religion is the strict set of rules that overlay your faith.  A religion, at its worst, supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out.  And I’m not talking about a big ‘R’ religion either but instead a little ‘R’ religion – one that is cultural, not spiritual.

Religion – spiritual or cultural – is hard to talk about in the form of a debate.  People feel uncomfortable doing so.  They know that by raising questions, those people will feel threatened.  When you debate their religion, they feel like you are criticizing their faith.  But both religion and faith are important.  Without religion, faith would wain.  Religion reinforces faith.

In Tribes, Seth Godin references a statistic that a third of all Americans have left the religion they grew up with.  That doesn’t mean these people have lost their faith.  They have simply changed the system they use for reinforcing their faith.  Heretics challenge a religion but do so from the platform of very strong faith.  Therefore, heretics can and do create their own religions.

So what does this have to do with youth sport?

In the culture of youth sport I believe we currently have a religion that supports winning over development.  Our society is obsessed with success.  Parents seem so concerned about their kids falling behind the others that we have stopped equipping children with the ability to delay gratification.  Instant success and instant rewards are given at the expense of application and hard work.  And in this religion there is no failure.  We do not mention the ‘F’ word for fear of upsetting the little ones.  Who in their right mind would ever want to expose their child to failure?  What ever would that accomplish?  In this religion, coaches and program administrators are blinded by their own egos.  People who are blinded by their egos need success.  Success usually means results.  Results typically means winning.  And to win means doing whatever needs to be done (at the expense of development) in order to stroke that ego.

When it comes to a proper culture for youth sport I believe we need a religion that promotes development over winning.  One that emphasizes performance over outcome and excellence over success.  This religion needs to be centred around an outlook for the long-term.  That means having faith in the short-term as it often takes plenty of time to see the results of this religion.

So then what is faith in community youth sport?

I believe that faith is doing what is best for the youth sport participant.  I would like to believe that almost everyone involved in community youth sports at least starts out with the intention of doing what is best for the kids.  Paid coach or volunteer coach.  Board member or parent.  Each and everyone of us want what is best for the child.  Chalk it up to an evolutionary need to nurture but I believe that we all want to give children every opportunity possible to be happy and healthy.  We mean well.

For that reason, and that reason alone, I argue that the religion we need is one that puts the youth sport participant first – an athlete/player-centred religion.  The religion we have now is centred around the parent, the board member or the coach.  It is adult-centred.

In the short-sighted times that we now live, I believe we have forgotten our faith.  We have forgotten who it is that the community youth sport programs (that we the adults have created) truly serve.

When it comes to denouncing one religion and renouncing another, heretics know the odds are currently against them but they persist.  They do what is right.  They don’t try to be right.  Heretics stick to their guns.  They know that religions can be staunch.  Loyalty is great.  Blind loyalty is not.  Therefore, heretics keep their faith but openly question and actively work to change the religion in order to align with their faith.

When it comes to community youth sport programming, what is your religion?


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Sustainable Development

Have you heard about the United Nation’s Global Goals for sustainable development?  Released just last month, these seventeen goals provide a new plan of action for positively transforming the world over the next fifteen years.  Here’s the promo.

And here’s a list of the seventeen goals.

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As a coach, from the first moment I saw these I knew right away their value to long-term development.  Ending extreme poverty, fighting inequality and injustice and fixing climate change (as represented by the seventeen goals) makes kicking a soccer ball around look mighty trivial.

Yet coaching kids in any sport can still lead to the pursuit of the UN’s goals.  There’s a hefty list of targets under each of those goals.  So far nobody has been able to solve these issues.  The kids that I coach today could be tomorrow’s scientists and world leaders creating the solutions that achieve these Global Goals.

If they become those future super heroes  it will be a result of how they were taught today.

The UN’s Global Goals are a perfect example of why today’s youth need to develop a 21st century set of skills.  That includes:

  1. Becoming a critical thinker
  2. Learning how we learn/how the brain works
  3. Developing a growth instead of a fixed mindset
  4. Ability to work in groups or alone
  5. Ability to communicate effectively
  6. Digital, cultural and community literate

And those skills do not develop using the traditional 20th century methods that most of us were raised on.  That means a new approach needs to be taken.  An approach where the curiosity my three-year-old son currently shows, for example, is allowed to flourish over the years and is not eventually stifled by the system designed to help him learn.  An approach that creates self-driven learners, not passive rule followers.

