“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” – Karl Popper
Or so the character Mike Ehrmantraut tells Walter White in the brilliant TV show, Breaking Bad. You see (to cut a long story short, and hopefully minimise any spoilers), on his journey towards becoming a crystal meth dealing kingpin, the high-school chemistry teacher gone bad Walter gets one over (so to speak) on the existing drug czar, Gustavo Fring. As a result, Walter now believes himself to be at the top of the food chain; however, Mike is trying to tell Walter that whatever he may think he is, this is still not ‘his world’ and he is getting above his station. In a roundabout way, I wanted to try and relate this to a study we conducted last year that looked at the way sports coaches learn.
After surveying some 320 coaches, one of the things we found was that the biggest source of ideas and information for most coaches was other coaches. Moreover, the survey participants were very clear about the extent to which they preferred to acquire knowledge through social interaction with other coaches (e.g. by observing, chatting etc.). Whilst on the one hand this is understandable, especially when we consider aspects such as convenience and ease of access, as well as the perceived ‘real-world’ relevancy with which coaches viewed the material, it also highlights some potential issues.
For example, whilst the coaches in the study seemed to assume that knowledge can be passed between coaches unhindered, the primary purpose of the coaching environment is not coach learning. Indeed, it may even be resistant to these processes. Similarly, how do coaches know that the information other coaches share, or the ideas they acquire through observation, is appropriate, or relevant, for their needs?
Indeed, much of the coaching practice that coaches observe and discuss in the coaching environment may well, in and of itself, have been influenced more by tradition, emulation and historical precedence in the sport than through critical consideration of the latest research.
Going back to the Breaking Bad analogy, Gustavo Fring’s drug dealing operation worked for him, in his context, with his background, network, and existing knowledge base. For Walter to simply observe him, and then attempt to assume the role by acting and behaving like Fring is (and ultimately was) a recipe for disaster. Similarly, just because a ‘successful’ coach uses a specific method or technique, or coaches in a particular way, does not necessarily mean that it will be either appropriate or effective for another coach in another context. Nor will it necessarily represent the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art practice. Likewise, it is not unrealistic to suggest that coaches are at least as likely to observe bad coaching methods, behaviors and techniques, as they are good!
In addition to this, if coaches are to have meaningful discussions about a topic or subject, they likely need a base level of primary knowledge to enable this to happen effectively. Although coaches might possess (or at least perceive they possess) procedural (doing) knowledge in relation to their coaching practice, lacking the underpinning declarative knowledge (i.e., “why?” knowledge) necessary for understanding this content can limit the critical discussion of the topic needed to facilitate optimal learning. For example, Walter has the procedural knowledge of how to make the highest quality ‘product’, sell it, then divide up the profits; however, he lacks declarative knowledge regarding the need to look after other ‘unseen’ people from his ‘cut’ (in this case, potential informants) – a situation that leads to Mike’s comment in the title of this post and, ultimately, tragic consequences:
Thought provokers and points for reflection:
- Are you pursuing your practice in a sufficiently critical way (e.g. reflecting on and reorganizing what you already know)?
- Do you regularly question and challenge your current practice, habits, routines, values and beliefs against clear and justifiable criteria?
- When observing others, as opposed to taking things at face value and ‘copying’ – how often do you endeavor to ask why they did what they did, and perhaps more importantly, what they chose not to do?
- Whilst intuitive decision making is an important component of coaching expertise, when implementing something new, can you justify why it is/was useful and how it will help?