Sunday, May 9, 2021

My Coaching Framework - Time for an Update

In February 2018, I wrote the first version of my personal coaching framework. At that time I was beginning my graduate studies in education, specifically learning science and human development. Now that I have earned my degree, it is time to reflect on what I have learned in my studies and apply those lessons to my coaching framework.

One important lesson I learned reinforced my commitment to "inspiration". In 2003, Cushion and colleagues wrote that "professional development is not something that can be delivered" but should be a joint effort of the teachers and the learners (Cushion, et al., 2003, p. 222). I am more confident in my belief that teaching is a collaborative effort so I choose to foster a desire to learn and improve in those I work with.

Another important lesson for me has been researching some theoretical underpinnings for my belief in the importance of developing a personal framework. Grecic and Collins have written about the "epistemological chain" as a means by which coaches can develop their coaching philosophies (Grecic & Collins, 2013). I presented a webinar through the AVCA related to this subject and I am in the process of reworking it to focus more on epistemology and how it affects our coaching. I wrote a short blog post about that journal article too.

To sum up, there are three main factors that drive this reformulation of my coaching framework.
  1. It is important to teach and coach with authenticity, coaching in a way that is true to who I believe I am.
  2. What and how I teach should reflect what I believe about learning, knowledge, and those whom I teach.
  3. Who I am as a teacher, what I teach, and how I teach should all continue to evolve as I continue to learn and grow.

With that, here is the first part of that 2018 post. I have added a few references in bold (except for the opening sentence, which is bold in the original post).

I want to inspire coaches to become mindful, purposeful, and proactive in their coaching and help them create and develop the tools to do so.

That's a mission statement and while it can look good as a tagline, I believe that much more needs to be explained and, more importantly, done in order to give it life. There is a framework that gives this statement meaning and purpose.

The three key words in that statement are mindful, purposeful, and proactive. Those words can be interpreted in different ways and can have different inferences attached. This is what those three words mean to me in the context of coaching and learning.
  • Mindful: engaged with and aware of self, surroundings, and situation (without judgement to gain wisdom)
  • Purposeful: possessing clear goals, meanings, and intentions
  • Proactive: creating situations that move towards goals and anticipate future needs and changes
A brief addendum to the idea of mindfulness is that being "engaged with and aware of" should come without judgement as often as possible. The less time we spend getting caught up in good/bad/right/wrong terminology, the easier it becomes to gain understanding and wisdom. (While I am still a fan of teaching mindfulness, I also think we need to put it within a larger framework.)

Helping others to be purposeful requires that I be purposeful myself. To that end, I want to illustrate the framework that I am using to exist and function in a teaching/learning environment. I recognize that there are different frameworks that can be constructed and I encourage you to create your own after engaging in research and introspection. A deep knowledge and incorporation of this framework allows all that I do in teaching and learning to flow from it and retain coherency. I believe that this coherency is perhaps the most important manifestation of purposefulness.

I believe that being purposeful and proactive go hand in hand. The work of creating a rich and coherent framework must come before I apply it to my coaching. I think that I must then help the athletes to understand the framework I am creating around and with them. The other end of the spectrum is what I think of as "Titanic coaching", where coach and athlete don't know what they are trying to sail around until after they run into it. (This is a form of reactive coaching, which I'll have more to say about in the future.) While the path of learning may not be straight, we can still define that path clearly, which will help us be more efficient and successful in our coaching and learning.

So the most engaging, meaningful, and productive coaching and learning I can do is a product of the deliberate creation of a framework and the sharing of that framework with those I teach and learn with. By sharing and modeling this work, we encourage those around us to adopt similar efforts. (The deliberate creation of a framework may be the most important preparation we do for coaching and teaching.)

