Fosbury Flop
Fosbury Flop
The best question I have ever been asked

The best question I have ever been asked

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Reading Josep Pla, I remembered a December evening when Pau, a very good colleague, asked me: “And where did you learn to coach padel?” I answered that by watching the game and learning about other sports. I had to provide a quick and good response... that only satisfied the first characteristic. The question —which I think was not rooted in admiration but simple curiosity— came back to my mind today —fifteen days later— when I felt reflected by these words of Josep Pla:

“There are people who are born, visibly, with an approximate idea of things in life. I have not been lucky enough to be one of them. I had to learn everything in the most sensitive years of my life, when emotionality and sentimentality especially led me to a credulous and childish euphoria. In order to get some dead skin —I mean experience— I had to twist the neck of my youth. All real contacts with life were painful. I should have been born, obviously, with an absolutely guaranteed wooden head and sharp teeth. But there are things that are not chosen.”

I feel completely reflected in it. I wasn’t born with any talent, I would say. I look back and see a moron who, with much reflection, has been less and less. When I ask myself if I have gotten to do something right, I would say that, at least, I think I am not doing too badly at training, coaching or teaching. It is the activity that I have probably practiced the most throughout my life. The way to stop being a moron —or to be less and less of one— has been fantastic. Curiosity —when I was a basketball player— made me a coach and, if today someone can consider that I know a little of it, it is thanks to insecurity —or the uncertainty of this world.

Once I was head basketball coach, faced with the challenges of training —also of life— I felt insecure. Then I started chasing the false sense of comfort that it gave me to have everything under control. An example were the Excel sheets —which I keep very dearly— that I made trying to decipher, in detail, at a micro level, all the basketball game situations. I spent summers making them. I also did a project called “Creation of an instrument to measure the player’s intelligence”. Please, Martí... what a shame! As Losantos says: “You remind me of myself when I was a moron.” It wasn’t too bad, though. I thought in a completely different way than now, I lacked many lessons, many painful contacts with reality... but all that work, all that reflection to “find out” when it was “right” for the player to cut and when he had to push, when he had to move to the corner and when to go up to the 45º spot... it helped me a lot, I think. Playing I was the same, a very bad pointguard with a coach’s mentality. An uncomfortable pointguard with the uncertainty of the game, rather. I tried to be as little “monkey” as possible, I tried to know why things were done... sometimes even too much.

At that time I was still deluded and believed in the coaching courses given by federations. Since I didn’t even know where to start training, I assumed that the first course —the level 0, to coach until U12— would help me structure everything. Well, I started doing the coaching courses before they were required for me to coach. A symptom of this insecurity. I was the opposite of the rest: Most students did it once they had already started coaching, had spent a few seasons with an “illegal” license and saw that they had no other option but to take it. I did it to be ready once I had the opportunity. I remember how in a class of the level 1 course —the second level, the one that qualifies you to train adults— with Ramon Jordana, it was my turn to present my vision: the way to achieve the goals I had set with my team. It was a C or D level U12 team from Sant Joan Despí and when I said it at the presentation, the professor let go, ironically: “Do these divisions exist?” Referring to the D level division, one of the lowest in the country. I don’t say it as something negative, nor do I hold a grudge against a genius like Ramon. I’m just giving an example that I was taking a senior training course when I was training one of the lowest divisions in Catalonia. It would have been a waste of time if it weren’t for the fact that there I met Joan, who preached the complete opposite of the structuring I was pursuing.

I remember starting as a head coach. Joan Marc Ferrer was my asistant coach, one of the best I’ve ever had. It makes me very happy that the bastard is already in the LEB Silver Spanish League, that he is already in the professional world. Maybe we should have switched roles and the team would have done better. With Joan Marc, we calculated the useful motor time for each task and each training session. I had the tasks planned to the minute, and we wrote down how many of these had been useful —active, training— and those that hadn't —when I was talking. Controlling everything required precision and generated stress... which didn’t justify anything, didn’t give us any benefit beyond a false peace of mind I was craving. Then we calculated the useful time for each training session, it was around 75%. I was happy because Joan told me that to do well, it had to be above 70%.

The Excel sheets I mentioned before were used to plan everything. Because I had them deciphered in detail, the sense of control that gave me was like fresh air. The benefits were few because looking at the periodization I missed the trainings, the development of the team. But at that stage in my path, I priorized to feel that I had everything under control, that the process was not uncertain. For each training session, I marked each of the contents we had to work on. For example, in defense, the content of “gunner” or “making the court small”; in offense “extending the first pass” or “chip change”. That training, or that task, was for the specific thing that my mind, in order to be calm, had decided. Looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I would have said to a player doing something different: “No, please, that’s not for today. Do not free the uncertainty that I have hunted so well. Please, in my mind is amazing.”

