A regional coach conversation

I had the pleasure of delivering at the East Midlands Regional CPD event yesterday, which I saw as a great opportunity to engage in yet another meaningful coach conversation. I was joined by #johncollins #kenrickliburd #mattshaw #karenburton as we shared our thinking, our practice and our research with an enthused audience of coaches. Below is some of what I had to say.

Coach behaviours have been the focus of my research for the past seven years. They can be described as the actions, reactions and responses exhibited by a coach during the delivery of their practice. These behaviours are thought to originate from a “combination of tradition, intuition, and the emulation of other coaches” (Partington & Cushion, 2013, p.374). The behaviour of the coach has been associated with the concept of effective practice (Lacy & Darst, 1985) and is a prominent theme across the sports coaching literature (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008; Ford, Yates, & Williams, 2010; Galimore & Tharpe, 2004). Results from many of these studies have found the behaviour of the coach to yield a significant impact on athlete performance (Cushion, Ford & Williams, 2012; Terry, 2006). Furthermore, the literature establishes ‘instruction’ as the dominant behaviour within the practice environment (Gilbert & Trudel, 2004).

Instruction has been consistently found to be utilised 48% of the time during training / practice. That is, explicit and direct instruction as a means of informing and shaping athlete development. Sociologist argue that the retention of power by the coach shapes this approach to our practice and describes this form of coaching as Coach-centred. An alternative approach is to consider the athlete, their current level of knowledge and understanding, and their ability to solve problems. This form of coaching is described as athlete-centred.

I propose that we (basketball coaches) begin to consider our coaching behaviour, what we do and say, as a means of improving the climate we create within our practice environment? Traditionally, basketball practice is constructed of training form activities (skill and drill) and overt instructions. However, as a means of moving towards a more research informed approach, researchers suggest that practice should be more aligned to competition and should reflect playing form. Moreover, it is felt that the coach should employ a less instructional approach to their practice. This may include the provision of small-sided games, both advantage-disadvantage and non-advantage, as a means of creating problems for our athletes to solve. In order for this approach to be successful, we need to employ the use of questioning.

The Debate of Ideas

The ‘Debate of Ideas’ (Gréhaigne & Griffin, 2005) is a framework that can be used to challenge and extend learning within our practice. Originally developed as a means of advancing tactical decision-making within invasion based sports (such as basketball), the concept is akin to social constructivism and promotes reasoning, reflection and decision-making. Gréhaigne and Griffin (2005) referred to the concept as a ‘tactical timeout’, which essentially is the provision of time and space to consider the tactical decisions employed within the game. The framework has four broad strategies that can be employed by the coach:

  1. Promoting Exploration: Concepts such as allowing moments of deliberate play, time and space to explore problems of difficulties within the Moment of the Game. After some exposure to the problem, players may fail to perceive any problems, at which point the coach should provide further opportunity to explore, collaborate and work towards a solution. The coach may wish to add further modifications to the activity as a means of guided-discovery.
  2. Asking Open-Ended questions: When a problem or challenge is identified by the athlete(s) the coach may decide to bring them together to debate among themselves or with them through the use of open-ended questioning.
  3. Asking Specific Questions: After posing a divergent question the coach may observe and allow the athletes time and space to problem-solve before offering further facilitation.
  4. Applying strategies: Once a solution is reached, athletes should be encouraged to explore / test the strategy.

You may wish to consider the following questions:

Questions:

  1. How did you achieve your intended outcome? I would like you to consider the principles of the game you employed and why you employed them.
  2. How did you identify the particular strengths of your opponent? Consider their pattern of play, individual talent and the strategies they employed in their last three defensive possessions.
  3. What did you do well within the MOG to combat these strengths?
  4. What things does your team need to further counteract the strengths of the opposition?
  5. How will you do the things you have just mentioned in question 3?

 

 

 

Higher order questioning seeks to involve the athlete, explore their thinking and elicit an opinion that is individual and the sole possession of the person from which it came. Targeting our questioning empowers the athlete to think for themselves, to make decisions, and ultimately, to develop a ‘Independent Thinking Athlete’.