I mentioned these Global Goals to the two soccer teams I’m currently coaching.  I challenged them to be the ones to go on to tackle some of them.  Their reactions varied.  Some seemed genuinely pleased to be offered the challenge.  Some rolled their eyes.  Most though gave little or no reaction.  Like what was being said was just so far from the realm of the soccer field that it wasn’t worth giving much thought because it had not connection to what they do there.

There in lies the problem.  The UN’s Global Goals sound too much like school and school is not soccer.  School is school and sport is sport.  Learning is something you do ten months of the year (except for PD days, long weekends and the Christmas holidays).  Learning involves copious amounts of facts and figures – most of which you’ll never need as long as the internet is around.  Learning is something you do from grades one to twelve and then another one to eight years beyond that.  When that’s done, learning is done.

Here’s the thing.  Education and learning are not the same thing.  Education is something that happens to you.  It has a beginning and an end.  Learning is something you make happen.  It’s never ending.

If education made its mandate to focus on the six 21st century skills listed above then a coach’s use of them at practice would not seem so strange.  Hearing a coach ask his/her players to look at the opportunities before them to help make a significant difference in the world wouldn’t seem so out of place.  The kids would simply realize that it’s yet another opportunity for them to learn and grow.

If teachers and coaches over the years had focused more on the delivery of those 21st century skills alongside all those facts and figures then maybe we wouldn’t need seventeen global goals for sustainable development.  The United Nations defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In Canadian sport we use the term Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD).  LTAD or sustainable development.  Sport or society.  However you want to frame it, the goal is the same.  Provide people today with the skills they need to survive tomorrow.

Next post Saturday, October 17th.

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The Coach as Critical Friend

Last week I wrote about reflection.  It’s come out of an excellent article I’ve been reading on the subject provided to me by Dr. Wade Gilbert from Fresno State University.  The article  is a real boon in the area of reflection research.  I’d seen it referenced many times in recent work on reflection that I’ve read.  And now I’ve got myself a copy.  It’s titled The Reflective Journal: A Window to Preservice Teachers’ Practical Knowledge by Dawn Francis who at the time of writing was at James Cook University of North Queensland in Australia.

I’ve been getting the players I’m coaching to try and engage in reflection but it’s not an easy process.  Just saying to them buy a journal and then get writing isn’t enough.  Reflection is a skill to be learned and many people have not had much or any practice at it as noted by the comment of this particular student teacher from Francis’ article:

“I find it difficult to write my personal thoughts.  We have been trained not to do this.  It took me a long time to learn to write as an academic and now I see no purpose in doing this (personal writing).  If it is not for evaluation, why do it?”

Most of us were put through a system of education where there was one right answer to every question posed.  It seems the same still holds true today.  Therefore, what’s the sense of reflecting? You either know the right answer or your don’t.  In fact, reflection in such a monolithic environment like school can actually lead to real (but also laughable) confusion as noted here by the comment of another student teacher from Francis’ article:

“I have so many questions and I know so little.  I wish you would just tell me what to do so that when I’m in the school I can do the right thing.  The more I write, the more questions come out and I still don’t have the right answer.”

I find that hilarious.  Just tell me the right answer!  I find such behaviour to be the prime affliction of 20th century education and its still bleeding its way into our current century.  The notion of leaving an environment that is dedicated to learning feeling confused and lacking closure is not acceptable in they eyes of most learners.  It seems to mean that you, the teacher or coach, have not done your job.  You’re supposed to answer their questions, not give them more questions to think about.

And many teachers and coaches over the years have obliged as this student teacher from Francis’ article notes but also shows a real growth in appreciation of the power of reflection:

“I feel I’m really understanding when I am forced to write in my own words.  We never get time to do this in the rest of the week.  We’re always pressured to remember some theory that fits the lecturer’s view even when they say they are promoting critical thinking.”

I believe critical reflection is necessary to developing the skill of critical thinking.  It’s hard to feel safe to express yourself and your thoughts when you’re wondering if what you might think is the right or wrong answer.  And I believe that coaches can help develop that comfort in expression by taking on the more modern role of critical friend.  Finding your own voice and using that for reflection is one thing.  Hearing another’s and using that  perspective for your own reflection is completely something else.

