The Future of Sports Coaching – a word from the experts
A sports match is far more multi-layered than we ever give it credit for: there are far more factors involved in the decision-making process than we realised. This was the key message delivered by Dr Don Vinson at the Coach Logic Conference at the Loughborough University London Campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
One coach who has recognised the complexity of matchplay is successful Great Britain and England women’s hockey coach Danny Kerry, who employed Thinking Thursdays as his secret weapon in the battle for gold at the Rio Olympics.
Vinson quoted Kerry as he outlined his thoughts on coaching styles and techniques to the gathered audience of football, rugby and hockey coaches.
“We create situations that the players may face in the game itself and then we pile the pressure on so that the players get used to making decisions in tough circumstances,” said Kerry in an interview that appears on the Coach Logic website.
He goes on to say: “The ‘posh’ word for it is to create multiple ‘affordances’ to practice the situation you want. What this means is that the more times you put the player in a situation, you create greater capacity for the athlete to problem solve that situation in real time.”
For Vinson, who is a lecturer in sports coaching at Worcestershire University and coached Hockey National League side Sutton Coldfield, the art of coaching has moved on light years from the days of “telling and yelling”, and Kerry’s approach – giving players the skills to make great decisions – is the epitome of the ‘new way’. Vinson cites the All Blacks [New Zealand’s rugby union side] as the team that first began to build a ‘we’ culture among the squad. The All Blacks, said Vinson, empowered the players, created opportunities to learn how to make decisions under intense pressure and used coaching to get the players’ mindset right before a game.
The practical outcome of the All Black’s approach is there for all to see as they dominate world rugby union, but there are an army of academic heavyweights who also advocate player empowerment.
Vinson quotes Professor Jean Cote, who spoke of the four ‘C’s’: Competence (sport specific skills); Confidence (a feeling of self worth among players); Connections (bonds between people and institutions); and Character (which includes respect for the rules and codes of the game).
Alongside these qualities, coaches should also have inter and intra-personal skills, allowing interactions with others but also a period of self-reflection – something else Kerry refers to as he explains how he changed his own coaching style to meet the demands of the role.
Vinson also quoted Pam Richards, a former hockey coach who has been developing the Naturalistic Decision-Making approach to coaching. This, said Vinson, showed a clear link between the principles of learning employed by the army and principles that could be transferred to the coaching environment.
Richards’ theory was that players could learn to make good decisions by exposure to extreme pressure. She advocated a slow analysis of events: what was the course of action chosen? what were the options available? By repeating and repeating, the players (military) would arrive at a great decision based on experience and analysis. This was referred to as the Shared Mental Model. By the time the team (military) get to the real life situation, they have explored all the options.
Vinson explained that the idea was echoed by Danny Kerry when the coach explained that in the build-up to Rio 2016, his players were subjected to “chaotic and contextually random situations”.
Kerry’s strategy was to mirror and amplify a situation. As an example, a sample session might include the instruction, ‘you can only pass forwards or you must keep the ball in the left-hand channel’, it is about creating an overly chaotic environment so it becomes second nature to work within it and make decisions.
For Vinson, tactical decision-making is crucial to a good performance and the knowledge to make a good decision is largely due to the coach creating situations where the players explore options and make choices. But, there are many other factors at work. Vinson spoke of a holistic approach, where psycho, social and cultural factors all play their part in the decision-making process. This could include personal experiences in a similar situation; how smoothly match preparation has gone on that day; it could even be down to the club’s culture – is it a club that historically is naturally defensive or is it a club where attacking play is the main tactic?
Coaches are in a position where they can shape the environment and the decision-making process but, increasingly, the players’ own sense of empowerment is being recognised as essential for a successful team performance.
Michael Ayres, director of education, theology and learning at St Mary’s University, London, spoke about self-directed learning and the way this form of tuition has been introduced at St Mary’s to empower the students.
Ayres, who works with players at Leinster Rugby, St Mary’s University and Chelsea Football Club, is exploring the importance of empowerment in both the education and sporting sphere. He spoke of Coach Logic’s role in this process. “Coach Logic connects learning environments for our students. We see the classroom as the one dimensional learning environment; the pitch is the two-dimensional environment and the Coach Logic platform brings it all into a three-dimensional learning environment.” In other words, Coach Logic connects coaching and players by bringing learning out of the classroom, off the pitch and into other environments.”
These new learning environments could be in a feedback session involving the whole team, it could be a small group of players or it could just be an individual on his or her phone, communicating with other players via social media.
This is important because, for Ayres, one of the strengths of the feedback and analysis opportunities provided by Coach Logic was the ability for learners to reflect on their performance with others. “It is no fun reflecting on your own,” he said. “Coach Logic helps make it fun and social.”
For young players, making feedback fun and social is very important. James Benson, head analyst at West Ham United Academy is part of a team of nine analysts who help players from as young as nine to analyse and understand their performances.
“We run match analysis sessions after a day of school work,” he said. “Imagine, as a nine year old, finishing school and then sitting down to analyse a football match.”
Via his presentation, Benson showed delegates just how engaged the young players were in looking at matches in detail and discussing the options and actions shown on the screen. The young players would stand at the front of the group and point out where decisions were made – the opportunity for these footballers to develop skills of communication, leadership and analysis were immediately evident.
Video analysis is used throughout the academy and continues even if the players are transferred to another club. Each player has his own Individual Player Development programme which he takes with him throughout his time as a West Ham footballer.
For a sport such as football, which even the coaches working within it agree is entrenched in old-style, coach-dominated training methods, this is a huge step forward.
Another analyst from the Academy showed just how far football has come: “Yes, our aim is to make a first team player but we are also helping these youngsters succeed as people. We provide a safe environment where they can take full ownership of their own learning.”
The room full of top level coaches nodded in agreement and as the session drew to a close there was a sense that coaching has just taken a large step into the future.