Here is the second half of my original post. Parts that I am changing are stricken through or in italics. My comments and additions appear below.
Here are the pillars of my personal coaching framework:
  • Growth Mindset: Almost everything we do is a skill or is composed of skills rather than fixed talents or abilities. We can improve our skills through deliberate practice.
  • Proactive Thinking/Focus Cycle: Our typical thought process is reactive, which leaves us feeling as though we do not have as much control over our thoughts and actions as we really do. Shifting to a proactive thinking cycle frees us to perform closer to our current potential.
  • Mindfulness and Single Item Focus: Being aware of the skills we are performing as well as how we would like to perform them, often to the exclusion of other things, helps us to clarify our performance as well as to shape how we want to perform in the future.
  • Shared Language and Vision: As coaches, we are at our best when we fully engage our athletes. To fully engage an athlete, we must deliberately work on building a language that is understood by both. Further, we must use that language to articulate what we want to accomplish together.
  • Coherency and Consistency: We are more likely to understand and trust people who are clear and consistent in their intentions and actions. To more effectively teach, I must always work to keep an athlete's trust by being constant in a sea of change.
Over the years that I have taught, coached, and learned I have read plenty about each of those subjects. So far, these are the books that I consider to be foundational to what I believe and seek to put into practice. While there are many excellent books that also explore the same topics, the books below represent either the closest to source materials or have been the most impactful that I have encountered to date.
Now for the fun part, expressing how my thinking has changed in the last three years.
First, responding to the pillars above:
  • I am uncomfortable with my reliance on growth mindset. While how I teach still relies on considering most traits to be changeable, I don't regularly use the term "growth mindset" as I teach. The state of the research on growth mindset is a bit mixed at this point. Some researchers, particularly Dweck, Yeager, Paunesku, and Walton, find growth mindset interventions to be successful in many classroom settings. Some researchers, like Li and Bates and Sisk, et al., question some of the findings of the growth mindset researchers. My relatively uninformed opinion is that the research will eventually come down in favor of growth mindset but I also think that we will learn a great deal about how to effectively implement it on both large and small scales.
  • I still support a proactive thinking cycle for athletes and coaches but my implementation of it is changing as a result of my move towards an ecological dynamics-based approach to skill acquisition.
  • My approach to mindfulness is shifting for a few reasons. As I referenced above, mindfulness means something different to me now than it did three years ago. I do still find simple mindfulness to be valuable but I no longer agree with how I framed it above. First, there is a great deal of research about external versus internal focus of attention in motor learning. In my original post, I framed mindfulness as focusing on internal states and I would rather have athletes focused externally instead. There is a metacognitive aspect to mindfulness that I think is important because I think that we need to be aware of our thoughts and emotions since these can affect our physical performance. The most important shift for me is from internal to external focus of attention.
  • I still believe that shared understanding is vital to communication between teachers and learners. I overlooked an important aspect of this shared understanding though. If we are to truly share understanding, then the teacher must be open to not only listening to their learners but to incorporating some of their perspectives into the shared environment. There must be a collaborative relationship rather than a top-down flow in which the learner and teacher share understanding because the teacher establishes what is to be understood and how it is to be understood. This is based primarily on my reading of self determination theory as well as other learning theories that incorporate aspects of autonomy.
  • As I emphasized in the opening of this post, I believe that my best teaching comes when I am more authentic than consistent. I think that is a better way of framing the consistency that I wrote about as a pillar. I think that learners can trust teachers that are consistent because the learners come to know what to expect from their teachers. I think that this is better than being inconsistent, but I think that being authentic is more enabling and supportive to learners than just being consistent. I should be consistent in my commitment to their learning and development and showing them that is what makes me authentic.
Second, responding to the books listed above.
  •  I crossed out the motor learning text because my thinking has been greatly complicated by ecological dynamics and the constraints-led approach to coaching. I think that it is still important to learn about the information processing approach to skill acquisition (which is what most would consider to be "classic" motor learning) but there is much more out there for us to consider.
  • To that end, I want to add The Constraints-Led Approach: Principles for Sports Coaching and Practice Design by Ian Renshaw, Keith Davids, Daniel Newcombe, and Will Roberts
  • I crossed out the two USOC papers, even though I see value in them, because I see some problems with each. After reflecting on it further, I think that the ADM does not do enough to actively discourage an emphasis on competing at younger ages. This is something that is much clearer in Istvan Balyi's Long Term Athlete Development model upon which the ADM is based. The ADM doesn't address competing at the younger ages, allowing for American coaches to continue to stress winning, even at youth and grassroots levels. The Quality Coaching Framework places an emphasis on "procedural knowledge, the skills, technique, and tactics of the game" (Cushion, et al., 2013, p. 220). As I wrote in the opening to this post, I think that a complete framework needs to include views on epistemology and what one believes about oneself and not just what one believes about the game.
Third, I want to add two more books.
Last, I want to add new pillars.
  • Ecological dynamics and CLA may not yet be the complete answer but they are valuable, athlete-centered ways to coach. These frameworks invite coaches to become designers of learning environments instead of communicators of knowledge.
  • Learning, especially in team sports, is situated. It happens in the context of athletes, activities, and the world. It is not a matter of what we know but of what we do. Coaching means creating opportunities for athletes to demonstrate their learning through actions rather than words.
  • Less telling, more asking. I need to stop assuming I know what an athlete is seeing, feeling, and thinking. Also, because of the embodied nature of learning, I need to understand that athletes might not be able to tell me what they just did. But I can ask them questions that require actions instead of words, e.g. "can you do that again?"