Return to practice

There is something about that first practice of the season, expectations consume your thoughts and you search for the perfect start. Over the last four season I had sought to open our annual campaign with a stakeholder meeting. I believe that getting everybody involved in the preparation and delivery of the season that was to follow gave a voice to their expectations for the year. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this first meeting was by far the most important part of the season because without it we didn’t have a direction.

We gathered in a large room, I tried hard not to make the space look like a pre school setting, especially in light of the pleasingly high number of parents that had shown their support and arrived ready to contribute. I introduced myself, spoke of gratitude for everybody’s attendance and enthusiasm for the season ahead, and set out what it was I hoped we could achieve. As was to be expected, some of the boys were quiet, yet they all joined in, eager to offer their player self and share opinions that were important to them.

The parents and players spent twenty minutes scribbling down their goals and expectations for the season. I had asked them to frame their thoughts into three categories, ‘what they expected for the season’, ‘what they expected from each other’, and what they expected from me, the coach’. We then sat and went through them, sharing our thoughts and feelings and expanding on the two mind maps that had been produced. It was both a meaningful and successful exercise, a great many positive ideas emerged from the inner thoughts and feelings of these twenty or so stakeholders. Ideas that would shape my practice and help me to be a better version of my coach self.

We moved on to the court for our final forty-five minutes. I wanted to provide the players with an opportunity to show me how they play the game, how they approached the decision-making that was inherent within the game and yet hidden in the depth of coaching and play. The eleven players in attendance were athletic, long bodied and energetic. We moved through a number of technically based sets, at pace, but with little direction from me. I set problems, asked them to think and allowed them to play. The style of play was very much dribble drive first. It seemed that on every catch the players immediately ‘put the ball on the floor’. There was no pause for contemplation, no look in the forward and rear view mirrors before driving. It was almost automatic and somewhat removed from how I saw the game.

Looking forward, I see some negotiation, a sharing of ideas and philosophies as a means of bringing us together. Our first task will be to establish a climate of learning that is motivational, safe and allows each individual to trust in what our collective is trying to achieve. Having gotten everybody together, I feel confident that this is very much a thinking group, an intelligent gaggle that will challenge one another. I believe this will allow for shared meaning to evolve and shape who we are and how we play the game. It is this element of my practice that I am most confident in, the relationships that I build and the strength I offer to each individual. Strength to lead, to express confidence and to be the very best version of themselves.

As I sit at my desk planning our first full practice I can almost see the hardwood in front of me. The players are gliding in and out of spaces, communicating and interacting in a manner that promotes ball movement, collaboration and a sharing of roles. I am already excited at the time we will spend together, the challenges that we will face and the opportunities that will present themselves. When asked why I coach, it is this vision of the game I see before me, pictures of the game in its purist sense. Moments when a group of young people have come together and produced something that they couldn’t do the day before. Coaching is often referred to as a social construction, agents working together towards a common and shared goal. Being part of that is the reason why I call myself coach.

FECC Learning

Walkin (2010) suggest that we “learn by interacting with people, places and things”.  If I may, I would like to add that in order for learning to occur, there must be the means, opportunity and motivation to increase ones comprehension of a subject, activity or domain. In other words, the self must wish to learn.

The week has been tough, but has presented numerous opportunities, both formal, informal and non-formal for me to advance my knowledge and understanding within the field of basketball coaching. In particular, it has spotlighted the wealth of expertise present within the game of basketball and the depth of the coach market place. In short, my learning has been vast but chaotic. As such, it would be difficult for me to document precisely my learning gains as my mind as been in a continuous state of firing, manifested within the many lectures, discussions, clinics and coaching conversations. The challenge for me now is to dissect the vast reams of information and reconstruct some sensibility that is applicable to my context and my aspirations of being an effective basketball coach.

