This article is mainly focused at Archery coaches, but I am hoping that coaches from other sports will take some value from it. I have been in coaching for a good number of years now and have seen many changes in the way coaches work. At the moment I feel we are at a cross-roads in how we operate as coaches. The world is becoming a much smaller place, technology puts far more information and tools at the coaches’ disposal but also puts much more temptation to cheat in front of the performer. