Friday, April 15, 2022

Building Boats and Sailing Seas: How Coaches Can Help Each Other and Themselves

"If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

"One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

What might these two well-known ocean-going quotations have to do with coaching? At first blush, maybe motivation; and I've definitely used these to talk about that topic. But this time, I want to use them to illustrate an important idea in practice planning and coach development.

A common question that less-experienced coaches often ask their more-experienced peers is, "can you give me a drill to get better at x?" A common response to this question is an eye roll (hopefully imagined, rather than actual) that reveal the exasperation with having to answer what feels like the same question again and again. What creates this dynamic? In my opinion, it arises because less-experienced coaches (let's call them novices) tend to be more comfortable following recipes while more-experienced coaches (let's call them experts) have learned to be comfortable acting like chefs, for whom recipes are secondary to a deep understanding of the craft. We recognize that it isn't very fair to expect novices to think the same way as experts. So the challenge, in my mind, is for experts to help novices move along the path to expertise more quickly and, hopefully, more painlessly. And that's where the quotations come in.

Seneca reminds us that having a goal is vital to how we go about many things in life. Coaches are creators of learning environments so we have to know what we want players to learn in any given session, game, or drill. The learning goals we set are one part of the distinction between novices and experts. Novices tend to set very proximal and reactionary goals, driven by what they noticed was bad recently or which new thing has caught their attention. Experts tend to set learning goals based on development, they are always thinking about what is best for the overall progress of players and systems. Novice thinking, in this regard, can be simplified to "how do I get them to stop/start doing x?" while expert thinking can be simplified to "how do I help them move from where they are towards a more-distant goal?"

The difference, then, is not the presence or absence of goals but the kinds of goals that each coach sets. This is part of the tension that arises from the common question-asking I described above. Novices are asking questions with immediate, clear-cut answers and experts, their minds awash in context and nuance, are reticent to give the kinds of answers that the novices are seeking. So Seneca's lament, for us, is about not sharing goals rather than not having any. Experts can give many different answers, many different drills that satisfy the novice's question. Any wind is the right wind because the expert likely assumes a goal that may or may not match what the novice had in mind but may be unable to articulate. But there are better ways to navigate these conversations that honor both the novice's question as well as the expert's desire to develop.

We must work to establish shared goals in conversations between novices and experts and we do this through dialogue. The expert can open by inviting the novice to share, "tell me more about why x matters to you and your players." The expert can narrate their thought process for the novice and help the novice develop their own internal dialogue. The conversation can now grow beyond short-term thinking, it no longer has to be confined to discussion only of what are the players doing and what do they need to do. The expert can help the novice see that there are questions and concerns that establish a framework within which players are being challenged to grow not just from point to point, but along a larger trajectory that extends beyond those points in both directions. It's not only that players should be able to perform a certain skill, but also that the skill fits into the larger context of the game as it is played at their level as well as how the game will be played as the players continue to develop.

This is where Saint-Exupéry's description of boat building comes in. Novices tend to see coaching (building a boat) as a series of jobs that need to be performed that eventually give rise to a functional team (boat). They are looking for a recipe, composed of steps to follow and tasks to be completed. The expert's challenge is to cultivate "a shared taste for the sea" in the novice. This is the heart of mastering our craft. We aren't sailors because we long to build boats, we are sailors because we long to be on the ocean. We aren't coaches because we long to have all the answers, we are coaches because we long to be part of the growth and change of the players we work with. The expert's challenge is show how the longing we feel drives the work that we do. We weave canvas into sails because, at every moment, we can feel the wind that will fill them. As coaches, we do our best work when we see how players can change and why we're asking them to change in specific ways. We don't ask them to change simply because we said so, we share our vision of their future and ask them if they want to come along. We recognize that the wind will not always fill our sails and that, sometimes, our sails will not not be enough for us to navigate as we wish. When we see ourselves as merely sail-makers, as recipe-followers, then we will find fault with our products and throw up our hands. But when we act as sailors, we recognize that the ocean sometimes demands more of us and our craft than we can handle. We respect the sea and our limitations. Expert coaches, then, should be inviting novices to learn the sea at every moment.

Expert coaches should be asking novices where they wish to sail. What does the game look like where you're coaching right now? How do your players compare with others? More importantly, experts should not be asking novices how they can make their players look more like others. Experts should be asking novices about the trajectories of their players. Their endpoints shouldn't all look the same so their trajectories shouldn't be the same either. Experts should be helping novices develop their sense of progress and direction rather than helping them develop their sense of final products. The game will inevitably be more than our players can manage at times and the answer in those moments is not to fix, but to grow. Yes, we can teach players to improve their skills but in ways that align with their trajectories rather than with our imposed endpoints. That's a key difference between experts and novices.

Remember the simplified kinds of questions I laid out above? Novices tend to be concerned with stopping/starting things they see because they are more comfortable seeing the gaps between what a player currently does and what "good" or "complete" players look like. They know what the end product of a recipe should be. Expert coaches tend to be concerned with how a player is progressing, with their trajectory and how to facilitate growth on that trajectory. There isn't a recipe for that player, steps for the coach to follow. Instead, there is a sense of where the player has been and the direction that they are moving in and that sense dictates how to encourage what is already happening. They seek to bring out the flavors inherent in the ingredients. So the expert's challenge in working with a novice is not to stop what they are doing or start doing something new. The expert's challenge is to open the novice's senses to what the players are doing and could do.