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Academic Quick Hit: The Epistemological Chain: Practical Applications in Sports - Grecic and Collins 2013

Where I attempt to give a quick summary and opinion on an academic paper that connects to teaching, learning, and/or sport.
Why I think this paper matters:
The authors encourage coaches to explore their personal beliefs about knowing and learning in order to know themselves and their craft better and, therefore, teach others more effectively. This exploration results in a knowledge of one's own epistemological chain (EC) that gives a coach a framework upon which to build a coaching philosophy. This framework is necessary for coaches to conscientiously and consistently practice their craft.
Grecic, D., & Collins, D. (2013). The Epistemological Chain: Practical Applications in Sports. Quest, 65(2), 151–168.

Type of Paper:
I don't have a clean category for this paper. It definitely is not an empirical study and, even though it relies on a great deal of previous work, it is not a critical literature review either. To quote from the abstract, "This article highlights the role of personal epistemology in decision-making and proposes the construct of an epistemological chain (EC) to support this process in the domain of sports coaching."
- Epistemology refers to what knowledge is and how one acquires it. This paper focused on personal epistemological beliefs, which the authors describe as "beliefs about knowing and learning that reflect views on what knowledge is, how it is gained, and the limits and criteria for determining knowledge" (p. 152).
- In this framework, epistemological beliefs vary along a continuum, from naïve to sophisticated. A naïve coach sees knowledge as simple, clear, specific, unchanging, and handed down rather than developed from reason. A sophisticated coach sees knowledge as complex, uncertain, able to be learned gradually, and able to be self-constructed by the learner (p. 152)
- "For the purposes of this article we define the EC as the interrelated/connected decisions made that are derived from high-level personal beliefs about knowledge and learning. As such, the EC should be apparent through the coach’s planning processes adopted, the creation of the learning environment, the operational actions taken, and the coach’s review and assessment of performance" (p. 153, emphasis added).
- The authors distinguish between instruction (transmission of knowledge and information) and education (facilitation of learning) and point out that this distinction is consistent with a coach-centered/athlete centered dichotomy of coaching (p. 154).
- They go on to describe how an EC operates in sport coaching in the specific areas of planning, decision making, and critical reflection (pp. 156-159). These descriptions serve to show how viewing these areas through a lens of beliefs about knowledge and learning can have profound impacts on how coaches plan, make decisions, and reflect.
- "If coaches were made aware of the foundations on which their own personal epistemology was based, they would be able to make more conscious selections of their knowledge sources" (p. 160). This is to say that knowing what one currently believes about learning has an impact on how one seeks out new sources from which to learn in the future. Coaches would better recognize which sources of information would be more or less beneficial to them.
- The authors discuss how an EC can serve as an analytical tool to stimulate dialogue and further understanding between coaches. This would benefit coaches by moving discussions away from being "based on the drills used and on the successfulness of their athletes’ performance of such drills" and, instead, focus on analyzing philosophies and how those influence long-term coach and athlete development (p. 161).

What I'm left wondering:
- I felt like the description of a naïve coach (Figure 1, p. 155) creates a straw man that no coach would see themself as. What are the nuances of the "continuum" the authors mention? Rather than only describe the two extremes of the continuum, how might a real, complex, and complicated coach embody their EC? (I am pretty sure that the answer lies in two other papers written by Grecic, Collins and another author around the same time.)
- The descriptions of interactions with athletes suggest work in individual sports. How might the ECs of team sport coaches differ from those of individual sport coaches?
- Given the strong history of coaching knowledge being handed down as the authors describe, it would seem that most coaches would have a more naïve EC. Since this affects how coaches learn and what they see as sources of learning, how do naïve coaches move towards sophistication?
- How might coach education and development programs encourage the discussion and development of personal epistemological beliefs?

Monday, March 8, 2021

We're Ruining Mindfulness with How We Do It: Ronald Purser's McMindfulness - A Short Review

We have a mindfulness problem. But it isn't the one you would think of, or that popular culture and media would have you think of. We have the most ironic of mindfulness problems. We think we know what it means to be mindful: to be aware, to be present, to be in the moment. We've listened to countless soothing voices remind us to bring our attention back to our breath. But for what, exactly?