Yet the role of critical friend is  much more than providing feedback.   A student teacher from Francis’ article sums the role up beautifully:

“My first perception was that as a critical friend your job was to provide solutions.  Instead, the critical friend should extend your thoughts so that you can reach your own solutions.  Questioning and understanding your partner’s beliefs is vital to being a critical friend.  The type of language you use is vital, especially in forming mediating questions directed at engaging thinking.”

I think it’s brilliant.  We’re all so used to the coach creating the boundaries of truth but real meaningful learning comes from the coach blurring – even breaking – those boundaries forcing the learner to look deeper.  Farther.  To strain more.  To question more.  To think about what he/she knows and believes and in doing so, to learn.

Giving them the answer is the easy thing.  It’s what many learners have been conditioned to ask for, look for or simply just wait for.  Giving them the answer doesn’t prepare them for a real journey into understanding though.

The key to unlock the door to this journey?  As the quote above states, it’s a meaningful question.  Great coaches ask great questions.  Their athletes can’t help but think and therefore engage actively in the process of exploration of the topic through that powerful question.

Now if only somebody could give me the “right answer” to asking great questions I’d be all set.

Next post Saturday, October 10th.

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Reflection: Making Sense of Sense Making

Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.

I’m sure at one time or another we’ve either heard that phrase uttered to us or said it to our own kids.  The belief being that if you take the time to think then you will learn and therefore act differently next time.

An outdated view of how we learn sees our brain like an empty vessel.  Learning is as simple as pouring knowledge in.  No thinking is required – only listening, or reading or watching.  A more modern view of how we learn sees our brain like building blocks.  Each block is some piece of knowledge.  New blocks constantly get added and there is always the possibility that the existing order in which the blocks are placed can be changed.  Changed in a multitude of ways as a matter of fact.  Therefore, thinking is required.

Learning then is not as simple as just absorbing the new information.  Instead learning involves the use of past experiences, beliefs and values to figure out what to accept from that new knowledge, what to modify and where to store it for easy retrieval (i.e., remembering).

Being a very analytical kind of guy, my brain is at full tilt from the moment my eyes open in the morning until the moment they close again at night.  I always find it fascinating that some people, for example, have no idea what they’re feeling or don’t understand why they do the things they do.  They spend very little time actually thinking about things that have happened to them or that are happening to them.

Telling children to go to their room to think about what they’ve done is a way of helping them to make explicit the implicit things inside their heads.  After said time interval, the child emerges from his or her room and seemingly more easily verbalizes the chain of events that led to the detention and what needs to be done next time to avoid it.  Kids definitely need practice doing this (some self-imposed time outs would probably be good for us adults too).

In that type of situation, children are being asked to reflect.  In other words, to make sense of sense making.

An alternative to that parenting approach would be to lecture children in the art of good behaviour.  We’d ask them to make sense of what already makes sense to us.  No need to figure it out for themselves, simply listen to us and think about what we’ve said.  The first challenge then with that approach is do they actually listen to what we’re saying.  The second challenge, which serves logically to follow the first, is do they take the time to think about what we’ve said.  So instead why not let them make their own decisions about what makes sense out of the existing experiences and knowledge they already have?  Ask them simply to think about what has happened from their own perspective.  Isn’t that the more valuable, albeit risky, approach?

I think it’s valuable because we’re asking kids to do their own thinking about their own thoughts on the matter.  We’re not asking them to make sense of our thoughts.  I think it’s risky because some kids may not have the slightest clue how to reflect.  They may perceive that what they’re doing and how they’re doing it is just fine and therefore miss the opportunity to refine their behaviour.

So in order to make reflective kids (and adults too) we first need to ask what is it that’s out there that needs to be understood by us.  Then we must ask why it’s important for us to want to better understand that thing.  And finally we must think about why an alternative approach to what we currently think or do could be of value to us.

In doing so we play with the arrangement of those blocks of knowledge in our mind and as we rearrange them we allow ourselves to see different perspectives and different interpretations of the same information.  We grow.  We see something that wasn’t there before.  Well actually, it was always there.  We just never saw it until we were either made to see it by someone else or we self-analyzed and found it from our own reflection.  Either way we had to think about things to get to that point.  By reflecting in action (i.e., thinking on our feet) or by reflecting on action (i.e., thinking after the fact about what we did) our knowledge and understanding grows.  The end result is we learn.

