That Coaching Feeling 2: Boorowa, Apples and Ashes

My granddaughter, Ivy, much to her surprise and delight, qualified for a regional swim carnival at Boorowa. She and I had a second opportunity to travel to an event together. This time it was a four-hour round trip to Boorowa, NSW.

The Boorowa Pool is an excellent facility. It was cold but Ivy had an advantage … she swims in the ocean in Tasmania in January. As she points out, nothing could be as cold as that (I did not mention the North Sea in July).

Ivy and I really enjoyed the welcome to the event. Brendan Maynard, the Principal of St Joseph’s College Boorowa, provided a very gentle start to the day and expressed his community’s delight at hosting the event.

Ivy did not have to wait long for her event on the program (Event 8, Heat 1), the 50 metre freestyle. We had done some practice a few days before to get used to a 50 metre pool. Ivy helped some other competitors in marshalling this time and also helped at the starting blocks.

Ivy swam four seconds faster at Boorowa than she had at the Yass pool. She stopped to catch her breath twice but finished the length very strongly. She really enjoyed the experience.

Shortly after we set off for home, a journey of 180 kms. Ivy dozed for part of the journey but we did speak about her swim and the joy it gave her and me.

On the journey home, I thought again about that coaching feeling. This time my thinking included the Bramley Apple Tree and a Chinese artist Zhang Huan.

The Bramley Apple Tree

Mary Anne Brailsford planted some apple pips in 1809. One of the pips took root and became the first Bramley apple tree. In 1856, a nurseryman was given permission to take cuttings from the tree. Since that time, all Bramley apples grown have come from a pip planted in 1809.

I wondered about the parallel with coaching and the seeds each of us sow as coaches. I thought too about the principles that guide coaches and how these become to root stock for subsequent experience and perhaps even a career in coaching.

Zhang Huan

Zhang Huan uses incense ash for some of his art work. This ash is produced from the burning incense in Buddhist temples in Shanghai. It is brought to his studio to be sorted by color gradation for his paintings and sculptures. Nina Miall (2007) has written in detail about Zhang Huan’s work.

She notes “these ash remains speak to the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams and blessings’.

Zhang Huan speaks about ash paintings and memory doors in this 2012 video. In the video he observes “Everything we are, everything we believe and want are within these ashes”.

This encouraged me to think about the hopes (ours and those whom we coach) we invest in the act of coaching and the memory doors we provide.

Towards the end of our trip home, Ivy asked me what sport I would do now if I had a choice. I said swimming. Ivy thought that might be her choice too.

Photo Credits

Lane 2 (Keith Lyons, CC BY 2.0)

The Bramley Apple Tree (Experience Nottinghamshire Now )

Zhang Huan (Frame grab)

Sharing Stories and Touching Powerful Intuitions

Last year, Martin Buchheit discussed sharing research findings with coaches and players.

He observed:

The reality is that what matters the most for coaches and players is the outcome, which is unfortunately rarely straightforward with the sport sciences.

And concluded:

When it comes to guiding practitioners and athletes, instead of using an evidence-based approach, we’d rather promote an “evidence-lead” or “informed practice” approach; one that appreciates context over simple scientific conclusions.

I revisited his article after reading two papers on intuition (Jane Risen, 2016;  Daniel Walco and Jane Risen, 2017). Both papers helped me think about how we might deal with superstitions and intuitions as we connect with coaches and athletes to share our analysis and analytics stories.

Jane starts her 2016 paper with this sentence:

No attempt to understand how the mind works would be satisfying without trying to identify the psychological processes that lead even the most intelligent people to hold beliefs that they rationally know cannot be true. (p182)

Thereafter, Jane discusses the psychology underlying superstition and magical thinking and investigates the processes by which people “sometimes recognize – in the moment – that their intuition does not make sense rationally, but follow it nevertheless” (2016:183). She characterises this behaviour as ‘acquiescence’.

In her 2017 paper with Daniel, Jane extends her discussion of acquiescing to intuition. Together they tested three criteria for acquiescence. The individual:

  • Has a faulty intuition that something is more likely to happen given a certain behavior or state of the world.
  • Is aware that the intuition is irrational.
  • Is guided by his or her intuition, knowing it is irrational.

I was particularly interested in their study of fourth-down decisions in American football. The scenario they chose was:

Imagine that you are the coach of an NFL football team. Your team is locked in a close battle with an evenly matched rival. The lead has flip-flopped back and forth all game. You are currently winning 17-13 with just a couple minutes left in the fourth quarter.

You start the drive on your own 30-yard line. After three short plays, you find yourself on your 36-yard line, 4th down and 4 yards to go. There are two minutes left on the clock. You now have to make a decision. You can choose to either punt or go for it.

The scenario “was accompanied by a picture of the scoreboard and a diagram of the field offering visual reinforcements for the relatively complex scenario”. (2017:1816)

Jane and Daniel identified acquiescent behaviour for all three criteria in their American football study. They concluded “recognizing acquiescence can also guide interventions to improve decision making”. (2017:1819)

They observe “it seems that the obvious way to avoid irrationality is to teach decision makers the objectively correct answer’ but add “if someone is already aware that a decision is irrational, then teaching him or her what is rational would be futile”.(2017:1819)

Their final sentence in the paper was:

We plan to investigate interventions that go beyond helping people detect their errors and might be effective in these situations. (2017:1819)

… and, I think, closes the loop with Martin’s thoughts on sharing observations and analysis with coaches and athletes. Context matters, as do powerful intuitions … and the belief in magic.

Photo Credit

Billy’s tally at Garan Vale Woolshed (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Wheels within wheels (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)


The photograph that introduces this post was taken at the Garan Vale Woolshed in Braidwood, NSW. The woolshed is now a restaurant but the owners have kept the old shearers’ tallies on the beams of the woolshed. Billy Thorne was a shearer at the shed for 33 years.

I really liked the idea that there is a chalk record in his own handwriting of his visits from 1936 to 1969 (my picture has half the dates). There is a superstition at play here too. On arrival, the shearer notes the year before shearing.

Grazing, even for a moment, on the outskirts of great coaching

Leonard Cohen’s Preface to the Chinese translation of his collection of Beautiful Losers poems includes this passage:

When I was young, my friends and I read and admired the old Chinese poets. Our ideas of love and friendship, of wine and distance, of poetry itself, were much affected by those ancient songs. … So you can understand, Dear Reader, how privileged I feel to be able to graze, even for a moment, and with such meager credentials, on the outskirts of your tradition.

His thoughts sprang to mind this week when I had an opportunity to meet two coaches (a head coach and an assistant coach). I did feel immensely privileged to spend time with them. I had been following the coaching career of the head coach for over a decade. The assistant coach has been involved in my critical friend project for five years.

When we met I had one question: “How have you turned around the energy in the team?”. What they shared, in confidence, fascinated me. When I watched the team perform, I saw at first hand the outstanding performances of understanding they had co-produced with the two coaches.

I was in awe of the privileged access I had to their coaching on the outskirts of their everyday practice … grazing.

Photo Credit

At the game (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

Outside (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)