I certainly don't take the position that mindfulness serves no purpose or that it doesn't have any benefits. But I do agree with Ronald Purser's main claim, that mindfulness is supposed to be rooted in something larger than ourselves. I think that having clarity and focus is important but why should we seek to be clear and focused? Purser shows how mainstream mindfulness has incorporated the Puritan work ethic to its detriment. That work ethic tells us that we can achieve anything if we work hard enough but when we apply that to mindfulness, we drive ourselves to be mindful only of ourselves. We learn that controlling ourselves is all we need to do. But that, says Purser, is not what mindfulness is.

The author makes many incisive observations about how McMindfulness has neutered what mindfulness is meant to be and about how mindfulness has become a tool of corporate interests. And while I agree with his arguments, I can't provide more or better insight about those areas. What I want to share are my thoughts on how McMindfulness has influenced how we function as coaches and how we interact with others, especially athletes in our care. As coaches are wont to do, we have taken a complex framework and turned it into a drill that we do in practice. We have flattened the contours and nuances of mindfulness into a thing that we can plug into our practice plans rather than keep the complexity and have it change how we view coaching.

To be clear, I think that a simplified version of mindfulness is beneficial in sports and performance. While my interest in ecological dynamics and related theories of skill acquisition may lead to differing opinions of what we should be mindful of, I still think that coaches and athletes alike can free themselves to perform better by applying ideas of mindfulness. The issue is that mindfulness means so much more and I can't turn away from that. It is meant to have us better understand our place in the world, not just our place on the court. It is meant to position us to do something about the conditions we see in the world. When we use self-awareness mindfulness techniques divorced from their roots in social and community awareness, we miss the point of mindfulness. We use these techniques to slow our thoughts but we do so to make space for small actions like jumping higher and moving quicker or "better". Purser is reminding us that the purpose of stillness of mind is to give us more clarity on what exists around us and how we are perceiving and interacting with everything outside of us but we can only do that by first making space within us. We can then use that space to be part of big actions too.

So are we using mindfulness in teams to help us do something to something like a ball? Or are we using it to do something with those around us? Are we using it to be better athletes or better teammates and better humans? I don't think we should just do a minute of focused breathing so that we are better at ignoring external "distractions". I think we should use the breath as a way to see our team and our place in it more clearly. I won't mistake a feeling of stillness for a feeling of peace. To me, the peace comes not from a quiet mind but from right living. The breathing gives me a chance to reflect on how I am living. I can see if I am working together with my teammates in meaningful and positive ways. Part of that reflection may be that I need to do my job better but I think that should come after the reflection on how I am integrating with my team. If I can't or won't be mindful of my part in the larger whole then I am putting my ego before all else, which is antithetical to a mindfulness practice.

I also think that using mindfulness practice is an opportunity to create awareness of things that exist outside of our teams as well. I think that we should be asking ourselves how our coaching and playing sports makes an impact on the larger community and the world. How can we use who we are and what we do to be meaningful parts of our community? If creating stillness and peace within ourselves and our teams means that we must do work outside of sport then I think we have taken Purser's words to heart. I am not saying that sport should be only an avenue to social justice but I do want to say that mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition means that all of these lie along the same path.

I have been thinking lately about the communities in which we practice: our teams, our opponents, our spectators, our histories, our futures, and ourselves. I have been wondering what it is that we are creating, recreating, reproducing, passing on, and adding to. When we say we want athletes in our care to grow and develop, what do we want them to grow and develop towards? How do our daily choices and actions contribute to that? How can mindfulness be part of that vision? Let us meditate on that.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Academic Quick Hit: Ventral and Dorsal Contribution to Visual Anticipation in Fast Ball Sports - Simon Bennett, ed 2008

Where I attempt to give a quick summary and opinion on an academic paper that connects to teaching, learning, and/or sport.

Why I think this paper matters:
Information Processing and Ecological Dynamics are two separate schools of thought in motor learning and their proponents are well-entrenched in their positions. The two-stream system may well be an opportunity for each side to compromise a little in the name of more accurately describing how skilled movement happens.
"In the course of action the activity of the ventral and the dorsal systems must be synchronized in a meaningful way such that they can work together. The interaction is reciprocal in that the ventral system constrains the contributions of the dorsal system, and the dorsal system may also affect the workings of the ventral system" (p. 120).

Bennett, S. (2008). Special Issue: Ventral and dorsal contribution to visual anticipation in fast ball sports. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 39(2), 97–177.

Type of Paper: Special Issue with target article and six commentaries
Occasionally, a journal will focus on a specific topic for an entire issue and sometimes that topic is a specific article that all the other articles in the issue respond to. In this case, the target article is "Ventral and dorsal contribution to visual anticipation in fast ball sports" by John van der Kamp, Fernando Rivas, Hemke van Doorn, and Geert Savelsbergh.

Highlights (target article):
- The authors of the target article are building on the work of Milner and Goodale, who have written books and articles about the "two visual stream system". There is a great deal of neurological evidence that visual information enters our eyes and then goes in two different "directions", ventrally and dorsally, once it hits our brains. Each stream specializes in different kinds of information.
- "The ventral system is involved in perception of objects, events, and places. As the ventral system gains knowledge about what the environment offers for action, it can also contribute to action" (p. 102).
- "The dorsal system is designed to visually guide movement execution" (p.102).
- The authors' use of the term "knowledge about" is important because it contrasts with "knowledge of" the environment. They intend to show that each system is better at managing certain kinds of information. I think this is an opportunity recognize that each system needs the other in order for an athlete to perform many skills, especially in ball sports.
- The ventral system is allocentric, or world-centered, while the dorsal system is egocentric, or body-centered. These terms further reinforce the distinction between "knowledge about" and "knowledge of" the environment.
- For me, the most important part of the target article is figure 3 (p. 109) in which the authors propose that "in the course of action the ventral and dorsal systems show parallel engagement". So the two systems work alongside one another.
- The authors show that many experimental results that are intended to support the information processing point of view are likely incomplete because they only allow the implementation of the ventral system.

Highlights (Abernathy and Mann article):
- The fact that many experimental results don't engage the dorsal system has been "largely a consequence of methodological constraints rather than necessarily a strong, conscious commitment by researchers" to uphold a particular philosophical view (p. 137).
- A main difference between experts and novices is probably that the expert's dorsal system is better attuned to their environment (p. 138).
- We must be careful to recognize the difference between errors of "poor pick-up of advance information" and errors of "poor response selection strategy" (p. 140). Did two athletes see and interpret something differently or did they see the same thing but selected different solution strategies?
While there were plenty of ideas I took away from the other commentaries, I think they are more specific to my personal learning so I won't take anyone else into the weeds with me.

What I'm left wondering:
- The commentaries are written from an Ecological Dynamics viewpoint. What would Information Processing commentaries look like?
- In volleyball, we often talk about defenders needing to be stopped/balanced when the opponent attack happens. I find information in the target article that suggests that movement during opponent contact could be either helpful or hurtful. How can I better understand when movement at opponent contact is useful?
- Araújo and Kirlik's article draws a distinction between "representative design" and "ecological validity", writing that many researchers use the latter term when they are really talking about the former (p. 163). I still don't think I understand the distinction.
- Probably the largest question I am left with is if the two motor learning camps have made any movement towards each other and if the two stream system is part of such compromise. As primarily a practitioner, I tend to be more pragmatic in my approach to these theories. I want to use what gets results, meaning the best learning and skill performance. I don't know how to do that in a way that doesn't run afoul of one of the two world views. A coherent, consistent framework is very important to me as a coach so I find this dissonance difficult to reconcile within the realm of my practice.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Academic Quick Hit: Wayfinding - Woods, Rudd, Robinson, and Davids, 2020

Where I attempt to give a quick summary and opinion on an academic paper that connects to teaching, learning, and/or sport.

Why I think this paper matters:
- Using the metaphor of wayfinding for skill adaptation can be a very helpful tool for translating from formal academic language to something easier for practitioners (coaches, teachers, learners) to absorb, understand, and apply.

Woods, C. T., Rudd, J., Robertson, S., & Davids, K. (2020). Wayfinding: How Ecological Perspectives of Navigating Dynamic Environments Can Enrich Our Understanding of the Learner and the Learning Process in Sport. Sports Medicine - Open, 6(1), 51.

Type of Paper: Review/Opinion
The authors give readers a new way to think about the process of skill adaptation. They build out the wayfinding metaphor and how it can be used to think about learning movement and, more importantly for coaches, how it can be used to approach teaching movement.

- A definition of wayfinding: "...wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvellous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings" – M.R. O’Connor (p. 1)
- Wayfinding is contrasted with transport, "where an individual is more interested in reaching a pre-planned destination by transiting 'across' a landscape, as opposed to moving 'through' a landscape" (p. 3). It is more important to experience the landscape.
- The idea of knowledge of is contrasted with knowledge about the landscape in which the wayfinder moves. (To be clear, the "landscape", in this case, is metaphorical, like a "solution space" or a realm of possibilities. This is not talking about how the learner actually moves through physical space.)
- The role of the teacher as landscape designer, in which they create opportunities for learners to "learn to learn how to move" rather than problem-solvers for the learners.
- The role of the teacher as asker of questions rather than explainer of answers to the learners.
- "...wayfinding isn’t knowing before we go, but, knowing as we go" (p. 10)

What I'm left wondering:
- How do I know if the landscape I design is working? If learning is nonlinear and questions should have physical answers instead of verbal ones (p. 8), how do I assess that the learners are seeing what they need to see? What if they are focusing on useful sources of information in the environment but moving in ways that don't get them closer to their goals? How do I get at that discrepancy?
- How does this metaphor fit in with tasks that are less physical (more cognitive) in nature, like remembering an opponent's tendencies?

