19 August 2016

Switching on the Lightbulbs: Modern Coaching and the Art of Facilitation

Daniel Gallan

The winds of change are sweeping through the world of coaching and structural hierarchies are being torn down. Coaches and managers are no longer the authoritative rulers who dole out knowledge and wisdom to players like a mother bird feeds her chicks. Today, coaches are facilitators: respected figures who help guide elite teams and athletes down the path to knowledge but leave the problem solving up to those who have to perform on the field of play. CONQA Sport speaks with John Pitts, an elite coach with experience in a wide variety of sports, to unpack this modern approach.

England's Joe Root (R) with batting coach Mark Ramprakash during a training session in preparation for the Test series between England and Pakistan. By asking questions, and challenging Root to find the answers himself, Ramprakash has unlocked England's best batsman's true potential.  Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers.

England's Joe Root (R) with batting coach Mark Ramprakash during a training session in preparation for the Test series between England and Pakistan. By asking questions, and challenging Root to find the answers himself, Ramprakash has unlocked England's best batsman's true potential. Image supplied by Action Images / Andrew Boyers.

The Olympic Games only comes around once every four years but when it does, it casts a very long shadow over the rest of world sport. While flicking through channels on TV or stations on radio, you might have noticed some sports that have nothing to do with the fiesta in Rio. Ordinarily, they would add value to the grand narrative but for these 16 days, they are widely treated as distractions to what really matters.

As a result, one of the most compelling Test cricket series of modern times might have failed to register on your sporting radar. The four match series between England and Pakistan concluded with each side winning two games apiece. Two resounding Pakistan victories sandwiched two for England with cricket from the top drawer played throughout.

It was not just the cricket that deserved more attention than it got. Test cricket is a lot of nothingness punctuated by brief moments of on-field action and it is during those dormant periods where so much of the magic takes place. It is here where investigation, insight and opinion bloom.

On the eve of the third Test, England’s current batting coach and former batsman, Mark Ramprakash featured as a guest on BBC Radio 5 Live Sport with George Riley. Joe Root, England’s finest batsman and one of the world’s best, had been imperious in the previous match scoring 254 in the first innings and 71 not out in the second as the home side trounced Pakistan by 330 runs.

Naturally, Ramprakash was buoyed by his player’s performance but had to take stock when he was quizzed about a particular conversation he had with Root during the first Test. After soft dismissals and a string of low scores, he questioned Root’s mental state and if he was in the right place to play Test cricket.

As such, Riley asked a question of his own and in essence challenged Ramprakash to defend his credentials as a coach:

“Is it tough to offer a critical appraisal to a player like Joe who is a player who appears set to achieve more on the international stage than you did yourself?”

Ramprakash played it with a straight bat: “Not at all. If the requirement to be a coach was that you had to be the best player that ever played the game there wouldn’t be many coaches.”

Fair enough, but the question remains. If coaching is akin to teaching in the sense that one person imparts knowledge on to another who previously lacked that knowledge, how can this relationship exist in any other format apart from a top down approach?

Ramprakash averaged a modest 27.3 in 52 Tests with 2 hundreds to his name. Conversely, Root has already played 46 Tests, has scored 10 hundreds and averages a whopping 54.8. At 25 he has yet to reach the peak of his powers and will surely cement himself as one of England’s all-time greats when he finally retires. What gives Ramprakash the right to dole out critiques and advice to such a lofty talent?

Several years ago, the answer would have been that Ramprakash would be out of place; a small fish trying to tell a shark how to swim. But the winds of change are sweeping through the coaching world and now, as Jon Pitts, a human performance coach with experience across a range of sports at the elite level, explains, “Coaching is all about turning on the lightbulbs in your players.”

Pitts played football for Wycombe Wanderers FC in the early ‘90s under current Ireland manager Martin O’Neill, but never had the natural talent to progress much further than the lower tiers of England. He explains that at training sessions, he would look around at his teammates and wonder how he could survive in such a highly competitive environment with his limited skill-set. This introspection did not do much for his athletic career, but it did shape the way he would later view coaching.

