The road back to coaching

Like much of the world (I imagine) the pandemic has given me pause for thought, an opportunity to reflect on my coach-self in a bid to define, and perhaps more importantly, redefine my coach identity. To begin with (lockdown 1.0) I engaged in podcasts, Zoom calls, individual conversations and additional reading as a way to embrace the gift of time and improve my practice in the absence of practice. It was exciting, in fact, I wrote pages and pages of notes, ‘to do’ lists and references to further self-help, instructional and biographical material. If nothing else, I was going to be more informed, knowledgeable and ready to re-enter the hardtops of West Yorkshire. The problem was, I was doing a great deal of theorising and no practice, I was holding on to volumes of information with no opportunity to explore, discover or reflect on my actions and reactions. Instead, I started to muse over my coach-identity, who my coach-self was and what purpose my coaching served.

Many of my engagements with lockdown learning material had reflected contact with the lived experience, biographical journeys through the coaching lives of many practitioners. Indeed, I too had shared my story, and in doing so, I uncovered a reality yet to be recognised. I was a part-time coach, I entered and exited the domain with little more than six to eight hours of exposure to the coach-athlete interactions I enjoyed. For many years I have sought the title of coach, chasing voluntary positions in a bid to gain recognition and be seen as a coach of standing. In support of this goal, I have enjoyed various modes of learning, education and upskilling in a bid to add credibility to my coach title. However, in the midst of a forced hiatus I found myself re-prioritising, returning to family and friends and indulging in secondary activities such as mountain biking and golf. In short, my coach-self had retreated in a bid to allow me time and space to reimagine my practice.

Some 13-months later and I walked through the arena doors to a crowd of young people, there was a hustle and excitement in the air, everybody appeared relieved to be back on the hardwood and ready to reengage in the three-dimensional artistry we call ‘Ballin’. I had sat the previous evening contemplating my return, diagramming our practice and theorising my contribution. I was keen to move away from blocked practice and promote a more variable version of learning. One that I had mused over, promoted within my contribution to the Player Development Framework, and now was excited to implement. Williams and Hodges (2005) introduce the concept of game intelligence, an overarching term that captures the importance of player anticipation and decision-making. I too had reported many times on the need to promote and encourage basketball players to become independent thinking athletes and reject the overt instructional behaviours exhibited by many during competition. This was my chance to be true to my thinking.

I drew a breath, expelled through my Wilson whistle and called the crowd to attention. I was suddenly very aware of the multiple eyes and attentions focused in my direction. I scanned the room, smiled and with great pleasure, welcomed myself and co practitioners back to the world of coaching basketball.

All good intentions – Practice four

I had revisited my reading, thought long and hard about how I wanted to approach practice, what I wanted the players to get out of the session. The image in my head is a good starting point – I am with second year degree students, yet I am sat quietly in the corner (having set up the task) and before me are twelve aspiring coaches / teachers engaged in dialogue, presenting individual ideas, sharing thoughts, debating the merits of individual approaches and generally not needing me at all. I smiled, was this learning? Or more importantly, was this coaching?

Having failed at the last practice I wanted to provide a far greater learning climate, elevated in its planning and with a definitive focus on the players needs (fun, motivation, development). At the beginning of the season they had constructed expectations, for each other as team mates, for me the coach and what it was I would bring to our relationship and to their performance – which they acknowledged were challenging expectations but ones they felt comfortable setting. I spent an hour planning the session having enjoyed a couple of hours reading through a paper on Positive Pedagogy (Light & Harvey, 2017), I felt excited about the possibilities and hoped to bring this joy out in my planning and execution of the session.

It is a two-hour drive to practice from my day job so I made every effort to leave with good time to get to the venue (punctuality had been one of the expectations placed upon me and one that I wanted to upheld). Having been engrossed in a task I look up to see the clock shouting back at me, time to go. The first fifteen miles seemed to be my friend, I would even have time to change from lecturer self to coach self, I turned the music up and continued to make my way to practice.

It began to rain, a few drops at first, I clicked the button for intermittent windscreen wipes, there is a little bit of a squeak on them, something I have been meaning to fix for sometime! the rain continues to fall, getting faster I match it with the speed of my wipers, increasing the pitch and tone of the squeak, a constant reminder of what I had promised to do but not yet gotten around to completing. The traffic began to slow, almost as though everything was now working against me and before I had realised it I was now sat in the midst of a storm, the rain was no longer falling but was being thrown at a great velocity on to the hundreds of cars that occupied the concrete path to their next destination. I attempted to stay calm, telling myself that I would still manage to get to practice on time and that we were going to have a good practice.

I walked through the door, soaking wet from the short walk from the car to the court, 25 minutes had passed from the start of practice and I had no standing, I was late, the volume of traffic, my day job and the weather and conspired against me – or was it that I was just ill prepared? I stood and observed the drill, it was a fast break activity – good, we wanted to run into every offence – the attention to detail was a little low, players were more engaged in a round of pick up then anything else, but it was their activity. I called them in, my first task was to apologise, I was now the student late to class! I could see the disappointment in some of their faces, almost as though I had failed at the first hurdle. Without thinking I restructured the game, I didn’t ask what they had been doing, what the focus was or even what they had gotten out of the activity – strike one.

There didn’t appear to be much going on, we were merely walking through the motions, I called them in and asked them a series of questions – what are we trying to achieve? If we pass the ball to the wing what are our options? The responses were limited at best and absent for the most part, instead of being patient I proceeded to fill the silence, there was a berating tone to my voice, I could hear it and see it – strike two! I quickly tried to get away from it, change direction with a slide of hand – a smile and a joke. However, deep inside me I could sense that this session was doomed to failure from the outset and it was on me.

The remainder of the session was more about me than them, I continued to fill in the gaps, tell them where they could have gone, what they perhaps should have thought of and challenge their effort, motivation and lack of communication, all the hallmarks of an instructive and command approach to practice – strike three, you are out! If we were to measure the performance based on smiles, enthusiasm or noise it would have been zero output. If however, the metric was the volume of my instruction and feedback, well then we would have scored high and been very successful. I called them in, time had been called and we were done. I spoke at them for five minutes, something I never do, it was almost like a out of body moment, I was telling them what they had and hadn’t done, I looked at myself and the faces that surrounded me, was this what I called coaching?

As we departed the hall I spoke with two or three players, I smiled and shared fair wells etc., in fact I said good job to one player – where did that come from, it didn’t fit with what I had just said to them. Talk about confusing messages! I had to get better and quickly. The sports hall was now full with a new team in their netball outfits, talking, sharing ideas whilst they warmed up. The instructions from the coach were short, merely a directive to their activity, “five minutes girls”.

I walked out into the rain, I had barely gotten dry before I was once more besieged by the onslaught of water, I pulled my belongings close to me, gestured to a player that was attempting to walk to the bus stop and the two of us went to locate my car. The drive home was a quiet one, I asked a couple of questions, attempted to explore the thoughts and feelings of my charge before finally arriving at his door, we hadn’t gotten very far and I was now in a state of melt down. My coach self was pretty low on confidence and I was still to take the two of us home in the continuing rain!