Who Am I?

I was asked to write something about myself in contribution to a student project, the focus was Black History Month and the passionate students were attempting to shine a light on every day stories. In short, they were looking for biographies that were ‘closer to home’ and that might resonate with them and their audience. Unfortunately, questions were asked about the content and as yet, the project has failed to garner support, and thus remains behind closed doors. However, having spent some time recalling many unpleasant memories, I did not want my efforts to go unread. What follows is a brief biographical portrait, one that I hope is presented to you in the true spirit of #BHM.

Beenie Man poses a profound question in his hit single[1], “Who Am I?” This characterization question (Schechtman, 1996[2]) seeks to unravel notions of personhood and self-identity towards the conceptualization of self, and the distinct features of one’s personal identity. In responding to the question, I lean on the culinary, musical and social characteristics that have fashioned the man in the mirror. Indeed, I enjoyed Sunday dinner made of stewed brown chicken, yam, callaloo, fried dumplings and peas. However, Who Am I is also a reflection of the numerous battles that I have faced and continue to face. It is both an internal and external mêlée, one that I have tussled with, sought understanding from, and one that continues to define me. As such, I invite you in to view the portrait of who I am.

I, like many of African-Caribbean decent, grew up in a lone parent family household, not a bastard as I was born in wedlock, but my father left shortly after my third birthday. He was a strong man, born into abject poverty in 1941 in Clarendon, Jamaica. He spent his childhood years in a small ranch like construction, no more impressive than a makeshift shelter. He did not enjoy the privilege of formal schooling, travel or play. Yet, when presented with the opportunity, he joined the Windrush[3] generation and made his way to Britain. 

My mother, the daughter of a GI bride,[4] spent her early life in the southern States of America, in itself a challenge. On returning to Britain following the collapse of her mother’s marriage, she lived a humble life prior to meeting, and later marrying my father.  This was all at a time when segregation, discrimination and overt racism prospered.

I was born October 1970. My early childhood was littered with dreadful acts of racism, all of which were accepted behaviour in the ‘Me Decade[5]’. The overt distaste and disrespect for people of colour flourished, and to which I fell victim, over and over again. The ridiculous caricatures and the outlandish perceptions of what it was to be black penetrated my exterior and stained my soul. Indeed, the barbed insults, such as ‘Monkey’, ‘coon’, and ‘wog’, in themselves were excruciating, but the reinforcement of these thoughtless imitations of blackness left me indignant. Yet, it is not the case that these epithets were so ingrained and perpetuated by popular media, rather that they were unconscious terms wherein the agent did not understand the hurt and level of upset exacted upon me. In other words, to them they were not always used as insults, which made their use even more heinous. 

“I am not de problem, but I bare de brunt of silly playground taunts an racist stunts.”

Benjamin Zephaniah[6]

Throughout my formative years I lived in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hyson Green, a ward overwhelmed by poverty, prostitution, drugs and violence. This socially constructed habitus was my daily worldview, my socialised existence, considered by cultural participants and outside observers to be nothing more than a frozen norm. In other words, just the way it was. I recall, as an eight-year old boy (I think) one such day:

It was a normal school day, my mum had woken me as she did each day, asked me to be good, to be honest and to be just as I prepared myself. What was special about the day, to me at least, was that I had woke to a dead body in front of our flat. A young woman lay embedded in the grass verge not ten feet from our door, yet all around me life continued completely oblivious of the death. I was quickly dressed and ushered out the door and towards whatever sense of normal I could grab hold of for the day.

School was punctuated with daily incursions by ‘enemy forces’ occupying many and all fronts. The playground bully, the local gangs, and even the professionals charged with my care. Every teacher in my junior school was white, they didn’t look like me and they didn’t sound like me, yet for some reason they boasted of knowing exactly who I was. I was ‘trouble’, I ‘had an attitude’, ‘a look about me’ that would get me nowhere in life! My father would scoff, “na bodda wid dem, jus tek wat yuh need.”  This would be an education, the capital required to develop self, to better prepare for the world at large. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. School was difficult, the daily thrashing of the cane, reminiscent of the vicious punishment depicted in Roots[7]. I found both the portrayal and the reality painful. 

Moving up to the secondary school, we (I forgot to mention that I am an identical twin, a point noted by my teachers as they referenced us as “double the trouble”) were afforded the opportunity to attend Bluecoat Comprehensive School (I purposely name this institution as a classic example of structural racism), an architecturally impressive building with a reputation for advancement across its student body.

My first day on campus was illuminating to say the least. We (six students from an inner-city junior school) had come from a diversely rich environment and yet, with limited warning, found ourselves thrust into a white space. In fact, we were the first cohort of non-whites to join the school. We all knew it wasn’t going to work. The conscious intolerance for people of colour was repeatedly impressed upon us in the daily exchanges with staff and students. The racial hierachy held a dominant place deep within the fabric of the school.

