Dr Ed Coughlan: Decoding the coaching message

My week unfolds like most others in that it follows a routine of sorts, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Part of that routine involves looking up recent contributions from people in the areas of sport science, coaching and skill acquisition to keep abreast of emerging philosophies and evidence of better practice to inform my own work.

It can go from checking out the latest podcasts from my list of reliable sources, to reading some articles in academic journals, to catching up on some well-informed blogs from practitioners in the field, to newspaper articles that speak from the experience of the writer.

One such article that has been added to my weekly routine is the Ronan O’Gara column in this very newspaper.

His insights are reason enough for me to buy the paper.

Not knowing the man other than following his incredible rugby career for Munster and Ireland and in recent times his punditry on television, it was not surprising that his writing would have a directness and honesty about his current experiences as he plots a path to one day becoming a head coach himself.

In fact, the manner in which he has transitioned from player to coach speaks volumes of his appreciation and respect for the different skill-set required in both areas.

Something which could be a lesson to all former top-level players across all sports.

The current trend of former players being fast-tracked into prominent coaching positions at the elite level of sport needs to be reined in to preserve the legitimacy of others going through the process of fulfilling their coach education qualifications, only to be bypassed by the recently retired former player.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago O’Gara wrote a piece titled: ‘Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand’.

In it, he spoke about his experiences in France with Racing Metro and how in such a short space of time since moving to New Zealand to the Crusaders, his coaching philosophy is developing further still. 

He spoke about connecting with the players and getting the balance right between empowering them and ensuring they have a game-plan upon which to build a performance at the weekend.

He went on to say: “This idyllic notion that you simply allow players trial and error their way to a solution is a bit too simplistic to my mind.”

This line stopped me in my tracks.

If a student of the game and an already highly regarded coach such as O’Gara thinks this is what the current trend from people like myself are suggesting, with our games-based approach and constraints-led approach and non-linear pedagogy, then we are the ones who need to do better.

The truth of the matter is that O’Gara wrote what many other coaches and volunteer mums and dads at the weekends are thinking. 

That this so-called new coaching movement is just about throwing a ball in amongst kids and allowing them to kick lumps out of each other until they figure it out for themselves and in turn over-romanticising the street games we all seem to speak about.

Other misinterpretations of the current dialogue is the idea that we have to recreate backyard games from yesteryear at every juncture, suggesting that any intervention from a coach pollutes the space for real learning to occur.

Maybe in the process of ripping the drills plaster off and in our haste to encourage people to ditch their ordered, structured training sessions, defined by players waiting in line or following orders being barked at them from a coach in the middle of the pitch, we forgot to mention that constraints-based and games-based play does not make the coach redundant.

In fact, it is the very opposite. To create the appropriate environment where child, adolescent, and adult players can explore and experience trial and error requires a coach to be more on their toes than the coach interested in controlling everything and looking for perfection in all aspects of the session. 

Of course, depending on where the player is on the lifespan of development, different environments and messages are more important than others.

For young kids, it is more about fun and creating a space that they will want to return to the next week in favour of doing nothing at all.

For older kids, it is more about movement exploration and getting a handle on how to use their body on demand.

For adolescents, it is more about developing an understanding of their place in the game, whether they are in possession of the ball or not.

For adults, it is more about providing appropriate complexity at or just beyond their current level and working with them to make good decisions and problem-solve their way to the next level.

Of course, each of these suggestions at each time point should have a part to play at every stage of a player’s development, just with varying degrees of priority.

The coaching required in this ecological approach is based on restraint more than anything else. 

Just because you have coach written on the back of your tracksuit or a whistle around your neck does not mean you should be talking all the time or even more challenging, be seen to have all the answers — a chief fixer per se.

A coach prepared to speak only when necessary and when they do speak, interact only through questions, is a coach more likely to develop players with a rounded skillset for their sport, built on autonomy of thought and a freedom of interpretation.

There are many ways to score a goal, basket, point, or try. Let’s not limit the possibilities that may be presented to us by interfering too early.

When we set up a game or a scenario that has some constraint or rule attached to it, the purpose of the constraint, for example two-touch passing in soccer, is to provide opportunities for the players to explore their capability to engage in the game as a whole while attending to this rule.

The constraint is a waste of time, if it is set for the sake of having a constraint. 

But if the players have a tendency to hang on to the ball too long or kick it away as soon as it comes to them, then a constraint such as this can provide an opportunity for them to find alternative ways to contribute to the game and may expose them to other facets of the play than previously experienced.

The attentive coach will resist the temptation to jump in as soon as it fails or as soon as the rule is broken, thereby allowing time for the players to manage their own interactions.

Equally, the attentive coach will stand back and wait for a coaching moment to present itself to them and will choose dialogue over direction to coax the players towards a solution.

This idyllic notion that you simply allow players trial and error their way to a solution is a bit too simplistic to my mind also.

They may do that when they’re alone figuring stuff out. But it stops as soon as another player comes into the mix because there is a whole other person impacting on the space from then on.

A coach should be a welcome guest to this dynamic by posing good questions through words or scenarios that will challenge players towards better play.


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