As a starting point, I see my pre-season self revisiting the concept of planning. I think I can continue to improve in this area and potentially see some gain from a more effective and efficient approach to session, game and season planning. For example, within one of our discussion sessions, Trinic suggested that practice planning was an important part of guiding the development of individual players, managing the time that we have within our team and clearly defining the short and long term goals of our programmes. To support the development of planning we were introduced to an online system that we could both access and utilise to improve our approach to planning and scheduling. I believe for me, the software will promote a more systematic approach to my planning activities as well as provide me with a central and secure site for all my coaching documentation.

The observation of the FIBA U16 Boys European Championships presented  themselves as really interesting learning moments. As a collective group we sat in a specific part of the arena and the din of the many coaching conversations could be heard ringing around the walls of the venue. However, what struck me was the presence of subjectivity, evident in the range of differentiation within our individual observations and opinions. I often struggle with the prevalence of anecdotal thinking over a more informed approach to developing basketball, particularly in the UK. However, on this occasion I found the variance in thinking to be stimulating as it occurred to me that my 67 new found colleagues in arms were mediating their observations through their own personal experiences, their knowledge and expertise. As such, considering that coaching is thought of as a social activity, the event would most likely be framed by each individual coach based on the social and cultural lens through which they viewed the game. I spent some time adjusting my lens and interpreting what it was I saw unfold in front of me. My frame was the U16 Boy’s competition back home.

During these learning activities, I spent a great deal of time observing the various coaches, and although I could not understand the different languages, the gestures, tone, pitch and body shapes revealed a great deal to me. For example, the Greek coach was very demonstrative throughout all of their games, he appeared to challenge all of his players individually, particularly when they made what he considered to be a mistake. Cushion (2006) and many other researchers of standing continue to refer to this approach to practice as traditional in nature, and aligned to a coach-centred methodology (Kidman, 2010). In fact, in my humble opinion, I witnessed the coach ‘break’ two or three of his players, taking away their independence and confidence. I felt this was visible in their body language and in their apparent searching for validation and reconnection following the berating. One particular instance stands out for me, a player had driven baseline and made a good baseline pass to a team mate in the corner. Unfortunately, the player dropped the ball and it went out of bounds. The coach appeared to be beside himself, gesturing angrily towards the player. I felt, at this point, that it had become obvious that the player had withdrawn from the game and from his individual role on the court. He was subsequently substituted out of the game and then subjected to a further scolding from his coach.

We debated this approach on many occasions throughout the course of the week. I got the sense that many of my peers agreed with a more servant or transformational approach to coaching practice. There was some talk of athlete-centred, although I am not sure how much of this concept was truly understood. Personally, I had changed my opinion, only slightly, but I had allowed room within my coach self to grant differing approaches a 2nd chance. I saw an element of discipline within many of the coaches thinking and I found it hard to disagree with. I guess at the heart of an effective coach is a situational approach to all that is coaching.

Lectures, discussion groups, on-court clinics and our first assessment

We are 96 hours into the programme and I am feeling it. The day’s are long and full of content. Added to the pressure of synthesising the very high loads of information is the task of networking and advancing myself through informal opportunities to listen and learn. In fact, if I am honest, at every opportunity, I find myself recharging, if only for ten minutes, before entering back into one of the most diverse learning environments I have ever experienced in my twenty-four years of seeking to be a better coach. We have moved through differing spaces of learning, varied pedagogical styles of delivery and a broad range of activities as a means of advancing our coach self. In doing so, I have attempted to soak up as much learning as I possibly can.

The lectures are interesting, they often touch on issues associated with contemporary literature, for example, the coach-athlete relationship, coaching pedagogy and the coaching process. The lecturers offer us their own personal opinion, built on experience and knowledge of the game, and we as students attempt to capture as much information as possible, dissect the material and make sense of the thinking through our own contextual frames. The use of practitioners active within the field of professional basketball coaching is a great means of creating a coach conversation (yes, back to this concept) that both inspires and motivates learning, all be it that some of what is on offer is disguised in personal anecdotes and inflated rhetoric. This being said, the knowledge on offer is both visible and tangible to the coach eye, and the sixty or so candidates, including myself, can be seen reaching for, interpreting and making their own sense of the words being shared.

