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Archive for the ‘Insightful Interviews’ Category

I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of them leave me with one or two things to think about but aren’t worth blogging about as such or because I’ve already commented on the issues. This recent chat between John O’Sullivan from Changing the Game Project and author David Epstein really had me jotting down a flurry of notes (requiring three listens of the interview!). Epstein wrote the fantastic book The Sports Gene that looked at how various people were ‘built’ for their sport, and how sports are getting better at finding people who are best suited for them. His new book, Range (which I have yet to read, but am on the waitlist for at my library), focuses on people who succeeded while being a ‘generalist’ – that is, sampling a lot of activities and taking a winding ‘path’ toward success despite the pervasive narrative we hear about kids starting young and succeeding after 1000s of hours of deliberate practice (you’ve probably heard the 10k hours of practice line, which is largely a myth).

Here’s the chat: https://changingthegameproject.com/116-david-epstein/

Here’s the book:

My highlights as it relates to my experience / philosophies as a rugby coach are as follows:

11 mins … ‘Kind’ Learning Environments

Rather than the given examples of golf and chess, rugby is a sport that isn’t turn based and with closed skills. It’s largely random, often chaotic, and while it has recently been heavily structured with set piece like moves creeping into open plan and prescribed plans taking up a lot of play, it doesn’t have to be. Especially at amateur levels, where defences aren’t great, anticipation and reading of the situation is all that’s needed – if athletes are allowed the opportunity to experience this at training. Unfortunately, a lot of rugby training consists of blocked (i.e. box drills) practice and without opposition. Why do we train in ‘kind’ environments when the game isn’t kind? We don’t have to make it as high pressure as the game, but can still train with certain parameters that allow athletes to experience pressure and develop anticipation / reading skills from actual rugby contexts (and for Pete’s sake, please make them ‘rugby-like’ and stop playing rugby netball … we don’t pass forward in the game, so why do it at training at all when you can play or create something that actually challenges athletes to deal with constraints of rugby?)

14:30 … “breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer”

Rugby is a dynamic game that requires athletes to do a whole variety of things – and possibly the complete range of rugby skills – every few minutes. It’s not golf or baseball or even football, but teams often train like it is, doing things in isolation and often with very rigid plans. Rugby also tends to train very narrowly with, in my opinion, and over-reliance on ‘progressions’. How often do players see a neat 2v1 in a game? For new players, that’s a fine drill, but why not quickly move toward small game scenarios where they have to find or create the 2v1 amongst even numbers? The best players can anticipate play, react to opportunities/threats quickly and they’ve done this in environments where they’re allowed to explore and discover solutions that work for them. This can happen with even beginners and small children if the parameters of the activity are realistic to their needs. Provide them, as suggested by Epstein, with principles and the opportunity to develop adaptable skills rather than only giving them procedures to follow and heavy instruction on ‘the ideal’ way to execute techniques (which aren’t as likely to hold up under pressure and risk holding back from athletes a true understanding of the game, because they only ever have to do what they’re told).

From Epstein’s book: “…the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

24:30 … The Calculus Course Study

I found this story fascinating and it highlights that ‘teaching to the test’ isn’t doing the students any favours. I’ve seen this in teams that kicked butt at school level because they had a solid plan and were up on some of the tricks that other teams didn’t know, but you wouldn’t see those players at the next level of play. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your athletes more advanced rugby knowledge – I’m all for it if they’re ready – but it’s important to ensure they know why such things work and how to remain flexible and adaptable, that is having actually learned the skill, not just applied what they were told blindly.

Supporting this is the discussion at 28 mins involving the teacher that seemed to be engaging whilst offering hints to students, with the reality being that they didn’t learn the concept, only eventually had the answer given to them. Lots of coaches now are taking on questioning strategies, which is better practice than simply telling, but a lot of time the questions already lead them to the answer or follow-up questions do, when the coach would be better off leaving athletes with an open question to answer when they’ve worked out the answer themselves (or keep the know-it-all athlete from interjecting!).