Having survived compulsory education, I enrolled on a Youth Training Scheme[8] (YTS) as opposed to considering my place in further or higher education. During this period of my life, and as a young man living in Nottingham in the 1980s, I, like many people of colour, endured the popular Police stop and search[9] procedures of the time. The strategy has been widely reported to be disproportionately employed in an overly aggressive manner towards young men of colour (Equality & Human Rights Commission, 2010). I recall many such incidents, however, one exchange in particular stays with me: 

After an evening out in a city centre bar, myself, my brother, and two friends were walking home through the Chapel Bar area of Nottingham. We were suddenly, and aggressively accosted by four male police officers. Officer ‘A’ stepped in front of me and asked me where I was heading. My comeback, atypical of a 17-year old was brisk. His response was to grab me by the collar, push me up against a wall and spout “look nigger, if you want trouble you can have it.” In a sudden state of shock, my friends and I did not offer any retort or sudden movement, we merely stood compliant. The officer continued to refer to me as ‘nigger boy’ and asked if I wanted to fight him. In fact, at one point he begged me to throw a punch so that he could “put me where I belong.”

I have attempted to present my early lived life with verisimilitude. In doing so, I am able to reflect on the brutal physical and emotional reality of living black in the UK. Unfortunately, the sentiment of racial inequality has not dwindled in frequency. Time has failed to soften the tenacity of the racist, it merely offers cover, and at times, authenticity to the thinking behind the behaviour.  As an adult of some standing, I continue to face the challenges of my past. I was recently stopped by a police officer, physically handled and verbally abused because, in the officer’s words, “I looked like an immigrant.” Whilst pursuing a career in sport development I applied for a position that I believed I was more than qualified to do. Following my unsuccessful interview, the feedback was, and I quote, “you didn’t look me in the eye.” I view both incidents as examples of asymmetric communication, a power relationship that would have me respond “yes master” and cower to the prevailing power structure.

In summary, I occupy many and most spaces in solitude, striving to break through various barriers to be seen as a coach, an educator, and as a professional. Still, I continue to face ignorance, refusal and rejection, comments such as “it is nice to see someone like you here” – National Teaching Fellowship Scheme awards dinner, 2017. “How did you get this position?” – Sport England Regional Sports Board, 2009. And even more ridiculous to digest is the deeply rooted misconception buried in a statement directed at me by a manager, “don’t you go to the barbers for your drugs?” – Curriculum Team Leader, Bradford College, 2015.

The list is long, I could go on, detailing incident after incident, however, I have been asked to write of my experiences in celebration of #Black History Month. In doing so, my task was to invite you in and grant you access to my lived experience, to the person behind the colour. To this end, I have enjoyed success in many quarters. I am a five-time graduate currently engaged in Doctoral study. I am an Advanced HE[3] Senior Fellow and National Teaching Fellow recipient, the first to be recognised from Higher Education in Further Education. I am the first black UKCC[4] Level 4 coach, and one of the first three coaches to complete the programme. I have been nominated three times for the UK Coaching ‘Coach of the Year’ award and am a recipient of the 2019 Basketball England ‘Regional Coach of the Year’ award. 

I wear these achievements with pride. They provide me with a sense of accomplishment despite the treatment exacted upon me. I can say that I have coached and taught hundreds of young people, and that I have been recognised for my contributions to their lives. I cannot say that I am recognised as an equal or afforded the same respect, parity, and dignity of those alongside me. No matter the setting, the battles remain constant.

In closing, and as part of the promise[5] that underpins Black History Month, I reach out to you the reader and ask you to engage in dialogue, to allow yourself to be vulnerable so that we may begin to effect change. Shying away from the difficult conversations does not reduce the threat, it merely shelters and preserves the racial hierarchy. To challenge the very roots of racial prejudice we must speak up. We can no longer accept any level of injustice, and certainly not a George Floyd (41), Breaonna Taylor (26) or Alatiana Jefferson (28). We must seek fairness, equality, healing and freedom. 


[1] Many Moods of Moses, 1997

[2] Schechtman, M. (1996). The constitution of selves, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

[3] People arriving in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. MV Empire Windrush brought workers from Jamaica

[4] War brides who married military personnel

[5] Tom Wolfe, 1976

[6] Rasta poet and Oxford Professor of Poetry nominee

[7] 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel Roots

[8] Outlined in the 1980 white paper A New Training Initiative: A Programme for Action

[9] Police Stop and Search activity is carried out under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)

[10] Senior Fellowship is awarded to professionals who demonstrate they meet the criteria of the Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education

[11] United Kingdom Coaching Certificate

[12] A time to rejoice and celebrate integrity, leadership and determination. It is about showing your true character.

