“Much to learn you still have, my old padawan, this is just the beginning!”  – Yoda

We can all think of specific people who we consider to be good “role models”, people who we look up to or might hope to emulate one day – athletes, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs, authors, even politicians (sometimes). Growing up, mine was Yoda. Why? Because he was wise, funny and could handle a sword!

Likewise, we all had a favourite teacher or coach at school. Take a couple of minutes to think of yours. Now consider a teacher or coach who characterises what you would aspire to be in your current role. What makes them so good?

That’s what we asked a range of sports coaches to think about when identifying their self-selected role model coaches in a recent study.

As I’ve discussed previously, coaches often say they prefer to learn informally, valuing interaction with and watching other coaches in particular. However, the social environment, in which we are all embedded, is a powerful source in promoting the value of certain types of knowledge and behaviour over others and guiding what we choose to pay attention to as well as what we choose to learn.

This social environment (or “milieu” for the French speakers) can incorporate a wide range of people and stakeholders (e.g., athletes, administrators, peers, role models, parents, policy makers, NGBs), who may be working to varying agendas, with competing egos and within complex hierarchies. Furthermore, the roots and influence of culture and tradition run deep, and many elements of knowledge and teaching/coaching practice remain largely guided by tradition and historical precedence.

SM Iceberg
Some of the influences on what we prioritise and value.

If the right messages are (a) being sent, (b) being received, and (c) are genuinely correct, then subsequently integrated with practice in an appropriate context, the social environment might be a highly efficient and effective tool for development. Unfortunately, this is at best a “triple whammy” assumption!

Therefore, if we want to prevent out-dated knowledge and behaviours being passed on and reproduced, we need to consider more critically the constructs that the social environment uses to judge teaching/coaching quality.

The coaches in our study reported a variety of qualities that they valued in their role model coach, notably however, participants appeared to focus on their outward facing behaviours, image and personality characteristics, as opposed to the ways in which s/he actually worked. In short, coach perceptions were predominantly associated with the “what is s/he like” or “what does s/he do” rather than the “how does s/he do it” which forms the basis of coaching skill.

This means that the “average” coach does not seem to acknowledge, or perhaps recognise what theory suggests are the most effective and desirable components and characteristics that make coaches successful.

Specifically, many coaches seemed to appoint and value their coaching role models on personal characteristics rather than the “craft” of coaching. For example, no coach in the study referred to qualities representative of their role model’s decision-making processes or the problem solving procedures employed during the dynamic and complex process of coaching. Similarly, there were few references to the pedagogy of the coaching process (i.e., methods of meaningful teaching and learning) or links made with the principles of skill acquisition.

To put it another way, are coaches “learning” how to be liked as opposed to how to be effective? [Tweet this]

Whatever the reasons for this, poor coach education, poor CPD or just entrenched views, it appears that demonstrably effective methods were overlooked, not encouraged, or not seen as relevant by the majority in our sample of coaches.

Thought Provokers and Points for Reflection:

  • Consider your own role model teacher or coach again. What do you most value in terms of how they do what they do? Why do you think this is effective or optimal? What might you be missing?
  • It is important to recognise we might not necessarily be receiving very coherent, accurate or effective guidance from our peers. Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that our social environment could be at least as likely to promote the spread of negative or less than optimal behaviours! How can you tell? What processes do you have in place to evaluate what you see or hear?
  • Social theory and previous research suggests that we are more likely to emulate the behaviour of those we ourselves choose to value (e.g., role models) rather than people (e.g., coach educators) nominated for us. Are you a role model for others? What do you think they value in your approach, and why?
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