Coach development: modelling learning…

Over the last few weeks there have been a number of conversations on Twitter about the value of coach education courses and, additionally, the value of coach development. For me they sit as two slightly different variables within one world – it’s about the coach getting better – but there is a difference and on these ramblings I’m going to propose a few things to consider for coaches. 

So, most people’s first experience of becoming a coach is going on an FA Coaching Course? Right or wrong?
Wrong, and here’s why. Depending on where you sit within the realms of learning theory it could be argued that every experience you have had within your formative years, through the process we know as socialisation, has had an impact on how you coach today, whether consciously or not. What you experienced as a child and the teachers/coaches that taught you, the experiences you might have had as a player, whether at school or within a club, have all shaped your beliefs in coaching. Some might have made you think ‘Yeah, I really liked how they coached therefore I’m going to coach like that’ or ‘I wasn’t a fan of that and therefore there must be a different way’. 

Then you might go on a course and depending on what learning you had already constructed and brought to the course, it will either open your mind (to those wanting to have their horizons broadened) to something new and a different way of coaching or reinforce existing thoughts. 
Here’s the thing. FA coaching courses are not the be-all and end-all in your journey as a coach, they are an important part of the plot. Yes, particularly with the new FA Youth Awards, they give you things to think about from a technical and child development perspective but the learning doesn’t stop there. I have a small frustration with ‘badge collectors’, those that think that the signal of a better coach is one that has completed the sticker book, but this might not be the case. Those that jump and accelerate their way up the coaching badge framework are underselling themselves and the learning that needs to be done. 
People often ask me “what qualification have you got?” but actually, why does it matter? I’m not concerned about my status as a coach and where it puts me in a ranking system of other coaches and if I said “I’m a Level 1” does that mean my opinions are suddenly not valid or my experiences aren’t valuable? Absolutely not. Now, I get the fact they are often minimum standards for jobs, I understand that, but let’s look at additional learning that coaches should undertake.
Personally, and I can only speak for myself and a few close friends that coach, this has been one of the biggest factors in expanding our knowledge. Over the last possibly five years I have read more books, academic articles and blogs than ever before and all have added supplementary information to my mental bank. This is time consuming, sometimes dull, but ultimately an investment in my own personal development. It might only be on holiday when you are laying by the pool but consider taking something helpful rather than the latest Harry Potter! 
I often get asked for book suggestions so depending on what you might want to learn about, here’s a few:
Developing Decision Makers (Lynn Kidman)
Athlete-Centred Coaching (Lynn Kidman)
These two have had massive impact on me as a coach and my personal philosophy of coaching, why I do it and what I believe in. 
Understanding Sports Coaching (Tania Cassidy et al.)
Sports Coach as Educator (Robyn Jones)
Play Practice (Alan Launder)
Teaching Games for Understanding (Rod Thorpe and David Bunker)
Building Learning Power (Guy Claxton)
Accelerated Learning in Practice (Alistair Smith)
Teaching Children to Learn (Robert Fisher)
Drive (Daniel Pink)
Mindset (Carol Dweck) – Essential reading for every coach and parent.
The Same Book Four Times (ish):
Bounce (Matthew Syed)
The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle)
Talent is Overrated (Geoff Colvin)
Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)
I would put these in the popular reading list, easy to get through, quite straight forward but with all reading, view through a critical lens. Don’t believe everything you read is true…you don’t pick up a daily newspaper and think that do you?! For example, Matthew Syed rules out the impact of genes in the development of elite athletes, science would suggest otherwise. 
Currently working my way through:
The Learning Powered School (Guy Claxton et al.)
Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
Visible Learning for Teachers (John Hattie)
A couple of these are quite academic, but challenge yourself, read something difficult. It’s a great stretch of the brain. I am starting to wonder though when people say ‘oh you have read xxx then you’ll like xxx’, is that expanding my knowledge or am I just reinforcing views from one into another, deep rooted rather than broadened? Not sure. 
Watching Good Coaches:
I understand this isn’t always possible due to time, accessibility and other commitments but there can be a huge amount learnt from watching expert coaches work. However, a word of warning – don’t watch the obvious. We’ve all been there…you go and watch a coaching session from an expert, copy down the x’s and o’s and then take back and try with our kids…and wonder why it doesn’t work!! (and then blame the session!!)
This isn’t what makes them an expert, it isn’t just the practice itself, it is the detail. Look at where they stand, how do they observe the game going on? When do they speak? How do they speak? What language do they use and how do they interact with the players? What questions do they ask and how do they ask them? This is coaching, this is the difference in my opinion between novice and more expert coaches. 
If opportunity is an issue, have a look and see if there is a local Coaches Association, run through the County FA. Some of these across the country have fantastic coaches come and deliver sessions for them. Track down where the nearest Charter Standard In-Service Training session is going on, get out and watch the coaches delivering them too. 
So if you go and watch a session at the Grassroots Football Show for example, don’t get embroiled in scribbling down the distances of how big the pitch is, invariably you’ll have a different number of kids anyway. Immerse yourself in the detail. 
Other Sports:
Football is the game that I’m sure most people reading this blog coach, but here’s a question to consider: Are you teaching football to children or are you teaching children’ football? For me it’s the latter. We do this to work with kids, to help them fall in love with the game, grow and develop them as people and my chosen sport just happens to be football. 
But look and learn from expert coaches in other sports. Read some things from John Wooden, Phil Jackson or Ian McGeechan. Find out what has made Wayne Smith one of the best coaches around, what stood Frank Dick out as being a truly expert coach and why Sir Clive Woodward achieved. Lessons to be learnt. 
Conversations and Debate:
Over the last five years one of the best thing that has developed my knowledge as a coach has been the ‘communities of practice’ I have been involved in. This is an academic term for the groups of people that regularly debate and discuss coaching things and may include the partner coach in your team you work with, other coaches in your club or colleagues with similar interests. It could be formal or over a pint, it’s all valuable in shaping your beliefs. 
Last season I had the pleasure in my part-time coaching role at a Premier League Academy to work with a coach that really challenged my views. He came from an alternative standpoint, viewing player development very different to me and we clashed, but we clashed in a great way. That season of coaching, four times a week, discussing and throwing ideas about on how to get the best out of the players and support their learning as best as we possibly could was superb. Did it change me as a coach? Absolutely. 
Equally, a couple of colleagues at The FA within the coaching world have really challenged and shaped my views too, regularly speaking to them after sessions to openly reflect on what happened, what I tried and what they would suggest I tried next time or did differently. Makes you think and time in the car well spent!
Nothing can buy this. You can’t suddenly go on a course and become this. It is time doing all of the above, time spent on the grass, time spent getting coaching sessions wrong but importantly, time spent after reflecting on why and what you would do differently. 
The challenge is to get a broad experience where possible. If your life allows, go and spent a bit of time in a Primary School, see how the teacher engages with Year 1 or Year 6 children, and experience the National Curriculum in action. Volunteer for a few sessions with a local disabled group and see the joy you can bring to young people by providing them an opportunity. Run a team for a few years; experience what it’s like dealing with putting up the goals, organising training and managing parents. 
Everything I have rambled about above goes towards creating a well-rounded coach that is more than just a coaching badge. Coaching badges are important however and I wouldn’t take away any knowledge I have learned from one of them in favour of something else, it’s all part of the learning. 
Young players come to football and want to learn more and they want to get better. But do you understand how this feels? Do you understand what to do yourself when things are hard going, when you just can’t get something? Do you know what it feels like when things are tricky and what other approaches to solving the problem you might use? Remember what you found difficult about learning a new language at school because some of your players might be experiencing similar feelings learning new football things too. 
Be a learner yourself; model learning. It shows them that you understand, too. 