Value

I spent my first week back on court after a six-month hiatus. I am also looking forward to a new year, a new semester and to getting back to teaching as I prepare for the 20-21 intake of undergraduate students. This being said, it is clear to me, and all that reside on planet earth, that all will not be the same, that the status quo is a new norm, a new way of being. One that will stretch our ability to engage, interact and produce meaningful learning, learning that is of value to the athletes and students in my charge. As a result, I recently sought to better understand value, and more specifically, value within my role as teacher and coach. Questions of self-worth, worth as measured by others, and the degree of my impact on teaching, coaching and learning. For example, I was recently notified that I had been nominated for the UK Coaching Performance Coach of the Year, something that I feel very proud to be able to say. However, what does it really mean? Is it a measure of my will to coach? Or, does it reflect the impact of my coaching practice on my athletes? Do the athletes / students hold me in high regard? Maybe I ask the same of the people I work with, or perhaps my employer? Interestingly, in Rousseau (1989) Psychological Contract theory the terms of the exchange are framed along a continuum, ranging from transactional to relational and are underpinned by values and beliefs. In other words, what one wishes to gain from the exchange and how one is seen. With this in mind, I offer what somebody gave to me in response to a challenge of my psychological contract:

A father said to his daughter: You graduated with honors, here is a car that I acquired many years ago … it is several years old.

But before I give it to you, take it to the used car lot downtown and tell them I want to sell it and see how much they offer you.

The daughter went to the used car lot, returned to her father and said, “They offered me $1,000 because it looks very worn out.” The father said, “Now take the car to the pawn shop.” The daughter went to the pawn shop, returned to her father and said, “The pawn shop offered $100 because it was a very old car.” The father asked his daughter to go to a car club and show them the car.

The daughter took the car to the club, returned and told her father, “Some people in the club offered $100,000 for it since it is a Nissan Skyline R34, an iconic car and sought after by many.”

The father said to his daughter, “I wanted you to know that the right place values ​​you the right way.” If you are not valued, do not be angry, it means you are in the wrong place. Those who know your value are those who appreciate you. 

Never stay in a place where no one sees your value.

– Author Unknown

Lockdown: Developing the Coach-Self

Amidst the chaos and turmoil that has been and continues to be our pandemic experience, stories of who we are, our strength of mind and inner character present themselves across our preferred media outlets. We see examples of determination run free across the open spaces, connected networks and shared narratives of the World Wide Web. Indeed, among it all I too have been drawn in to the new norm, and as a result, jump to engage in the next Zoom or Skype call, an MS Teams clinic, and whatever is on offer in an attempt to develop self. In short, this new time and space we have been granted has allowed us to construct professional networks and to pursue visions of the effective coach-self, the very self I have waxed lyrically over in the months prior to the pandemic world and in my own corner of the web. However, I now wish to pause and consider the value of these experiences and to question exactly what it is I have gained from the new order.

The associated research literature tells us that coaches develop through a blend of informal, formal and non-formal means, and that central to this brocolage of learning is the lived experience of the practicing coach. We may wish to frame this as workplace affordance, a concept that provides us with access and opportunity to career development through our observations and experiences as a practicing coach. Indeed, much of my own research reflects this form of learning and a personal desire from each of my research participants to engage in observations and conversations as a way to clarify their understanding of the coaching process. Our latest non-formal endeavour promotes the use of social media as a way to connect with the lived experiences of others and to build meaning from their stories. Certainly, within the personal narratives we can find creativity, passion and a willingness to share what they do and why they do it. The question is, can we find learning within the experiences of others, and if so, how do we transfer this new knowledge to our own practice environment?

Non-formal learning has been situated as a prominent form of coach development, a means of advancement that has been reported to hold the most value to the practice  of the sports coach. It comes in various shapes and sizes and is often described as a clinic, seminar or webinar. This mode of development reflects the collective needs and wants of the targeted subgroup and provides opportunities for each member to interpret information through their own contextual lens. Thus, the process of learning rest with the individual and the subsequent interpretation and conceptualisation of their working knowledge. This personal agency is what moves the coach-self to engage with the lived experience of others and to successfully dissect the narrative in order to inform and shape their own practice.