33 mins … Spacing

This is a concept I learned a few years ago and still am unsure how to best implement. Maybe there is no fixed way to space out activities to test and it depends on the group? When I did my Level 2 and learned about season planning, most of it didn’t sit well with me. I’m no expert, and admittedly it did seem like a lot more work, but I didn’t want to treat a rugby season like a box-ticking exercise of starting with basic skills and working towards more advanced. Why not mix it up: always working on fundamental skills and addressing things we need to work on as determined by the last game? It seems this is a sound way of doing things, as mentioned in the interview, because revisiting things not only allows athletes to keep working on them but when appropriately spaced out and when faced only with the challenge, not the answers, tests their recall (i.e. whether or not they’ve learned the skill).

Noteworthy coach educator Mark Upton talks about the “challenge point” and former England kicking coach Dave Alred refers to “the ugly zone” – where an activity is not so easy that nothing’s being learned and not so difficult that all the athlete experiences is frustration. And when these activities are returned to at random so that it’s not part of a blocked, robotic, rote procedure, the brain has to reframe and relearn, which apparently builds stronger neural pathways (i.e. the skill is actually learned and easier to recall / apply later). If you think about studying things over and over, even at random intervals, rather than cramming for a test or trying to recall something you learned at the beginning but haven’t visited for a long time, then it totally makes sense. One way Upton demonstrated the limits of repetitive basic practice is asking someone to do simple times tables over and over. Same with forever doing 2v1s… eventually the athletes will get that it’s a simple either/or exercise. We even see this when teams will have their complex patterns all down pat, but then blow a simple play because it’s not something they’ve worked on in ages. Using the math example, throwing in more complex math questions or random ones that aren’t related to each other, causes an individual to use mental math strategies. The same is true when you challenge athletes to solve various, realistic problems that help them with pattern recognition and applying various strategies to see which are best. Small sided games are great for this, because the conditions in any given moment (space, time, who they have vs who we have in this space, positioning of those bodies, etc) all make for a different challenge that isn’t as neat as a drill.  What we want are athletes that have strong understanding of the principles and fundamentals of play and a wide range of flexible/adaptable ‘tools’ that can be applied to any given situation quickly. As such, I think it’s best to work on these things at random so nothing ever becomes rote or is left for such a long time that they cannot be recalled quickly enough when a moment in the game invites their use.

52 mins … Immersive Environments

I’m not sure if it’s 100% true, but years ago it was suggested to me that New Zealanders are as good as they are because they play the game first and fine tune skills later. We tend to do things the opposite way: work on ‘skills’ (often just techniques) separated from the wider context of the game and then explore the game later (if the kids are lucky). Even if a Kiwi kid goes to school or club training and does the same drills as us, if I’m correct in thinking ‘game first’ is part of their success, it’s that their kids will have played a TON more rugby with friends in the park, family in the back yard, and in PE class where things won’t be nearly as structured. If our kids aren’t playing the game like that, then it’s up to us to recreate that at training with a lot more rugby-like game play. Especially in Canada, where our kids tend to start later, if we want to help them learn and have so much fun that they’ll stick with the sport longer, it only makes sense to give them a LOT of game play to develop context-influenced skills and enjoy their time at training. It might not look as neat and ordered as a traditional drill-heavy practice, but ‘immersion’ seems to be not just more fun but also more beneficial!

The story in the interview about Dynamo Zagreb stars who only joined the club late, despite claims that the legendary club ‘developed’ them, made me chuckle. That happens a lot in rugby as well, especially in countries where big money schools offer scholarships to the bring young talents who were already looking good on their own previous environment’s work / natural abilities.

So I think it’s important for our governing bodies – and for those of us ‘in the know’ where that’s not happening – to share best practices with everyone so we can create immersive environments where kids can not only explore and discover practical and creative solutions to the game’s problems, but where they’ll actually have more fun than if they’re forced to do a lot of drills and hope for a game at the end of training. It’s okay if it gets a bit messy, because that’s where learning occurs. A good coach will also adjust the parameters or constraints of activities to ensure that things aren’t too easy or too difficult, and give those who already ‘get it’ new challenges so that they’re not dominating and preventing the others from learning. (Just on that note, one I love is devaluing tries of dominant players: “Great try, Johnny! That’s your five-pointer now, and the rest are only worth one until the rest of your team has scored their five-pointers. You might want to help them by getting assists.”)

