The below is loosely paraphrased from our conversation, and doesn't necessarily represent direct quotes:
What are your thoughts on coach education in an academic setting and also as run by NGBs?
I don't really believe that NGBs should or can run coach education in its entirety, should that really be their remit? I’m not totally convinced. With England Handball we worked with 7 Higher Education Institutions (HEI) to recognise prior learning and provide a sport-specific top-up. We saw a better quality of coach come through our programmes; a model which i’d encourage other NGBs to embrace. Where the HEIs delivered what they were best at (coaching pedagogy, game design etc…) the NGB delivered what they were good at (technical, tactical models), providing context. This works well in other countries too, where many European countries place greater value on what HEIs do for sports coaching; we have a long way to go in the UK i believe.
Is that something you think could grow? I'm not sure how many NGBs would want to lose the income from coach ed...
Generally speaking most NGBs weren't that interested to share that link between CPD and a university, which is a shame. We presented the model of coach development at conferences, with little subsequent uptake. I think there is an element of standardisation and control that they wouldn't want to lose either. The irony for me is, there is a willingness to push complexity, chaos and ‘mess’ in player learning; yet when it comes to coach learning there seemed an obsession with linearity.
It may or may not be a contributing factor to their lack of interest, but there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between research and in-the-field coaches. Why is this?
I think the problem is that good research is very specific - it is studying this strategy, in this situation, with these people and looking at if/why it works. Coaches try to apply elements that they come across in research but it doesn't work because the context is different, they therefore disengage. There are plenty of coaches who want research to tell them what to do but that isn't really the aim of research, it is about trying to provide a rich and contextualised narrative of what is going on.
Is there any way this relationship could be improved?
Well I think there must be a common awareness that there are no golden rules for coaching, no silver bullet. The aim should be to take bits from research that appeal to the coach, try them out and marry it with past experience - we shouldn't want to have robots producing the same sessions. Learning is inherently messy and I feel we should be happier to embrace the complexity and take some responsibility for that. We need to produce more critical coaches and I often come back to the analogy of Cooks vs Chefs, which i was introduced to by Bob Muir and Andrew Abraham at Leeds Beckett. Cooks can be given the ingredients and a recipe and get on with it. There is a place for this, of course. However, we should want more Chefs who can make the best out of the situation they are presented with.
Is there any way research could better help coaches in terms of accessibility and language?
Well, the language is the language, and I would encourage coaches to take responsibility for grappling with that. I always have google open when I’m reading, and always a pen to scribble on articles; rewriting sentences to make them meaningful for me. Coaches could be better helped with increased opportunity for mentoring and 1-2-1 analysis of their coaching and planning for the future. Leeds Beckett do some inspiring work in this field. I also know of FA initiatives where mentors are out there observing, supporting and reflecting with coaches. This is ace, and something which will go a long way to aid sense-making.
I've looked at a Masters in coaching a few times, would you recommend it? My main obstacle now is work and finding the time so I have considered studying an online Masters too...
The Masters I did was excellent as it kept everything in context and provided the chance to have a lot of 1-2-1 feedback. Deadlines for assessment were negotiable, as were assessment titles; the MSc at Leeds Beckett treats you like a professional. I appreciate the time constraints, however I don't think you can go totally online with learning, as tempting as it may be!
Are there any common themes you see among the young coaches on your courses here?
We have some brilliant coaches here at St Mary’s University; the programme is over 300 students strong, the majority practicing coaching weekly. We offer a 50:50 spilt on the programme between classroom and practical sessions; further we pride ourselves on having academic staff who are active too. The students here are at a really interesting place in their education; for me, they enter as dualist thinkers and it’s about getting as many as we can over the line. This looks like producing relativist coaches who are constantly scaffolding knowledge, while understanding all knowledge is provisional!
So what is it that you are looking for to determine if a student has managed to get there?
We use mixed modes of assessment, over a long period of time, to the point where we can really track the students progress. The moments which make me most proud are when students are able to verbalise and write down their reasoning, rationale and self-critique. All of this being beyond a student delivering a good practical session in the field.
Looking back at my time at Bath, I'm not sure if I learned as such or just realised that I had to write in a certain way that the lecturers were looking for...
Our course allows students to learn in context with plenty of practical elements, mentoring, filming of sessions etc. They can really analyse their coaching behaviour in detail that way; using GoPro cameras and even a drone! We also utilise relationships with local schools to have them coach children they've not met before so that it is slightly more realistic than coaching their peers. On one module we are wanting the students to write an ongoing blog throughout so as to get them to express exactly what the content means to them as individuals.
Are there any noticeable trends among the coaches that hint at what sport their background might be? If you didn't know them previously would you be able to watch their coaching and pinpoint that they are a rugby player, or netball, hockey....
That's an interesting question. I'm not sure really, certainly we see plenty of invasion games used in sessions which probably reflects their sporting backgrounds. During their time with us we hope to lessen the emphasis on the 'what' of coaching (from over-emphasis to a level which better reflects sports coaching) and focus more on 'who' and ‘how'. We work with each coach to enhance their practice, i think that’s really important. We’re not looking to diminish what coaches are doing, we want to improve it and provoke change where the student recognises it’s needed. This is a really long-term process, and again, why I really believe short NGB courses get nowhere near producing this level of learning. For learning should be about transformational change, not the acquisition of knowledge.