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 reveals 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 of the players we work with. The expert's challenge is to 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.

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