Big ideas

Check your baggage!

The philosopher Daniel Dennett once said “there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage has gone aboard unchecked”. I feel the same about coaching.

Every coach has some fundamental ideas, or ‘touchstones’, that underpin their actions. This page is about the basic ideas that inform my coaching. Your big ideas will be different, but I think it’s important that we try to put our big ideas ‘out there’ so people can better understand why we do what we do and so that the bad ideas can be criticised and the good ones propagated. This brings me to my first big idea…

The Open Society

I remember reading Popper’s classic text in the summer of 2005. I was coming to the end of my second year at Loughborough and I honestly can’t remember why I was reading it – certainly nothing to do with my PhD – but I have very fond memories of lying in the sun on the hillside outside my office, watching the cricket (occasionally), accompanied by a cold drink and the two volumes of Popper’s “war effort”. I found it a riveting read from start to finish and took extensive notes on topics ranging from pre-Socratic philosophy to the flaws of Marxist politics. The book is bursting with ideas and bristles with intelligence and has made a lasting impression on me.

But to get to the point… the Open Society is basically about two things: 1) a critique of previous attempts by various thinkers to describe the perfect society (utopian thinking); and 2) a minimal model for the good society based on Popper’s theory of knowledge. These two features are good ‘thinking tools’ for coaches, I believe, as I shall try to explain briefly below:

  1. Those who think they know the royal road to success or happiness – as did Plato and Marx – are very poorly placed to accept new and potentially better ideas. This, I find, is a common posture among coaches: they think they have a rock-solid formula for success (usually swallowed whole-sale from some crank guru) and will defend it doggedly in the face of any argument. Status is very important to such people, and often a random quote or principle or drill of some kind can be rendered sacrosanct (beyond criticism), simply because some famous coach once said it or did it. Popper gives us lots of ammunition to attack such attitudes.
  2. Popper’s alternate and rather minimal model is based on his logical theory of the ideal conditions for the growth of knowledge. He contends that the most effective route to building knowledge lies in constantly testing ideas (hypotheses) against experience. The ideas that stand up to testing should be retained over those that have come up short, but only tentatively. This attitude of holding all knowledge open to criticism is daunting at first, but can become a very liberating attitude once fully appreciated. The practical effect on my coaching is that I’m always searching for new and better ideas and always willing to drop an existing idea if it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I have also become very suspicious of people who promote coaching ideas, drills and games based on the argument that “a famous coach does this, so you should do it”. A drill or game or method must be judged against how successful it is, NOT against how successful its designer has been (it’s often almost impossible to determine the originator or ‘designer’ of an idea in any case).


Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU)

I had the good fortune to be able to attend and contribute to the 30th anniversary international conference on TGfU this summer. The conference took place at Loughborough, the place where the three ‘fathers’ of TGfU – Rod Thorpe, Dave Bunker and Len Almond – were based at the time of the publication of their original work. Given what I have just said (above), the status and credentials of these people does not matter in validating the idea of TGfU. The value of the theory was demonstrated, rather, by the hundreds of coaches, teachers and researchers who have been making effective use of the theory (or their different interpretations of it) over the last 30 years. My nutshell interpretation of TGfU is as follows:

TGfU is a framework for teaching PE and sport that entails ideas about structure (macro-micro), transfer (skills and tactics) and methods.

  • In terms of structure, TGfU asks us to appreciate the deep tactical problems that are present in games and identify common structures. The well-known system for categorising games – Net/Wall, Territorial/Invasion, Striking/Fielding, Target – is based on this idea (e.g. Hockey, Soccer, Basketball and Netball all require defenders to consider  ‘how to apply pressure to the ball’). Once you appreciate the tactical structure of a single game (e.g. basketball) and how it is similar to others, you have two new hugely effective tools:
  1. The tactical structure of the game allows you to plan long periods of work around solving problems (very engaging for learners);
  2. You can show young people that they are already familiar with many of the principles of a game, even if they’ve never played before (e.g. a netball player can appreciate the tactical nuances of basketball as the problems are much the same, it’s just the skills that differ as the rules are slightly different).
  • As noted above, transfer of both skills and tactical understanding is made much easier when you appreciate the deep similarities in games that share the same basic tactical structure. Often the skills required to solve problems have common features too, the weight transfer required when hitting a smash in badminton and volleyball, for example.
  • When it comes to methods, TGfU teaches us that people learn best when solving problems. That is often what engages us in learning how to play games in the first place. Skills are things we need in order to solve problems, so it follows that problems are introduced first, in the context of a game, before we start to focus on skill development. Traditionally, coaches and teachers have operated in the opposite way: skills must be learned first before they can be applied in a game. The problem with this method is that learners can often execute skills well in practice, but struggle to appreciate when and where to apply skills in a game situation. So, TGfU coaches start with game appreciation using modified (often simplified) games to set tactical problems. Problems are emphasised using questions such as ‘how can you beat a defender who is close to you?’ before skill learning becomes the focus of the session. As such, a basic structure for a TGfU-based session is:
  1. Game appreciation (present tactical problems with questions);
  2. Skill learning (appropriate to solve the tactical problem);
  3. Game application (modified game, closer to ‘the real thing’) where skills are deployed at the right time and in the right situations.

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