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Same, Only Different: Reclassifying Serve Reception in Volleyball

I wrote about serve reception in a post a couple of years ago (read it here) and my thoughts there were a bit more philosophical than technical. I want to build on some of the ideas in that post and add some data before giving some ways to integrate the ideas I present. So here goes...

I have been thinking a lot about how we evaluate serve reception since at least when I wrote that previous post and this spring and summer finally yielded some productive ideas that I am looking forward to integrating into my team's training and competition. I'm not changing how I grade receptions but I am expanding how I think about serve reception to include its contribution to scoring points. This expansion is a product of treating all non-terminal skills (receiving, setting, digging) not as isolated skills but as opportunities to either make it harder or easier for our team to score on the next attack. In the case of serve reception, pass average and in system percentage both treat passing as an isolated skill so how can we incorporate scoring into our passing evaluation?

Before I get into that, I think it is important to quickly look at how I grade passing. To be clear, I don't think that my way of grading is better than other ways, it is just an expression of what I think is important and that can vary from one program or scout to another. I think it is important to explain my grading because it influences the data that underlies everything else I'm writing about. First, I grade on a four-point scale so a "four" is a ball passed within a step or so of the setter's "perfect" location while also allowing the setter to be in a desirable posture. Threes, twos, and ones are basically determined by how many options I think the setter reasonably can set on the pass (there's a difference between can and should, which I wrote about here). I use Data Volley's R/ grade for "one-half" receptions, which are passes that are kept in play but the receiving team cannot take a swing. This grade is useful to make "one" grades more connected to scoring points without being affected by the noise of shanks and overpasses that aren't aces.

The data set that I'm using is the last three years of Pac-12 matches for the University of Colorado, where I am the Technical Coordinator. While the data visualization below contains the data for Colorado's opponents as well, I am going to focus on my team. The graph is built in Tableau, which is a really fun and powerful data visualization tool. It is highly interactive, so click around and enjoy.

Let's remember that I said scoring is what drives my work here. Reception is a step towards scoring, which is what really matters. Passing well is nice but good passes are ultimately useful because they make scoring easier. So let's approximate how well my team scores after different reception grades. The graph below is built on reception grades (x axis) and expected first ball efficiency (y axis). To find expected first ball efficiency (xFB), we'll need the number of times each attack outcome (K, 0, E/B) occurs following a particular reception grade and the number of times that reception grade occurs. xFB will be calculated in the same way we calculate attack efficiency with one crucial difference. I am using reception attempts as the denominator rather than attack attempts because this calculation is about the passer rather than the attacker so I want to include receptions that don't have an attack that follows. Each reception grade has its own calculation so each team has five points on the graph and these points correspond to the xFB for that reception grade for that team. I then asked Tableau to show curves to relate each team's data points to one another so each team has one curve that roughly links their five points together, giving us a sense of how the values change as we move from grade to grade. The xFB changes from grade to grade are what triggered my thinking around reception evaluation.

The conclusions I draw from this visualization are not exactly universal but I think that they are similar enough that my conclusions about my team can be useful for many other teams. Let's start at the top end of the grade scale, fours and threes. Better than almost any other team in the conference, Colorado shows that there is little difference between these two kinds of receptions in terms of how well we attack after such a reception. That makes sense because there is probably less difference between what fours and threes look like than the difference between any two other grades. (This could be an argument against scoring on a four-point scale but that's not what I want to focus on here.) We see a big gap between xFB on threes/fours and xFB on twos, which is important because that means twos are clearly different than threes and fours in terms of our ability to score. We score less on our first swings when we pass twos than if we pass better. Just like with threes and fours, this makes sense but it is important to see how large a difference in xFB there is (almost 100 points). It is worth noting that, even though there is a drop in xFB, we can still be reasonably successful hitting .250 in our first ball offense but we start to put more pressure on other aspects of our game. There is an even larger drop between twos and ones (from .250 to .104) and now we have entered dangerous territory, it will be really hard to win if we are only hitting .100 in first ball. Not every team in the graph shows the same grouping of xFB values but there is almost always some kind of grouping that is apparent. I think that if I used more than 5-6 matches of data for the non-Colorado teams, the groupings would be more clear but I'm focusing on my team and extrapolating out from there. The important thing to take away from this is that there are reasonable ways that I can group reception grades together when I consider how well teams attack after those reception types.