They offered me, being much younger than average, to coach Cornellà U12 team that competed in the highest category... I accepted without thinking about it but during the first week I slept about 4 hours every night from nerves. I say that I was younger than average because it added nerves to me: it was a major challenge that arrived before time. I couldn’t calm my mind, I needed to know where to start, to anticipate the situations I would encounter, to have an answer to the problems we would face. I was looking for comfort. This need, this circumstance, this challenge... I feel it made me very nervous. I think of Jordi Coma when he said: “The best thing that can happen to you is to accept a job and have no fucking idea about it. You will learn more in the first 10 days than in your entire life.” I even made a Coach’s Guide for the entire staff that was 40 pages long and we talked about how to train, how we would organize ourselves, each one’s —closed— tasks... the whole opposite of what I preach now. I was a moron, who was very wrong, and learned amazingly. Being so obsessed helped me to know the game much better, to find good principles, to create acceptable models... in which I tried to imprison my players. I studied it a lot but I was not able to come to the conclusion that the game, by its nature, is uncertain and I could not imprison it in any personal mental models. Now I understand why Ramon said that we young coaches do not understand the game, full of insecurity we go —through the creation of closed models— against its main pillar: its uncertainty.

During all this time, on the way to isolating variables and deciphering basketball, there was always a great enemy present that made everything more difficult... and also made me improve much more: uncertainty. It prevented me from controlling all the factors. It made me, at the same time, try and keep learning harder. As Josep Pla says, this was the one who made me twist my neck and create some dead skin. I owe a lot to it... and I never mention it.

The pursuit of knowledge that I have undertaken, the obsession to know the reasons behind the causes and consequences could not be understood without it. Wanting to know why things happen, wanting to understand the world in which we train and live… it has been more because the fact of being insecure than the trait of being curious.

The need to pursue knowledge had another aggravating factor: during the last years I had to train people close to my age, teenagers like I was, or people who were older than me. I’ve never been very authoritarian and I’ve never believed in doing things because a person says so —or shouts to do so. But if I had chosen this leadership path, I don’t think it would have worked. Being so young made me feel that I had to convince the player from rationality, not from shouting or obedience. Menotti said that “a coach is the one who helps the growth of players from knowledge, not from discipline”. So that. Having always been the youngest has distanced me from discipline and pushed me towards knowledge. The youngster cannot force, he must convince. I needed to seek knowledge because I felt that they would pay more attention to true things that others had demonstrated than to a person who had not won anyone.

In this sense, apart from being insecure, one could say that I have also been a wuss. I got angry, yes... but I let out few screams. I always think of Jaume Ponsarnau and his defense to coach as one is... there’s when the coach can bring out his best version, and no one beats him to be himself. Raúl Martínez explained this to me one day and demonstrated it in every training session and match. I’ve never been with anyone who led teams like him. A man with very clear ideas —different from mine— and very faithful to them. One day when he didn’t see a situation the same as the club’s technical director, he verbalized to me: “Martí, I will adapt, if they ask me for something I will help them... but I will always be true to myself and my ideals. And if they don’t like it... kick me out!” As I said, he said that sentence one weekday but he proved it to me along four seasons. I think it is the most valuable lesson of all the time I shared with him. I think of him every time I train something different than what the technical schedule of the week says. A few geniuses have taught me to question things, but from him I learned the strength to go until the end.

Well, trying to be true to myself has made me shout a little and make lots of questions. I’ve always believed that players should be the first to be responsible and consistent with themselves and I’ve emphasized on behaving according to what burns inside of you, not because of what the madman outside demands of you. Why don’t you run? Why should I be angry if you are the one more hurt of your behaviour? It is true that, I would never allow this to become a disrespect towards teammates or the team. Why are you lazy? Are you because you are not motivated to play padel or because you have an insecurity within you that protects you from the possibility of giving everything and failing? If you don’t like it, I will invite you to abandon it. If you are insecure, we will work on it and overcome it together. I don’t think yelling solves anything.

For a long time, years, I would say, I was looking for theories, people, models... to give me a hand to kill the uncertainty. It’s funny that I never thought about killing my insecurity. Even when I started in the padel world I wanted to eliminate it! It wasn’t long ago that I was a moron! Because of this, now I look back and I would love to return to the world of basketball to try many things that I did not know when I was there.

