Coaching as a humble vocation


I have the good fortune to meet and spend time in the presence of coaches.

I have been in England for the last three weeks and have caught up with a number of coaches. It has included a knife, scissors, paper meet up with Russell Earnshaw.

I have been reflecting on this conversation in the light of responses to the podcast recorded by Russell.

Two responses in particular have been provoking (in the stimulus sense of the word) me.

The first … “so what is world class coaching?”

The second … “what about coach development?”


A conversation with a coach crystallised my thinking about answers to both questions.

This coach shared a story about an experience as a coach more than a decade ago. It involved the unlikely setting of Thirsk racecourse.

The coach was driving round England and meeting up with individual players. There was one player to meet and it was proving difficult to arrange a time. The player was a primary school teacher and could only find time on a Thursday night at 8pm and she would have an hour before she drove back and hour to her home. The coach had a 400 mile trip home after the session. He had no funds for a hotel stay and needed to be back at work at 9am the following morning.

Why Thirsk? The racecourse kept floodlights on until 9pm and there was a set of goals inside the race track. The bonus that night was that there was a torrential rainstorm.

The session went ahead. Player and coach were soaked and exhausted. Within the session the coach picked up a technical issue and suggested a change. It did not go well and they both moved on to another activity.

Ten years on, the coach and player were sitting in a World Cup Final dressing room after winning the world cup. The player said “It does not get much better than this”. The coach said “What, even better than Thirsk?”.

It was the most wonderful moment of laughter and tears.

Humble Vocation

I wrote to my two friends who had asked me the questions after my Thirsk moment.

Dear …

On all my travels since our conversations, I have been thinking about coaching.

I want to challenge ‘world class’, ‘world leading’ and ‘best practice’ labels and claims.

My thoughts:

  1. Our calibration against these titles can only ever be partial.
  2. Practice is changing continually.
  3. We can champion modesty.

So, I think we should just talk about coaching and the personal relationship each coach has with her or his athletes.

I want to stop using coach ‘development’ too and talk about coach learning.

As each of us coaches more, we learn about coaching. Each of our journeys as a coach is different. There is a danger I think that we link ‘development’ to a coaching award system and progression.

All my conversations with coaches address an essence of being a coach.

I am hopeful that this approach leads me to talk with coaches about their own and the athletes in their care flourishing.

As coaches we try to learn more and reflect on our practice. We have great moments but we also know we have poor sessions.

I do think that ‘great’ coaches are profoundly humble and modest. ‘Good’ coaches are on the way there but have not made that final journey to invisibility.

When we are in the presence of great coaches we do not need other labels. These coaches do not see themselves as great coaches they describe themselves as coaches.

Their journey is a journey into contemplative silence. In their presence, we learn profoundly and are transformed. Life is never the same again. I am thinking of calling this a Thirsk Experience. (I am writing a blog post about it.)

I think this places coaching in a humble place and positions it as a vocation.

My warmest wishes

Photo Credit

Thirsk Racecourse (dvdbramhall, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Immersed in Momentum

I have had opportunities to meet up with some coaches during my trip to England. Some of our conversations have involved questions about ‘momentum’.

One of them asked if I could write up some notes that he could use. I have set up a Google Doc to do this and drafted a short summary for him. It is a partial bibliography.

I did not go back to primary sources such as Ivan PavlovEdward Thorndike, and Burrhus Frederic Skinner. My search started in the 1970s with Tony Nevin and extended to Walid Briki and Keith Markman’s (2018) paper on the phenomenology of goal pursuit.

The review gave me the opportunity to reflect on coaching applications of psychological momentum and behavioural momentum ideas notwithstanding the existential dilemma about whether ‘momentum’ exists or whether it can be defined.

A number of sport specific papers helped me focus my attention for my coaching friends:

Peter Adler and Patricia Adler (1978), The role of momentum in sport

Seppo Iso-Ahola and Ken Mobily (1980), Psychological momentum: A phenomenon and an empirical (unobtrusive) validation of its influence in a competitive sport tournament

Charles Mace, Joseph Lalli, Michael Shea, and John Nevin (1992), Behavioral momentum in college basketball

Jim Taylor and Andrew Demick (1994), A multidimensional model of momentum in sports

Judith Smith (2000), Psychological momentum in elite athletes

Alistair Higham, Chris Harwood, and Andrew Cale (2005), Momentum in soccer: Controlling the game

Lee Crust and Mark Nesti (2006), A review of psychological momentum in sports: Why qualitative research is needed

Martin Jones and Chris Harwood (2008), Psychological momentum within competitive soccer: Players’ perspectives

Joseph Wanzek, Daniel Houlihan, and Kendra Homan (2012), An Examination of Behavioral Momentum in Girl’s High School Volleyball

Walid Briki et al. (2012), A qualitative exploration of the psychological contents and dynamics of momentum in sport.

Philip Mortimer and Edward Burt (2014), Does momentum exist in elite handball?

Carsten Larsen and Kristoffer Henriksen (2015), Psychological momentum in team sport: An intervention program in professional soccer

Rafael Barragán (2015), Quantitative and qualitative analysis of the critical moments in basketball

Seppo Iso-Ahola and Charles Dotson (2017), Momentum and elite performance

Walid Briki (2017), Rethinking the relationship between momentum and sport performance: toward an integrative perspective

There are numerous other papers with a sport specific focus. I will need to return to some of these but have become acquainted with them through the meta-analysis in the papers listed here.