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As I dig through the podcasts I feel are worth sharing, with my reflections on moments that impacted me, the next on the list has some lessons that were recently promoted by an official sport governing body. The president of Hockey Canada has urged young kids (and their parents / coaches) to take a break from hockey this summer and do something else. It’s a powerful statement from my country’s most high profile sport and one where kids – not just teens on the cusp of the professional levels – are doing the ‘extras’ all year long in a quest to ‘make it’. I think other sports have already gone this route and rugby is just starting to, which is worrying to me.

In this interview, physical therapist Brett Fischer talks about the injuries were are now seeing in kids that were never before seen because they’re doing too much of the same thing. I also find it uplifting to hear that top draft picks are still multi-sport and that professional sports teams are not afraid to have fun and laugh. Some coaches run training like it’s a military boot camp (and in a future blog post, I’ll compile a bunch of statements I’ve found in old military manuals from half a century ago and more that suggests even back then things weren’t like a ‘military boot camp’ either!).

Below are my time-referenced notes on the podcast:

8:10 – 13:00…

If all sports played in water, would teach to swim correctly? Do we teach kids to run, jump, etc correctly now? Is this generation getting it in PE / recess because they certainly do not engage in free play as much because of how much screen time they have? In sport, tend to give them sport-specific skills younger and younger. Seeing surgeries that kids never got in the old days. (Any Given Monday book.) Not just parents wanting to push, but also fear they’re not keeping up is a significant driver.

13:10 – 18:00…

2017 NFL draft, 30 of 32 first rounders played multiple sports in high school [very similar numbers for 2018 draft]. 90% of the entire 7 round draft group played multiple sports. Ohio State selected 42 of 47 multi-sport athletes. Would be great to see more research around transferable skills, because it’s probably relevant. Even true that pros get time off and if not other sports due to contractual limitations, likely doing things like yoga, martial arts, etc to help movement. Brett sees kids who don’t even have three weeks off in their sport a year. Mental, social, movement benefits.

… in between …

Lots of great stuff about preparation for movement, physiotherapy, and educating parents …

35:30 – 36:35…

Helicopter parents and kids who don’t want to do the sport anymore or who are desperate for a break. For those who still have the goal, mixing it up and taking care of the body is best.

45:10…

“Back in my day …” … but back in the day, kids didn’t play the same sport year-round!

47:50 – 52:35…

How NFL players have fun, laugh in the game, etc compared to high schools taking it too seriously. Enjoying competition and having fun can co-exist; struggle isn’t always pleasurable and fun doesn’t mean being frivolous. Do things that kids like! Mini games can still be sport-relevant. Coach has to think about game design to get both.

 

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Ashley Merryman’s chat with Jeremy Boone on his Coach Your Best podcast back in 2014 was especially insightful to me when I first heard it because I was coaching women at the time. What she found in the research on coaching men vs women and other issues is well worth listening to. My favourite points occur at the time spots noted below…

Ashley Merryman 1 – Coach Your Best Podcast

7:35 Playing to win versus playing ‘not to lose’. Focused on doing the things needed to be successful versus doing things to avoid failure. Ambition versus conservatism.

12:00 – 18:50 Challenge State versus Threat State. Something you think you can be successful at compared to something you’re doubtful of. Both have physiological manifestations… blood vessels expand, blood pressure low oxygen travels better, stored glucose burned better in Challenge State. Blood vessels shrink, glucose in blood stream burned, lungs tighten in Threat State. Cortisol is produced under stress and peaks about 20 minutes after the event. Difficult to recover from, and need to be mindful how one might be able to calm self out of the stressful event. Might be possible to frame a potential stressor better from the onset, taking on the challenge rather than fall into a threat state.