No one could give me any answers on how to do it, how to kill it, and in the end —not so long ago— I assumed that I had to live with it. It has not been a path to become a better coach, it has been a path to make the world more certain —or less uncertain— in which I have failed, I have lost myself... but I have come out successful. For this reason, if I compare my learning process in basketball and in padel I see a big difference: the acceptance of the uncertainty of the game. In padel, I no longer put my players in any prison —or closed model— that only satisfies my well-being. I no longer worry about structuring everything. Many poorly built models were taken away, without realizing it, by many mentors I have been lucky enough to find.

As I always say, we are what emerges from our relationship with the environment. This is what Josep Pla explained:

“I have heard that you can enter life with good or bad luck. I do not know. Anyway, this luck thing seems very strange and imprecise to me. What I believe is that, in the formation of our spirit impact the environments we have passed through in the decisive years of our adolescence.”

Insecurity and uncertainty have been there all my life. Thank you for accompanying me. Who wasn’t there from the beginning but who appeared in the decisive years of my adolescence was Natàlia Balagué, Joan Cortés, Javi Torralba... and so many others that I won’t write but that if you read and find missing your name, don’t worry that I keep it in my mind. Memory —which luckily I have a lot of— is the only paradise from which we cannot be expelled. In fact, now that I think about it, if we consider memory a talent, I would say it was the only one I was born with. I’ll say even more, I don’t think memory is the cause of me remembering everything, I think it’s the consequence of being insecure, of worrying about everything. You never know if a thought, a fact, a situation, an idea... from the past will suit you in the future. Maybe my only talent was being born insecure. If I open the Notes app on my phone, I see that I have 908 saved. In this app, I have notes in written or drawn form —usually systems or game forms— and I separate them into different folders. The basketball folder has 298 notes, the one from when I coached the U13 and U12 has 212 and the Segle XXI High-level Program and physical training have 60. Many of these, I would say 90%, I have not checked ever again. There are 10% that, over time, have come to my mind and I have reviewed them. I do not explain it as a positive thing, only to demonstrate this devotion caused by the insecurity of capturing everything and not missing anything, in case I need it in the future. The only positive part of all this was when I consciously wrote notes, assimilating them, that made me reason... the ones I copied and pasted to have the false and unnecessary security of having them kept just in case, they have been of no use to me.

In general, I would say that I consider mentors all those who have caused me mental earthquakes: an episode, an idea, a conversation... that shakes all the poorly constructed foundations of my reality. They fall, the earthquake throws them to the ground... and, full of doubts, they force you to build new... and better ones. They don’t make you find new answers, they make you change questions: the real revolution, as Jorge Wagensberg would say. There were moments that I cursed having conversed with those geniuses —as if I preferred to remain an ignoramus!— but it was done. There was no turning back. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate these episodes a lot. At the time, I felt terrible.

I remember Joan. In the level 0 course, later in level 1 and in the technical-tactical skills workshop. I thought that the basketball lay-ups from the right side were, always: right step, left step and finish with the right hand. It took me a long time to learn, but he taught me, that the most important thing, was to put the ball in the rim. Therefore, it was good to finish with the hand away from the defender and organize the steps as you wanted —if the rules allowed it. Or in shooting form, he removed the requirement for me to have a 90º elbow angle to shoot well. We could say that he educated me in the critical spirit. His wisdom gave me a kick that sent me from the copy and paste street to the avenue of reasoning. Once Joan dazzled you, then you thought: “OK, the lay-ups are very different, let’s structure all the types.” Very bad, Martí. It was like I was still a moron, but a little less so. As if I were saying to myself: “Ok, Martí. You’ll still be a moron but at least you won’t look like one. You will be a moron 2.0.” In the end, luckily I realized that there is no need to capture it, systematize it, outline it... the player already knows how to do it. I don’t regret it, I believed in very improveable things that helped me grow a lot. I guess that’s the price to pay.

An evening in Solsona comes to mind. I would never have said that in a town like Solsona I would have learned so much basketball. I think of Román, David, Raúl, Josek, Félix... and Jordi Ribas. It was one evening that he, the latter, presented us with his formula for efficient spacing: spacing = ((distances + passing lines) * decision-making) ^ sum of advantages. I have it saved in the notes on my mobile. It makes me laugh now but that summer made me think a lot. I used to think that spacing was something static, closed, as if it were physics. For example: when the player dribbles here, the player without the ball must occupy this space, always. As if it were exact science, mathematics, black or white... and in that town, for a few summers, I added other shades of gray to those that some mentors had already discovered in me. I remember him giving me examples on his basketball board. The one of a symmetrical 2v1 in half court where the attackers started from the extremes of the midfield and the defender from under the rim. He asked me how they should behave “correctly”. I made my assumptions and he destroyed them with many “what ifs”. It was true, there was no correct pattern. A situation was repeated throughout the scene: I asked him a question that demanded a concrete answer, an absolute truth... that he was unable to answer. I would say that neither he nor anyone else could answer. Carl Jung defined my problem well: “Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is not single, definite way… If that’s what you want, you had better join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what.”

