Working with Coaches and Performers


I have been revisiting some of my work from the 1990s of late. In this post I share a paper written in my early years as Director of the Centre for Notational Analysis at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education.

In 1993 I was exploring some of the issues around a notational analysis service to sport and presented a paper at a British Association of Sports Sciences’ conference. The title of the paper was Working with Coaches and Performers: Notational Analysis as Liberational Praxis?

My background in social sciences had encouraged me to think about the links between liberation theology and Marxist conceptualisations of praxis and how they might enrich an understanding of sport performance. My thoughts were focused by a remarkable victory in rugby union in 1993 when Wales defeated England in Cardiff (there is a video of the game winning try and conversion here). I was working with the Welsh Rugby Union at that time but was in Amsterdam with the Welsh A team coached by Kevin Bowring. The scenes after the game in Cardiff were euphoric. BBC Wales TV replayed the entire game that night and rescheduled its programs for the rest of the weekend.

In the abstract I submitted to the conference’s scientific committee I noted that:

I am conscious that the reality of such theology and praxis is not always positive and developmental and so a second strand in the paper is the use of the concepts of liberation and praxis as reflective tools to explore the limits of notational analysis.

I present the paper here as a contribution to the discussion of the role of notational analysis in supporting coaches and athletes. I present it as an artefact too for a sociology of knowledge approach to notational and performance analysis.

I have added hyperlinks in this post to facilitate access to references used. There were limited opportunities to hyperlink text in 1993.

Working with Coaches and Performers: Notational Analysis as Liberational Praxis?


In this paper I use terms such as ’empowering’, ‘facilitating’, ‘sharing’ and ‘learning’ to characterise the relationships between notational analysts and coaches and notational analysts and performers. I suggest that by drawing on a tradition of research from outside sport science we can conceptualise the role that notational analysis can play in sport. In doing so I am conscious of Arthur Bolster’s (1983:299) comment that “I recall one teacher defining social science as a remarkably complicated way of talking about remarkably common sense notions”.

Liberational Praxis

A variety of disciplines outside sport science have been attracted to perspectives that challenge dominant assumptions about the philosophical basis of research and academic endeavour. The work of Paulo Freire and Antonio Gramsci, for example, has stimulated considerable debate in educational studies and the social sciences. John Southgate and Rosemary Randall (1981:53) observed some time ago that:

Much current research in the social sciences is concerned with being of some direct use to those who are normally considered to be the ‘subjects’ of the research process … and one of the central problems facing its practitioners is the nature of the interactions between themselves and their ‘clients’, particularly where the research aspires to be a liberatory process for all concerned.

Patti Lather (1986) explored “what it means to do empirical research in an unjust world”. In her work she was committed to praxis-oriented research that she construed as:

the development of a change-enhancing, interactive, contextualized approach to knowledge-building … that is provocative in its implications for both theory, and, increasingly, method. (Lather, 1986:260)

More recently Linda Bain (1989:22) suggested that a goal of research is “to empower those being researched, that is, to provide them with the insight necessary to demystify and critique their own social circumstances and to choose actions to improve their lives”.

It seems opportune (1993) to use such approaches in sport science. I want to address some of the fundamental epistemological and ontological issues by linking them to work underway with two governing bodies of sport.

Despite the absence of accreditation procedures, notational analysts do work with coaches and performers to enhance performance in sport. At best, their venture is collaborative and interdependent. At worst, it provides ample specification of what Paulo Freire (1972) termed ‘invasion’ where values, belief systems, ideology, and cultural norms are imposed in an unequal relationship.

The concepts of liberation and praxis strike me as heuristic foci for aspirations and action in sport for sport scientists, coaches and performers. I believe that whilst liberational praxis is vulnerable to the taunt of ‘mere rhetoric’ it can describe an effective working relationship between researcher and practitioner. As Richard Tinning (1992) has indicated, the concept of praxis has a long history. Although central to Marxist analyses of political change, it was employed by the ancient Greeks to describe critically informed action. Such action has an emancipatory, liberational thrust.