Returning to our new order and the emergent provision of ‘Question & Answer’ sessions via a Zoom call, can we say with a degree of confidence that this organised and semi-systematic approach to a ‘coach conversation’ has helped to develop our coach-self? Certainly, I believe it fair and just to describe the content of the provision as a form of proximal guidance, identifying what is and isn’t known. In fact, interaction with various master coaches from around the world has been situated as a valuable means of coach development. With this in mind, I would like to position the experience as a valuable contribution to my professional development and would encourage the UK basketball coach community to pause and reflect on the musings of the knowledgeable others. In doing so, the coach-self can begin to interpret the many messages shared within the conversations and begin to construct meaning that is both personal and important to them and their context. For example, the notes I have made throughout the lockdown include consideration of communication, what I do resonating with my athletes, being curious in all that I do, and the importance of planning. The next stage for my development as a coach is to interpret these messages and frame them within my own context, something I employ us all to do.

Basketball Coach: ‘An Honest and Open Conversation About Racism’

The following ideas, thinking and practices emerged as a result of an ‘Honest and open conversation about racism’. Coach A (white male) engaged in a conversation with Coach B (black male) in an attempt to elicit the lived experience of being black in the United Kingdom. The idea was conceived out of a willingness to have an uncomfortable conversation as a way of developing cultural competence. In fact, it is true that in order to address anti-black issues we must recognise their existence in a multitude of spaces, and that these spaces contribute to structural racism.

The conversation began with Coach B sharing his personal experiences at the hands of the Police, education and sport, all considered to be social structures entrenched in battles for equality. During the conversation, terms such as ‘whiteness’, ‘institutional racism’,  ‘structural racism’, ‘prejudice’ and ‘civil rights’ were discussed, and Coach B shared his understanding of these terms. It should be noted that Coach B believes that in order to be effective in our practice, each and every coach should understand the definition and delivery of each of these terms.

  • Race – the grouping of society (humans) based on what is considered to be common physical and/or social qualities
  • Prejudice – an idea deeply rooted within an individual, organisation or sub-section of society that is driven by distaste over reason or actual experience
  • Civil Rights – an essential component of democracy in as much as they seek to guarantee the rights of everybody
  • Equality – an equal condition, be that social or otherwise, in promotion of access and opportunity to goods and services
  • Exercise of Power – power structures serve to influence and shape society through their organisation and statue
  • Structural Racism – “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity” (The Aspen Institution)
  • Institutional Racism – racism expressed in social and political institutional

What a coach can do to be effective:

  • Communication – consider how you communicate with your charges, and more importantly, how equitable your dialogue is. This may include the use of colloquial terms, colourful language and/or sweeping generalisations that marginalise the recipient. As a general rule, we should be aware of the content, context, timing and frequency of our information-giving and acceptance behaviours.
  • Language is perhaps a consideration within our communication profile; however, it is important that we do not attempt to ridicule, imitate or possess what is not ours. In other words, our language should be authentic, appropriate and non-bias. Furthermore, it should not be pejorative, so we must understand the origins of language and how words may contribute to minimisation of a community (see below for examples):

Coloured – Racial slur, ethnic descriptor employed in South Africa to describe non-whites
Half-Caste – Impure, unequal, cast-off
Nigger – originally denoted black people, the word was used to oppress and segregate people. The word has been described as the most ‘loaded and troublesome’ word in the English language

  • Coaching Practice – within our practice, do we offer equality in access to opportunities, these include, demonstration, response, questioning and time (both personal and collectively)? In order to provide an equitable learning environment, each and every individual should feel as though they have a voice, that they are heard, and that they can come to you as the coach should the need arise.
  • Empathy not sympathy – the Black Lives Matters campaign is about acknowledging the imbalance, the lack of parity within the structures and systems that serve to marginalise and reduce the importance of the black community. What is needed is a collective representation from ALL that equality should be front and centre to all that we do. What the black community do not need is for an individual to live their life in an attempt to sympathise with them. Again, this point goes back to the concept of authenticity.
  • Removal of stereo typing – a point very closely linked to language and communication, but nevertheless a very important consideration within the philosophy, thinking and practice of the basketball coach. Expectancy theory suggests that sport coaches formulate opinions with regards to their athletes ability. We must be mindful of the perceptions we construct and ensure that they do not include any bias, discrimination or judgement based a specific stereotypes.
  • Voice – allowing all within our charge to have a voice, to be heard and understood.

1st Quarter Success…

My planning revolves around four quarters, each being a blend of micro, meso and macro consideration, and as such, focused on individual, team and tactical markers. For example, our first quarter focus breaks down individual roles in both advantage and disadvantage situations, and at both ends of the floor. I tend to keep it simple, three defensive rules and five offensive principles as a means of guiding everything we do, and I do mean everything. I believe that having consistent cues, language that offers us all a frame of reference keeps the messaging consistent and supports the production of congruous performance in each Moment of the Game.