I began to see how something I considered closed and static was not. Then, it was time to learn and capture this dynamism. Another episode that helped me do this was Fabián’s clinic at the Virolai school. He had a very well structured fast-break. As always, it was a great model that did not solve or give me an answer to the exceptions that happened in the game. I remember leaving there that day happy because I knew how to attack the fast-break in 2v1 in symmetry or asymmetric, in 3v2, in 4v3... and many exercises to develop it. On top of that, they were exercises that contemplated the dynamism of sport. I was less wrong, I think, and it was very good! Without that these conclusions would not have been reached today!

I reflect on luck, destiny... or whatever you want to call it. Being Barça supporter led me to investigate the work of Paco Seirul·lo and all his gang —Julio Tous, for example—, the structured training, and so on. My mother, always supportive, bought me his book. Seirul·lo’s words dislocated me, but many other authors such as Julio, Gerard Moras, Joan Solé, Marcel·lí Massafret... gave me brushstrokes that broke with a simplistic, traditional paradigm of closed answers and absolute truths. I don’t consider structured training a “complex” methodology, I think it’s a very good update of traditional training. In fact, its name already says it: it tries to structure everything, which gave me a lot of headaches. But that it questioned and changed many things... made me the path to the complexity sciences easier. I was impressed by Paco’s explanation justifying how in collective sports, we still follow many methods of weightlifting or athletics. I wonder what would have happened if I would had been a fan of RCDEspanyol or Real Madrid, how it would have impacted my path? I approached Seirul·lo not because anyone recommended him to me, but out of pure fanaticism, by pure chance, and he struck me regarding my training gaze. Maybe if I had been RCDEspanyol supporter I would have refused to read it and I would have been even more of a moron. I wonder if this hypothetical case can be a real case for those who are, in truth, fans of RCDEspanyol. I would be very sorry if someone, for being a supporter of the 3rd team in Catalonia, rejected Seirul·lo’s ideas. They must have had enough of being RCDEspanyol fans to, on top of that, refuse to learn from Paco’s wisdom.

I also consider how fanaticism has conditioned my evolution of the conception of the role of the coach. Not only as FCBarcelona supporter, but also to the fact of having been born in Catalonia. Like Josek, I think the Catalan coaching school is the best in the world. But that’s not what I meant. I was talking about idolizing Pep Guardiola. Being Catalan, passionate about sports and wanting to be a coach, he was the superhero I dreamed of becoming. I thought that being a coach was about “saving” teams and becoming a hero, that everything revolved around me. I thought, at first, that training was about “me”, about being a hero in my skewed mental reality. Over time I’ve discovered that no, it’s about them being able to express themselves and bothering them as little as possible. From the sideline backwards, which says Juanma Lillo.

I would say that the culmination of this process was carried out by Javi Torralba. I was able to approach him thanks to Joan. During one season I went once or twice a week to watch the Segle XXI trainings on my way back from the University of Vic. What efforts my parents made. I watched the training and at the end I talked to Javi. The questions I asked him no longer looking for absolute truths. I still keep the notes I took. Every day I wrote two sheets of A4. I even wrote his comments or jokes. I was a good moron, I admit. But I had never seen anyone, until those days, do it so well. Move like a fish in water in the complexity of basketball. I would dare to say that if I hadn’t chosen to live with the uncertainty of basketball... I would have wanted to be a Javi Torralba.

