Coaching with blood
Imposing limits on myself to be more creative
For many people, today's post will be a no-brainer. Even more people, I suppose, will agree. But, I would dare to say that very few —including myself— are aware of it and apply it. It would have been much better to start without predictions or expectations because as Carlota Torrents taught me, what for one person can be revealing, for another can be obvious and this is one of the topics we will discuss today: our behavior as human beings is determined by the stones of different sizes and weight we have found along our paths, for all those moments, memories, problems... that we carry accumulated in our life’s backpack. Knowing this… it would have been much better to start without judging everyone's path because, probably, today's post will mean something different to each person.
When I started walking my path and I had few things in my backpack, I was a convinced and radical behaviorist... even though I clearly saw that it was not working. I was a frustrated practitioner of the stimulus-response method. In any situation that I did not like, that I wanted to change, that caused me discomfort or that I simply thought had to be different... I applied a stimulus —often in the form of an instruction— waiting for a certain response. This may sound familiar to you… I would constantly yell “no” or “sit” at my dog to stop biting the chairs or be disruptive or I would explicitly say what my team needed to do in order to learn a new skill: “run”, “remember to stretch your arm”…. The stimuli were not lacking as the expected responses were. By reducing and simplifying everything, I assumed that learning was a linear, mathematical thing like X causes Y. It took me a while to realize that this was not the case, that learning is not behavioristic and that we are not machines: the characteristics of the person and the infinite variability of cognitive processes made each learning process different.
Every day, once I finished high school or college, I would enter the basketball court and coach players, skills and techniques. For example, I forced a player to make more passes when his main concern was to be signed by a big team and he believed that the way to achieve this was to be the top scorer by attracting attention. A similar situation occurred with a young player who was in the midst of motor development and had not yet recognized the value of cooperation. The stimuli I proposed did not quite generate any response. The main culprit? Not considering the big stones that each player had encountered on their way and that influenced much more than I could tell him in a couple of seconds.
“I remember a friend, when we were in high school, who had to recite some lines at the beginning of a play. She went out onto the stage, in front of all our classmates and her families, and there she stayed, mute, without being able to say a single word. The embarrassment was such that she felt that she had been unable to speak in public again. It is those scars that time imprints that condition us to develop our potential.”
Each player, on her path, encounters big stones that end up influencing her life and her development. We could say that the values or fears that a person develops are big stones since they end up influencing all areas of life. These large stones have more influence than small ones that a player finds. An example could be the coach's instructions. In the example of Carlota, going blank on a stage I suppose is a much bigger stone than the encouragement or orders that a coach can give her to perform the act of speaking. If I opt for a stimulus-response method focused on a certain moment without considering the person's vital background, I think I have all the ingredients for the learning process to fail. The actions that a person takes “now” are largely influenced by the stones along the path; if we do not consider them when we try to get players to acquire skills —of all kinds—, it may happen that they do not acquire a very simple movement simply because there is a very heavy influence —such as a large stone as low confidence— behind it that complicates it.
In the aforementioned cases on the basketball court, would not it be more efficient, instead of correcting a certain action at a specific time, to start with the big stones of each player that influence those executions? Would not it be more efficient to start with the values, motivations or goals of these two in order to modify certain game actions? Would not it be easier if they helped the team through changing beliefs and values instead of feeling the obligation to perform some specific actions? Why did the player who had much more altruistic values with his teammates —and it could also be observed in his parents— not need any instruction to act because the pass and the cooperative game emerged alone?
Here I would like to stop and emphasize that a large stone does not have to be negative, it does not always have to be a problem. Depending on which stones in the road she has encountered, one player may have low self-confidence while another may also have walked a path that has made her develop very positive values and admirable skills that we are sure to they can make your job as coaches much easier.
Values or fears generate a cascade of effects in each person that manifests itself through motivations, goals (in sports and life)... and also in actions. I realized this late, but it helped me decide to coach people, not players. The action is not a consequence of the moment or my orders, everyone's road and backpack are largely to blame. Does this mean that we have to abandon our work as sport coaches and specialize as “life coaches”? I do not think so. I also would not like this to be a manifesto in favor of prying into other people's lives without permission, or seeing ourselves as saviors of other people's lives. Coaches are not superhumans and we walk a path full of stones too. I express this only to gain power when making decisions. If we know why things happen, we can better understand processes, people... and provide a better learning process. With this knowledge, we can be less monkeys and more creators of our own destiny.