Today’s game represented the end of quarter one, a quarter where we had attempted to develop an understanding of our three and five philosophy, our identity and the individual roles assigned to each Moment of the Game, and agreed at the beginning of the season. I don’t believe that these eight areas of focus are in any way ground breaking or indeed innovative. In fact, I am guessing that colleagues would refer to them as ‘bread & butter’, the stable elements of invasion sport. However, I have stuck to these ideas throughout my coaching, and, at one point, I actually placed them within a framework. I referred to this as our ‘System of Life’ (SoL).  I felt that each element of the framework could equally serve to guide us through any situation. For example, I spoke of spatial awareness (spacing), understanding where you were in any given moment, your shape, movement and the movement pattern required in response to the situation. For me, spacing requires the development of body, time and movement awareness, agility and execution throughout the moment and in line with the individual role.

On my drive over to the venue today, I reflected on our 1st quarter success, on our SoL and our practice sessions over the past five day’s. I entered the arena comfortable that the boys had been working hard, that they wanted to improve, and that we had achieved some mileage within our 1st quarter journey. Unfortunately for me, none of what I had contemplated offered any degree of personal reassurance, I felt somewhat out of sorts, a personal matter had been plaguing me all week and it was now leaning on me. I attempted to move the thought to a side, however, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t suddenly going to just go away.

I sat down in front of the players and delivered my 45 second pre-game address. I had spent the hour prior to the game sorting out video capture and had not had the chance to really converse with the players. I will say though, I am not sure just how important it is to deliver any direction or offer a motivational sound bite to take them into the game. I had however planned on talking about our distance travelled, what we had accomplished to this point and where we wanted to go next. The truth of the matter was simple, I wasn’t going to get much more than 45 seconds so my message was uncomplicated, “discard the mistakes and move on!” We had scouted pretty well, the video had told us what we needed to do and our Friday practice had allowed us to go through our individual roles. So, ‘discard the mistakes’ was to be our game mantra, our approach for the next forty minutes and who we sought to be.

As we lined up for the tip I asked our jumper, “where is it going?” “Where is the ball going?” I got no reply. I then said, “number 13, your ball” – having looked at the player positioning on the floor, I was confident that we could win the tip and that our number 13 was the open man. I was wrong, we won the tip but it went straight to the opposition. Was my questioning wrong? Should I have been more directive and instructional? I thought the ‘play’ was obvious, the advantage clear. I then questioned myself, had I coached that moment? Was it something we had covered in our practice? It was both a micro and meso element, yet I was confident that I had not overtly discussed our positioning and approach to the jump ball situation. Why not? We lost the quarter 11-10 but went on to win the game 83-52…perhaps there is a message yet to be uncovered here about my planning and my practice!

East Coast Clash

We hadn’t practiced for a week, I had been away in Madrid enjoying the on-court excellence of Movistar Estudiantes, C. B. Fueniabrada and a number of the Madrid youth squads. However, I wasn’t worried, in fact I was pretty comfortable with where we were, what we had developed and our identity, enough so that my drive over to the East coast was a relaxed and pleasant one. The game was due to tip at 10.30am, we had arrived in plenty of time, warmed up and were ready, or so I thought! We started the game with an attempt to show our very best self, however, what we got was a lacklustre reflection of a team that had just enjoyed seven days apart. Our execution was less than what we wanted, we were static, the ball failed to move with any degree of pace or accuracy, and we were unable to score. In any other gym we would have been down, trailing to nothing more than our poor play, however, our opposition seemed happy to join us in our inferior bubble as they too could not put the ball in the basket.

I was all over the place, I could hear a bellowing, an instructive tone directing play, shaping movement and attempting to energise our identity. My coach self was engaged in the game and I could feel the clashes of battle with every bounce of the ball. Every pass, dribble and player movement was accompanied with some kind of commentary, the more I tried to pull my coach self back, to restrict the overt involvement of my coach-centred other, the more I got frustrated. I called a timeout, on both my coach self and the game. I pulled the players together and pleaded with them to find their true self, to allow our identity, who we were and sought to be to shine through. I knew that shouting at them was not me and it wasn’t them and it certainly wasn’t us! Instead, I asked them to trust each other, to fight through our poor execution by communicating and supporting one another. I let them go and allowed myself to smile, to picture our true self.

The game continued to be a rollercoaster of emotions, however, our mistakes were no longer as visible, I had pulled myself together, refocused my attention to presenting a more effective vision of self. We had begun to regain a semblance of self, our play, while not quite what we had in mind, had improved, we began to ‘up’ the pace, spread the floor and attack. Defensively, we remained out of sorts, however, I said nothing, I merely watched from the end of the bench, removed from the players waiting to enter the game and out of sight of the late rotations, missed block outs and ‘blow byes’. I left the players to work it out for themselves, to debate where it was they were going wrong and to solve the problem free from my direction. It was uncomfortable, my instructive self kept fighting for position but I held my ground. I refused to direct the game anymore. Instead, I offered praise, minimal feedback and questioning as a dish best served with the concept of independent thinking athletes.

