Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Waiting for game day

One of the most profound emotions I've felt this season has been impatience. Not with athletes or coaching staff or administration. They have all been exceptional - as usual. It's odd, since as a coach I've always felt like slowing things down was the best option since we usually want MORE time to work on strategies and tactics before the actual performance demands of a game.

No, this season has been different for many reasons. Not the least of which is because we're so darn excited to play! At times I think that it would be nice to slow things down and to savour the moments I treasure with players - a chat on the bus, the brillance of seeing a player be successful in the application of a new skill, the last pass before the try, the redshirts working their tails off so they can be on the field next year, an in-depth conversation about strategy with one of my coaching colleagues - and then I think of how far away game day is and just want to hit the fast forward button.

And,'s only Wednesday....

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Learning Goals and Exit Cards

Learning goals seem to be the fastest growing classroom tool in our school board these days. I’ve used them at the beginning and end of PowerPoint presentations – particularly when the language is new and the concepts are dense – and I’ve tinkered with developing them along with students before completing a new reading or discussing a new concept. Students have also posed questions as learning goals on several occasions and that has worked quite successfully. However, I still thought that I wasn’t always hitting the mark when it came to using learning goals as effectively as I could with students.

The other day I was chatting on the phone at my colleague’s desk and I saw a chart that not only outlined learning goals but also allowed students to organize their thoughts correlated to each goal. It also created a ranking system for the students to circle what they believed was their level of understanding of the learning goal by the end of class. Conveniently, this formed a built-in exit card that required almost no extra work to set up.

Added to this, I had recently discovered a brief PowerPoint presentation online that outlined the changes in the Chinese sport policy since the Second World War. Since we are in the middle of a unit looking at the Olympics and international sport, there was a link here that could also support how we understand the changes in the Canadian sport system that have occurred through programs like Own the Podium and Quest for Gold and thereby lead to a focus on high performance and elite sport. The challenge was to make the information on the seemingly distant Chinese sport system accessible to Canadian students and to create some take away points for these students so the whole lesson was actually related to what we’ve been discussing. 

Fast forward to seeing the learning goals chart and then taking a stab at making my own chart, complete with the information I wanted them to be able to leave with by the end of class. I found the five key points that I felt were most important and created the goals around these points. These became the first column, then the second column was space for students to write supporting points on each of the key points and then a third column was added for a self-evaluation on a five point scale (1 for lowest and 5 for highest) of learning at the end of class.

It was a little awkward working from two documents – the slides from the PowerPoint and the learning goals chart – and overall I think we got a good result for this first time use. I continually asked questions about the information as we went through it like, “What learning goal could this fall under?” or “Does this meet any of our learning goal criteria?” which was a little more structured than I would have liked…however, I felt it necessary to help create the link between what we were learning and what the outcome goals were.

Finally, students were able to evaluate themselves on the “scale” of their learning – a sort of metacognitive measurement – in the last column of the learning goals chart. In a totally unplanned moment, I collected the learning goals sheets at the end of class and leafed through them afterwards. Almost all students had completed the sheet and had evaluated metacognitive portion on the strength of their understanding at the end of class. Voila, exit card! And, I was able to quickly see that the majority of students had comfortably grasped four of the five learning goals.

I handed back the learning goals sheets at the beginning of the next day, addressed the fuzzy fifth goal that most of the class rated as less understood and then went on to step into the next lesson. I definitely plan on using a learning goals chart again in the future as they helped me make some tough concepts seem simple in the class and made the learning more clear for the students.

One final thought is that this type of learning is exactly what I do when I’m coaching, although not with pen and paper. We start an activity, we define the goals that we need to achieve in order to be successful and then we evaluate ourselves on these goals through key points or indicators when we play during practice and in games. What I can’t figure out is why it took me so long to apply them in the classroom rather than just on the rugby pitch!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When game sense coaching doesn't make as much sense...

With the crazy change in the weather this week we've seen everything from snow, sleet, rain and some just generally miserable weather. Although I believe that coaching with a game sense approach is by far the best way to coach, I think I have found when it doesn't work as well, too.