Now, an expert can expand their response to the drill question with more than a drill. They can say, "tell me more." They can work together with that novice to craft a drill that moves towards a shared goal that they establish together. And then they can talk about what to look for and how to coach within that context. Experts can talk about how those moments, coaching within that context, are huge parts of what coaching is all about. That's how all of us, novices and experts, become not builders of boats but sailors of seas.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Getting Better at Getting Better: Thoughts on How We Approach Professional Development

This post is a reflection on my recent efforts to be part of building a learning community in my network of Coach/Performance Analyst friends.

If you have a car and you drive places in it, then you've likely felt the frustration of being stuck in traffic. When you're stuck in traffic, have you ever noticed how everyone around you looks like they're in the same situation? One person sitting in one car, simultaneously lost and trapped in one tiny world. And yet, alternatives exist. Carpools and public transit exist. But, the alternatives feel like they're not meant for us, that they don't fit who we are and where we're going. They feel inconvenient. They feel like they take too much time, which we already feel like we don't have enough of.

Work can feel like that. We all have moments when we feel alone in our work, like no one else is working on the same thing we are. We compound that when we feel both stuck and alone, when we feel uncertain of what we're doing and that we're the only one working on this exact thing. One person sitting in one work-shaped car. And yet, alternatives exist. But, even before I describe those alternatives, our first instincts are the same. We have difficulty believing that the alternatives will feel anything other than incongruent and inconvenient.

As coaches, teachers, mentors, team members, and learners, we know that's usually where the good stuff is, somewhere in the discomfort. I want to complicate our understanding of that discomfort. America holds rugged individualism as one of its core characteristics. Americans are immersed in a sense of needing to go it alone, no matter what it is that we're giving a go. We drive that way and we work that way, even when we work "together". You have your car and I have mine; you have your toolbox and I have mine. We default to "I'll meet you there" rather than "I'll pick you up". If I have to ask you if I can borrow a tool, it means that I'm not adequately prepared to do my job. This is to say that we're comfortable doing it all by ourselves. If we aren't sure of how to do it, we will try to figure it out alone rather than discomfit ourselves to learn with and from another. We even explain that choice by saying that we don't want to inconvenience others, "I don't want to bother them." (There is the exception of just offloading a task altogether, when we ask another to do it for us so we can each stay in our comfort zones.) We've developed a very narrow concept of discomfort and we've grown very comfortable with it.

We think, then, that getting "comfortable being uncomfortable" is an individual endeavor. We view being uncomfortable as another thing to do alone. I want to challenge that. We can make our own learning and, by extension, the learning of those we work with, better if we change what it means to be uncomfortable. Let's be uncomfortable together instead of alone. Let's talk about discomfort as a shared experience because we're uncomfortable together instead of just empathizing with another's discomfort.

This is not to say that empathy isn't necessary or important but, in the context of what I'm proposing, it is only a beginning. Sharing travails is a valuable experience, for both sharer and listener. Sharing progress brings joy to both sharer and listener. I'll use the words of Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and author.

"And the third [jewel of the Buddha] is the sangha, the community of people who are also committed to awakening...Sangha is...a place where we refrain from competition and one-upping each other...[People] are helping each other with kindness and compassion...By sharing your experiences on the path, you might be helping another person - not from an up-down position, but from friend to friend. And sangha members do not have to live in the same place. You can pen pal with a fellow practitioner or you talk on the phone. It is hard to go at this practice alone. And participating in a community of practitioners can make a big difference, especially when we hit those bumps in the road when our practice isn't smooth sailing." 
Chödrön, Pema (2008). How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind.

But being in a community of coaches or teachers is hard. It's hard because of the structure of our professions. We work in our own classrooms, within our own teams. We work alone, even when we are in plain sight of others in our community. We are caught up in our own things to such an extent that we struggle to find time and bandwidth to share our experiences with others. And then there's that rugged individualism that tells us that we shouldn't want to share. Rugged individualism also goes together with imposter syndrome to make us even more hesitant to work together. We all have our private battles with imposter syndrome and yet we have difficulty accepting that others really do feel that same weight. So we often learn and work alone, from a place of fear. We believe that we aren't enough so we drive ourselves in isolation in hopes that eventually we'll close that imagined gap. Chödrön reminds us that sharing is an act of compassion, in which we struggle together. She reminds us that sharing and compassion put us on equal footing, that being in community doesn't have to include titles and ranks and doesn't have to make us feel less than. When each of us is striving to be our best, we appreciate the commitment present in each person. This is what that trendy namaste word we've seen everywhere should really be about. We believe in one another, acknowledge one another, and support one another. We honor one another’s struggles by showing our own.