The conclusion of the game was very much the start of “what next?” What would we do to fix the many poor decisions, inefficient movement and lack of execution present within our play? As I drove home I wonder where the players minds were at, what it was that they were thinking and how they saw the game. Perception is an interesting concept, we each view our performance through a slightly different frame, the lens is often tinted to a certain value, a position that is individual and reflective of self. Perhaps I sought for a vista removed from where the players wished to travel. A land too far in the distance that they were unable to visualise what it offered. Or, is travel dependent on instruction? Is it, that in order to elevate our play we have to be directive, instructional and overt in our behavioural delivery of what is needed in each and every moment of competition? I had spent the previous week defending my vision, citing the associated research literature as a guiding light to improved performance, but everything else was telling me to direct the next performance if I ever wanted to be successful.

What you see isn’t what you always get…

Learning within the domain of sport coaching is perhaps best understood as a blend of formal, informal and non-formal occurrences, opportunities to engage in observation, experience, debate and reflection. With this in mind, the past seven day’s have stimulated my curiosity and fuelled my aspiration. In fact, I have been bombarded with learning messages, instances where I was able to debate, dissect and synthesise the multiplicity of basketball knowledge on offer from the current World Champions. Indeed, having the opportunity to observe the practice environments of some of the best teams in Madrid has been an eye opener, and a pleasure. Some of what was on offer served to underpin and reinforce my thinking, and some of the presented content represented challenges to a number of sensibilities. Certainly for me, I would situate some of the more coach-centred practice outside of my own coaching profile. However, I recognise that as well as being a socially constructed endeavour, coaching is also a situational practice. This being said, I think what is important, and what will continue to be central to my development as a basketball coach, is accepting the breadth of knowledge available and filtering what is relevant and real for my context.

Whilst enjoying the hospitality of the Madrid Basketball Federation, I found myself particularly fascinated by the many similarities between my content, delivery and philosophy, and what was being presented on the hardwoods of the various clubs dotted around Madrid. I felt fortunate to be able to say “I do that”, it served as a comfort blanket to my practice, a way of confirming that what I do is within an acceptable tolerance of normal practice, perhaps even effective practice. This being said, I was intrigued by the very coach-centred approach to the development of their young players. It was most definitely a ‘my way’ of constructing and delivering on-court performance. It certainly seemed clear from the bleachers that many of the coaches actions were underpinned by a behaviourist mentality. Now this is perhaps an unfair statement as my observations were free from context and lacked any real understanding of what had passed before the actions. However, I couldn’t help but think that the approach would never resonate with me as an acceptable methodology, regardless of the level of play. The problem with this thinking was, the young basketball players moved with freedom, they appeared to be able to make decisions and execute moments of the game unrestricted. In short, they played a style of basketball I very much respected and yet was unable to replicate within my own context.

Moving beyond the volumes of content and to a state of reflection, I am able to consider the connections, interactions and exchanges enjoyed in the corridors, bleachers and dinning areas of the tour. The wealth of knowledge and experience on offer was phenomenal and served to really fuel my thirst for advancement as a coach. In particular, the depth of passion for the practice, and the technical knowledge that underpinned many of the coaches descriptions of their coach identity was impressive. Not only did they display declarative and procedural knowledge in abundance, they were analytical in their observations, quick to unpick what was on offer on the many courts we visited. The plethora of individual journeys was also intriguing, it really opened my eyes to the many developmental pathways present in pursuit of being identified as coach.

Our time spent watching the games was interesting, the coach behaviour on offer during many of these competitive exchanges was varied and sought to offer no really way forward. For example, at the junior level there was a great deal of instruction, although I wasn’t sure exactly what was being said, it was directive and often followed a mistake. On the other hand, the senior games saw a great deal of self presentation and management, a little like Goffman’s concept of the performative self. In fact, one or two of the coaches could easily have been put forward for an Oscar. The flailing of arms, the tossing back of the head and constant remonstrations were most definitely a reflection of a theatrical coach self. Yet, the on-court performance was impressive, thus challenging my thinking and questioning my entire thesis. For this reason alone, the notes, conversations and topical exchanges enjoyed will continue to shape and inform my practice as I visit and revisit the thinking of the many coaches that now contribute to my developmental journey.

Emotional rollercoaster

Having arrived at the venue in plenty of time I felt relaxed and prepared. We had spent a great deal of time on the scout, covered as much as I felt we could have in the time we had, and enjoyed a number of positive hours on the court. I stood and chattered with parents for five minutes before going to see the team. I had stuck my head into the changing room earlier and was greeted by laughter, banter and a pretty strong baseline. All in all, the mood was light, confident and prepared.

