Just respect the essence
The players will do the rest
We’re what we decide to be, I learned from Donella Meadows in her book Thinking in Systems. Every complex system —check the post if the term seems unfamiliar— has a purpose determined by information from its environment.
In the complex system that is sport, the regulation is information that determines the purpose —victory— and how it can be achieved. This ends up influencing all the components —also complex systems— that sport encompasses: players, coaching staff, etc. Rules establish the boundaries of rewarded, legal, and prohibited actions, regulating player interactions and shaping the strategies available to each team.
In our day-to-day, we decide what to buy and how to live according to the information of our income, credit and debt. On the court, we decide how to achieve the victory, how to score… depending on the information of the rules that affect us but, also, the teammates and the opponents. In football, every team wants to score one more goal than the opponent... or some choose not to score any just defending their own goal. The rule in football that mandates goals to be positioned centrally influences how teams defend —the central lane often exhibits the highest player density— and attack to achieve this.
Purpose is very powerful as it gives meaning to any complex system. At the same time, it’s a leverage point: If you want to change a system, change the purpose.
This is what some minor leagues have done, in which goals are no longer the only measure of success, but values, attitudes, fair play… also count. When the purpose and the information change, so too does the behavior of the teams. Change the purpose of a coach —from training to win to training to develop people— and she’ll change lives. But we’ll talk about this in another post.
The purpose —the victory— and the information —the rules, the teammates, the opponents— bring out the essence, the most important thing, what the sport is.
Coaches to feel a little better about ourselves, to have a false sense of control and an illusion of professionalism... we often destroy it. Our training loses its essence when, in order to minimize mistakes and think we’re better, we start to separate, reduce, eliminate uncertainty and opponents or base tasks on instructions.
For this reason, in Brazil there are professionals players who are build on the streets in which the essence is preserved. They breathe football.
Coaches must respect it; otherwise, instead of healing we’re causing harm from inside. Iatrogenics.
This is what I realized this year while training padel, a new emergent and trending sport.
Among all the players between 60 and 10 years old that I have coached... the ones who have taught me the best have been the youngest. From very early on, we focused training on the essence of padel: the importance of unforced errors and winning points in the final result.
We haven’t talked about technique, we talked about spaces on the opponent’s court, whether we had control of the game or were being controlled by the opponent. We haven’t described specific executions or shots, we focused on where it was smarter to play and at what speed in each moment of the game. Keeping the uncertainty, the variability, the opponents, the result... we focused on what we wanted to achieve, the body got ready to make it happen.
On most occasions, we have worked with real game situations that created a challenge for the players, always keeping the essence. For example, competitions in which volleys could not be performed; games where we changed the dimensions of the court and the player could only play in the middle or in the back making the ball rebound with the glass, etc.
By modifying this information and maintaining the purpose of victory, they adapted. We have had training sessions of glory and despair. Situations with which they had to experience to find how to behave. Opportunities to develop the mental skills that sport —and life— requires.
A year later… I was watching them this week and wondering: How come they all ended up playing with similar “techniques”? I guess it’s not just the imitation of shoots from professional players that they admire…
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do they have to learn the technique first, step by step, to then be able to start playing? Do they learn the technique because they have already started playing? From my point of view, it’s the essence, the fact of understanding the sport... that makes the “technique” appear.
As the number one detractor of the “technique” belief, many players say to me: But Martí, if all players have a similar technique... how can you say it doesn’t exist?
Correlation does not imply causation. I think it’s quite the opposite: If all the players are exposed to the same essence, can the sport take them where it wants?
Padel is a sport that has glass on which the ball bounces. This means you can’t get very close to them because if the ball is fast and hits him, you probably won’t catch it. It’s the essence of sport —the same for everyone— that leads the players to position themselves in an optimal space if they want to win.
Sport guides behavior but we have spent so much time training destroying the essence, that we think that the one who truly guides it’s the coach with instructions.
When I look back and see how I have changed my beliefs, how my way of doing things has changed... It comes to my mind the sentence of Sergio Scariolo after winning the basketball World Cup with Spain: “One can’t be an asshole all his life.”
It gives me a certain joy and a certain uneasiness in case one day, poor me, I stop feeling how wrong I was a few months ago.
“Change the answer is evolution. Change the question is revolution.”
I end the season with a huge thank you to my players, you have been my best teachers. I finish it with answers to questions that no longer interest me but new questions that worry me. This is the one that comes to my mind the most:
Is it possible that if the essence of the game is respected, the functional movements —the “technique”— emerge without need to be taught?
Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop
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