We had to cancel a high school game yesterday since it snowed in the morning and the weather was at about 4 degrees Celsius for most of the day. The concern was that the athletes would be freezing after doing a full warm-up and then playing the game and that the field would be torn up if we played three rugby games on it in the day. Instead, we decided to do a short, one hour practice that would get the athletes out of the elements in only an hour and would be a high intensity and fast paced practice in order to stay warm.

Brilliantly, not a lot of the athletes dressed for the weather. One would assume, I think, that since the games were not postponed until after student arrived at school that morning that all the athletes would have brought their warm rugby clothing with them. However, that seemed not to be the case! We still have some work to do on that front.

In any case, I don't get a lot of opportunity to coach the guys at the school so we just held a practice for the boys teams. Many of the guys have had only moderate opportunity to actually play and therefore have fairly limited understanding of the game due to rugby being a late entry sport. We often think that telling athletes what to do is a better way for the athletes to learn the game and so far this approach was frustrating for a number of the athletes. However, we need to trust that the players will learn as they play (experiential learning) and that we as coaches must help them recall and highlight what they have learned.

Given the weather, we had to keep the practice moving at all times. I also wanted players to leave with a few key lessons from the time they spent on the field. The two strategies I used were to keep the game moving in the down times (ball out of bounds, knock on) by counting down and to keep the team questioning conversations to VERY brief time intervals (we really talked for 30-90 seconds before going back to the game). To keep the game moving, I had to be quite verbally involved in the practice so by counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then saying 'go' the athletes weren't over-thinking what they needed to do, they were just doing it. They were also keeping (marginally) warmer!

When we wanted to make a point, we called the athletes together for a very brief questioning period where we highlighted a few skills throughout the practice. We looked at working together in support distance for offloads, working on when and how to kick strategically and how to maul effectively. All this in a 45 minute practice! That being said, I think that the learning would have been even more effective if we had had more time to question and demonstrate the parts of the whole that the players were missing.

In the whole-part-whole sense of games sense coaching, we were really only able to cover the 'whole' and really scratched the surface when it came to the 'part.' I would have preferred to have more time to repeat some of the learning in part before going back to the whole as the learning would have been more clear and solidified for the athletes.

All in all, practice was well done by all athletes even though they were fighting the distraction of the weather through the entire time. I hope that we'll be able to get some more time in better weather soon!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First practice of the season: 2011 vs 2012

One of my teaching and coaching colleagues made a sharp observation after our first practice with the high school team this spring. He said, "Wow, we're way further ahead from this first practice compared to last year's first practice."

That comment really stuck with me and I've been mulling it over for the last two weeks. Why was the first practice of the season so dramatically different between two years when I planned the practice in almost the exact same way?

Given my preference for games sense coaching, both of the practices were based on games sense. We did a warm up and then started immediately into games. The first game was the aptly named Endball - this is a game that is easily modified and uses the basic premise of getting the ball from one end to the other in a regular invasion-territory type of game. Players may use any type of pass in any direction and the ball changes possession when it is intercepted (or whenever you determine a change - for instance, on a dropped ball or in a tie up/jump ball situation where hands from both teams are on the ball).

My goal for the session, set in conjunction with the players, was to have them - loosely - playing rugby by the end of our hour in the gym. I believe we accomplished this goal as players were correctly lining up in defence and moving when the ball was moved to adhere to the offside laws - something we were able to underscore through questioning with the players - and in attack we were trying to gain depth from which to attack and all players got the hang of going forward with the ball in hand.

However, it did look better than the year prior. We have a large number of new players this year and I don't think that the returning players simply remembered the practice from 12 months before and just repeated what they had learned. Instead, over time I've gotten better at setting the conditions of the game in the game sense area of coaching. What I mean by this is, I didn't just roll out the ball and tell them to play rugby with a few rules thrown in haphazardly. Through the last few years, particularly the past year, I've been able to watch many other coaches use game sense coaching to help teach the athletes a better understanding of the game through creating the conditions that allow for both success and struggle in a new concept.

With the high school kids, the concept of moving forward as they catch the ball is challenging, as is trying to carry the ball and then to attack the defence. To try to encourage harder running and attacking, these were the conditions I set as I watched the game unfold. First, the players had to be calling for the ball and they could only do so if they were moving forward first. In other words, they were realizing that they were moving forward. And, even better, they were communicating that this was happening to the person passing them the ball. This started to improve several areas of the attack.