Many parents over the years have intuitively gotten it right.  Thinking is a good thing.  Thinking is learning.  Therefore, reflection is a vital skill to teach kids both on and off the fields, courts and rinks.

Next post Saturday, October 3rd.


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Experimenting with the Processes of Learning

Let’s say you ask your players what needs to be done to improve their team.  You get a lot of different suggestions that fall across the entire spectrum of possible ideas.    One player suggests that a formation change is required.  She says that the current choice of arranging players on the field does not work for them, for the types of players available.

Of all the ideas presented this is a very interesting one because of the possible directions you can take with it.

  1. You can ignore it and continue doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it (silly kid!  Why would she ever think she knows more than you!)
  2. You can shoot the idea down, tell her she’s wrong and that your choice is best because you know best (after all you’re the coach and you should make sure the players know you’re as omnipotent a human being as they’ll every see!)
  3. You can turn it into a guided discovery exercise in order to give them the opportunity to explore different formations (with the whole point being though to guide them to why the current choice – your choice – is still best).
  4. You can hand the entire exercise over to them to explore and come up with an answer that, as a team, they feel is right (even if it means doing something that you don’t believe will work).

I think numbers one and two are 20th century ways of dealing with the problem.  In the 21st century they are what a coach can do when he/she realizes that engaging in this exercise is just going to take up too much time and disturb, in a negative way, the team’s current form.

The third and fourth ways are more 21st century.  Number three gives the players a chance to ask questions and explore the topic but it’s still very much like #1 or #2 because the goal is to end up at the current formation as the best answer.  In that way, the coach is still driving the program with his/her version of the truth; the right answers.

The fourth one is a very modern and very experimental approach to learning.  You are allowing the players to drive completely the learning experience.  You allow them to take their learning in any direction they want – even the wrong direction.  And in a way, that’s what makes this one so powerful.  You, the coach, are allowing the players a say over their learning.  When they steer themselves in the wrong direction they truly see why that’s the wrong direction and why they need to try something else.

The problem?  It takes time – a lot of time.  First of all the players have to decide on how they’re going to go about exploring the problem.  That in itself will take a long time as the players work together to make a collective decision about their plan of action.  Next, content needs to be discovered.  That means players finding answers about formations.  Then it means practising those things and then trying them in games and then discussing their success and then making alterations.

Oh boy.  This.  Takes.  Time.

Doing it that way also means biting your lip when you see that the players are going to take a wrong turn.  You know it’s wrong but you let them find that out for themselves.  In doing so, the team could end up not performing their best and losing a lot of games as the players experiment with their different ideas.

As a coach, you don’t have to stand idly by and let them make every turn wrong until they find the right ones.    You could facilitate.  Steer them a bit.  However, the more you steer them the more it becomes guided discovery and the more it goes back to you being the one who is truly directing the experience based on what you believe is best.

The advantage of self-directed learning?  It’s learning that is truly meaningful to the players and therefore long lasting or even permanent.  After all that’s what learning is – a permanent change in behaviour.

And isn’t that what we want?  The most permanent change in behaviour possible?  The thing is, telling people what to do doesn’t bring about meaningful learning.  Letting them take an active role in their learning does.

A coach can teach a player but a coach can’t learn a player.

Learning is the responsibility of the learner.  And in self-directed learning so is teaching.  Therefore in organized sport, shouldn’t coaches find the best ways possible to allow the learners to learn?

Next post Saturday, September 26th.

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From Helicopter to Lawnmower Parenting

Failing well is a skill.  Learning to fail takes practice.  When kids fail or don’t get what they had hoped for they are given the important repetition they need in learning how to cope with negative outcomes.

Learning to let kids fail and to struggle takes even more practice.  Not many parents can just stand there and watch their child suffer.  We seem hardwired to rescue.  And yet, in many cases, that liberation we think we are providing them is actually not liberating at all.

Our desire to assist comes completely from love no doubt.  However, our children deserve to be strengthened and not smothered by that love.  There’s advocating on behalf of your child to help them with things that they truly cannot do.  And then there is something else. A something that actually works towards handicapping children’s long-term development for the appeasement of short-term happiness.

