A training lesson from Ulysses
Changing the mindset about the role of the coach
The sirens of Sicily had the ability to entice with their sweet voice any sailor who navigated their waters. The singing caused the sailors to jump off the ship to hear it better and they ended up drowning at sea. One day, a clever young man named Ulysses who had to cross the sea of Sicily, tried to outsmart them. He plugged the ears of every crew member with wax and tied himself to the ship’s mast. Ulysses is the only one who has crossed the Sicilian Sea hearing the beautiful songs of the sirens without drowning.
We all carry within us a sailing Ulysses, we have sirens that drive us crazy, and a hopeful mast that can save us.
My Ulysses was sailing on the basketball or padel court and the sirens were my assumption of the role of the coach as a prescriber of actions or solutions. This mindset made me assume that I possessed the “proper” knowledge about the sport and that I had to transmit it by ordering what and how to do things. The coach was above the team giving orders and the players executing below.
When I started to navigate with this mindset, usually I would go crazy. I “knew” how to do things “well”, I had and idea and I demanded it to the players… but it barely worked without first going through repetitive (and useless) orders, yelling and frustration. It was easy that the whole complex reality wouldn’t fit my closed-minded ideas so, it was common to find myself facing many “problems” created by my mind.
The sirens were my mindset and they controlled me with all the thoughts related to it. They made me ending up jumping into my sea of frustration.
Conceiving knowledge as something that specifies what to do in a pre-determined situation did not help me at all. My perspective from the bench —or as a former basketball player— was different from the players’ one. What I was perceiving and ordering may or may not be in line with the perceptions and actions of the team.
I wasn’t aware that sport is always changing… and I will never catch it knowing all possible solutions of a task. No two players, teams, environments and contexts are the same because of the interaction of all the different personal and environmental limitations such as body limbs, personalities, fatigue, stress, equipment, court, game situation, pressure, supporter’s behaviour, etc. The coach can affect the game; but not as much as much as the opponents behaviours, teammates actions, referee decisions, climatological conditions… do. Therefore, the coach doesn’t have to control the game or training, but rather serve as a component that helps to deal with the uncertainty of them.
“A teacher is someone who stands with you in the dark and holds their flashlight just long enough for you to find your own flashlight.”
Luckily, I was able to tie myself to a mast changing the mindset with which I entered the court.
I started to conceive the coach more like a blue collar worker than like a white collar manager. The coach as another component of the team equal to every player, not above any. What happened in the court didn’t have to satisfy anymore my closed-mind mindset but to be functional in the game. Making the training process dependent on the game —not on the coach— made it more exciting. The challenges and problems in which the team had to adapt removed the sirens: the yelling, repetitive (and useless) orders and frustration. The training didn’t depend anymore on my knowledge about the sport or the plans I had in mind but on playing well with functional behaviours. The mast that saved me was discovering that orders, obligations and extreme leadership from a position of absolute power were not necessary, that we have to stop treating people like they are stupid.
I started to explore, discover and learn how each player behaved in her environment embracing different perspectives. As I influenced them with drills, tasks and, also, orders, they influenced me with their functional solutions to tasks. The decisions regarding the design of the training process were made observing and listening on how the team adapted to what I proposed. This made us —players and coaches— co-designers of it. With a clear conviction of where we were heading in the long run... the next drill was dependent on how do the team solve the challenge we have now.
“Knowledge is not a commodity that can be ‘given’ or ‘acquired’ in such a view, it is acquired engaging with the environment.”
—Craig Morris, Carl T Woods, Keith Davids
I stopped ordering and started manipulating exercise constraints. I stopped demanding and started creating challenges. There were no more obligations but problems or needs to achieve in tasks. The team’s adaptation to all of those problems, situations and challenges in innovative and non-compulsory ways developed more diverse behaviours in the team. In other words, the creativity and autonomy of the team was better encouraged without telling them what the correct decision is in each moment or game situation. Pablo Aimar’s words pointing out the lack of creative players, leave the coaching profession in a precarious position. He explains how we have always killed the players’ creativity restricting the game. Before, they found other ways to develop it in their free time. Now that the kids’ hobbies have changed, we are alarmed demanding them to be creative and there is an extreme need of encouraging this skill.
“Necessity is the mother of invention.”
My Ulysses was sailing on the basketball and padel court. The sirens were the wrong assumption that I was a boss on top of the team and training process. It drove me crazy, my strong attraction to the sirens was drowning me in deep waters. The mast that saved me was the change of mindset about this role. Like in a watch, considering myself a small piece of it with a different task but of equal importance to the others ended with the sirens making me enjoy my journey to Ithaca more.
In which sea does the Ulysses that you carry inside sail? I invite you to draw your picture, it can help you get to know your sirens better and which mast you can hold on to.
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
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