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Why do coaches like to reflect?

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

The first time I walked into the bar at St. George’s Park, the English Football Association’s centre of learning, I thought that it looked very similar to the bar of any up market hotel. Soft chairs and low level lighting to encourage conversation and relaxation. Only the prevalence of tracksuits and photographs of famous footballers on the walls told me this wasn’t the scene of business leaders socialising after a conference or a group of doctors after a training course.

I had heard from many football coaches who had been to St. George’s that they found the informal chats in the bars as valuable as the formal classes they had attended. Listening to the conversation around the tables, it was easy to see why. Whilst the jokes and stories built a sense of community amongst the group, there was also a lot of learning going on. If on the touchline coaches from opposing clubs may keep their cards close to their chest, here there was sharing of ideas and an open exchange of thoughts and feelings about being a coach.

This scene at St. George’s Park reminded me of my time at teacher training and at research conferences as an academic. It seems to me that whether you are a group of football coaches or a bunch of teachers or a circle of researchers, often you end up mixing up personal and professional chat when you enter informal spaces. It might be easy to think of this as merely socialising to while away the time between the formal aspects of the training. But I wonder if something more is going on?

Books and experts can give coaches a standardised body of knowledge. But whether you are teaching English to a class of 15 year old's, researching ancient Egypt or developing a bunch of talented eleven year old football players, you have to take the theory and the knowledge as you understand it and apply it to your own circumstances. The informal conversations give a chance for people to reflect with people going through similar experiences. Often this conversation does not happen in day to day life - you “do” but don’t always “think” about what you are doing. Through reflection people are putting structure and order to their own experience and in doing so creating knowledge that they can tap into. Reflection turns a “feeling” or a “hunch” into a useful understanding they can apply regularly and share with others.

I had walked into the bar at St. George’s having just given a formal presentation to youth coaches on the emerging science about the adolescent brain and what it might mean for their thinking and practice (a topic I had been researching for the previous ten years). Whilst my talk and PowerPoint had generated some interesting questions in the classroom, there was a very different conversation at the post-talk dinner. Some coaches told me stories of how boys in their academies had behaved in the way the science described. They had seen countless examples of emotional behaviours in teenagers and science had explained why it was happening. But a different coach asked me why a teenager they were working with didn’t react in the same way as most of the kids. Before I had a chance to give a scientific perspective, other coaches came up with answers and shared their own experiences. Which was helpful, as I was going to explain that science can tell us what is generally true of adolescents, it is not true for every adolescent. And this relates to a more general point. Whilst science can explain why things happen, it can’t tell you what to do in every situation. So any coach has to make sense of their own experience and that is why reflection is integral to learning.

Driving down the M5 back towards Bristol from St. George’s I recognised that I now had my own understanding of why coaches found the informal chat in the bar so valuable. Those conversations seemed like the second half of the learning experience, where they made sense of what they had heard in the classroom. This seems to fit with research around how coaches, particularly in football, learn most about their work. It appears that much of the learning for elite practitioners happens on the job, in and amongst their peers in everyday contexts. This might be through observation of others’ coaching practice, conversations and generally being immersed within the specific culture of the club. But I also wondered if this “two halves” experience was the right way to learn. One half was formal in its nature, structured in a way where the coaches were receivers of knowledge from experts who led the process. The other half was informal, unstructured, informed by what was topical for coaches and where everyone was “teaching” everyone else.

A few years later, I met a man who knew nothing about professional sport. As a life-long Torquay United fan, you could say Kami knew very little about good football. But he was interested in my research around the adolescent brain and development in sport because his son, aged fourteen, had given up playing football for his club. Kami’s view was that his son hadn’t fallen out of love with the game. He loved playing in matches on a Sunday but he didn’t enjoy training on Tuesday. Whilst his coach was a very pleasant guy, his approach to motivating young players didn't go down well with his son. As he told me this story, I remembered the many occasions I had seen well-intentioned coaches, unknowingly doing things that science had demonstrated had a detrimental effect on young people's learning and development.

Kami wasn’t simply a dad who was disappointed to see his son stop playing football. As a young boy he learnt so much about life playing sport. It seemed his son and countless other teenagers weren’t going to benefit from this, simply because the coaches weren’t aware of what was going on in their heads. Getting the science out to coaches seemed a huge opportunity to make things better. So we resolved to do something about it.