I started by discussing identity, knowing who we were as individuals and how this fed into the collective ‘we’. I challenged each player to find their inner confidence, a source of energy that would bring out their very best version of self. I then spoke of our approach and how this would enable us to meet our goals, focusing in on our five offensive principles and three defensive rules. I asked the players to trust that each other would be there for them, that they would communicate with each other and help each other through the difficult parts of the game, the moments when we were unsure what was next. I finished with my Sunday best speech and a motivational nugget to send them on to the floor.

We got off to a good start, offensively, our spacing was okay, we made decisions based on our game preparation, and the five individuals that started the game appeared to be in control and confident in their game play. I was in a comfortable place, my pre-game nerves had quickly dissipated and I found a calm and relaxed self occupying the side line of a unfriendly hardwood. I spoke to the bench, asked them to consider moments, actions and reactions as they occurred on the floor and to solve problems in preparation for their entrance into the game.

However, and perhaps as is to be expected from the competition setting, the mood began to shift. The calmness that had held me together and kept me where it was I wanted to be had become uncomfortable, it began to wriggle its way free and leave me exposed and vulnerable. I could hear instruction as it began to take over my behaviour, my questioning was retreating, and I was caught in the middle. Our play was no longer a reflection of our identity, who we wanted to be, but rather a desperate attempt to fend off our opponent as they flexed their muscle and kicked and screamed their way back into the game. I often refer to this as a state of mental breakdown, fear that we, our collective and shared identity would not hold up against the pressure. The symptoms were a lack of communication, poor decision making and failure to solve immediate problems as they showed themselves to us.

We got to half time with a lead, but our play, or rather our identity, was very much in doubt. We had lost sight of the things that we did well, the things that secured our shared being, and instead, we were battling to survive as one. I watched us walk to the changing room, pausing only to gather my thoughts. I didn’t speak for long, partly because I wanted their voices to own the time and space we had. I merely asked them to look at one another, and with honesty and composure, find a way to fix what, if anything, was broken. I then left them and went to a quiet place myself, a place where I could regroup and consider my role, my behaviour and how I could help to get us rebalanced and heading in a direction that best reflected who we had agreed to be.

The wave of pressure that typically accompanies the third quarter of a basketball game did not materialise with the same vigour expected from a team that had hold of a deficit. We also began to find a little bit of self, who we were, who we wanted to be and how we would get there. I could hear questioning as it reaffirmed its dominance in my behaviour. However, I wasn’t quite out of the woods, there where one or two moments where I fell foul to frustration, even a little disappointment, at both myself and our play. I could see it and hear it in my practice, visions of an aggressive stance, a non-supportive comment and an over-bearing posture. It was almost as though I was at war with self, battling to allow the questioning and positive challenge self to override the instructive self.

Having fought our way through the remainder of the game and secured a victory, we departed amidst mild celebration. The drive home was nothing more than fifty minutes or so, not really enough time to process the events of the previous two hours, but certainly time to recover. A few hours later, I took myself up to my office and sat at my desk, a real sense of exhaustion took hold and I wasn’t entirely sure where it had come from. I think the constant battling with self, the emotional shift back and forth through various behaviours had taken its toll. Could it really be this hard to become a good coach?

 

The centre of my practice

Looking back, I can say with confidence that I feel as though we have had two good weeks of practice. In particular, we have begun to develop relationships across, through and around our programme, each of which has served to support and develop our aims and objectives. The depth of these relationships is very much a result of the time we have spent together and the structure of our practice. When I say the structure, I am thinking about our established way of doing things, based on the expectations of all stakeholders, and we have, to-date, done this very well. We could perhaps label this a coach-athlete-centred approach to thinking and doing, which Jowett (2017) suggests provides scope for inclusivity and mutual empowerment. However we view what we are doing, I believe, at this moment, and for this group of young players, that we are heading in the right direction.

This however, does not talk to the quality of our practice effort, energy and overall performance. I am merely thinking of the programming of our practice, how we communicate the content, promote learning and encourage autonomy in all players. In fact, I am pretty happy with the approach to this as I have spent a great deal of time planning and preparing opportunities for all of us to learn. The result being, that all players, for the most part, are confident in demonstrating their level of curiosity, both individual and collectively. If we were to discuss practice effort, efficiency and overall output I would suggest that the conversation my be somewhat different, a mixed bag if you like, and one that is reflected in attendance, engagement and participation in our online learning activities.

