Coaching News – January 2018
My Facebook feed has been momentarily lit up by a podcast of an interview with a retired coach of elite athletes in the still small community of triathlon. The principal topic, according to the title, is developing running speed but, as yet, I haven’t found the time to listen to what this coach has to say. It’s not that I don’t think that I can learn from his experience – although I note that despite his success, athletes in his charge have succumbed to more than their fair share of injuries – but I am disappointed that he waited until retirement before allowing others to share in his coaching methodology.
In the relatively new and very competitive world that is triathlon coaching you may feel that this is a reasonable stance to take; keeping your cards close to your chest and playing your coaching hand only when you need to. However, I don’t think that there is a coach in this country who hasn’t at some stage in their coach education been told the story of John Wooden.
For those who are not aware, John Wooden was simply the most successful basketball coach in the USA in the latter part of the 1960s and early 1970s, winning 10 out of his final 12 national championships. At the height of his fame and success, he accepted a written request from an undergraduate coaching student to observe his coaching – a form of early work-based learning programme for coaches. If not scientifically evidenced, it is certainly a scientifically inspired fact that coaches learn from observing other coaches. However, the sporting world was aghast that John Wooden was happy to share his secrets with an unqualified and unknown coach, thereby arming the newcomer with the necessary skills and information to imitate Wooden and thus attain or even surpass his level of success. Wooden’s response however, was that no one could imitate what he did. The student operated at a different level of competence, would extract what he needed from the experience and, over time, create his own coaching methodology.
This exemplar of coaching philanthropy forms the introductory lesson to just about every coach education course I have attended and certainly nearly every one I have ever delivered! However, it is very apparent that, the closer you get to the top of triathlon coaching, the reality proves to be the complete opposite. A prime example being the retired elite coach on my Facebook feed, who only shared his theory once the potential risk of conflict of interests was removed. It was the same during my time at Loughborough, where the coaches were extremely unwilling to share their expertise. Not once did I have the opportunity to learn through observation let alone be allowed to lead a session – a thoroughly unsatisfactory experience. The coaches had withdrawn into isolation at their fixed position in the coaching dominance hierarchy and, demotivated, I eventually stopped asking to join in. However, as critical of others as I have been, it is whilst reflecting on this conundrum, that I have recognised aspects of my own hypocrisy on this matter.
This week, a fellow triathlon coach, perhaps like me with aspirations of rising toward the top of triathlon coaching, has posted a couple of running form development videos on a public forum. There are, to my mind, several omissions and errors in these videos that, if rectified, would enhance the merits of the drills prescribed. This is a great opportunity for me to help both the athletes observing the videos as well as the coach by enabling him to learn from the feedback provided. However, the reason for my reticence to enter into this forum debate should be obvious. By providing feedback, I could lose out twice – first in the loss of potential athletes to develop and second in equipping a fellow coach with the necessary skills to potentially resolve the puzzle that is running form.
Again, this may seem quite a reasonable stance for a coach in my position to take. However, perhaps the question I should be asking myself is why I am not assisting this coach in his development and could I too in some way benefit from doing so? To answer that, I think we have to look at coaching in a broader context and how we have evolved to work in hierarchies of competence.
If you take the time to look carefully at the neuroscience, and I am indebted to Jordan Peterson who has done just that, you will discover that there is a continuity in our nature that is tremendously deep and is common amongst other animals. Drawing from the work of Jaak Panskepp (who, incidentally, hailed from Tartu*) and Jean Piaget, Peterson noted not only that we share with mammals a neurological circuit which does nothing but implement play, but that our cognition, emotion, motivation and ultimately our morality forms out of those games that we play.
Panskepp discovered that if you put two juvenile rats together they will spontaneously wrestle, resulting as you would expect, in one pinning the other down, and the play ends with a dominance hierarchy established. In real life, games occur repeatedly and Panskepp therefore paired the same rats again and again. Once the hierarchy was established, for the interaction to continue, the lesser rat had to keep asking the dominant rat to play. If the dominant rat continued to win, the lesser rat would lose motivation and ultimately stop asking. However, if the dominant rat allowed the lesser rat to win 30% of the encounters, the lesser rat would remain motivated and continue to want to play.
In this, Panskepp had identified morality as an emergent property in rats through a sequence of games, just as Piaget had observed morality emerging in the games children play. When we stress to children that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose – what matters is how you play the game – what we are really saying is that life is a game and that it is how you play that really counts. Peterson’s view is that this is a rule of life that isn’t arbitrary or based on opinion, is not sociological or learned, it is an emergent property that is so deep it even governs the behaviour of rats.
Peterson stresses therefore that the outcome of a single encounter does not affect the dominance hierarchy, but it is the continual outcome of a sequence of interactions that is important. What this means is that life isn’t a single game, but a series of games and to be the winner of the series of games, you must, like the dominant rat, play fair. As coaches, is this not what we strive for in the cognitive, emotional and motivational development of our athletes? Therefore, shouldn’t we also be seeking this in the development of our own coaching by playing by those rules and supporting, like John Wooden, the motivation and participation of others?
Perhaps in our quest for triathlon coaching dominance we have lost sight of how to play the game fairly. Whilst at present I am probably unable to influence those above me in the coaching hierarchy, I can at least offer all other coaches a chance to play where, in the discipline of running at least, I am a dominant player. So, first thing tomorrow, I will enter into debate with my fellow coach and allow him a share in the game – for 30% of the time anyway. Perhaps, in time, other dominant coaches will also come around and remember how to play the coaching game fairly.
So, January has been and gone, and February looks like it will also be a busy month. Hopefully, therefore, before we know it, spring will appear and we can all come out of hibernation once more. There is much on the horizon, of course; *Tartu entry acceptance ends on Monday and we can then turn our attention to the logistics of racing in Estonia. The European Championships in Glasgow follows and somewhere between, there will be UK Ironman at Bolton, qualifiers for next year, training camps, TTs, marathons, adventure racing, athlete testing, video analysis, nutrition analysis, coach education and development and, of course, the World Long Distance Duathlon Championships in Zofingen.
It’s going to be a busy year and we are looking forward to working with you all in playing the game fairly.