I see three groups of receptions for CU: ones after which we hit well over .300, ones after which we hit mid-.200s, and ones after which we hit .100 or worse. I see these three groups as being either favorable for, slightly below average for, or poor for scoring. I could easily stop here and just assign new number values to my reception grades but that doesn't connect the skill to scoring in any meaningful way. Why not just use In System Percentage (IS%) to express the same idea? I think there are two reasons, IS% doesn't connect to scoring and IS% ignores that we can still win passing twos. IS% is certainly useful but it doesn't accomplish what I'm looking for. After thinking about alternative scales, I arrived at Green-Yellow-Red (G-Y-R). This scale separates us from reception average-type numbers and gives us a sense of the situations that attackers find themselves in after a reception: favorable, questionable, and difficult. G-Y-R allows me to continue grading serve reception in the same way I have been, as an expression of the number of front row attacking options that are available, but now I have a way to talk about how reception affects scoring.

Here are two different visualizations that are showing almost the same thing, G-Y-R reception frequencies for opponent passers. Each bar in these stacked bar charts represents a different passer and the colors represent how often that type of reception occurred for that passer. The numbers at the top of each bar are numerical expressions of each passer's G-Y-R. The difference between the two graphs is that the first shows gross counts so we can see which passers received the most serves while the second shows receptions as a percentage so that each passer's performance can be easily compared to that of another passer. I show both because I think it is interesting to see if there are particular passers that are above/below average in terms of their number of attempts and I also think it is important to be able to make comparisons regardless of usage rates. I created these plots in R and I am happy to share the code with anyone interested.

So what does a good passer look like in G-Y-R? The obvious answer is that more green is better, as is less red. But that generalization, like IS%, ignores the yellow, the in-between cases, that can make or break teams' first ball success. Compare Player 13 and Player 80. They have almost identical G% but Player 13 has 10% more Y than Player 80. That means that Player 80's team is going to be hitting around .100 10% more often than Player 13's team when each of them passes. That's a difference in siding out that I want to be aware of and I wouldn't see it if I only looked at IS%. But that comparison doesn't answer the basic question of what a good passer looks like in terms of G-Y-R. I think that 50-30-20 would be the sign of an elite passer. In the sample above, Player 41 and Player 89 are, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. There were passers in my sample that met my criteria of 50-30-20 but they had fewer than 40 receptions, likely because we thought they were good passers and tried not to serve them much.

Let's look at data from a single match to see what G-Y-R can look like. The image at right is of a simple Data Volley worksheet I built to compare reception average, xFB, and G-Y-R. The data make it pretty clear that all three are pretty tightly related. The upper team in the worksheet passed 50% of their receptions at a grade of one or lower and that distribution was reflected in the low xFB and reception average values. Meanwhile, the lower team had 50% G and had xFB and reception average values that were in line with that. If the numbers are all so closely aligned, then aren't xFB and G-Y-R superfluous? I don't think so because I don't think that reception average gives us a clear indication of how a team should score. I don't like relying on xFB because it is too easy to conflate its value with reception averages. (Look at how closely the values of the two measures can seem.) Both xFB and reception average boil a passer's performance down to a single number which removes valuable context. Passers are not going to pass every ball the same but xFB and reception average give us the sense that every ball will be the same because they each give a single value. G-Y-R helps us very quickly understand that passes will be different and gives us a sense of how the passes will be distributed. Compare two passers on the upper team, one at 1.97 and the other at 2.00. If I was deciding who to serve at based only on those reception averages, I might be inclined to pick the lower average but the G-Y-R gives me an interesting insight. The 2.00 passer passes 5% more R than the other so I can give my team a much better chance to earn a point 5% more often if I concentrate my serves on that player instead of on the 1.97 passer. Compare that player to the 2.00 player on the lower team whose G-Y-R is 20-60-20. The dramatic differences in Y% and R% are reflected in a 30 point difference in xFB. These are important differences that affect a team's ability to win points in first ball.