Beyond the mild fatigue setting into my more than middle-aged frame, I feel good about my participation, about what is being presented to me and what it is I will walk away with at the end of this week. I am enthused by the content, it has both meaning and value to me as a coach, and I can see where it will enable me to improve my practice, to develop my thinking and become more effective within all that I do. I am also impressed by the knowledge of my peers and their willingness to share their journeys, the personal coach stories that make each delegate special within their own context. I begin to share my story, to talk to the research I have conducted and lessons learnt from my ethnographical and autoethnographical observations of practice in action, of the behaviours of a wide range of coaches and of self. My musings are warmly received, some of the coaches extend their interest to a deeper level and we engage in thought provoking dialogue as a means of continuing our learning.

The assessment presents us with an interesting concept, a role play of sorts in which we conduct a player review in front of a 30-strong audience and three assessors. I am third within my small group of three and when called upon, I move straight into my coach self. I greet my athlete, inquire about his well-being and general feelings with regards to the game (we scouted the Latvia vs. Macedonia group stage game of the FIBA U16 Boys European Championships). One-to-one conversations have become easier and easier for me over the years, in fact, I have lost count of how many I have conducted. Throughout the assessment activity I pose questions, explore the players thoughts and feeling and probe for reasoning as a means of promoting deep reflection. The conversation is natural in both its flow and content and it isn’t long before I am finished and proceeding to a separate room to receive my feedback.

The lecturer complimented me on my approach and used questioning as a model of excellence, my peers referred to me as Professor and I felt pretty good about my initial assessment performance. I received a handshake, a few pats on the back and a general nod of approval for my approach, style and management of the review process. This being said, I am yet to receive a grade for the task so it is difficult to get overly excited. However, I allowed myself five minutes of gloating and boasting, privately of course, before returning to the realities of being a FECC candidate.

Orientation – The FECC

After a five hour journey that took the best part of 32 hours and resulted in the loss of my luggage, I finally arrived at the FIBA Europe Coaching Certificate (FECC) venue. The room is filled with coaches from across the 50 member states of Europe, representing every level, context and phase of the game. How could I not learn?

We are given the obligatory orientation, including expectations, successes and our logistical responsibilities for the week. As I scan the sky blue vista (the colour of the FECC Coach t-shirt) I see coaches busily making notes, some more so than others, one or two taking pictures, and most generally engaged in the process. Personally, I consider myself to be a perennial student, of both the game and life, as such, I find myself scribbling furiously, eager to capture every nugget of the gold mine I have been granted access to.

At our first break I attempt to meet, greet and network with coaches as a means of supporting my learning. I sit and talk to a Saudi Arabian coach, a female coach from Serbia and a number of young coaches from Italy, Spain and Armenia. Our coaching conversations go well, somewhat rudimentary in breadth and depth, but we share coaching context, some background information and a level of courtesy that will serve us well as we progress through the programme. All in all, I feel comfortable and confident in my new found surroundings, and as student coach I am keen to demonstrate my coaching competence whilst embracing every opportunity to learn.

Listening to Coach Pesic this morning presented me with a number of cues, things to think about within my own practice, but also, a number of clarification points. In other words, things that I had considered, even included within my thinking and had positioned as important within my own practice. Indeed, it was reassuring to hear a coach of Pesic’s standing highlight detail, simplicity and responsibility as key components to success at his level of delivery.

Our first task of the week was to observe and scout a game, this was somewhat interesting as it included very little instruction or guidance. My initial thoughts wondered towards the available literature, for example, in the US there is a considerable amount of work on expectancy theory and coaches use of rating systems as a means of assessing ability and formulating a base for performance assessment. I wondered if an introduction to a rating system or assessment framework would have been a useful tool for this task? At this point I had missed the point of the exercise by some distance. As expected, the level of subjectivity was evident in the small group exercise that followed. We were tasked with producing a review of a particular player, unfortunately, our assessments were at odds and so we spent some time talking through each technical skill and what it was we were looking for. This proved to be a useful and very interesting exercise as it reflected the geographical context of each coach within the group. Unfortunately, it did distract us somewhat from the primary task.