Then, the players were moving forward but then going directly into contact. So, the aim of the ball carrier become to move the defender that was in front of them. We split into two groups briefly and reviewed how to run 2on1s with a linear support attacker (ie, the non-ball carrying player or support player runs deeper than the ball carrier and directly behind them; when the ball carrier takes a hard step to the right or left the defender comes with them, and then the support player runs at the space that the defender just left. Finally, the ball carrier makes a short pass to the support player into the space the defender has just vacated. Sounds simple, and it is a difficult concept to grasp). Once we split into the two on ones and then talked about what worked and did not work, we put the same game back into play. The condition for the attackers now was that they needed to run with a buddy - their buddy would be supporting from directly behind the ball carrier AND both players needed to be moving forward when they received the pass.

The game continued and got a lot better! Since the players were moving forward and then trying to make the defender move, the support players got the ball more often and in a bit more space.

One other aspect that we added in the next practice was to slow the defenders down since they were doing an excellent job (a little too excellent actually) of moving forward to take away the attacking players space. Every time the ball when to into contact, the defenders had to hit hands and knees on the turf and then they could stand back up to realign - this took a bit longer and gave the attackers a tiny bit more time to see what was happening and to organize running with their buddies.

So, the conditions for success were added and the players responded very well. As a coach, I learned that observing what was happening and adjusting (quickly) accordingly is the key to success. We could continually identify what the end result was that we wanted by questioning the athletes. And then we developed the changes to how we played the game based on these answers and it worked out to be a huge difference from 2011 to 2012.

We'll see how the season starts and how the players apply the lessons we've learned...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rugby on PEI

This past weekend I had the pleasure of travelling to PEI to help facilitate a women’s only coaching course. This was made possible through a “We are Coaching” grant from the Coaching Association of Canada and provided the funding for the entire event.

We ended up with 6 course participants and had a very active and engaging session to start the day. All participants were able to coach a skill with a focus towards three goals for their session. They needed to make sure the “athletes” were having fun, to use games to coach and they needed to use a whole-part-whole approach. This group didn’t take themselves too seriously and by the end of the session, all participants had definitely had some fun. Also, all coaches ended their session with a game and spent some time in the “part” aspect of instruction.

Similar to other courses, there was some struggle with starting the coaching of a skill or practice with a game. All coaches finished their segment of practice with a game and had fun with their skills – the games are always fun! In reflecting on this, I believe there are several reasons why starting with a game was difficult for these newer coaches.

For one, most players have been coached through the system of warm-up, work on skills through drills, split to units, do semi-opposed work and then possibly finish with a scrimmage at the end. We tend to coach as we have been coached rather than by investigating more effective ways to coach skills to our athletes. It makes sense that what worked for us will work for others…and when people get more inquisitive it always helps to look elsewhere for improvements. That’s where the NCCP courses are very helpful!

Secondly, we tend to get caught up in the technical aspects of a skill. And, to further complicate this, many inexperienced coaches feel like they HAVE to focus on doing things perfectly rather than applying them to the actual game situation. What we tend to forget is that most of the time skills break down under pressure anyway…we may as well practice the skills under pressure right from the beginning. The coach can then focus solely on the key performance indicators that are MOST applicable to the situation at hand…and not feel like they have to cover every possible key point in only one practice. Also, a game allows the coach to see what key points the players intrinsically understand and therefore will not need to spend time on in practice.

Finally, those coaches who are thorough practice planners have a hard time letting things go into an “unstructured” environment. It is very difficult (without practice) to create the conditions in a game to ensure the outcome that the coach wants. For instance, you need to start with the outcome of the game that uses the skill you want to coach. Or, if you really trust yourself, you can start with any game and then simply watch for the details that need to be fixed or noted in practice. However, it takes time to make this happen and there needs to be two types of trust to do this – you as the coach need to be able to trust yourself and your knowledge and the players need to be able to trust you to help them identify the most important aspects to improvement on any given day or within a weekly preparation cycle or even within a larger macrocycle in a yearly training plan.

