It wasn’t much longer than twenty-four hours before I was to see my chargers again, a rare occurrence in my practice as we do not sit under an Academy banner or private school provision. At best I see them twice a week, that is as long as they do not have revision, family commitments or alternative sporting obligations. Practice numbers were often a fluid entity, one that was accepted based on the nature of our coming together and the make up of the club. All this aside, I was still excited, they had worked so very hard and I wanted to use the momentum to fuel our next gathering and to inject our practice session.
As the clock struck thirty past the hour I began to share my reflections with the team, I spoke of effort, unselfish ball movement and execution. I applauded their willingness to explore our various concepts throughout the game as well as their successes in other areas, notably rebounding. I asked for comments from the players, an opportunity to further reflect on our previous performance. The response was light but that was okay, I knew they knew what they had achieved.
Our first activity was a player directed walk-through, players sharing their ideas about each of our designated patterns on offence. We spent eight or nine minutes and I did very little more than lead the cheering and offer the odd comment or correction, but only when asked. The mood was positively confident, it was clear that they had moved to a new identity, a new way of feeling about themselves as a collective and it was exciting. I was determined to hold on to this feeling, to develop their confidence further and allow them the voice they deserved.
With my intentions set we marched through situation after situation, the tempo remained high, the effort and intensity scored well and I felt good, but more importantly I believed the players felt good about themselves and each other. My feelings were not because we had won, nor because we were seemingly having a good practice, but because I wasn’t doing a great deal. A somewhat strange thing to say I know, but the players were talking, sharing ideas, problem-solving and they didn’t even realise it. It was my vision of a learning environment, a place where they sought opinions and shared positions with confidence. It did however make me reflect on our previous session, my request, which wasn’t far from a demand for the players to start to think for themselves. My approach was all wrong, I had to exercise some patients, allow them to find their way. I guess I was struggling with this as we often have so little time and I want to push on, which in itself is fundamentally wrong, athlete-centred does not include ‘I’, rather ‘them’ and ‘we’.
A notable moment…communication is an area that I am really trying to develop within the players, talking, in a leadership voice, to one another, supporting, directing, organising through dialogue as a means of learning and constructing a shared understanding of their play. During our early activities I suddenly asked them to narrate their movement, to verbalise what they were doing. The results were stunning, not complete saturation but a large proportion of the players were talking through their movement patterns and sharing their intentions. I hadn’t thought of the approach before, it certainly wasn’t something I had detailed in my planning. I was observing the players and had noticed how quiet some of them seemed when it suddenly came out of my mouth, isn’t it strange how some of the best ideas require little thought and planning?
We finished our practice with a scrimmage against our second unit of U16 boys, I applied some conditions to the game format but allowed the players to coach and direct themselves. The commentary from the bench was again pleasing, “who’s got home”, “run something”, “what are we in”, all questions that I would have asked myself had I not been trying to allow them to think without my commentary or instruction. We made one or two mistakes and our play in the last few minutes was perhaps not where we would have wanted it to be. I called them in but then failed to finish in the way I know I should have done. Instead of asking them how it went, how they would measure our performance and what key messages we could take away from the activity, I proceeded to tell, I told them we had to do better. Was it that the rattling of the caretakers keys had rushed me and I needed to conclude my session or was it that once again I had fallen foul of my default state, that of the traditional practitioner.
As I walked to my car, hands full, I searched for my keys…would you believe it, I had left my jacket in the gym and the caretaker had locked the building! I looked up to see him stood at the gate to the school, poised to wrap the chains around the cast iron barrier between work and home, the signal was clear, it was the end of his day. I now had to go cap in hand to the guardian of our practice time and employ him to delay his trip home, to ask him to open the door he couldn’t wait to close and to allow me to retrieve my jacket, if only I had taken the time to think…