All in all, I feel as though I have gotten off to a good start, the meet and greet process was insightful, networking with coaches from across Europe and listening and learning from the FECC staff has been all that I sought within my vision of the programme. This being said, to say that it is not a demanding programme of learning would be somewhat removed from the reality we faced over the next nine days. It has been both an enlightening and educational start to the programme, and I imagine that as we progress through the weeks, months and years, it will continue to challenge us all.

My early thoughts send me back to my practice, I see more holes within my knowledge, my understanding of the game, and the detail I employ within my teaching. Furthermore, from a very personal perspective, and has I scan the rooms and corridors that we occupy, I see a vast amount of coaching confidence on display, coaches steadfast and regimented in their approach to their practice. It leaves me wondering, am I still feel searching for mine, or perhaps, more specifically, do I need to progress my tactical identity and confidence further to become an effective basketball coach?

The Tournament

There is nothing more intriguing than the presented self, the coach persona put forward prior to competition. Shoulders back, chest out and head up! I greet each coach and their preferred persona with respect, respect for their experience, their commitment to the role of coach and to the hours invested in being coach.

The boys appear confident, relaxed and ready to compete. I on the other hand am somewhat disappointed with our previous night together. We had arrived Friday evening as we had a early Saturday morning start. We met for an hour and then I allowed them to spend time free from me. I had hoped that they may share some time together and then get to bed early. Instead, we had multiple sub groups and players still up past 11pm. Had I taken empowerment too far? I didn’t want to tell, rather I wanted them to work it out in the same way I was going to ask them to do so on the court.

Our first game was against the North West, a talented region, big, strong and aggressive. In my seven years of Regional coaching, I had always found the NW to be a formidable opponent. During our warm up one of the parents had noticed that I was coaching alone and kindly offered her son as a support for me. Working with an assistant coach was really good, it helped that he was a good guy, young, good basketball mind, really helpful and got on with the players really well.

We got off to a great start, moved the ball, played D, exactly what we were looking for. I couldn’t be happier, in fact, I was saying very little to the players on the court and only posing questions to the bench players. However, as is only to be expected, we began to break down, individually and collectively, we made a number of simple mistakes that cost us. The ball began to stick and we went away from our team game. I also missed a number of important reads, counters that hurt us and which I had failed to respond to them. Overall, I was pleased with the general performance of the team but required a little more from a number of individuals, including myself.

Our second game started out poorly for us, we failed to recognise the speed of tournament play and our responses were less then effective. I called a time out to try and settle us down, to get us thinking about who we are and what we wanted to do. I had used the term “we are 12” the night before as a means of getting them to think about more than just their individual play and I wanted to remind them of just that. We were now down by twelve, their heads were lowered and we needed a change. I made a number of substitutions and encouraged them to play our game. With just 23 seconds to go in the final quarter we had closed the gap to just 1-point, we had possession of the ball and a timeout. You couldn’t ask for a better scenario. I smiled, told them what a great job they had done and asked them how they wanted to win the game. We had three looks at the basket before the game clock expired, we had put ourselves in a position to win and I couldn’t ask for more than that.

We went on to win our next four games, three of which I believe I stuck to what it was we were trying to do. That is empower the athletes, let everybody play and promote development through questioning and listening. The only game I was unhappy with myself was the London game. We played great defence but our offence was all about the individual player, which I felt cost us a great deal of team capital. In other words, we lost some players in that game, they gave up playing as they didn’t see the ball, we were not playing our style of basketball, and we had to rely on individual talent and play to get us through the game.

I came away from the tournament exhausted but pleased, pleased with how the boys had come together and pleased with how we played. The fact that we won the tournament shield wasn’t important as such, we had competed, we had a game plan and for the most part we executed it. I had seen that there’s is a way to play that encourages team play, that is effective and allows for independent thinking athletes to shine. On my drive home I had already moved on to pre-season, who I would be coaching, what it would look like and how I would work to instil independence, confidence and a commitment to team.

