As a novice teacher of PE and coach of youth sport I wanted to add value to the children I interacted with on a daily basis. I intently observed the more experienced teachers around me. I worked hard at imitating them and their behaviours. Over time I got better and better until I thought I had got it right. A constant stream of intervention through instruction, feedback and more instruction disguised as questioning. One particular cricket session sticks in my mind as an example of what I thought was good practice back then. 90 minutes of pairs working on grip, stance and back-lift when batting. I was every where, interacting with everyone. ‘Lift your bat higher‘, ‘put your weight onto your front foot’, ‘hands together with a V shaped grip‘, ‘get your head straight‘, ‘are your feet comfortably apart’, ‘don’t bend your back‘, ‘knees slightly bent‘ – and that was to just one child. Their performance of grip, stance and back-lift improved noticeably in that session. I left with a feeling of satisfaction and a job well done.
I thought I was a master teacher and coach. A serendipitous meeting with an ex-pupil on a train made me realise that I was still an apprentice on the journey to craftsmanship and a poor apprentice at that. Sam was part of the most successful school rugby team I have ever coached. When I asked him how his rugby was going, he told me he had stopped playing. I thought the sport had put him off, but it was the way the sport had been delivered that had made him quit. To be exact it was the way I had delivered it. The constant use of my voice to intervene through instruction (‘my way‘ he said) and feedback (‘always negative‘ he said). It took me a while to accept that. I thought he was just a one off. ‘You can’t always please every child‘ I told myself. However after that conversation I started to see things that I had never noticed before.
Over time it became clear, I was in thrall with addition and intervention. Why? Because it is through doing something we get to show our ‘real worth’. I could show my value to all the members of school community, the children, the parents, my colleagues, the opposition coaches, by doing something, constantly. My mission was to solve a problem. That problem being how to help children to improve their basic movement competence or to make progress at their chosen sport. There is an never ending urge to help, even if we do not know if that intervention will be ultimately beneficial. Nassim Taleb, in his book Anti-Fragile, calls this urge ‘naive interventionism’. That we tend to over intervene when trying to solve a problem whilst offering minimal benefits as we see ‘humans as washing machines. With simplified mechanical responses and a detailed users manual‘. Taleb offers a medical term, Iatrogenics, to further make his point. This is when a treatment causes more harm than benefit, just as my ‘coaching’ had done with Sam.
This has led me down a different path, the way of the silent coach. It was difficult at first, as silence is often seen as not doing something and therefore not solving a problem. I have learnt that sometimes less is more and usually more effective. Silence might not solve a problem, but it does help you to better find them. Through persistence I’m slowly learning how to use silence and step back. My learning has been about what to avoid, not what to do. However as I’m becoming more skilled at that and developing my craft, it isn’t just about avoidance. It is about rational and planned avoidance. It helped that others were on the same journey. I attended a conference last year where Mark O’Sullivan was talking about his coaching journey. In his presentation he shared some words of wisdom “If we step in, we better know how to add value.” I found myself nodding along in agreement with this but even with silence we need to be careful. When we step back we need to make sure we aren’t abdicating our responsibility of teaching and coaching. We need to be as deliberate in our silence as we we are in our plans for intervention. To add to Mark’s words If we step in, we better know how to add value. If we step away, we better know how to add value. Either way we need to do no harm. We need to make haste slowly.
Perhaps it might be better to see teaching PE and coaching youth sport as the offering of a gift. Something that enhances or enriches or is expeditious or enduring. Something that is radically new the child can’t get on their own, through free play. That newness can be a change of perspective (wider or more zoomed in), an enhancement, enrichment, accelerated learning and performance, a deeper insight not just into the activity they are participating but also about themselves, their peers and or even life itself. Approaching learning purely from the perspective of the teacher or from that of the learner is not enough. Whilst looking at the behaviours of both the teacher and learner are useful, it is the interactions between them are most important. A gift is both given and received. A starting place needs to be what we are offering as a gift and how we are offering it.
As now a supposedly experienced teacher of PE and coach of youth sport I still want to add value to the children I interact with on a daily basis. I want to do that by offering them something they can’t wait to unwrap, that they can’t wait to come back and get again and that they can’t get on their own. Therefore whether I step in with instruction, feedback or questions or step back with silence I should always be looking to offer the children I teach a gift.