My thoughts here are thinking about what you want to be able to achieve by the end of practice. As a coach, we need to create these conditions in the first game activity that allow the attack or defence to be successful in their challenge – we can manipulate the attack or defence by requiring certain standards or rules to be met. Creativity always seems to reign supreme here! The more practice I have in creating these conditions, the better I’m getting in my own coaching practice. Watching others grow in the course this weekend was refreshing and enjoyable!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Autonomy in the Classroom

So far, most of the posts I've published here have focussed on coaching. In this, I'm going to focus in on my "real" job - teaching. I say "real" as in the one that actually pays the bills. Luckily, over a number of years at the same school, I've been able to develop a few courses that are enjoyable and challenging to teach.

This year, in my Sport & Society IDC (interdisciplinary studies) course, I tried to follow Daniel Pink's idea of autonomy in the classroom. At the beginning of the year, I asked the students to plan their class for the semester which they did and quite successfully, too. It's been a bit crazy keeping up with the teaching of a course that I didn't actually plan, but I felt comfortable enough to try it since there is quite a bit of relevant material on my computer...and Google has been rather helpful as well.

Yesterday, on a bit of a whim, I dug out E.B. White's essay entitled "The Decline of Sport." We are currently looking at a unit that the class developed called Sport (R)evolution. White, mostly famously known for penning Charlotte's Web, wrote this satirical essay in the 1950s and speculated that the constant bombardment of sport would eventually be its undoing. Given the prevalence of mass and social media, many of his prophesies have come true. Ironically, I think this blog my be contributing to much of that same "hype" of sport that we see...then again, commercial gain is not the primary goal here and I'd like to think that blogging is not inundating and is more or less a positive pastime.

In any case, from an pedagogical perspective, I am trying to apply the lessons from Daniel Pink's writing and his predictions for what student's will need when they leave school to survive in the fast-paced, technologically driven world.

Hopefully, creating the opportunity for students to ask questions, to think outside the box and to construct meaning from the connections hey make in the world around them will be meaningful both now and in their future!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Choosing books for a coach

There are two stories here that mesh very well on coaching, teaching and learning. My wonderful stepson, Will, just finished up his first season playing basketball at high school. His coach was a young and engagingly friendly young man who went out of his way to praise Will and his teammates for their efforts through the season. We wanted to be able to give him a gift to recognize his time and effort with all the boys and particularly with Will. We suggested that Will choose from several of the leadership/coaching books that I have kicking around the house. Lest we were to be choosing forever, he suggested that I pick three books and then have Will pick one from the three I chose.

It's often been said that I enjoy reading and I've undergone a complete transformation in what I read over the past five or six years. Whereas I used to exclusively read non-fiction I have now done a complete 180 and gone almost entirely with fiction books. Several of these books can be seen to the right --> on my Shelfari bookshelf which is a neat little widget you can add to a blog. I usually have two or three of these books sitting on my bedside table, waiting (somewhat patiently) to be read. I had a very hard time narrowing the choices to only three! In the end, I wanted to make sure that the books wouldn't be chosen by their cover - they needed to look somewhat similar so that one book wouldn't win because it had an entirely different jacket design than another. That meant that Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind was out since it's cover is bright orange and differs significantly from the books below. It also had to be accessible in Canada (sorry, which meant that Character in Coaching: Building Virtue in Athletic Programs was also out. Both of these are books which I would not hesitate to recommend to both teachers and coaches and teacher-coaches, specifically in the later instance.

The three I chose for Will to choose from were mainly recent reads and the content of each book is something that I think about quite often in relation to both teaching and coaching. I've had several conversations with coaching and teaching colleagues on all of the books below related to teaching and coaching. The content provides incredible food for thought and definitely cuts into my REM sleep since putting these books down is a tough task. Below are the three books I chose:

One, Drive by Daniel Pink. By the way, Daniel Pink also has an amazing blog on all things from his books and more - it's a very interesting read and worth checking out whether you have read his books or not. Drive talks about how we should be motivated by autonomy in both business and education. In my understanding, if something relates to education then it likely relates to sport. I've found that when I have given both students and athletes autonomy in choosing what they learn and how they learn it (within, of course, the confines of the Ministry of Education or the sport season) their learning becomes almost exponential. This takes equal parts knowledge, trust, work and dedication to the task at hand. Of course, Drive talks about other types of motivation and many other parts of 21st Century learning, however, this is the one area which I feel is most applicable to coaching and teaching.