Looking ahead to the tournament

Good attendance, good early efforts and good all around approach to our final practice together. I came away feeling good, an emotion that I went into the practice with. However, was it all that I wanted it to be, or indeed what it needed to be? Did we create a climate of learning through problem solving? I am not sure. The practice started with 15 minutes self directed activity, most were engaged, but not all, social loafing comes to mind followed by varying degrees of self-determined motivation.

3.15pm was the time they had to be finished with their own practice and arrive in the middle of the court ready for our group practice. I stood observing them at 3.14pm. Some made their way to the middle of the court, others attempted to get the last repetition out of their time. As the clock struck 3.15pm there was the odd murmur of “come on, into the middle”, nothing convincing, nothing that rang of leadership confidence. I so wanted to hear the emergence of a leader, somebody that was willing to challenge and hold their teammate to account. I spoke for about three minutes, no more. I set the scene, posed a number of short questions, and introduced them to the content of the session, which I had written on the board. It included our aims and objectives for the session, which we used to agree what it was we were going to cover. They were up beat in their body language but lacking in responses, I waited as long as I felt I could and then I reluctantly moved us on.

The underpinning aim of the session was to introduce a number of concepts that we could apply to our game play. In doing so, we moved through a great amount of content, the players debated, shared ideas and sought to solve problems collaboratively. I stood and observed, allowing them to learn unencumbered by my voice (Smith & Cushion, 2006) not wishing to infringe upon their space. It looked good, felt good, and I was happy that we were moving in the right direction. However, I have to confess that I was often uncomfortable, itching to intervene to offer something, to correct a movement pattern or to praise a thought or decision taken. This was particularly true when something was outside of where we (or perhaps I) wanted to go.

I have often spoke of transfer, moving our learning in to game play. We appeared to understand the concepts, agree what was required, but then this was not reflected within our decision making and motor movement. I could see some intent was there, and that we sought to help each other to develop our ‘vision’ for the desired outcome, we just couldn’t seem to arrive at an approach that was successful. It is here that I struggle most with the whole concept of athlete-centredness. Nevertheless, other than the odd correction and motivational dialogue as a means of keeping them going, I continued to construct meaningful questions, praise what I thought was good and remain a silent observer to my practice session.

Our time together was now over, our preparation complete and I had selected the twelve players that would travel to the Regional Tournament in Manchester in just seven days time. Had I successfully prepared them? How would we perform? Would we ‘hold up’ to the pressures of tournament play? The questions were now directed at self, I knew that being observed was part of the tournament process, a selection of sorts to a role I desperately sought. Yet I couldn’t leave all that we had worked on, the goal was to remain true to the process, to work through each Moment of the Game in a manner we had prepared for.

I often think of the advice given to me by a very effective and successful coach, “be your coach-self and nobody else”. It made great sense to me, in my own mind I was very much a simple practitioner, I believed in operating at a level appropriate to the athletes and competition. Simplified language, principles and concepts applied well can make for a very effective team. Would we be effective? Would I be effective? Only time would tell!

Better by half

Better! I cut our practice time in half and we were better, more focused and somewhat more lively. The regional programme is a difficult beast to manage, we are together for a very short period of time, and in that time we want to build a team that can compete in the tournament, as well as demonstrate the very best that each individual athlete has to offer. The problem is, I don’t believe that we can ask our basketball athletes to put their very best foot forward without everything else that goes into making a ‘good team’. By the very nature of team building, time is both central and essential to developing relationships that reflect trust, ownership, respect and a shared sense of purpose. To achieve this in just twelve hours is asking a great deal.

I asked the players to recall our previous time together, to think back to our first practice and to grade their individual performance. I didn’t want them to share what they thought, rather, to make a mental note of where their last Regional performance sat. I then challenged them to be better, to operate at a Regional standard of play, a level they deemed worthy of competing in the Regional Tournament.