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10 thoughts on “Coach development: modelling learning…

  • February 14, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Completely agree those authors above, especially Paul Potrac and Robyn Jones. In my dissertation i read work by Chris Cushion on modelling the coaching process and coach development. I also used some work from Albert Bandura in Social Learning and found that a very useful theoretical starting point.

  • February 17, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Wise words, to teach it helps if you are a learner. As you can question what engages you and how you can apply this in other parallels.
    Same for parenting it has many elements.
    I've never yet done a FA course, but in other walks of life I've seen the support mechanisms that get put in place to achieve results, but too often achieving results does not empower the student to walk and grow on their own. Parents can help, but be parents not coaches. They can help putting up the goals and respect line, but just as we teach our kids its a team game and you cant do it all yourself, apply the same to oneself.

  • February 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Hi Nick,
    I am genuinely perplexed about what form of indoor football The FA is promoting & why. I can see the arguements for Futsal for older teenagers & adults. Five a side is bit of a relic & is really now for fat blokes who don't know any better. Now I come to Futebol de Salão with the size 2 ball. (Though there other varieties of ball/weights/rebound so Simon (Clifford) said to me the other night). It is I believe the right format for kids & can be comfortably played in all those little primary school gyms up & down the country. It is also easy to teach & supervise. Futsal after all is so much more complicated/formalized & requires more space. So could you help me understand why we are not using it right now. We known about it for a decade. If it is for football reasons I would love to know what they are. If there are other reasons, just give me the heads up. I am just a parent who wants England to do well. I have, unlike rest of you, have no skin in the game. If I help in any way I will. I am all for building bridges.

  • February 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Hi Nick,

    If you haven't done so I strongly recommend you reading Pierre Bourdieu's work on habitus. He explains how people's experiences shape future learning experiences, as well as being shaped by previous learning experiences. Dr. Chris Cushion at Loughborough University has written widely on this matter. I suggest you reading some of his work to get a better idea of this.


  • February 27, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Great reading list.

    As coaches we should 'share' more. A small group of coaches can grow in confidence when a little trust is developed. Watching/reviewing each other's coaching, or running joint sessions is a great learning experience. It's okay to put on a session that's not 'perfect'….

  • February 27, 2012 at 11:15 am

    Thanks very much. If volunteer coaches have time, understanding the theoretical background to learning theory is useful for sure.

  • February 27, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Crucial sentence in there – parents can help by being parents. Totally agree. Sometimes the constant negative chirping away does more harm than good. If they want to coach, be a coach!

  • February 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

    I think for me Andrew it is part of the mix for development, part of the mix that includes a whole of different things from technical development to game understanding for all ages. This is in the same way that different coaching styles have a place, from command to learner initiated – the trick is to know why you are using them and for what outcome.

  • February 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Thanks Ed. His work is on my reading list at the moment so thanks for reaffirming i need to track it down!!

  • February 27, 2012 at 11:23 am

    And thats the crucial point…when is any session ever perfect? I have never done a perfect session in my life. Many have gone well but always something to be improved upon. If coaches are open-minded enough to discuss content and delivery in a way to enhance then we would all become better at our trade.


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