I did pursue the psychology literature too and was delighted to learn more about: momentum as a metaphor; discriminated operants; resistance; behavioural dynamics; reinforcement; compliance; naive beliefs; triggers; amplification; perception; and incentives.

I was keen to find papers my coaching colleagues could read and I decided I would recommend Philip Mortimer and Edward Burt’s (2014), Does momentum exist in elite handball? and Carsten Larsen and Kristoffer Henriksen’s (2015), Psychological momentum in team sport: An intervention program in professional soccer.

Philip and Edward share some excellent visualisations of momentum shifts in game state (that reminded me of other conversations with coaches about T-patterns). Carsten and Kristoffer shared an example of working with young football players “to increase the players’ awareness of triggers, of cognitive, affective, and behavioral changes associated with PM, and of how players may control perceptions of PM during training and in matches”. I thought this example from Denmark resonated with work shared by Alistair Higham, Chris Harwood, and Andrew Cale (2005), Lee Crust and Mark Nesti (2006), and Martin Jones and Chris Harwood (2008). I felt very comfortable with the qualitative tenor of this work and thought coaches would be very comfortable in 1:1 conversations with players.

Amidst all this reading and reflection, I was delighted to find Walid Briki and Keith Markman’s (2018) discussion of prospection and the situation of pre-experience in training environments and simulations. This speaks to my fascination with feedforward and my growing interest in consequences in training contexts. It gave me a new reference: Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson (2007) and their exploration of the mechanisms of prospection:

Mental simulation is the means by which the brain discovers what it already knows. When faced with decisions about future events, the cortex generates simulations, briefly tricking subcortical systems into believing that those events are unfolding in the present and then taking note of the feelings these systems produce.

Which seems to me to be the start of a whole lot of new conversations about learning design and guided discovery with coaches.

Photo Credits

Photo of person throwing white fish net on body of water by David Clode on  Unsplash
Rugby photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Data and coherent narratives

Peter Killeen (2018), in a paper that discusses the futures of experimental analysis of behavior, observes “we must learn that data have little value until embedded in a coherent narrative”.

The construction of this narrative has been a hot topic this week in conversations about data science activities.

One example is Evan Hansleigh’s discussion of sharing data used in Economist articles:

Releasing data can give our readers extra confidence in our work, and allows researchers and other journalists to check — and to build upon — our work. So we’re looking to change this, and publish more of our data on GitHub.

He adds:

Years ago, “data” generally meant a table in Excel, or possibly even a line or bar chart to trace in a graphics program. Today, data often take the form of large CSV files, and we frequently do analysis, transformation, and plotting in R or Python to produce our stories. We assemble more data ourselves, by compiling publicly available datasets or scraping data from websites, than we used to. We are also making more use of statistical modelling. All this means we have a lot more data that we can share — and a lot more data worth sharing.

Evan’s article concludes:

We plan to publish more of our data on GitHub in the coming months—and, where it’s appropriate, the analysis and code behind them as well. We look forward to seeing how our readers use and build upon the data reporting we do.

The availability of such shared resources, in Uzma Barlaskar’s terms, will enable us to be data-informed rather than data-driven. Uzma suggests:

In data driven decision making, data is at the center of the decision making. It’s the primary (and sometimes, the only) input. You rely on data alone to decide the best path forward. In data informed decision making, data is a key input among many other variables. You use the data to build a deeper understanding of what value you are providing to your users. (Original emphases)

Alejandro Díaz, Kayvaun Rowshankish, and Tamim Saleh share insights from McKinsey research on the use of artificial intelligence in business and note “the emergence of data analytics as an omnipresent reality of modern organizational life” and the consideration that might be given to “a healthy data culture”.

Alejandro, Kayvaun and Tamim suggest that such a culture:

  • Is a decision culture
  • Has ongoing commitment to and conversations about data initiatives
  • Stimulates bottom up demand for data
  • Manages risk as a ‘smart accelerator’ for analytics processes
  • Supports change agents
  • Balances recruitment of specialists with retention of existing staff

Chris Lidner has looked at the profiles of data scientists that become part of an organisational data culture. He reports “data scientists come from a wide variety of fields of study, levels of education, and prior jobs”. They have a range of job descriptions too: data engineer, data analyst, software engineer, machine learning engineer, and data scientist.

The combination of these posts sent me back to re-read Chris Moran’s What Makes a Good Metric? published in August. I think Chris helps us think about our data narratives in the context of “audience, metrics, culture, and journalism”. He points us to Project as an example of valuing the impact of journalism to the information ecosystem.

This leads Chris to identify the characteristics of robust metrics that help us understand quality and impact:

  • Relevant
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Reliable
  • Readable

He reminded us also that we should be conscious of Goodhart’s Law: any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

As a result of reflecting on these aggregated ideas and discussions, I returned to this diagram presented by Hadley Wickham and Garrett Grolmund‘s data exploration visualisation:

I wondered how this process might change if we start, as Peter Killeen suggested, with an awareness of how we might embed our narrative for a range of audiences in data intensive contexts.

Photo Credits

Basketball photo by William Topa on Unsplash
Person holding four photos photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash