The Why, What, and How of Coaching Movement: Part 1

In an early post entitled ‘The Rise of the Movement Specialist’ we identified an apparent gap in the technical input and direction provided to athletes when it comes to athletic movement skills. The appearance in recent times of hordes of self-styled ‘movement specialists’ seeking to fill the void, or rather recognising a niche in the market, is indicative that something is presently lacking. With this 3-part post we attempt to tackle the question of what our role is in this space, and offer some guidance on how we can do better.

In this first part of the 3-part series, we start with ‘why’…

There are some fundamental questions to consider in our role as ‘coach’. @@We must also recognise that as practitioners we are all coaches@@. Whatever our discipline, we find ourselves directing the athlete on where and how we want them to move, and instructing them on how to perform particular exercise we prescribe for our various purposes. It follows that we should all become cognisant of the underlying principles in order that we are proficient when we find ourselves coaching movement.

STARTING WITH WHY: BEFORE WE DO ANYTHING…

My colleague Gerry Ramogida came up with a great piece of wisdom relating to his approach when treating athletes. He said: “before I do anything, I first ask myself ‘why?’”. This equally applies to coaching. If we cannot answer such a fundamental question then we should go away and figure it out before we proceed any further.

As a natural follow up to ‘why am I doing this’, the next question we must pose is ‘what exactly am I aiming to achieve by doing this?’.

In our quest to be intentional in our approach and concise in our delivery, we must first be clear on what functions we are looking to fulfill, and what objectives we are looking to meet.

COACHING FOR LEARNING…

Fundamentally when we discuss coaching, we are talking about learning. This might constitute learning something new, or learning how to do a previously learned or familiar action in a different way.

So let us consider two scenarios:

Scenario #1 is that you are provided with the solutions to memorise (essentially a cheat sheet).

Scenario #2 is that you work through each problem, reason it through, figure it out (all with appropriate guidance), and finally arrive at the solutions.

Which of these two scenarios would you expect to provide the most effective learning? More specifically, which is more likely to result in superior recall beyond the short term?

The process of working through the task and coming up with solutions clearly has inherent value, so it would seem remiss to skip this step simply to expedite the process. Yet we see this all in the time when practitioners coach athletes on how they want them to move.

To paraphrase a friend and peer in the field named Carmen Bott, whether they get it right or they get it wrong, either way a lesson is learned, and the new information is ‘in the vault’.

AM I ADDING VALUE?

Part of being a coach, which is integral to becoming better for any practitioner, is asking the hard questions. As noted in a previous post, exercising this discipline is central to reflective practice. Fundamentally, what we need to consider at the outset, and monitor thereafter, is whether we are truly adding value.

In this vein, there are some specific questions we need to ask ourselves. Am I effecting change? Is the change positive? Is the change robust? In other words is it sticking? Does my input come with any adverse long term side effects? Is the athlete able to adapt, and capable of coming up with alternative solutions when faced with different scenarios?

It is important for us to entertain the idea that our input may not be entirely helpful. Our presence and involvement may not be assisting the athlete’s learning process.

This realisation raises further questions. Are we inadvertently adding noise? Is our input distracting the athlete from attending to other salient information and intrinsic feedback as they practice? Might we be impeding the athlete from exploring potentially viable solutions? Finally, is our involvement fostering dependence?

@@Despite our best intentions we might be getting in the way@@.

The biggest test of our coaching is what happens when we are not there. Is the positive change we are effecting dependent on us being there? In another earlier post, we spoke about creating autonomy not automatons. @@Paradoxically, our objective as coaches should be to make ourselves redundant@@.

APPARENT NEED...

Whilst good in theory, in practice it is a stretch to think that an athlete will self-organise in a perfect fashion and spontaneously adopt the most mechanically optimal technique of their own accord. For an illustration of this, take a stroll down to any nearby routes popular with recreational runners and marvel at the running techniques on display. In doing so, you will gain some insight into the reasons behind the high injury rates among recreational runners.

A growing number of the athletes we encounter likewise present with a glaring need for remedial work. As modern lifestyles become increasingly sedentary, the levels of fundamental movement skill mastery among children and adolescents continues to decline. It is therefore no longer safe to assume young athletes will naturally acquire these capabilities as part of their normal development. As practitioners we can therefore expect that our role in this space will only expand moving forwards.

Clearly we have a role to play; we just need to be clear on the scope of that role, and what specific functions we are aiming to fulfil.

OUR ROLE(S) IN THE PROCESS…

Following on from some wisdom that Dan Pfaff shared on this topic, our guiding purpose as coaches is to work to ensure the effectiveness of the movement strategies employed by the athlete, and strive to enhance their mechanical efficiency on an ongoing basis.

To that end, I would contend that a key part of our role from the outset is to help the athlete understand the physics of what they are trying to do. Given that learning is central to coaching movement then our role here is that of a teacher. Providing the athlete with an understanding of the fundamental physics at play is critical to help inform the athlete’s attempts to come up with effective movement solutions that align with the physics involved.

Once we have armed the athlete with this understanding, our main function is then that of a guide. We are there to help steer the athlete’s attention to salient features of the task, and help them to conceptualise the solutions.

An incisive comment from Dale Stevenson, coach of current world champion shot putter Tom Walsh, was that he decided he needed to get really good at asking the right questions. Dale considers that a major part of his role as a coach of an already accomplished athlete is ‘probing’ to stimulate the ongoing discovery and learning process over time.

Borrowing from dynamical systems theory, on occasion our role as coaches is to provide the nudge that dislodges the athlete from their existing strategy, in order to free them up to settle on alternative solutions which might be more effective or mechanically optimal. We can use the analogy of a pinball game; sometimes the ball bearing is stuck in a shallow well and the system requires a nudge or shunt to dislodge it and free it up to roll to another location.

IN SUMMARY...

We have multiple roles to play as a practitioner coaching athletic movement. These roles range from teacher, to inquisitor, to guide and facilitator. It is critical to be clear on our purpose, and mindful that we might be inadvertently becoming an obstacle, a crutch, or a negative influence. Clearly there is more here than meets the eye. The next part in this 3-part series deals with 'what' we are aiming to coach, and thereafter we move onto the 'how'.

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