Jessica Lahey, author of a new book titled The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed is interviewed in a Time article by Rachel Simmons and notes the problem:

“Lahey says parents defail their kids’ lives in order to minimize kids’ pain and extend their need for mom and dad’s support. When kids are dependent on parents, mom and dad can enjoy kids’ wins as evidence of superior parenting.”

The hovering of helicopter parenting is now rapidly being replaced by the brute force of the lawnmower parent as noted in a New York Times article by Julie Scelfo.  In her article, which deals with suicide on university campuses that result from the pressure to be perfect, Scelfo relays a discussion she had with the dean of students at Stanford University: 

“She was also troubled by the growing number of parents who not only stayed in near-constant cellphone contact with their offspring but also showed up to help them enroll in classes, contacted professors and met with advisers (illustrating the progression from helicopter to lawn mower parents, who go beyond hovering to clear obstacles out of their child’s way).  But what she found most disconcerting was that students, instead of being embarrassed, felt grateful.  Penn researchers studying friendship have found that students’ best friends aren’t classmates or romantic partners, but parents.”

There’s plenty of research out there now to show that praising effort over intelligence is the way to go.   Celebrating an individual’s hard work instead of their smarts is what fuels intrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation is what makes the pursuit of excellence and lifelong learning possible.

The problem is that we still praise smarts, ability and talent.  We make the pursuit of trophies and straight A’s the priority.  In doing so, we create extrinsic motivation – the need to be driven by trinkets, and praise bestowed on us by others.  We teach them to learn to crave the validation more than they learn to crave the journey – complete with all its obstacles.

And when we jump in and solve problems for our kids we not only rob them of the opportunity to learn from that experience we also potentially erode the development of their intrinsic motivation.  Our help that we provide, we truly hope, will make them stay involved longer but it actually stands a chance of making them stop sooner.  If they can’t always be right or be the best, they will quit.

The thing about failing is that once we remove the stigma and emotions that surround it, we become more durable and comfortable in its grip.  We don’t feel as vulnerable.  We stop fearing it and start embracing it as the true path to excellence.  We need to do this for our kids.  The thing is, before we do it for our kids, we have to do it for ourselves.

Next post Saturday, September 19th.


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Back to School

Take a look at this.

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Canadian, along with British, New Zealand and Australian doctors have all decided to stop investing in fossil fuels.  As the doctor above says, it’s the best thing they can do to show that something needs to be done about climate change.  Something needs to be done to save us.  It just won’t be done by doctors.

So who is going to be the saviour?  Who is going to have the problem solving capability to get us out of the environmental hole we’ve dug ourselves into?

Now take a look at this.

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This is an excerpt from the United States Soccer Federation document titled Player Development Guidelines: Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States.  I think it’s pretty clear: a great coach creates autonomous decision makers.  And here’s how FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, suggests that coaches of players 12 and under can do that.

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While we see many of the traditional 20th century ideas of coaching still present (organizing, demonstrating, correcting) we see even more usage of 21st century techniques like free expression, guided discovery and discussion that are employed to create 21st century learners.

So if the game of soccer requires players to be able to make moment by moment decisions of their own accord and the world we live in is in need of big time problem solving super heroes than why, as a coach, would I ever engage in a style or in methods that do not lead to those outcomes?

Oh…wait a second…I remember why I’d be swayed and sometimes well advised for my own sanity and personal well being to coach like I did in the 80’s.  People still recognize and value more traditional 20th century instructional methods.  It’s valued because to those individuals, that’s what good coaching looks like.  If the players aren’t being told what to do after every mistake and if they don’t go home with sweaty brows and red cheeks then they haven’t been part of a good program designed to help them maximize their development.

Of course coaching in sport takes many of its cues from teaching in education.  While I do have a teaching degree, I haven’t been in a classroom since 2005.  However, I am very confident in saying that most schools and many teachers are still following the transmission method of instruction.  That 20th century method is the teacher talks, the students listen and learning mirarculously happens without further intervention.

