Archive for the ‘Insightful Interviews’ Category

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.


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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