Paulo Freire has been persistent in his exploration of the liberational dimensions of pedagogy and from his work I have drawn the importance to be attached to action linked to an egalitarian vision of human relationships. I am aware that liberational theology acted as an important catalyst for change in some cultural contexts and that the very appeal of such a theology was that it addressed the specific needs of the people. It appears to me that the strength of a liberational appeal is that it is action based and brings about local change: “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” (Freire, 1972).

The outcomes of relationships developed between notational analysts and coaches and notational analysts and performers can resemble what Richard Tinning (1992) regards as transformative practice. He favours a democratic mode of research in which “the participants work out their own solutions to their own problems (and that they employ their own language and concepts rather than those of the ‘expert’) (1992:203).

Such research raises consciousness and leads to practical action. Praxis is the term used to define the fusion of thinking and practice.

I think it takes considerable social skills to facilitate this kind of research. In the next part of the paper I provide two examples of collaborative work with governing bodies of sport. In particular I want to ground my account in the context of a year in which teams with whom i worked experienced peaks and troughs of performance and exhilaration.

Working with Coaches and Performers

In 1993 I was fortunate to work with two governing bodies of sport in Wales. One of the sports, rugby union, has a cultural significance that gives it a national profile in the media and is a subject of everyday conversation. The other sport, women’s lacrosse, is virtually invisible in the Welsh public consciousness. Both are invasive team field games that have exciting performance possibilities.

In both games the coaches of the representative teams hold honorary positions and earn their livings from other employment. Much of their time is spent thinking about, preparing for and delivering coaching foe elite performance. In the case of women’s lacrosse, the coach of the national team was also a playing member of that team (but not the captain).

The link between the Centre for Notational Analysis at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education and the two governing bodies was developed to support excellence in elite performance. I was familiar with and had coached both sports. The Centre received the wholehearted support of the governing bodies for the work undertaken. Notational analysis for both sports was defined closely with the coaches concerned and in the case of rugby union with the Technical Director of the Welsh Rugby Union who acted as the point of contact for the service provided.

The fundamental purpose of this work was to provide coaches, and through them the players, with augmented information about performance. Ian Franks and his co-workers (1983, 1984, 1986a, 1986b) and Mike Hughes (1988, 1993) have identified the benefits to be gained from systematic observation and my work with the two sports was intended to build upon some of the foundational assumptions evident in the literature. My analytical work has been based on real-time hand notation and lapsed-time scrutiny of VHS and S-VHS video. From the outset I was keen to provide data for coaches’ and players’ immediate use. Written accounts in a form acceptable to the coach and visual narratives from video recordings have proved to be the most frequent types of augmented information provided. Both types are linked closely with a convivial working relationship framed by conversation, chat and humour.

As my relationships have developed with these coaches I have become acutely aware of my professional commitment to them and my personal links with them. During 1993 there have been very special moments when weeks and months of work have come together to produce information that the coaches found helpful and occasionally has enabled them to recast their knowledge of performance. There have been moments too when similar volumes of work have been less than helpful.

If I was to evaluate honestly my work over the year I hope I could claim reasonably to have been involved in some for of praxis. Notational analysis can be a ‘pure’ academic endeavour. It can be a most exhilarating form of applied sport science too. This latter form can fuse thought and action. For busy coaches and players the support offered by a notational analysis can liberate by providing information pre- and post-event. In the case of women’s lacrosse team I was fortunate to attend the World Cup in Edinburgh and was able to work with the team during the event as well.

Karl Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (Feuer, 1969: 286) is that:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it. (Original emphasis.)

My feeling is that, at best, notational analysis provides coaches and performers possibilities of change by providing relatively objective information that is over and above any intrinsic information available as a result of the ‘normal’ conduct of their coaching or playing. As such this augmented information (Schmidt, 1991) can ‘liberate’ coach and performer and contribute to enhanced performance.

At worst, notational analysis can block action. By preparing for events with detailed analysis of opponents, for example, coaches and players can be disempowered and their decision-making can be rendered ineffective. I am conscious that in my own work there have been times in the last year when analysis has become an academic exercise and that the liberational potential of the work has been illusory and rhetorical. It is this point I would like to develop in the next section of the paper.