Two, The Talent Code by Dan Coyle. Coyle also has a blog filled with riveting and intellectually stimulating information. His book talks mainly about how purposeful, deep and focussed practice creates an expert. This is, of course, understating the scope of Coyle's writing, however, I believe it to be the crux of the novel. An expert, in Coyle's book, can be a teacher, performer, coach, athlete or musician. In my mind, I believe all of these professions have impacts on people that society mainly hopes are positive. Becoming an expert here can only benefit the small slice of humanity with whom each person comes in contact.

Three, Mindset by Carol Dweck. Dweck has a website called Brainology that is extremely helpful to coaches and educators. In a future blog I will speak about some of the ideas she mentioned in her book and how I used them in my classroom to promote self-belief and student achievement. In this book, Dweck talks about the two mindsets, "growth" and "fixed". The premise is that choosing the growth mindset allows a person to continue to grow though failure, risk-taking and a genuine love of learning while the fixed mindset sees learning as a chore and that one who does not need to work is successful and one who needs to work or to take risks is unsuccessful (ie, people in a fixed mindset are naturally talented). The book allows the reader to glean insight into the growth mindset through numerous studies and could even change minds about the mindset that is chosen early in life.

I'm curious which book you would have chosen...which book would you have picked and why? I'll share the final choice in my next post.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Old coaches

We had an excellent morning practice on Thursday with the Queen's Women. Even more, I was thrilled that two of our former players Jocelyn Poirier and Kait Pasic, were able to join us. As grads, it can be hard to come back and coach the players who were teammates the year prior, but these two women didn't have any issues as their teammates were happy to have them back, albeit in a different role.

One of my personal beliefs is that it is important for me to impress upon the players I coach that getting involved in the game as a referee or coach is just as significant as playing the game. Both Joce and Kait took this to heart and completed their NCCP Introduction to Competition training back in 2010 and were certified within the year. They have both stepped up and coached with the mini-rugby program in Kingston with the Panthers club and have also coached high school rugby. The best part of it all? Getting to watch them coach my daughter, Hannah. To watch these two tremendous women coach my daughter was to see why I coach in the first place - loving the people and loving the game.

Back to Thursday's practice - basically, the practice was entirely game sense focussed. We played, we changed conditions, we played, we asked questions and then we played again. It was great to chat about why and how we were doing the things we were doing with all three coaches and to have them contribute what we were all seeing.

Moral of the story? Coaching doesn't end when your players graduate...sometimes it's just the beginning :).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Coaches new to the games sense approach...amazing!

Wow! I have the privilege of being able to teach and evaluate coaching courses with many other amazing Rugby Ontario learning facilitators. Tonight, I was able to do one of my favourite things in coaching and attended a practice with coaches who were finalizing their NCCP coaching certifications by actively coaching a session and by being evaluated.

Firstly, it was a super experience since all three of the coaches were in a course that I co-facilitated last year. Secondly, they all did an incredible amount of learning in the games sense approach between the course and the evaluation. Finally, and most importantly, they totally bought in to a new and sometimes uncomfortable method of coaching due to it's unfamiliarity for most coaches.

The three coaches all had significantly different experiences in rugby going from one year of experiences right through to 30 plus years. They all had been coached by coaches who coached the typical way...warm-up, do some drills, finish with unopposed or semi opposed play. The typical "lots of talk by the coaches and not much work by the players" type of practice....that just isn't athlete-centred, fun or result-producing.... So, they turned the practice upside down, started with a game, asked questions of the players to set the goals of the practice and skill, broke the skill down to key points and mini practice, and then put it all back into a high intensity and extremely fun game. And, believe me, the players had fun - they were also looking forward to leaving for an overseas tour in just about a week's time. Intensity was solid and high quality work by all athletes occurred for 90-95% of the practice.

What solidified this whole experience was hearing a 30 year veteran of the game say (and I'm paraphrasing here), "This approach works. Why wouldn't I use it all the time?" And, "it's what we do in soccer...when I came back to playing rugby I went back to how I was coached long ago...this games sense approach is what we should always be doing!"

Makes my heart happy to hear this stuff. What a fabulous day in coaching!