The ABC’s of Coaching: How teaching kindergarten made me a better S&C coach – pt. 2

In Part 1 of The ABC’s of Coaching, I explored the parallels between my time working as a kindergarten teach and my dream job that I now possess, working as a Strength and Conditioning coach. In this next installment I am going to elaborate on the unique learnings that I had teaching a room full of 4 and 5 year olds, which have proved invaluable in my transition to full-time strength coach and business owner. Let me preface this information by saying that I have worked with athletes from 9 to 30’s, amateur to professional, Big league All-star to fighting to make the team, and the approach is always the same, in that it isn’t!

What I am referring to here in the education world is called a student centered, or student lead approach to learning. What this means is that instead of telling students this is what we are doing today, this is what you are going to learn and I want you to memorize each of these facts/figures/etc. The educator will say, “what is it students, that interests you?” and with this in mind, will design learning opportunities around said topic which will create a rich environment of exploration that encompasses all of the required curriculum materials, but which is fully explored and discovered by the student, in a manor which makes sense to each of the individual learners. By acknowledging the learners as capable and competent participant in the learning process, the teacher creates the ability for the learners to come to conclusions on their own, confirmed by collaboration and thus a deeper engagement and understanding of the content. This approach to education in theory sounds wonderful and in practice it is! However, it is also extremely difficult to pull off. In order to create an environment where the students appear to seamlessly explore and discover things that lead them exactly to the end point the curriculum requires they get to is a major challenge to the educator who is tasked with building an environment that provides options for different learner types, varying degrees of background knowledge and wide-ranging abilities to comprehend expectations. What this means is that the educator must be constantly reflecting on the process and evaluating what the next steps are, while planning multiple tasks for any one concept to ensure that each learner is accounted for. As well, this approach requires a great deal of collaboration with the learner and other educators, which is completely for naught if there is not a strong attention to the communication that is taking place within the environment.
Out of my experience in developing this type of environment within my classroom, I came to a point where I re-examined everything I knew about coaching. Like many former athletes, I have been exposed to a myriad of different coaching styles, both good and bad. However, when I think back to the most influential coaches I’ve had, the common theme was a great relationship with the athletes, where they felt comfortable approaching, discussing and (most importantly) questioning the coaches. While writing part 1 of this post, I reached out to my mentor (and reason I became a Strength and Conditioning coach) Mark Verbeek and he reminded me of what another of the best coaches I ever had, Coach Stef Ptaszek, now of the Hamilton Ticats, used to say, “It’s not about building better athletes, it’s about building better people.” I didn’t know it necessarily at the time when I was an athlete within the Marauder Football program, but the reason why these two coaches, Ptaszek and Verbeek along with my defensive coordinator (now Head coach with McMaster Football) Greg Knox, had such a profound impact on my development as a player, is that they approached each meeting, practice, training session, as an opportunity to educate, create understanding and develop a sense of what it means not just to be successful on the field, but more importantly off of the field. They truly loved the interactions they had with players not just around sport, but as people. Without me realizing it, they were roll modeling the very characteristics that would make my transition to education and then eventually back to sport seem like utter common-sense. It is this type of impact and environment that I have attempted to create with the athletes here at PSP.
As I transitioned out of the classroom, I stole that term, ‘Student Centered,’ from my B.Ed and assimilated it into the mission statement for the approach I wanted to take with my athletes’. This became and Athlete Centered environment. (By no means do I claim to have created the term ‘athlete centered,’ though I came to it in a very organic way based off of connections to past experience.) As mentioned, in order to create an athlete centered environment, just like a student centered environment, careful attention to detail around communication is paramount. As I’ve rambled on now for a while, I will without further ado, share the meat of my learnings that have served me as a Strength and Conditioning coach seeking to create an athlete centered environment.