By focusing on the small stones, we can achieve easy and quick changes. On the other hand, by affecting large stones we can achieve —with more time and difficulty— much more significant effects. By rethinking values or goals, we can be more successful than with simplistic methods. If we want to get our team to play collectively, it will be much easier to create a culture and with aligned values than to shout “pass” or “play as a team” in every training exercise. Behavior is usually determined top-down: large stones carry much more weight in our day-to-day life. Although, it could also happen that some small stone influence the bigger ones: some action, some known mentor at some point, some specific discovery or illumination in the path can have the potential to change everything. The psychologist Pep Marí exclaims that values must be signed up—they do not have a termination clause!— and that one of the biggest attacks against the principles of a company is signing a person for a managerial position with values incompatible with those of the organization wants to have.
A player who wants to learn how to play and reach his best version, will perform a different behavior than the player who has a need for attention or social approval. On the padel court, I constantly observe a particular player making a smash that goes into the net repeatedly. We analyze together his decision based on the game situation he was in but my comment has no effect as it does to another player. I can be talking, analyzing and convincing him continuously talking about padel... but the question lies in the big stones: the motivations and goals for which he enters the court. If this does not change, then surely my correction and his action (small stones) will not change much.
Nowadays, faced with a negative attitude of a player who gets frustrated in the face of mistakes, I consider whether I want to influence a small stone such as the state of mind in that moment by making a joke or trying that he does not miss anymore or if I want to do it with the big stone which, for me, is his tolerance for frustration and the acceptance of mistakes as part of the learning process, to change his perspective in the face of difficulties. The weight of a large stone will affect him for much longer than that of a small one. I ask myself the same questions when I see a player who is not brave or who does not dare to change, to try... when the big stone of confidence is the one that causes not to explore different things. Now I take the plunge and in my unsolicited opinion today, I see that the big stones on the way can come to influence, even with the risks of injury. If the player who is concerned about showing off on the padel court and chooses the smash as a means to achieve this —as the pros do—, is it possible that these values may end up causing an excess of smashes provoking back or shoulder injuries, for example? Who knows what is good or bad?
Nietzsche said that of everything written he loved only what someone writes with his blood. It is the same with coaching for me: I love coaches who coach with blood, true to their spirit. I do not know if I am very good at it, but I try to. Learn and contribute the best, inside and outside of the court. I learned many things from Àlex Terés, one of them is that sport itself does not transmit values or education, but it is an incredible setting to do so.
For me, coaching with blood is that the players leave the court a little better than they entered. Coaching with blood means that my task does not end when the players leave the court or the training ends. One of the best examples of coaching with blood I had from Toni Caparrós: to make the students feel capable of everything, ready to conquer the world. To coach with blood, to feel my spirit is to always keep in mind that —especially with the little ones— one day they may stop being athletes, but they will never stop being people. Everything they take away for life is what makes me the happiest.
Coaching with blood is provide the best to people who have walked paths that only they know and carry backpacks of different loads. I am not interested in the rest.
This article would not have been possible without —as I have mentioned continuously and I could add as a co-author— Carlota Torrents and other members of the Complex Systems in Sport research group who have provided me with this knowledge. It would be impossible not to mention Natàlia Balagué and apologize to all the others I leave out.
Carlota, in her book —which I cannot fail to recommend— A mi musa me la invento yo explains and shows how limits, constraints... can help us to be more creative by understanding creativity as an innovative, original and —last but not least— useful phenomenon. We usually associate creativity with freedom, but the idea that by imposing certain constraints we can promote creativity is worthwhile. In her book, each chapter is the name of a song by Jorge Drexler and she intersperses the verses of this song with her lessons, trying not to reveal as much as possible. By self-imposing a limitation, creativity emerges.
I tried to do the same but in “beginner” mode. I have proposed myself to talk about coaching and the different nested and related constraints acting on different time scales of complex systems without mentioning the previous concepts or terminology of this branch. The nested constraints are the circular relationship from values to actions, passing through objectives, motivations... and the different time scales refer to the fact that not all the previous constraints act in the same unit of time: an action conditions one or two seconds, a single moment; a value conditions a lifetime... and not everyone changes at the same speed.
If you are interested and want to go deeper, I think you might like the article On the Relatedness and Nestedness of Constraints.
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
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