A Word of Caution: Mere Rhetoric?

I am keen to stress that a reflexive approach to notational analysis as a form of liberational praxis must be sensitive to its limits as well as its possibilities. Notational analysts are invisible at present in the structure for accreditation in BASS/BASES and have considerable inroads to make on the established orthodoxies of sport science in the United Kingdom. As a sub-group there are important epistemological and ontological issues to be developed. I do not think that these can be helped by snake oil sales’ pitches by exponents of notation particularly if we profess messages that are vacuous either in intellectual challenge or practical application. Liberation zealousness falls into both categories.

However, I am concerned that notational analysts avoid the pitfalls of scientism identified by Bryan Appleyard (1992) in his discussion of science and the modern person. He contends that:

An important part of any case is that, whether we or more modest scientists like it or not, science possesses an intrinsic domineering quality. This kind of triumphant scientism is built into all science. Opposition tends to be subdued and demoralized to the point where we can no longer identify the damage done by these populizers. (1992: 2)

I believe that praxis is a touchstone for the flourishing of notational analysis and an antidote to ‘triumphant scientism’.

A Pragmatic View

Raymond Williams (1976: 203) notes in his discussion of the term ‘pragmatic’ that its meanings include “practical and useful” as well as:

a dignified alternative to unprincipled or timeserving, especially in political movements which profess a set of beliefs and which decide, under pressure, to neglect, discard or betray them, but with a show of skill and intelligence.

In this paper have suggested that notational analysis is practical, useful and a dignified activity. It can offer liberational praxis in close working relationships with coaches and players. There is always a danger that as notational analysts we can take ourselves too seriously and that ‘scientism’ renders liberational praxis mere rhetoric. Without a reflexive approach to notational analysis we might just become the antithesis of what we want to achieve in sport science.


Appleyard, B, 1992. Understanding the Present. London: Pan Books.

Bain, L, 1989. Interpretive and critical research in sport and physical education. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 60(1), 21-24.

Bolster, A, 1983. Toward a more effective model of research on teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 53(3), 294-308.

Feuer, L (ed), 1969. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. London: Fontana.

Franks, I & Goodman, D, 1984. A hierarchical approach to performance analysis. Science Periodical on Research and Technology in Sport. Canada.

Franks, I & Goodman, D, 1986a. A systematic approach to analyzing sports performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 4, 49-59.

Franks, I & Miller, G, 1986b. Eyewitness testimony in sport. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 9, 39-45.

Franks, I, Goodman, D & Miller, G, 1983. Analysis of performance: qualitative or quantitative? Science Periodical on Research and Technology in Sport. Canada.

Freire, P, 1972. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.

Hughes, M, 1988. Computerised notational analysis in field games. Ergonomics, 31, 1585-1592.

Hughes, M, 1993. Notational analysis of football in T Reilly et al (eds) Science and Football II. London: E&F Spon.

Lather, P, 1986. Research as praxis. Harvard Educational Review, 56(3), 257-277.

Scmidt, R, 1991. ‘Frequent Augmented Feedback Can Degrade Learning: Evidence and Interpretations’ in J Requin & G Stelmach (eds) Tutorials in Motor Neuroscience. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Southgate, J & Randall, R, 1981. ‘The troubled fish: barriers to dialogue’ in P Reason & J Rowan (eds) Human Inquiry. Chichester: J Wiley & Sons.

Tinning, R, 1992. ‘Action research as epistemology and practice: towards transformative educational practice in physical education’ in A Sparkes (ed) Research in Physical Education and Sport. London: Falmer Press.

Williams, R, 1976. Keywords. Glasgow: Fontana.

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Scotland v Wales 1983

4 thoughts on “Working with Coaches and Performers”

  1. MANY thanks for this rare incite into you, as maker of argument Keith. Naturally I am most attracted to the topic, and the points your make. Getting on my bike now, to return home and unpick it more carefully there.

    1. Thank you for finding this post, Leigh. I wrote the paper partly because of my interest in your work. I did a lot of reading 1970-1993 that helped me contemplate praxis.


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