I think G-Y-R can also have an impact on how we coach our athletes. I don't think that it changes how we want our athletes to look and move but I do think G-Y-R should shift our interest and energy when working on reception. Knowing that there isn't much difference between a three and a four in terms of scoring, how much energy should we put into improving a pass' location from 6-7 feet off the net to 1-2 feet off? But what about improving pass location from 11-12 feet off to 6-7 feet off? That's a potential difference of 100 points in hitting efficiency. How important is the height of a pass? A low pass to the center of the court may not prevent our setter from getting to it but it may prevent her from setting it with her hands. Passing a ball to that same location but higher can therefore mean a 150 point increase in xFB. To me, this is a different perspective on improvement. Improvement can mean raising the ceiling on our performances, that our average performance improves because our top scores consistently become a little better. G-Y-R gives us a way to quantify the benefit of raising the floor, making our lowest performances better. G-Y-R suggests that raising the floor would have a much bigger effect on our ability to side out than just seeking general improvement that is reflected in reception average.

G-Y-R also give me an alternative way to think about scoring reception games in practice. We play a serve receive offense game at Colorado where points are awarded based on the quality of our pass and the outcome of the first ball attack. We have been using traditional reception grades for scoring but that's going to change so that our team can more clearly see the effect that reception quality has on side out offense.

I am looking forward to exploring G-Y-R with my team in the coming season. It could be the beginning of an important shift in our thinking towards valuing non-terminal skills in relation to scoring.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Kathryn Schulz' Being Wrong - A Short Review

 "To f*ck up is to find adventure."

I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error until Schulz made this point at the end of chapter two. I thought all of chapter one and most of chapter two were too abstract and philosophical for my taste. But then, in the last pages of chapter two, she set the hook and both my highlighter and I were in. That's when she wrote about the medieval knight errant and reminded readers that the Latin word errare, meaning "to roam", gave rise to the English words "error" and "errand". The English word "errant" can be used to express either idea. But enough about etymology. To be errant is to be wrong but also to be on an adventure.

In this spirit, Schulz gives us the 'Cuz It's True Constraint: we believe what we believe because our convictions (we believe) are based on facts. We're willing to accept the general notion that our beliefs may be biased, but if we pick a particular belief, we'll probably say, "but not that one". We don't believe things because it makes us feel better, smarter, or more in control. That's what other people do. Wrong is something that other people do and they do it for the wrong reasons. Schulz points out that even when we do admit we were wrong, it immediately becomes past tense because we no longer believe the same thing. We were wrong.

So why do we make errors? Because our brains are really good at inductive reasoning. We learn language by hearing others conjugate a verb a few times then we go out and conjugate it the exact same way in all situations until someone points out that we say "took" instead of "taked". We are all built to work on assumptions and we don't realize when that gets us into trouble. As Schulz phrased it, "every one of us confuses our models of the world with the world itself" (p. 107).

We silently substitute how we think the world works for how it actually works and then quickly convince ourselves of the certainty of our model. So if my model is how the world works and I see that your model is different, then your model and, therefore, your world is wrong. I can see all the ways that your world is wrong but I can't see how mine is. I see your certainty as laughable but my own as righteous. (It is worth remembering that this book was published in 2010 and written earlier than that so we now have a decade of social media to show just how right Schulz is about how we treat being wrong.)

To me, the beauty of the book is that Schulz doesn't turn it into a how-to on not being wrong, nor does she pontificate. She writes an ode to and explanation of "wrongology". The closest Schulz gets to telling readers what to do about being wrong is suggesting that it is about far more than getting our facts straight.

But facing up to the true scope and nature of our errors is also (and more self-evidently) psychologically demanding. Crucially, these two challenges are inseparable: if we can't do the emotional work of fully accepting our mistakes, we can't do the conceptual work of figuring out where, how, and why we made them. (p. 207)

There is a vulnerability in being wrong and it scares the crap out of us. So fixing our mistakes means fixing ourselves as well as our facts. But Schulz describes an "optimistic model of wrongness" in which error is a force that "imperceptibly human beings - to grow up" (p. 289).

So what does this have to do with coaching? Nothing. Everything. I take this book as an invitation to admit to and talk about being wrong. How does my wrongness affect my decisions? How does it affect how I treat those I see as wrong? How do I deal with my mistakes when they are made apparent? How do I treat those that show me my errors? As coaches, our relationships with our athletes (and so many others) are built on trust and a power imbalance. Our positions of power can raise the stakes on the errors we make. Do we rely on our power to make things "right"? Do we rely on some version of "because I'm the grown up and I know better" to paper over our misjudgements? When we rely on our power to manage our mistakes, we do so at the expense of the trust placed in us. Our models of the world encourage us to be certain we have done the right thing so we don't understand why faith in us erodes. That's not the place I want to find myself anymore. I'd rather be wrong. After all, that's where the adventure is.

My Coaching Framework - Time for an Update

In February 2018, I wrote the first version of my personal coaching framework. At that time I was beginning my graduate studies in education...