But, I challenge, being in community with others requires more than just cheering from the sidelines. When I say this, I use "community" in a slightly different way than we might be used to. In the literature on learning theory, we find the concept of situated learning which holds that learning is a feature of people, activities, and the communities in which they are found. Being in community means interacting with others and learning is part of those interactions. This is different from our usual views of learning via transmission and acquisition, which allow for passive engagement. According to situated learning, people change by changing how they participate in their communities, not by simply knowing something. Think of how we contrast learning in a classroom versus learning in sport. In a classroom, we assume that after teachers speak and write and students hear and write, that learning has taken place. But in sport, we are more likely to look for changes in participation. In sport, we tend to value doing over knowing what to do. This is situated learning, changing participation in changing communities. In this view of community, the only way to be part of it is to participate, there is no passive engagement. There is also no working alone because what we do relies on interactions. Our participation is always shared, as is our learning. We don't so much learn from others as we learn with others. It can be said that we learn from others by watching what they do or hearing them explain their actions, but, ultimately, our learning comes when we have the opportunities to act as we have seen and change our participation when those opportunities arise.

How, then, do we learn with others in a community? This has two parts, opportunities for changing participation and actual participation. While opportunities regularly appear, if we don't know how to act when they do, then those opportunities come and go without any change, without any learning. To avoid missing these opportunities, we would benefit from the presence of mentors and companions. We are familiar with mentorship as being a relationship in which a mentor gives advice when the need or moment arises. But what if we realized that needs and moments can be created as well as just arising? We can work together to shape the activities in our communities so those activities better fit the learning we wish to do. This is something that we do every day as coaches and teachers, we scaffold opportunities for learners. We plan activities that give learners chances to change how they participate, that give them chances to do things that they have not done before. And yet we fail to do the same in our own learning.

We can and should create opportunities to foster our own changing participation in our communities. To paraphrase Jean Lave, a principal researcher in situated learning, we are already apprentices to ourselves, always trying to learn what we are already doing. We are reflecting on our practices and, occasionally, trying to change as a result. What if we gave ourselves the scaffolding that we offer to our learners? How much richer could our own learning be? This is where our community plays a vital role. Both formal education and organized sport are built on the principle that having help in structuring learning is better than going it alone. Engaging others in learning gives us access to learning that isn't available to us when we work alone because our learning is situated in the interactions between us.

Getting better at our jobs, then, should be something that we plan to do and that we do with others. While it can be done alone, it is far better when done together. It is better because of the community, the sangha, we create. It is better because of how important interaction is to learning and changing. Getting better doesn't have to be the lonely grind that we're comfortable with. It can, and should, be an adventure that we share.

Time constraints and social standing are real and consequential factors that make it feel harder for us to work together. It is challenging to overcome them but we don't have to slay these giants in a single battle. We can create opportunities to be just a little different, we can take smaller steps if we recognize that those steps are available to us. This is something that James Clear gets at in "Atomic Habits" and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein take advantage of in "Nudge". Setting aside time for a regular phone call might feel like an imposition but, what if that phone call meant moving a little bit towards being better? Not to mention that we get to share with another person... It's a small shift to make time for conversation and another small shift to make that conversation about helping one another do and be different instead of only catching up with a friend. A Zoom call is no longer just another Zoom call when the purpose of the call is to make some progress on a shared project or to explore ways to improve. These are the interactions that nourish us as well as improve us.

This is how we get out of our cars and get out of traffic. So let's explore how we might take some small steps that might eventually lead to big things.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Statistics for Decision Makers: 2021 AVCA Convention Presentation

I presented at the 2021 American Volleyball Coaches Association convention on December 16, 2021. Thanks to all who attended and to my friends that gave me valuable feedback as I prepared. Thanks also to the AVCA for selecting me to present.

This presentation changed a great deal from when it was conceived until it was presented. As a result, the description in the program wasn't exactly what was on display. While that discrepancy does bother me, I am much happier with the presentation that I ultimately gave. Looking back, here's how I would summarize it now:
As coaches, we are always engaged in a Search: to be better than our opponents and to be better than our previous selves. We would like to think that we our Searches would be better if they were data-driven but the truth is that we can't let the data do the driving. Our worlds are more complex than we think and we can be easily fooled if we're not careful. If we are to use statistical analysis in our decision making, then we need to better understand not only how statistics work but how our brains and contexts influence which statistics matter.

Here's my video from the seminar:

 
You can access the AVCA's recordings as well:
Audio-only version (Someone even took the time to edit out the discussion times when I wasn't speaking)
Video version

Here are my slides:
PDF Version
Power Point Version

Here are links for the recommended reading:
Kahneman, D., Sibony, O., & Sunstein, C. R. (2021). Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. Little, Brown.
Mlodinow, L. (2009). The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. Pantheon Books.
Schulz, K. (2010). Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. HarperCollins.
Wheelan, C. (2013). Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data. W. W. Norton & Company.

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.
 
Citation:
Grecic, D., & Collins, D. (2013). The Epistemological Chain: Practical Applications in Sports. Quest, 65(2), 151–168. https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2013.773525

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."
 
Highlights:
- 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).

Citation:
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.

Building Boats and Sailing Seas: How Coaches Can Help Each Other and Themselves

"If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca "One will weave the canvas; an...