Also, this method is a curriculum-driven approach.  The students have very little say in what they learn, when they learn it and how they learn it.  While I haven’t been in a classroom in ten years I have listened to the players I’ve coached over that same time period and not much has changed from when I was a kid.  While there are many things about school that make it enjoyable, the content and how it is taught I hear over and over again (and remember from my own days in school) leave many kids demotivated and not interested to learn.

How do I know that many kids become not interested in learning?  Well, how have most kids over the years spent their summer breaks?  Doing more school work or doing things that they want to do (which often means anything and everything but learning)?

The end result of this two hundred-year-old process (which by the way hasn’t changed much in that same time) is the natural curiosity to learn that we all start with gets snuffed out and replaced by mechanisms of obedience and compliance.  Follow the rules, don’t ask too many questions and learn what you are required to learn.  Jump through those hoops year after year and you’ll become a “smart” person.

So school learning, I guess, is like old age.  It just happens to you and you have very little control over it.  There’s no need for a learner to take an active role in their learning.  However,  there’s the kind of learning that’s going to be needed to both solve global issues as well as a to solve a soccer opponent that defends in a very low block and plays on the counter.

And that type of learning is not school learning.

There’s (school) subject smarts and then there’s street smarts.  Street smarts is not a specific content with a curriculum like math or English.  Street smarts is a set of skills.  These skills help the person possessing them to adapt to their surroundings.  Subject smarts often makes you believe that there is only one right answer to a problem.  Street smarts makes you question the one right answer.  Subject smarts requires people that can answer questions.  Street smarts requires people that can ask questions.  And tough questions too.  Questions that might make the people on the other end of them squirm and shift uncomfortably.

Street smarts is like cutlery.  You need tangible items (like the content of a subject area) in order to best learn how to use them otherwise you’re just pretending to cut, spear and scoop make-believe food.  So street smarts and subject smarts could easily go well together at school.  It’s just they don’t seem to be paired together very often.  They weren’t in my schooling and they still don’t appear to be in the schooling of the kids I’ve worked with over the years in soccer.  The soccer programs I’ve been involved with over the years have been full of passive learners simply waiting to be told what to do and when to do it.

As a person who was taught as both a student and as a soccer player and trained as both a coach and teacher in the 20th century, I’m trying to evolve into a modern 21st century coach.  I take 21st century skills like collaboration, critical thinking and growth mindsets and use them in teaching the subject of soccer.  While “a” goal is for the kids to learn to be better soccer players “the” goal is for the kids to learn and hone these important skills.  After all, this skill set will help them succeed both on and off the field.

So now I try to convince those passive learners the importance of them taking an active role and help them try to rekindle their youthful curiosity.    It can be a very tough transition though.  Even teenagers can already become very set in their ways about what learning looks like.  It takes a great deal of time and patience to encourage them for 90 minutes a day that they are the keys to their own learning when they spend another five hours a day being told its the teachers and the hoops of the system that they need to jump through that will be important to their long-term success.

One could argue that the coaching examples above seem to apply more to kids under twelve and therefore a more traditional approach is still better for older kids and developing high performance players.  I don’t think so.  I’ve seen reference made to guided discovery being used with national team athletes in Australia (and the athletes loving it).  Unfortunately though these modern approaches to player development are still not being used enough at any age of development.  Too many coaches still coach the way they were coached and, more importantly, treat learning as it is done in school.

An education is not the same thing as learning.  An education is something that happens to you; it’s prescribed.  Learning is something you do for yourself; it’s self-driven.  Education is finite.  Learning is infinite.  Life, including the time one spends in school, should be less about getting an education and more about learning how to learn.  When you have the skills to learn, you have the ability to learn anything you want and learn it well.

While doctors around the world are doing what they can to make a difference about global warming, they’ve not signed on to save the world.  That daunting job is still open.  Let’s hope some candidates emerge soon.  And when those knights in shining armour are one day interviewed so that we may learn more about them we might just find out they were pretty decent soccer players as well back in the day.

Next post Saturday, September 12th.

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Navigating the Fine Lines of Coaching

As a boy, I lay on the couch one Friday morning before the school day began, eating my chocolate Pop-Tart and watching the Mighty Hercules cartoon on the tv.  It was in that moment that a few things hit me like a ton of bricks.  It was an absolutely beautiful June day.  It was the last day of school for the week.  After school I’d be able to play with my friends and then I’d have the whole weekend to play too.  Tears of joy welled up in my eyes and a few rolled down my cheeks.  I was so happy to be alive.  Life could not have been any better.