  1. Begin each day with a personal conversation. In Kindergarten we would start the day with ‘carpet time,’ wherein the students would take turns discussing how they were feeling, what they did the day before, what they had for breakfast, anything that came to mind. As Strength and Conditioning coaches we cannot over look the value of a genuine “how are you today” conversation. When an athlete, or learner feels safe, these simple words can expose countless revelations that have a direct impact on there ability to perform that day and continue to build trust in your caring for them as an individual. Understanding how an athlete is on any given day, or week, can allow you to accelerate or decelerate their programming in order to maximize their adaptation and more importantly, prevent injury or burnout.
  2. Figure out what language your learner is speaking. Ask questions, followed by follow-up question and then follow-ups to the follow-up. Allow them to explain things in their way and then relate back to their examples as you relay your information. Figure out what they know, or think they know and then try to mesh that with what they need to know, in order to be successful. When introducing a new concept in the gym, I will first ask, “Have you ever heard of (insert movement, concept etc. here)?” If the athlete answers in the affirmative the follow up will be, “Tell/show me what you know.” After they have demonstrated their knowledge, I may find a piece that is incorrect and ask, “why might you want to be careful with (name movement or concept what is misunderstood)?” Through this line of questioning I am attempting to get the athlete to draw upon their learnings to either affirm or challenge what they think they know, basically allowing the athlete to teach themselves. This technique can also expose holes in my own previous explanations, as it helps me to see what the athlete has retained.
  3. Express things in simple form, but don’t underestimate the ability to understand complex concepts. This goes back to the ‘Big Idea’ concept. By establishing what it is that you want your athlete’s to accomplish at the end of a training season, you can then break the more complex ideas into many smaller ideas, that when put together, will result in the final task or performance outcome which you seek to impart on your athlete. Using this technique, I was able to get a room of 5 year old’s “multiplying.” (I use quotations because they didn’t necessarily know this is what they were doing as they were manipulating implements.) Ultimately, if I want someone to perform the Olympic lift, the clean, I start by identifying each element that makes up the final movement and then teach them individually in their own training block, only bringing them together when each individual component is mastered.
  4. Be clear about your expectations. Outline the expectations of a given task clearly and then have those expectations repeated back to you. When revisiting the same task have them outline the expectations to you, filling in blanks where necessary. In order to avoid a sense of condescension, ensure you express your expectation for constant revisiting of expectations and explain that this practice creates a mindfulness and connection to the task at hand.
  5. “3 Stars and a Wish.” Whether you are 5 or 50, nobody wants to be constantly bombarded by a million corrections. This plays on our confidence and makes it feel as if we might-as-well not even try. Praise the positive! I generally like a minimum of 3 positive comments for every correction. Keeping in mind that skill acquisition is a process, so practice makes progress, progress make perfect!
  6. Never assume anything! Just because you have done something with a client before don’t assume they remember the expectations. Always revert back to number 4! If the athlete makes a mistake, it is my fault for not ensuring that the knowledge was available and the expectation thoroughly understood.
  7. It’s not about you. In kindergarten there is a very minimal understanding by the learner of the world and how it pertains to those other than themselves. This will shape their perception of a situation, as the ability to perceive others as individuals who think, behave and exist outside of the classroom is still maturing. So when someone does something out of character, such as scream because they are having a bad day it can lead to confusion and an internalization of that sentiment. Whether a coach or educator, if you are having a bad day, it is not fair to those who depend on you for guidance to be influenced by your mood. We’ve all had that coach that “kicked our butt” whether it be through wind-sprints ‘til we puked or push ups until our arms fell off, because they weren’t ‘happy’ with our effort. Consistency of affect is crucial if you want people to ‘buy in’
  8. Be vulnerable. Think back to when you were a child and the teacher was larger than life. There was a certain amount of fear that went into every communication. As a performance coach we can sometimes take on this super-human persona if we practice what we preach which can lead to a fear of judgement in the athletes we work with. This fear of judgement will stunt open communication and ultimately limit the honest feedback that you will need to obtain in order to shape a truly athlete-centered environment. “Sometimes I feel sluggish” or “I crush an entire bag of chips once in a while” can go a long way to building trust and open communication which will lead to a more positive and productive training environment.
  9. Have fun and smile!!!

This concludes my reflection on how my past experience as an educator, influenced my current approach to Strength and Conditioning. I hope that it was a valuable read, which you can apply to your interactions no matter what field you are in.

Please, feel free to leave me comments or suggestions. And if you really enjoyed what you read please share it with others.

This series was originally posted on the Prototype Sports Performance blog.

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