Ashley Merryman 2 – Coach Your Best Podcast

3:35 – 5:10 Positive Thinking. An absolute positive outlook can prevent someone from dealing with problems when they arise. Must be able to think of possible roadblocks and strategies to overcome them. This is a key element in personal and team goal setting.

14:18 – 17:54 Testosterone = aggression is not true. Hormone of motivation, social status. Depends on the value(s) needed for the situation. Could be aggression if that’s what’s called for, but could also be cooperative if that’s the ideal demand. Firefighters and Paramedics both would show high testosterone for rushing into a burning building and calmly dealing with injured people.

20:25 – 24:38 Testosterone boosts prior to challenge / competition can help preparedness, realising and preparing for the Challenge State. Ties into clarity, purpose, focus. Social status seems to reduce – not wanting to defeat friends, for example.

Ashley Merryman 3 – Coach Your Best Podcast

2:25 – 4:28 Generic praise can lead to under-achieving (Carol Dweck’s research). Works until kids experience failure, basing their ability on ‘innate skill’. ‘Other people need to practice, not me.’ Realisation of truth can be really hurtful. ‘So I’m NOT that good???’

9:20 – 12:30 Kids are good at understanding false praise. Best to encourage – not the same as praise – and ask how we can help. Danger of false praise is that genuine critical feedback can be ignored as much as the well-meant lie. Also not an invitation to be hurtful and unnecessarily critical.

14:45 – 18:20 Trophies are a part of empty / false praise. Novices should not be given trophies. Every contest is a competition to the participants and they do not need a physical representative of it in the form of a trophy / medals / etc. for the win. Performance / achievement related to the challenge is more important.

22:10 – 22:37 Elite athletes care more about getting better. Specific feedback is desired, and might want criticism more because they already know what they are good at and want information that will help them get better.

24:48 – 26:16 No need to praise someone who’s in the zone. Can even throw them off with focus being diverted to the person delivering praise.

28:12 – 28:50 Give athletes the ability to decide themselves what’s important before the season begins.

Ashley Merryman 4 – Coach Your Best Podcast

4:21 Gender differences less important than individual capabilities relative to their competitors.

5:10 – 8:00 Possible that women are more likely to calculate odds of success and compete when they feel they have a good chance at winning. Men more likely to take risks without considering the odds so carefully. Women more likely to be under-confident; men over-confident.

8:30 – 14:10 Boys function in groups, comfortable with diversity. Girls in pairs and look for commonality. Might need to encourage to interact with more than just ‘best friend’.

14:10 – 17:25 Girls worry about sticking out from the group, even if it’s being better than their peers. Girls can develop a performance standard that includes everyone in the group. Coaches must be aware of this possibility and encourage them to push beyond for their own sake and the sake of the team (everyone else will do this as well).

19:12 On average, women less willing to join a team. Fear bringing the team down.

21:15 – 25:50 The more elite the athlete, less worried about sticking out. More than males, interested in feedback relationship with coach. “What do you think?” more powerful than critique because women are self-aware and probably their own worst critic. Might need to reel in things that are unnecessarily harsh! Coach must make sure women know they are valued as people.

27:15 – 31:04 Self esteem tied to social status with girls. Remember that no one wants to be lower than the group, especially in a public environment. Important to value that individual and help them through solutions that can raise ability in a 1 on 1. Also has negative effect on others; care about that individual, fear they will be next (Threat State!)

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In this chat between Stuart Armstrong and Jonathan Henderson, Academy Manager from Bristol Rovers FC, they start off with a good discussion about providing athletes with more ‘play’ opportunities. Many years ago, it was impressed upon me from a coach education article that kids don’t participate in as much unstructured play as they used to.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9625186/jonathan-henderson-remastered

From 11:47, Stuart poses that coaches almost have to provide unstructured game opportunities because they can’t trust that it’s happening amongst kids at recess, after school, at the weekend, etc and later he makes the point that, at best, you’d see individuals or a few kids at best, working on blocked practice. This is purely anecdotal, but as a country kid, I rarely had the chance to play with neighbourhood kids when I was young. I could kick a ball against the house, shoot hoops on my own or throw the (American) football/baseball on the roof and field it as it rolled off. While those helped me with some of the technical aspects of the sports I liked, it certainly didn’t help me deal with 1v1 scenarios where I often crumbled under pressure in a real game or, at best, would thrive in low-pressure situations.