We got off to a good start, the gym was filled with high levels of energy, effort and a willingness to do better. I attempted to set a standard, a level of engagement through praise and encouragement before drifting into a state of observation. I wanted to hear the players voice, not mine. I find it funny that I am unable to get basketball athletes of any age to ‘talk’. I have worked with players that are very good at communicating, ‘calling a play’, providing on-court instruction and supporting their team mates. Yet I don’t believe that I have ever been truly successful in teaching the skill. I tend to approach the business of on-court communication by first introducing the nine offensive spots on the floor. I then ask the players to tell each other where they are and what they are doing in each moment of the game based on their position and action. I argue that this applies to both ends of the floor, for example, “help baseline”, “shot wing” etc.

The silence was deafening, I stepped in to ask them what was wrong, why was it that I couldn’t hear anything? I knew the answer really, we hadn’t agreed what to say. Yes, I had offered my thinking, where and what were the keys to our on-court communication, but the reality was, I hadn’t said exactly what to say or when to say it. I believe this to be a pandemic within our sport, the need and expectation for instruction. I could hear the frustration in my voice, I had built up a picture of what our practice was going to look and sound like, and yet I couldn’t see it, nor could I hear it. I stepped back and allowed the Assistant coach to talk to them, and without prompt or agreement, he proceeded to share my thoughts and feelings. He talked of effort, of working together and of communicating. In fact, I couldn’t have said it better.

We continued to move through various sets, the volume slid in and out of detectable. I pulled a number of players out of each set, asking them individual questions and attempting to put them at ease, to build their confidence in our practice setting so that they could begin to express themselves in a far greater and more animated fashion. Yet merely telling them that they were ‘safe’, that they could stand in the middle of the court, if they so wished, and sing was not enough, we needed time to develop the confidence required to even think that ‘singing’ was a possibility. Time we just don’t have.

By the conclusion of our time together, the once energetic offering that had been gifted to our goal of becoming a competitive Regional squad had been traded for a less than convincing impostor. I shook their hands, thanked them for their participation and challenged each of them to think of something they could do better prior to our next meeting. The truth was, I needed to think of something, something that would ‘pull’ us together, that would illuminate a style of play worthy of the title of Regional squad. Was I asking too much of them? Should I be ‘teaching’ through instruction as opposed to empowerment? Did I pose enough questions? Were they framed correctly? I felt confident that I could actually do the job of coach, I had a vision and saw great levels of interaction fuelled by questioning, challenges and accountability. Yet, as so many times before, by the end of our time together, it didn’t feel as though I had managed to influence, to challenge or to provoke thinking that would improve the way we played together. I guess only time will tell…

Developing self…blue sky thinking

The associated research literature highlights a number of consistent themes within the concept of coach development, elements within the learning trajectory of the coach that perhaps separate the expert from the rest. For example, the presence of an athletic history, the ability to plan, rich and in-depth declarative and procedural knowledge, and emotional intelligence. This is by no means an exhaustive list, however, it does give me pause for thought. I wonder where we would measure ourselves? How we would measure our degree’s of effectiveness? would the results reflect an expert coach?

As I sat in my home office last night painting a picture of the regional squads second practice, due to unfold this weekend, I scribbled, drew and scrolled in an attempt to inform and shape our date together. It was but a moment that I began to consider learning, firstly, the development of the players and what it was we asked of them within such a short space of time. But then I moved to my own learning, to my development as a basketball coach. I had achieved some of what Côté referred to as criteria for excellence. I had come a long way, and yet I continue to know I still have a way to travel, experiences to collate and knowledge to acquire. The question is, where does this position me now? Where should I turn to next?

Alongside my planning for practice I started to sculpt my professional development plan, the things I wish for my coach self to improve. Unfortunately, I have to be measured in my aspirations, the pressure of not working full time in my preferred trade must win over my dreams. Family, the need to balance competing responsibilities across my multiple self’s does not allow me to be frivolous. I agree to attendance at a conference, engagement with a workshop and enrolment on to a programme of study. But I want more. The concept of mentoring continues to pester me, to intrigue my curious self and pull at my time resources. I am both aware and vulnerable to the absence, knowing that I do not have access to a master coach, one that I can communicate with, who will challenge my practice, inform my thinking and begin to steer my advancement. I have previously experienced some of the trappings of such a relationship, having worked alongside coaches and observed practice as a means of informing my apprenticeship. However, this now falls to the side as not enough. In my academic career, I once enjoyed the company of a professional mentor, somebody that I spoke with once a month, that helped me to construct focus and work to meet my own learning objectives. I now seek this within my coaching practice.