These people changed the way I saw basketball. Natàlia Balagué changed the way I see sport and life, the world. I had no knowledge to coach padel but her lessons made me feel capable. I met her thanks to the transfer to the University of Barcelona, at the INEFC. How difficult it was. I liked that she questioned everything, that she said things that made so much sense that seemed so difficult to apply... and to understand. I suffered a lot in his 2nd and 4th year subjects, in tutorials she had even said to me “this looks quite bad, Martí”. Everything changed with the Thesis. I didn’t know which tutor to choose but when I saw her first on the list, I had no doubts. I admitted to her how much I was passionate about it and how bad I was... but she didn’t care, she told me that if I wanted to, we should go for the highest mark possible. Wow! That you are passionate about something that you are so bad at... and that a role model in the field sees you capable is inexplicable. That gesture was a big push. I decided to learn the Complex Systems Approach and wanted to apply it to padel. I devoured the books she recommended, her articles and those of her colleagues, I wrote everything down, filled myself with questions... and made a thousand reflections. I always say that learning about complexity empowered me. I learned some principles applicable to all the phenomena I wanted to capture. They explained why and how things happened. What peace of mind it gave me… Uncertainty became my friend —who was to say! I remember how I started to think: “I don’t know what will happen… but I’ll adapt.” Perhaps it was the period of my life when studying became a real pleasure. I did it in Erasmus and it changed my life; the Thesis, not Erasmus. Well, Erasmus, too... That’s why I have such good memories of Finland. A motivated and curious student that could study what I wanted, the teacher didn’t require me to do fieldwork crap to prove it... she let me flow. I feel that the student does not need anything else. Natàlia told me to send an email to Kike Lacasa, who had interesting things to say about padel, and I met him. People wonder why I sent him the email, I think it’s stupid not to. People who don’t dare to send these kind of messages don’t know what they’re missing. Kike changed my life. Meeting him moved me from Finland to Catalonia and connected me with other training geniuses. It helped me a lot in padel training. I love this process so much that I think that’s why we became friends. Natàlia has pushed me to be and do many things that I am and do today.

I presented the Thesis and Toni Caparrós was there in court. I was very moved by Toni’s presence and words. I will never forget it. A student who contemplates the possibility of being a performance coach knows who Toni is and admires him like a child. I finished certifying my admiration for him when he was my teacher in the subject of Functional Sports Rehabilitation. It was hard for me to remember the name of the subject... but I hadn’t forgotten what it was for me. I have never seen a teacher connect so much with students, communicate so well, be so empathetic, help them so much... as he did. On top of that, he filled you with confidence. I was alone in Barcelona and, being insecure, what’s better than someone who makes you feel the exact opposite? Despite not sharing a point of view, I will never forget that he spoke so well of my exhibition.

All the reflection invested in those years that I believed I was capable of capturing basketball and the luck of being able to run into all these mentors on my way was not valued until I went through the last narrated stage of my path; where I am now. As a basketball coach, I used to copy and paste interventions that the biased coaches I had had had made. Creating is not copying. This meant that I started the basketball coaching journey not from the starting line, but from further back, at a disadvantage. I was carrying a backpack of beliefs that I thought were essential and it took years until I emptied them.

In padel, the opposite happened to me: I was the one who came out with an advantage. No one had had time to uneducate me, to tell me —with good intentions— lies accepted by everyone that I should follow. I hadn’t had to copy any other human... who had transferred their skewed reality to me. I learned from the true rules; the ones from the sport regulations, not the ones from culture. Having never set foot on a padel court before as a player wasn’t a hindrance but an advantage. The vast majority of coaches had arrived there after being players... and having wasted time repeating meaningless movements in the court. It’s hard to assume there’s a better way than what you’ve been doing all your life.

I started from the starting line, with an almost empty backpack racing against rivals who, despite having them by my side, carried a backpack as heavy as life. Having had to take the path of padel, with so much dead skin, with so many painful contacts with reality, the wisdom of my mentors kept inside, the uncertainty accepted... it was my advantage. The stage of copying and pasting, of mechanistic biases, of traditional ashes... I had long since left it behind. I started from 0, not from -5... but with a lot less phone numbers.

I have had much more freedom to create the best road in my world. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I wouldn’t change it for anything. The less the backpack weighs, the better. My only talent was being able to empty it long before entering the padel court. There were left only books by Taleb, François Jullien, Rafel Pol, Primo Levi... articles and other memories of the same kind, some pictures of some “monkeys” who taught me what not to do and little else.

This has led me, to this day, to read the regulations and no other technical book or sports manual. To watch tennis and padel to know what not to do. Meet Domènec Torrent, Manel Estiarte and Pep Guardiola. Curse the terms technique, tactics and strategy. Fuck the status quo and the traditional ashes that have done us so much harm —and are still doing us. To meet with a former national football coach. To be brave and true to myself —even though I haven’t always succeeded. To investigate the real causes behind the phenomena. To review, strengthen and rebuild the foundations of what I believe and do. To have as a compass the question “why”. To question everything.

Pau, this has been the beginning of my journey to learn how to coach padel. In fact, I would say that it is also helping me to learn to live. I would describe it as a journey towards the critical spirit, reasoning... which still has many stages left. Thanks for the question on December 15th, I had no fucking idea how I had done it. If I had had time to think about it, I would have answered you this, Pau. Well, I don’t know if that really happened or if this is a narrative fallacy I’ve made up. A clear bias hindsight. Has it been a case of trying to label facts that have been learned implicitly?

Martí Cañellas | Fosbury Flop

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Fosbury Flop
Fosbury Flop
How complexity impacts sport, fitness... and life.