At 16:40, Stuart drops the idea of “tact-nicians” rather than “technicians” – athletes who can select from a range of skills rather than apply proficient, single-pattern technique to every situation. I think the key to helping athletes develop true skill is to give them realistic challenges that cause them to explore a range of solutions to problems they find in their sport. It seems to be a mis-guided belief that you can become technically perfect in isolation from context and pressure and then apply that to the conditions of the game. Though this method has been done for ages there’s plenty of research out there that points toward this method being non-conducive to adaptability (i.e. can pass well, in general, but might not be able to adapt to a high-pressure situation and consistently pick the best pass for that situation). I suspect that, in the past, top athletes became great “tact-nicians” despite this apparently not-so-efficient blocked method of training because they’d had a LOT of experience with unstructured play in their lives, from children all the way to adulthood, playing many different games and picking up the ability to anticipate, read, select the best tool, execute with great timing, etc. My wonder is if kids who only ever participate in structured coach-led activities develop this to that degree? Those who have great coaching from a young age possibly will and the big worry for me is how many kids miss the opportunity to enjoy sport and become good at it because of restrictive coaching and the current culture of not participating in unstructured sport with relatively large groups of people.

There’s certainly something to be said about becoming so technically proficient that you can then assess a situation without worrying about technique, but why not mesh the two in our training sessions? I fully believe you can work on technique in the context of a pressured and game-like activity. The concept of ‘task deconstruction’ vs ‘task simplification’ comes into play here and I think it’s a very important distinction for even beginning coaches to understand. Instead of having rugby players stand in a line and fire one-handed passes at each other for 10 minutes, create a little 2v2 game where they have to explore space and pick the right pass for the scenario. They also allow for a lot of reps when you take your group of, say, 20 kids and have them set up four or five mini games that they self-manage (making the space as big as they want and even adapting it for a different challenge part-way through). A couple I’ve used are a ‘front ball v back ball’ game that puts both sides in many different scenarios based upon start position and reaction time, and another where the toss of a die (with tactical constraints written on each face) determines the scenario with very little time for planning. I’ve not being doing such things for years, so haven’t really a significant level of analysis and response, but the athletes I coach certainly find such things more fun and engaging that static, context-free, blocked drills.

From about 40 mins or so onward, I also found it interesting to hear an Academy coach talk about competitive fixtures being important, but that results didn’t matter as much as development. I’m sure the majority of coaches say something similar, but how many put it into practice as such? My only experience with an ‘academy’ was coaching a team that was one in name only. Technically, it was the club’s 2nd XV side but there was no league for them so the youngsters (and a few vets who didn’t care to be first-teamers) were entered into the same league as the club’s 1st XV. The odds were already stacked against the lads given their relative lack of experience and size, but we took each game as an opportunity to measure ourselves not on the scoreline (even though we won a couple of games and ran a couple of more quite close), but on the things we’d worked on in training. One of the highlights of the season for them came despite conceding something like a 5-70 scoreline against a top of the table team. The double digit turnovers they’d won, after we’d spent the week working on choke tackles, jackals and other ways of contesting possession, gave them something to be proud of. The lads treated every turnover as if they’d scored a try, celebrating wildly once the ref’s whistle blew and, now that I think of it, I reckon we had more of those than they scored tries. I couldn’t have been happier hearing them after the game relishing in all of those moments (and ignoring the fact that many led to turnovers in the other direction because the opposition had a massive advantage over us in the scrum).

With a proper focus on what matters most to the team, designing training sessions not to win games but to achieve success in things we can manage, players can more easily and genuinely realise success and learn even despite lopsided scores.

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