What can a famed psychotherapist teach sports coaches? Quite a lot, it seems.
I came across an interview with New York based psychotherapist and podcast superstar, Esther Perel, in the terrific magazine Dumbo Feather, the other day. While the whole of her interview about her life and counselling career was fascinating, the thing that most caught my eye most was her thinking about her approach to her work. Her beliefs about what gets results in the counselling room struck me as being potentially helpful to coaches, teachers and instructors in their effort to get the most from their trainees and athletes.
Reticent in front of dogma
Here is a tiny smidgen of what she said. She is talking about her counselling work, of course, but I reckon it applies in the world of sports coaching as well!
“I understand that there isn’t one way to say things or do things. I am often quite reticent in front of dogma and I think that every field can come up with dogma and that dogma postures as truth. And often in science the truth of today is the joke of yesterday. I never think I am right. I sound confident, but I don’t think that means I’m right or I have the truth on things. And I have been trained in multiple disciplines and I have created a platform online now, which is a community for therapists and coaches that is multidisciplinary and multicultural and inclusive because I didn’t want to create my own clinical chapel where I push my model, and everyone comes to study it. I think that everybody understands the problems of echo chambers and the same thing is happening in our own fields. So, I like to try out new things.” (Dumbo Feather – Issue 54)
What Perel says also applies in sports and sports coaching. Sport is rife with the problem of the echo chamber. In closed systems the perceived truthfulness about a belief, method or approach echoes around among the true believers until the belief is amplified to the point where other points of view become impossible. In soccer, rugby, rugby league, basketball, cricket, netball, you name it, the echo chamber applies. Coaches, commentators, pundits and knowledgeable punters convince themselves that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things and that any ideas that exist outside conventional wisdom are worthless.
Smart-arsed rugby commentary
The current crop of rugby union commentators are the most ridiculously misguided advocates of the view that there is only one way of doing things. “The Wallabies must stand deeper,“ they say. Or the All Blacks have to get the first hit in the next scrum.” Or the Springboks need to clean up their lineout ball.” Bullshit! They don’t “have to”, “need to” or “must” do anything at all. The smart-arsed belief that there is only one way of doing things is wrong. Rugby league experts are not much better.” The Rabbitohs must be first to score after the break.” “The Storm have to improve their kicking game.” “The Broncos have to secure better field position if they want to score.” The assumption that there are hard and fast rules about how a game should be played and coached is incorrect, as Esther Perel suggests. The echo chambers deaden everyone’s ears to exciting truths that may be a million miles away from orthodox coaching wisdom.
Dogma and orthodoxy are killers of good sports coaching. Perel reminds coaches that truthfulness in science changes all the time. What is true today may have been laughable in the past… and may be laughable again in the future. Soccer is plagued with different coaches advocating the value of different systems. Some swear by 4 – 4 – 2. Others 3 – 4 – 2. Still others 4 – 3 – 3. Orthodoxy says that teams must have a system… a shape… and that they need to adhere to their system and “keep their shape.” Are there other ways of looking at this? What if a team shifted its player positions continually throughout a game? What if player positions were much more dynamic and fluid? What if a team chose to have no shape at all? It would be disastrous wouldn’t it? Or would it?
How many rugby league coaches demand that their team establish field position with several major “hit ups” before attempting a set piece with more expansive movement of the ball? Is this the only way that the game can be played? It seems to me that several hits ups in the first few tackles are precisely what the defence is expecting from an attacking team. Defending the expected is hardly a major challenge. Doing precisely what the opposition expects (and wants you to do) with every six-tackle set strikes me as being dumb.
The conventional wisdom of a rugby union team always kicking for touch when in possession close to their own line also seems like unwise orthodoxy to me. “When in doubt, kick it out,” seems to be the rule. When you kick the ball out from your own goal line you are, most likely, giving your opponent guaranteed set piece possession in perfect field position to launch a dangerous attacking raid against your team. While these set pieces may not result in a score from the opponent initially, a score generally does result from the second, third or fourth phase after the lineout… so why do it? Certainly, alternatives to the kick for touch are highly risky, but if the coach works on alternatives with his or her team, at practice, they may just become less risky than giving the ball away at the quarter line.
Being confident doesn’t mean I think I am right
Perel explains that she may sound confident but that doesn’t mean that she thinks she is always right all the time. While she is a highly skilled practitioner she doesn’t believe that she has a perfect model of psychoanalysis that she can teach other practitioners. She believes that there are many ways of carrying out her role and she is more than happy to go on discovering new ways of helping her clients as time passes. The same applies with sports coaches.
Some more Perel thinking.
“I’ve trained in expressive art therapies in addition to my other training. I studied psychodrama for many years. And art therapy. We have multiple languages to uncover things. It’s important we test and play. I come from a background of two holocaust survivor parents who were both sole survivors of their entire family and I think I’ve always been reticent to “one size fits all.” And to anything that’s dogmatic or normative or bordering on fascistic – just authoritarian like that. Tradition is one thing. Orthodoxy and ideology is something else. And my ideology has always been to diversify, to be inclusive, to combine models that don’t normally combine. I’ve been like that from the beginning. And I sort out mentors in every discipline.” (Dumbo Feather – Issue 54)
So many sports coaches are so locked into the orthodoxy and ideology of their own sport that they fail to see the most obvious floors in their own coaching systems and designs. I know a soccer coach who jokingly requests that his players focus on their football and not play basketball in their spare time. The fact that the basketballers in his soccer team have significantly better “vision” of the soccer pitch than the non-basketballers and tend to keep their heads up and watch the play rather than stare at the ball seems to have escaped his notice. Perhaps he should be encouraging all his players to play a little more basketball and netball. Even more radically, perhaps he should consider watching some
basketball himself and possibly even get some training in basketball coaching. Perel’s view that psychotherapists should “diversity” and seek “multiple languages to uncover things” could equally apply in sports coaching. Of course, not everything a coach, who is experimenting with alternative approaches, tries will be valuable to the coach but as Perel says, its critical to “test and play.” I would go as far as to say that sports coaches should look for assistants, advisors and mentors from as wide a field as possible including other sports as well as counsellors, teachers, actors, musicians, dancers, circus performers and any number of other professions to help gain a broader understanding of the possibilities within their sport.