Why I Can’t Coach Sport

It would be a dramatic overstatement to say that I was ever a good sportsman. I played basketball seriously between Year 8 and Year 11, and we trained every night after school but even then, I noticed I couldn’t quite channel the will to win in the same way my friends could. If I felt a bit tired, I would look to the bench to be substituted. I wanted to win, but didn’t have that single-minded commitment that others did. I got progressively better, as I came to understand how best to use my body and how to play strategically, but I was always held back by a lack of grit. Despite my small size for basketball – 6 foot 2 – I was one of the tallest on our team, and when we played matches I had to mark players who were almost always stronger, bigger and heavier than me. I made the best of my gangly long arms but retired at 16.

As a player, I could recognise my strengths and weaknesses, but now that I am doing coaching, I am finding this self assessment more difficult.

I have run a basketball club at my school for the last four years and have a remarkably poor success rate. I feel very strongly that this is a consequence of my flagrant inability to coach during games.

When it is training, where we do drills, exercises and skill building, I am strong. Much of what works as a teacher in general holds true when coaching new skills – modelling, repetition, reflection, increasing difficulty, feedback. I see dashes of brilliance in some of my kids, despite our diminutive size compared with kids from other local schools (we are generally super-short and skinny), but it doesn’t translate into games.

Considering my lack of passion as a player, I am unhinged as a coach. It must look farcical to an onlooker to see my face-palming, yelping, roaring commands and dissecting the action with any of the substitutes who happen to be close by.

I feel as though I cannot control myself, and embarrass myself, and I also recognise that is not helping them. One of my basketballers, a Year 5, bravely asked me to please not shout things as it makes him panic. This makes me feel awful, because, as a coach…I am.

This got me to thinking of two exemplary coaches I have worked with.

Bob Martin from the Danum Eagles ran every single training session with a focus on the importance of the fundamentals and he didn’t tolerate anything less that top effort. There are many people with far more legitimate reasons to thank Coach Bob – some of those who stuck with it with more dedication than I could muster ended up developing from our after school club in a regular school in a Yorkshire ex-mining town to playing in the USA on scholarships. Bob was unrelentingly committed to fair play and it was his passion that pushed gifted athletes to up their game to the highest tier, and it was his passion that pushed Average Joes like me to build confidence in themselves. He was great and although I didn’t continue, and in fact became shamefully unsporty, I owe him a lot, and didn’t really ever communicate my gratitude for what he taught me.

The second excellent coach was one who taught an altogether different lesson and he is my own current colleague, Mr Colthrust. Last year, our children at Elmhurst won an Urban Cricket league and their prize was a residential cricket camp at Arundel in West Sussex. Our school enjoys phenomenal success at cricket, which stands in very clear contrast to our basketball. This residential was going to take place in half term, so when asked to attend, my immediate response was a resounding ‘no’. Then I got to thinking about the opportunity to see how Mr C weaves his magic and o retracted my no.

During the children’s training sessions, which were led by instructors from Arundel, Mr C and I stood to the sides and watched. He saw everything. He had an encyclopaedic awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, at a technical level. Every now and again, he would call a kid over and have a very short quiet word with them. It wasn’t really a conversation – just a quick sharing of what he had seen. The kids went back onto the green and suddenly their grips on the bat had changed, they paced their runs differently, and they were paying more attention. It was like everything he said went in – as teachers, we know, this never happens!

But the biggest surprise was in the different cricket matches. By joining him and the team, I was expecting to see the spectacle of the pep talk or the artistry of the clipboard. I was expecting dynamic strategising. His only words I remember were along the lines of ‘You know what to do’ and then he watched in absolute unflinching silence. When kids made errors, he watched. When they did spectacular things, he watched.

He got them to the point where he wasn’t needed, but because he was in their heads already, as they played.

I think to my own composure as a coach and I can say with confidence that my players will not be growing up to write blogs of gratitude about my coaching prowess. From looking to good coaching role models like Bob and like Mr C, I can get better at it.

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5 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Coach Sport

  1. Jonny,

    Thank you of sharing this. This is a deeply reflective piece on your coaching practice. Being reflective as a coach is fundamental to developing and is an ongoing process. Having other coaches you admire and watch is also part of this process and Mr C sounds like someone we could both learn from. Sometime less is more when it comes to coaching, but it takes strength and experience to let go.

    My own opinion though is you need to shift your thinking of what success looks like as a youth coach. Success as a youth coach can’t be about the win column. Success is if your athletes enjoy their sessions and you can see them developing. Ultimately if they come back again and again then that is true success of your coaching.

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