Looking forward I see a relationship, one that I am yet to identify, but one that I know must come into being. Why? I am very aware that some of our bigger clubs have an internal mechanism, a means of supporting each other, a structure that presents a master coach to the developing flock as a guide. Others utilise various social media to connect and engage in meaningful discourse that seeks to elevate their practice through cognition and reflection. My empty spaces and lack of debate (I once referred to as coaching conversations) leaves me behind, shut out and under-developed.

In short, we may debate the application of the term professional to the ranks of coaching, and perhaps more so within the boundaries of basketball in the UK. However, I am increasingly aware of the swell, the mass of young coaches that are educating themselves, plying their trade and eager to move into the fray. If I am to continue to construct meaning, to share space and time to develop my concept of Independent Thinking Athletes  within the game of basketball I must continue to develop. My blue sky thinking must become a reality and I must continue to strive to be effective in all that I do within my practice.

I had spent hours planning our first practice of the summer season. The Regional Tournament represents an opportunity for those coaches that aspire to become a National Team coach to demonstrate their competencies, to exhibit their practice for all to see. The heart of the tournament is Talent Identification, both within the ranks of the players and the coaches, and is seen as the culmination of ten-months of regional development. I had worked all year at presenting a climate that the players would embrace, that would serve their curiosity and promote all that was required from a talented basketball athlete. I now had twelve hours of ‘team practice’ to guide the selected prospects to a competitive display of their ability. Winning or losing was not necessarily a concern or a focus of the competition. In fact, the tournament reflected the true essence of competition, that each would present themselves in their very best light as to challenge and make good their opponent.

My planning had taken on a development identity, that of teamwork, basketball play and individual contributions to the whole. I wanted us to feel inspired by our selection, to recognise what was required from each of us and to be excited by the opportunity. I started with a inspirational video, one that reflected effort, hard work and commitment to the goal. We then explored why each of us were present and what it was we wanted from our Regional Tournament experience. We finished with a challenge, I took away their personal space and asked them to work together to achieve a goal, not unlike the game of basketball itself. The ‘cling film wrap’ is a great team building exercise, one that challenges you to be part of something bigger than just you. The response was less than I had wished for but it was a start.

As we moved in to our familiar space we quickly agreed its structure. I asked the players what they would call each element of the basketball court in relation to the floor markings and we agreed where the ‘wing’, ‘short corner’, ‘nail’ and remaining spaces were. With this we began our physical practice. The start was good, however, the level of ability was a great deal lower than in previous years. The remainder of the session was a gradual climb down from my elevated aspirations. I had seen so much in my planning, we were to achieve great heights and really come together as a regional squad. In my early reflections I was disappointed with my practice and with our performance overall. The question was, is this about me or the players? Is the fact that I feel ready to coach at the next level and now wish to demonstrate this to Basketball clouding my judgement? Had I become coach-centric?

The root of this current dilemma is once more about the learning spaces we create as coaches and the transfer of knowledge. In short, did I question effectively? Did I establish a climate that served the nine players that I shared time and ideas with? I am not sure that I was my very best coach-self, I certainly set out to be, my planning was boxed off and I knew what we were working towards. However, the basketball knowledge that we shared appeared to be less than anticipated, the effort, willingness and ability to elevate their play seemed just outside of their reach. Or did it? I wonder how they felt about their performance? They scored themselves a six out of ten for overall effort and achievement. The question remained, what was my score?

I now have two weeks before I see them again, before we re-identify ourselves as the Regional Squad, and I hope for a far greater outcome, for an advancement in our practice, one that is reflective of a Regional team. I hope that we can demonstrate the skills and attributes required of an aspiring National Team player. In order for this to be the case I must be better and recognise where the improvements in my practice need to be. Tying my thinking to my practice, or rather, aligning how I wish to coach to my actual practice in order to be seen as an effective coach.