“I realised that coaching is about facilitating self-awareness,” says Pitts. “Of course, you need the talent, but at the elite level, helping players figure out the answer themselves is not only rewarding for you as a coach, but is the most successful way of implementing a strategy that works on the field.”

By understanding that the sole goal of coaching is not to teach a player a new skill (though that is undoubtedly a key component), but to help him or her find the solution themselves, Pitts dived head first into a variety of sports. He has worked with horse riders, free divers, tennis players, golfers, cricketers and footballers with great success. He has attended two Olympic Games and has consulted for the England Cricket Board. No one on the planet is an elite performer across so many disciplines and yet here is a coach who is able to slot into each field as if he possesses an innate understanding of how they work.

How does he accomplish this? “The brain and the body are the only two variables found in all sports,” Pitts says. “All that changes is what we do with them. Neuroscience, biomechanics, psychology, physiology; all these fields work towards the same goal which is the improved performance of an athlete. Take that one step further and all these fields are trying to answer the same question: ‘How can we improve performance?’”

If training is simply trying to answer this crucial question, then Pitts was going to ask it over and over again. A rider was struggling with a particular jump? Ask the question. A batsman was struggling with form? Ask the question? A golfer had lost her mojo with her putter? Keep asking the question and unpack every answer until you get to the root of the problem.

Mark Ramprakash can’t tell Joe Root how to play a pull shot or when to charge a spinner with the authority of someone who could do it better. Few people in the world can. For Pitts, this should not be seen as a shortcoming but rather as an advantage.

As Pitts says, “I’ve seen it countless times while observing training sessions. A retired superstar will consult on a particular subject – say a cricket shot or a golf swing – and will have no idea how to break down the components of the action. He’ll say something like, “just do it”, and the guy he’s trying to teach will say, “yes, but how do I do it?” The superstar has no idea because it came so naturally to him. In order to teach, one has to sympathise with the struggle and sympathy is born out of asking the right questions.”

By asking questions, the coach facilitates what Pitts calls “conscious competence”. Another name for this is deliberate practice – the process of repetitive performance with the intent to develop cognitive or psychomotor skills. A batsman is not simply playing a cover drive; he is being asked what felt good or what didn’t feel good. In this process, he is building a model of what constitutes a successful cover drive as well as what constitutes a bad one. It is important to be as aware of what failed as what succeeded.  

By enabling the player to build this mental framework on their own, coaches create a player who is able to make decisions on their own. During inevitable periods of poor form or difficult moments on the field, players with developed self-awareness are more likely to make the right decisions under pressure.

As we discussed in a previous article with cricket coach and metal conditioning expert, Paddy Upton, form is “lost when the body’s natural intelligence is forgotten or blocked”. Through deliberate practice and acknowledging the small successes and failures in training, a player has a reference point to go back to.

“We call the default a ‘shadow profile’ that serves as a middle ground for the players capabilities and can be used to reference when things start getting tough,” Pitts says. “Executive function (cognitive processes that control behaviour – in this case, technique) is the brain’s way of delivering automatic skills which we can hone over time. Such an effective way of doing this is through a conversation.”

If it sounds a simple, that’s because it is. This is not meant to be complicated. Gone are the days where a successful coach must be a lone genius who pours over scraps of information gleaned from far flung scouts and analysts. Today, coaches are facilitators. Head coaches of elite teams and athletes are simply conductors who place the right people together and bring in external knowledge whenever necessary.

The majority of elite teams and athletes now have access to scores of experts and coaches who all specialise in a particular field. Psychologist, physios, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists; all working together to answer the question of how can collective knowledge bring out the best in an athlete. But that question is merely the first one that must be asked. Keep asking questions and eventually you’ll stumble on to the golden answer.  

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.