I was nine.  I remember that day with the clarity to make it feel like it was only twenty-four hours ago that it happened.  To say that life was so much more simple then is an understatement.  God, I long for that simplicity.  I’m so jealous of that boy.  He didn’t know just how lucky he was.

Now I coach youth soccer players  Many of them trying to move on to play at the highest level possible.  My adult life has been complicated by the challenge of somehow trying to help these kids continue to experience that simplicity of youth for as long as possible while also instilling in them the hard core habits that they will require to excel at the game of soccer at an elite level.

It’s a balancing act that on most days I wonder if I’ve managed to get right.  If I push hard, I risk being portrayed as negative and too demanding.  If I don’t push hard enough, I’m at fault for being too casual and blasé.

Take a look at these two definitions.  I hope you then see what I mean.

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Instructor or bully?  There’s a fine line there.  At what point does commanding someone to do something turn into intimidation?  And who gets to make that determination?

What I find has happened over the last three decades of coaching is that kids seem a great deal softer to me than they were when I first started coaching.  I know I’m far less “old school” than I used to be and yet there are days where I really feel guilty for pushing as hard as I do.  I find they get discouraged so easily.  It has become more and more difficult to be honest – especially if that honesty is to let a player know it isn’t going as well as it could or should.

And it’s at that point that I’ve often felt I’ve been the one fingered for that player’s resulting lack of motivation and passion to continue with the game.  I’ve been unfair with them or too hard on them and this has destroyed their passion and desire to continue.

But from my perspective, many of these situations are just drops in each player’s failure bucket and yet they’re being experienced by them  like tidal waves.  I think to myself if they’re being mentally and emotionally washed away by these minuscule difficulties then how in heavens name are they ever going to succeed in the adult world let alone on the soccer field?  In speaking with other coaching colleagues about this dilemma, it is a commonly shared concern today.

However, I do my best to be optimistic about the players’ chances.  Like my Nana always told me, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all.  Unfortunately, that’s not a great coaching philosophy though.  Saying too little can be seen as just as bad as saying too much.  Yet there have been days in my coaching career where finding something positive to say has been very difficult.  And the last thing I want to do is concoct positivity where no positivity exists.  Kids can smell a patronizer from miles away.  They have no time for such a person.  Who does?

So I find myself transitioning between coaching spurts of going easy and going hard.  I don’t want any player to quit because of me and yet my job is to prepare these players for the realities of playing at the very highest level.  Only a very few will actually ever get there because of the severity of those realities.  However, without some base level of mental toughness, some level of grit, I worry that we will produce an even smaller number of potential players capable of playing at the highest level of the game.

How much of this dilemma is coaches like me being too hard on players and how much of it is the players being too soft?

Let me shift from coach to parent for a moment.  As a parent, I want my two boys to grow up completely capable of dealing with all the drops, splashes and tidal waves of failure that they’ll experience over their lifetimes.  The way that I can do that is by not jumping in every single time they get in trouble.   I can also let them experience the raw emotional pain of failure, as hard as that may be for me to watch and not try to fix.

Blogger and mother of two Stephanie Metz, I think it’s safe to say, shares a similar philosophy.  Her 2013 post “Why My Kids are NOT the Centre of My World” got over a million hits and garnished over 1600 comments to read.  As the Heretic Coach, I’m a pretty hard core writer but when I read her post on the state of parenting and social expectations for kids today versus a time way back when I blushed.  Here’s an excerpt from the post that talks about her two young sons:

“Everyone parents differently, and I respect that. The current generation may be one that expects nothing less than everything from this world. But I know of two gentlemen that are going to be able to accept failure and move on having learned something from it.

I know of two gentleman who will be hurt emotionally, but who will be able to work through the hurt and carry on with life. I will cushion the emotional fall as much as a mom can, but I will not completely prevent it from happening. They will not expect whoever hurt them to be punished. Heck, I might even teach my children the power of forgiveness.

These two gentlemen will understand the value of hard work, and know that hard work is required to get where one wants to be in life.”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the way I will also raise my two boys and it sums up how I feel I’ve gone about my coaching of youth soccer players over the last three decades.

Next post Saturday, September 5th.

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