Big Picture Soccor

Coach Development in the Information Overwhelm Age

The exponential growth of information being presented to coaches online presents both opportunities and challenges for coach development. If we view sport as a microcosm of culture then this should come as no surprise. Podcasts, blogs, lectures, classes, certifications, and how-to’s have provided a never-ending stream of information that is often more overwhelming than useful. How coaches navigate this novel territory will be hugely influential in determining the future of sports. Ironically, it would seem that the solution entails the problem since offering advice on navigating an excess of information adds to that information.

Thinking about this has made me hesitant to write more. I’ve even questioned the usefulness of doing a blog. Do we really need more words online? I’ve certainly decided that it’s imperative to think openly and honestly about what value any new post might add. In the end, though, I decided not to back down from the information overwhelm dilemma.

It was actually in the process of thinking about player development that I came to my conclusion. Those in the nonlinear pedagogy tradition have long been emphasizing the need to transcend prescriptive coaching. One of the reasons we find this difficult to do is that our culture is fixated on propositional knowing. When knowing is seen as the possession of and ability to articulate propositions, we see information as an atomic or unitary substance which dovetails with our modern grammar of computing metaphors. We’ve recognized this in our pedagogy, but we’ve failed to scale it up to the level of coach development.

If learning is an interactive and intersubjective process, then this should apply across levels. Coaches need constant bombardment with articles about how to copy Klopp or Guardiola about as much as players need constant chirping about when to shoot and so on. The trouble in both cases is the underlying assumption that all knowledge is propositional and can be transmitted through prescriptive means. If that was really the only show in town then we would be right to shut our mouths and stop adding to the chaos. But what if there’s more?

Let’s take it back to coaching youth players again. I have a rule of thumb I use in my coaching practice. Before stepping in to offer guidance to a player I ask “what would this player need to solve this problem on their own?” Let’s frame it in the popular “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime” saying. The man has the problem of hunger. The first level is akin to prescriptive solutions. Give him the fish. The second level is something of a meta-solution. Teach him how to solve that problem on his own. This reveals the recursive nature of learning – all learning is meta-learning.

The information overload is a function of too many people giving out fish. I’ve seen many offers of expensive courses that will teach coaches how to emulate some famous coach or system of play. Now let’s insert that same rule of thumb. What would it take for this coach to be able to solve this problem on their own?” This is the type of resource we actually need and have very little of. For example, rather than speaking about tactics as entrenched features of the game, we could explain them as emergent solutions to a complex and evolving problem.

Sadly, we’d rather stay mired in arguments about who understands the game better. The telltale sign of this is that trend is the over-identification with successful professional coaches (“learn how to coach like Mourinho”) and the use of “we prioritize development over results” as a response to literally everything. At some point in every disagreement between coaches the claim is made that the other person doesn’t understand the game because they haven’t played at some certain level. The problem isn’t that coaches don’t understand the damn game. The problem is that coaches don’t understand understanding.

We are overwhelmed by propositional information. Most of it could be replaced by the statement “let me tell you things I know.” Information that has helped me evolve as a coach rarely if ever fits in this category. The resources that have impacted me most deeply are ones that help me move towards autonomy and the discovery of meta-solutions. These are the types of resources for which I’m profoundly grateful and hope to pass along.

These resources are often difficult to recognize because they are in a more raw form. The hungry man can have difficulty seeing the fishing pole as food. At the bottom of it all, we have to recognize that we aren’t just growing as coaches; we’re growing as people. We aren’t just bringing a bag of balls and a gameplan to our players, we’re bringing our whole selves. There is no separation between coach and person. The relationships you have with players carries the full signature of who you are as a person, not only a coach.  

In light of this, I’d like to propose that we do away with the concept of coaches and teachers as information storage tanks doling out nuggets of information. The brilliant thing about the recursive (all learning as meta-learning) nature of learning is that it holds true at all levels (it’s scale free). The coach isn’t distributing propositions or prescribing actions, she’s learning about the nature of her player’s learning. When this happens players aren’t receiving bytes of information, they’re learning about their own learning process and creating their own solutions to problems. It’s nested all the way up. This in no way undermines the authority of the coach or teacher. If anything it’s a bigger responsibility because it requires a commitment to continued learning as opposed to simple recitation of facts.

So here’s my question to you. What resources would best help you find your own solutions to problems you face as a coach?

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