Often scientists think that “the facts speak for themselves”. This assumption can lead to thinking that an expert simply has to explain the science and the learner will know what to do. This often ends up looking like someone stood at the front of the room, speaking to PowerPoint slides, whilst the students listen and occasionally get to ask questions or are asked questions. Indeed this is what I would have looked like at St. George’s a few years ago.

But for many years educational thinkers such as John Dewey and Carl Rogers have questioned this model of learning. Suggesting an alternative approach of putting the learner at the centre of the experience and letting their needs guide the conversation. As well as knowing the theory of child-centred learning, I also have my own experience of this. Back in the mid 80’s Mr. Hoare would sit on the edge of his table in my sociology A-level class. He'd ask us questions about our lives, he’d let the conversation flow and then he would introduce the science from the curriculum into the conversation. But those classes didn’t feel like we were learning to pass an exam. It felt like we were learning to understand the things that we were already curious about. Although it was nearly forty years ago, I still remember how I felt and I remember what I had learnt.

So when Kami and I decided to set up IDYOMS to help coaches in sport better understand the teenage brain, I had already been experimenting with what this new science might mean in elite football in my role as a coach at the Bristol City academy. The club supported me as I took the knowledge from research and I used it with the other coaches and the players. Kami’s experience working with leaders in organisations brought another dimension. He’s worked with organisations like the UN and HSBC to get leaders to talk about why they were doing what they are doing and the purpose of their role.

We had countless cups of coffee and long walks talking about the experience we had of good teachers and how we had learnt things in the past. We tried to think how the ideas of Rogers and others which put the learner at the centre of experience might apply to a tennis coach working with a group of teenagers in a park or a golf pro developing the next Tiger Woods.

We wanted to start by building on coaches' existing experience and create the conditions where coaches become active learners, reflecting on what they already know, participating in debate and collaborating with each other to explore how new insights from the adolescent brain might be useful for understanding and practice in football. We wondered about how we could create the conditions where coaches learn in the same way that they are expected to teach young players. Rather than being passive receivers of pre-planned knowledge, in this case the science of the adolescent brain, we want them to reflect on their own experiences and explore how some of this new knowledge might be applicable in their world and might be helpful going forward for their practice.

Bristol City let us trial an approach with a group of their current and past academy coaches. It was an interesting experience for us to work with them on this workshop over the period of time. When we as coaches relinquish power to learners, for them to have more of a say in their own learning, then this can often feel uncomfortable. Giving up the security of being in control of the learning process can feel threatening. You have certain planned ideas that you want to get across and it can feel difficult when that process goes off script and the lesson goes in a direction that was not anticipated. I felt slightly uncomfortable, for example, early in one of the workshops where we were working with some of my colleagues who’d signed up to learn about the adolescent brain. I felt a responsibility to give the coaches the science that I’d prepared. But the first question Kami asked them was ‘Can they remember back to an item of clothing they wore in their teenage years?’. I wasn’t sure where this was going and was mildly apprehensive that the precious time we had might not be as focused on the subject matter I wanted to get across. However, what unfolded was an interesting and valuable discussion around coaches’ reflections on their adolescence. Thoughts, feelings and relationships were evoked which seemed to create the conditions for an honest and authentic discussion about how we interact with adolescents and their own relationships today.

The atmosphere these reflections had created was ideal to introduce scientific knowledge. People were receptive to learning. Because sometimes the science was answering questions they already had in their head. Sometimes it was explaining why things they had experienced had happened. But in some cases this knowledge challenged beliefs and deeply held assumptions. People of similar experience and perspective can sometimes simply reinforce and spread “bad” ideas. Sport is no different and in particular there are lots of myths about teenagers. But science can shine a light on what is actually happening and get people to think differently and learn.

The feedback from the workshop has been positive ( The easy thing would have been for us to just carry on doing what had worked for them. But the opportunity for Kami and I is to learn from the experience. To reflect on what happened and why it happened. To consider how the ideas for the workshop we discussed over cups of coffee and long walks turned out in reality? To ponder what the coaches may have learnt? To ask what we learnt about ourselves and each other? To think how we might be slightly wiser versions of ourselves the next time we are in front of a bunch of coaches?

After all, what more can we want than that?

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