Recalling the actual structure of our practice sessions, they are very much random, we move between both sides of the ball, exploring various principles and then attempting to piece them together through advantage and disadvantage situations. I am however, somewhat concerned at the speed and effectiveness of our transfer. There are a core of players that respond to questioning, demonstrate an awareness and understanding of our principles and rules, and yet, when they enter into a competitive situation, it all appears to be lost. I guess we are back to the concept of Independent Thinking Athletes and how my coaching practice promotes / diminishes problem-solving and decision making, specifically, tactical decision making.

For example, if I focus in on the pedagogical effectiveness of my practice, specifically, the behaviours (Mageau & Vallerand) exhibited by self throughout our practice time, I see the provision of choice, a rationale for what and why we do what we are doing, and limited, if any, self referenced competency criteria. However, what I often find my coach self reverting back to is an element of control, wrapped within the content of my behaviours, but nevertheless, an intentional attempt to influence. In other words, the degree of instruction levelled at the players, particularly when we do not understand our individual role and meaning within what we are trying to achieve.

It is no secret that I have been battling with the divide between questioning and instruction, trying to find a balance that leans more towards empowerment through guided discovery. I wish for my communicative encounters to be free from power and to promote a sense of security so that the player(s) is confident, able and willing to offer their thoughts, opinions and ideas within the construction of new meaning. The research literature suggests that this is a move away from traditional thinking and a sensibility that reflects a coach-centred approach to practice. However, I find myself battling to come to terms with what I often believe to be my overly instructive nature. In fact, I will go as far as to say that my internal disagreement is fuelled by my impatience, my need to see a practice model that reflects my vision for the game.

Looking forward, we have our second game of the season tomorrow. Our opponents enjoy the comfort of a history that positions them as formidable foes, talented, aggressive and athletic. We have watched video, presented a scout and focused on our ontological being in an attempt to ready us for all that they have. Part of me is confident in our preparation, in where we have focused our attention, but part of me is scrabbling for security, for some way of knowing that my practice and my behaviour is where it needs to be!

A mixed offering north of the border

We had enjoyed a good practice the night before and I was feeling good about where we were after three weeks of preparation. However, it was 5am and we were about to embark on the 200 mile journey to the City of Edinburgh to face a well coached and talented team.

My pre-game talk was short and to the point, I wanted the boys to feel comfortable, relaxed and confident in their collective identity. I shared a few philosophical positions on work, effort, responsibility and identity. I then asked each of them to give the game their full attention, to recognise the role they would play and to enjoy their contribution to whatever unfolded in the next forty minutes. After this, I let them ‘go’, the warm-up was theirs to own, and although I didn’t agree with the content, I didn’t say anything to them, I let them have the time to express themselves.

We couldn’t have gotten off to a better start if I had been moving the players into place myself. We pushed the ball with authority, it was clear that we were searching for every fast break point on offer. We made every effort to get down the floor and into a scoring position as quickly as possible, it looked like a ‘track meet’. We were communicating, sharing information and taking responsibility for our roles, it was great to watch. In fact, at that moment, I was convinced that what was to follow was going to be an impressive first outing.

In truth, what did unfold was a mixture of actualisations and realisations. We moved through an array of really good and really bad play. In short, our ability to communicate had left us, and with it, any sense of ownership or responsibility. To say that I was frustrated at the level and volume of our mistakes was an understatement. However, I tried very hard to remain positive, to ask questions and to challenge the players to think. I wanted them to use our rules and principles to guide our play and to keep us together. We had inserted these concepts as a way of shaping our development and our collective identity. It was clear that we were yet to be really confident in who we were. This being said, the responses from some of the players was good, it was clear that we had an intelligent team, a group of young athletes that were capable to think and reason their way through mistakes. I just needed to promote autonomy and freedom of expression as a baseline to our style of play. The mistakes we made now would serve us well as we moved deeper into the season.

As we packed up in preparation to ‘hit the road’, I felt that there was a lot that we could take away from the game, both positive, and perhaps not so good, however, what was clear to me, and what I was most pleased about was the level of effort. It was not always controlled or efficient, but it was not lacking by any means. With this in mind, I was happy to conclude my thoughts with the idea that we had something good to build on and that we now had two weeks in which to do so. The greater challenge for me was to deepen my tool box, to be better prepared for the level of coaching I would meet and to be able to respond to the challenge. Why? At times throughout the game I had been out-manoeuvred, tactically vested, and showed no real response. In fact, I think this is perhaps why I wasn’t celebrating as much or allowing myself to enjoy the moment, the players had done their part but I had failed to correct our inefficiency on defence (reaching, late rotations, poor closeouts and a lack of pressure on the ball) and merely provided the players with opportunities to think, to reflect on what they were doing as oppose to offering a way of fixing the issue. In short, I felt that the main issue, at this moment in time, was my ability to coach in a manner that would respond to the U16 Premier League North!