February 2, 2016

Improve your Coaching through better learning

Written by:
Edd Conway

As a coach it is important to prioritise learning within your plans for development and career progression. In my view, learning is about more than just getting your qualifications, it is about embracing the concept of learning across all aspects of coaching. Whilst not exhaustive, in this blog I’ll discuss some of the areas that coaches can apply learning to and how they may do it.

Formal and Informal Learning

Within all sports there is a clear pathway to demonstrate your learning and development as a coach in formal qualifications and CPD courses. Within my field of Rugby, the RFU has Levels of Qualification as well as CPD workshops that focus on specific areas of the game. Regardless of where you view your coaching ability to be, these are crucial steps for your career and boxes that need to be ticked. Increasingly, Premiership Clubs are also running their own Coach Development workshops and I have attended a number of useful events held by both Wasps and Saracens. Seek these opportunities out because you may pick something up, or just as likely, you’ll meet and chat to other coaches with a variety of experiences and ideas.

On this latter point, informal learning is easier than ever now with the rise of the internet and social media. Twitter has been particularly useful for me to find resources, research papers, interesting articles and to connect with coaches in various sports or research fields. As a result of this interaction online, I have met with some fascinating coaches and sparked ideas to improve my own coaching just through casual conversations. Quick tip (thanks @jattaylor), download the ‘Pocket’ app to your phone to save papers, articles etc that you come across so that you can sit down to read them at a convenient time.

Learn About Yourself

I would always advise young coaches to take up as many coaching opportunities as possible to get as much experience as possible. Experience in different environments, coaching different ages or maybe different sports gives you a wealth of information to process and apply as you move forward in your career. Most importantly, it enables you to understand who you are as a person and a coach, and how that can be best applied to improve your practice. In his book, “Win Forever”, Pete Carroll details how two young coaches started with his programme at USC. Lane Kiffin and Rocky Seto, he recalls, tried to emulate the hard-nosed coaches around them and were “acting outside themselves”. Carroll encouraged them to stay true to their personality to be the “most authentic and effective coaches possible”. Vince Lombardi once remarked succinctly, “You’ve got to do things according to your own personality”. Taking up different opportunities allows you to constantly learn whilst in varying environments. Scott Parker recently revealed to The Guardian that "when you are pushed out of your comfort zone, that's when you realise you may have to learn a little bit more".

Learn About Your Learners

This sub-heading is another phrase borrowed from Pete Carroll but is something that I believe in strongly – it is crucial to establish meaningful connections with your athletes so as to engender trust, open communication, honesty and to understand ‘what makes them tick’. Move beyond the player to get to know the person, where they are from and how their life experience has moulded them. Careful observation before/during/after training or in social situations will give you great understanding. Observation combined with attentive listening will enable you to understand the person and communicate in a way that best suits them and helps them to develop.

Learn About Learning

I’ll be the first to admit that my ‘Learning Theory’ lectures at University didn’t rank among my favourites, however I see now how important it is to have a grasp of the concept of learning. Whether in educational, sporting, music or any variety of setting, people have to learn along the way so as to improve. How one person learns compared to another could have a very real effect on your coaching and having an understanding as to how you might cater to each individual will enable you to get the most out of your athletes. Recently I was listening to ‘The Hidden Brain’ podcast where the particular episode revolved around a former violinist, Maya Shankar. At one stage it discusses her teacher, Itzhak Perlman, and the way he would ask Maya to explain how she thought she could do better and what tools she had at her disposal. He explained “The more you learn to think for yourself and how to make decisions for yourself, the better it will be for future performance”. The crossover to coaching sports was obvious to me. Experience alone isn’t enough if you are unable to pass on the knowledge you have.

Learn to Reflect Whilst Living in the Present

Reflective Practice is purposeful thinking, making the considered effort to consider and recall what happened, the part you played and your view of it as a coach against the expected outcome (SCUK). It enables you to examine your experience and transform it into learning. Think critically and be inquisitive. However, once you have reflected on a match/session/event then take what you can from it and move on. Don’t allow yourself to be a slave to the past or the future as it will create either anxiety or dangerous comfort (Nick Saban). Like Saban, Arsene Wenger recently commented in an interview that “the only moment of possible happiness is the present. The past gives regrets and the future uncertainties”.

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