A while back I had the opportunity to teach a new activity to a soccer team at practice that I thought would be of great benefit to them. I had seen this particular “practice game” work miracles for other teams both in terms of the individual technical skills it helped to develop in participating players and in the effective teamwork it tended to facilitate. This activity had so much going for it. It involved all the players (so no standing around in lines waiting to have a turn), it involved lots of movement (so provided a fitness/cardio workout as well as skill challenge) but, above all, it provided a technical challenge (both in the individual and team sense) in relation to a number of important aspects of play that the team needed to work on.
The team did okay in trying to carry out the activity… but not great. But that was fine. I didn’t expect them to master the exercise. Most of the benefits from this activity accrue over time as the skill level of the players, at carrying out the intricacies of the exercise, improve. In other words, the activity needs to be done, in one form or another, many times over a period of weeks or months. Like any good activity its structure is flexible enough so that a coach can apply variations to both keep the participants interested and to increase their challenge. With each passing attempt at the “game” the players get better at it and their team and individual skill levels (skills that are easily transferred to a real game situation) improve. Not only do their skills improve but, as they get better and better at the activity (that the coach is making increasingly more difficult to increase the challenge) then the satisfaction that the players feel goes through the roof. Like I said… it’s a great activity. Its not only beneficial but, over time, it becomes lots of fun.
“Okay… lets move onto something else…!”
As we approached the ten minute mark into the first attempt at the activity (the time I intended to call the practice “game” to a halt), one of the players fluffed a pass and given that the exercise had fallen apart a dozen or so times already through player errors one of the respected leaders of the team said to me, “Okay… lets move on to something else. This is obviously not working!”
Half a dozen other players, who were looking distressed, confused and flustered shouted, “Yeah… this is crap!”
I was horrified. What had gone wrong? It was a great exercise. It was perfect for the team. They performed just about as well as I expected. Yet they were disheartened, disappointed and demotivated… and certainly didn’t want anything to do with the “game”.
My initial thinking was that the players were foolish for being so short-sighted. It took a while for me to wake up to the fact that the problem with the fluffed activity was that I had managed the facilitation very badly. Nothing wrong with the activity. Nothing wrong with the strategy behind it. Nothing wrong with the technical skills the activity was designed to impart. Nothing wrong with the players. But everything wrong with the coach. A piss poor job from the coach at facilitating.
“It was disorienting, difficult and tiring”
Coaching and adult learning academic Dr Stephanie Burns told the story of what it felt like while she was learning to ski in her book “Artistry in Training.”
“Before I started, I was having a lot of fun in my mind with the idea of learning to ski. I imagined all kinds of exciting scenarios. And buying skis and boots and clothes was really good fun. Of course, now that I know how to ski, it is fun. However, learning how to ski was definitely not enjoyable! It was disorienting, difficult and tiring. Not that there weren’t funny stories to tell about the process and a few laughs along the way, but by and large it was hard work.”
Doc Burns hits the nail right on the head. A brand-new activity can be frustrating and difficult for participants. Not being able to complete an exercise successfully can be discouraging and demotivating if the facilitator/coach doesn’t work with the players to help them manage their emotions and expectations.
People skills the most important weapon
It is easy to fall into the trap of measuring the value of a coach according to their technical expertise, their strategic cleverness or analytical skill. To do so is a mistake. As Burns reminds us, a coach’s people skills are by far their most important weapon.
“If there is no way to truly make learning activities fun or enjoyable, and they remain naturally problematic leading the student to negative emotions and feelings, how shall we support our students in their learning tasks? I believe that this is one very important skill that the top trainers, teachers and coaches seem to possess. It is as if they pull the students along through the confusing, tedious, difficult tasks involved with learning, knowing that motivation, for some personality types, is not high when feelings are low. Rather than try to convince the student that an activity is fun when in fact it is not, they teach the student that these difficulties are a natural part of learning which is experienced by most students.”
The “set-up” is key
The most challenging activities that could potentially have the most benefit for players and teams are not necessarily fun when first attempted. I should have known that and shared that point with the team I was coaching. On thinking back, there are number of things that I didn’t share with the players that, perhaps, I should have.
In my “set-up (pre-exercise brief)” I should have explained briefly…
- The benefit I expected the players to achieve through getting better and better at the “game” over time
- That neither I nor they should expect to be highly successful at carrying out the activity initially but, over time, their skill will increase, and they will perform the activity well
- That the activity gets more and more fun as their skills improve
- That it is not uncommon for many to feel frustrated and uncomfortable in the early stages of learning the activity and that such feelings can be expected and are okay
- That not being able to successfully complete the activity does not mean that the activity is “not working”
There is nothing quite so annoying as a coach who likes the sound of their own voice. A common fault of coaches is that many talk too much! Effectively “setting up” an activity, though, is essential. I should have let the players know why they were doing the activity, what they should hope to get out of it over time and I should have prepared them for the possibility that they may find the activity difficult and frustrating initially. If I had conducted the “set-up” effectively the team may have looked forward to their next attempt, highly motivated to do better, rather than dreading it. My poor communication limited my team’s opportunity to get the most out of a terrific skill building activity.
Stephanie Burns’ coaching/training/teaching masterpiece is called Artistry in Training. It is available on line.
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