Mechanisms and Machineries

Mark Upton has posted his eighth fragment in his compelling discussion of sport systems.

I am fascinated by Mark’s insights. His latest post coincides with the end of my visit to England (and Ireland) after a month of conversations with coaches. Mark’s theme resonates powerfully with the direction of our conversations.

In his post Mark quotes Carol Black on schooling and notes ‘the fallacy of social engineering ’ that is:

the false belief that it is possible to institute a top-down, mechanical structure, impose it on a complex living system, and expect predictable results.

Mark observes of this:

it is unfortunate yet not unexpected that this influences the approach taken to designing “learning”, “education” and/or “development” of coaches, players and other roles in sport.

Mark contemplates how this might be different if we explore an organic approach that Carol proposes:

The key to the development of human intelligence and learning is that it is an organic process, in which a myriad of elements – some seen but many unseen – engage in a dynamic interplay to produce results which are stubbornly unpredictable in both timing and ultimate outcome. (Original emphasis.)

Mark concludes his post with this paragraph:

I’m looking forward to discussing this topic tomorrow with a coach who has been involved in one of the most successful player development environments for the last 20+ years. I sense he is unsettled by the mechanistic approach that sport academy systems are increasingly disposed toward.

I am keen to learn how that meeting went. By serendipity, each of the twenty-four conversations on my current visit have touched upon and sometimes explored in animated depth coaching processes. Our conversations have been five years in the making.

I think I have been exploring Mark and Carol’s juxtaposition of mechanistic and organic approaches to learning, being and becoming. My guide has been Karin Cestina and her thoughts on epistemic cultures:

those sets of practices, arrangements and mechanisms bound together by necessity, affinity and historical coincidence which, in a given area of professional expertise, make up how we know what we know. Epistemic cultures are cultures of creating and warranting knowledge.

She adds “the focus in an epistemic culture approach is on the construction of the machineries of knowledge construction”. (My emphasis.)

I take Mark’s work to be exploring these machineries.

I have not mentioned Karin to the coaches I have met but I have been using two catalysts as variations on this theme for conversation. One was the concept of everywhen and the other was Nigel Redman‘s conception of coaching as a Michelin star experience (discussed recently in another context by Kurt Lindley).

I take everywhen to be the connectedness of all time in the present. Who we were, who we are and who we will be are focused in our present and presence.

I think this allowed us to discuss coach as coach and athlete experience in terms of a Michelin system.

One star: Very good cooking in its category
Two stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour
Three stars: Exceptional cuisine, worthy of a special journey

The combination of both ideas helped us to talk about the processes of coaching and how the coaches in the group might advocate for coach learning environments to address the rich diversity of practice that can emerge from shared and contestable experiences.

I am in Belfast at the moment and am looking forward to exploring the city today. I am particularly interested in the mural art.

Many years ago, a friend at Dartington College of Arts, suggested that the murals had two dimensions: territory and aspiration.

Without pushing this connection too far, I do think Mark’s most recent fragment encourages us to contemplate the pictures we paint about coaching and learning. Mechanisms and machineries have territory and aspirations.

My hope is that by considering how we might frame both differently we can transform coach and athlete experience by creating the opportunities, in Carol’s words, under which “human brilliance may unfold and flourish”.

Photo Credits

The three pictures shared here are:

1. Looking out to sea past the Titanic Museum, Belfast. (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

2. Guido van Helten’s mural at Coonalpyn, South Australia (CNN)

3. The advocate: a Belfast mural. (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

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