Archive for February, 2012

Coach Like a Marine

The United States armed forces do a tremendous job teaching men and women a variety of performance and life skills. I had the opportunity to sit down with university Marine ROTC commanders and cadets to discuss the development of high performance programming. The meeting struck me with a tremendous lesson in leadership for sports coaches.

You may have seen many tough as nails, drill sargents glamorized in the movies… have all kinds of wild images about hell week at Quantico dancing in your head… but do you have a good sense of coaching done Marine-style? I sat at a conference table with two commanders and three cadets. There was definitely a rank and order to the room, but strength and leadership emanated from all corners. The commanders had some ideas, checked to see if their ideas meet the cadet realities, asked the cadets for their ideas, made decisions together, and made it clear that the cadets will lead battalion actions and performance.

Marines are tough and are built to battle. They are not abusive in their coaching style, but rather collaborative and empowering. There’s nothing soft about a leader that recruits strength and leadership from within the team… one can argue it’s the coaching style that creates the bravest competitors to walk the planet.

Time helps…Quality required when it comes to practice

by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson has been the leading researcher on practice and mastery of skills in all domains of performance. Many people have heard his theory that it takes 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at anything. It’s clear that time is a critical factor in skill development; however, time is only one aspect of the theory. What defines practice as “deliberate” is possibly even more important than the time aspect, since the 10 year / 10,000 hour clock doesn’t really start ticking without it! There seem to be three important factors that dictate the quality of one’s practice time that coaches and athletes should strive to work toward. These factors might seem obvious, but there are not many athletes who train this way 100% of the time to maximize time and energy during practice sessions.

1)      Practice a task that is challenging. If the task is too easy to achieve, very little learning occurs because success is nearly automatic and eventually boredom sets in. If the task is too difficult to achieve, very little learning occurs because the individual is struggling so much that frustration typically leads to lack of effort. The designers of video games are masters at creating this first element of quality practice. They understand that if a game is too easy and the levels do not progress beyond one’s current ability, the player will get bored and quit playing the game. They also know that if they start a player at the hardest level right at the beginning without allowing them to slowly build skills and stretch their ability, the player will become extremely frustrated and quit because the challenge is too hard. In order to achieve element #1 of quality practice, practice drills and experiences should be challenging, without becoming overwhelming.

2)      Have an objective for every repetition. In golf, many players go out with a bucket of balls to the driving range and “just hit” or bring some balls to the putting green and “roll some putts”. While at the range, each ball should be directed at doing something specific (i.e., trying to hit a high draw at a target or working to feel the sensation in a specific part of your body while learning a new swing technique). While on the putting green setting up a specific drill or task to achieve will improve the quality of practice. While working on technique, training aids can assist the quality of practice, as long as the training aid is used with a specific purpose. This ensures that there is total attention and engagement in the activity. Since the mind runs the body, this is a critical element of learning and trains the body to feel the motion, rather than just making strokes with no real plan or purpose. This message clearly transfers to any sport or skill.

3)      Look for feedback from every repetition. Just to keep the golf example rolling – every shot hit at practice tells a story. If this information is ignored because of lack of attention, an emotional reaction, or any other distraction the learning curve is not advancing as quickly as it would from total engagement in the activity. Feedback allows for the recognition of patterns, immediate error correction from poorly executed shots, and positive reinforcement from well executed ones – all critical factors for effective learning and mastery of skills.

If an athlete follows these three principles of quality practice during sessions the individual is doing everything possible to reach their potential. Add 10 years and 10,000 hours to the equation and expert performance is likely to follow!

No Sails on a Crew Shell

Yesterday I spoke at the What Works Summit at the Institute for Rowing Leadership at Community Rowing Inc.  I shared ideas on creating a culture and language that is build for success in competition.  As things concluded I was asked how I felt about coaches using the quote, “Do or do not… there is no try.”  Did a coach preaching and speaking this idea help rowers?

I had to take a moment before answering.  I have enormous respect for coaches and strive to see the benefit in even the most questionable tactics.  Yet, all do respect to Yoda, the quote above seems like a lot of hot air coming from a coach.

Not so bad I suppose if you boat has sails and could use an extra gust of wind, but not so helpful if you’re looking to motivate or focus athletes.  Perhaps the coach sounds cool and sounds coach-like, but it really requires a bit more thought.  As far as I can figure, at best it it allows athletes to know that there is a Star Wars fan in their midst.  At worst, it confuses an athlete and minimizes the value of a genuine effort.

Cool quotes are too often hot air.  If your team’s not sailing… question the wisdom of all the bluster.


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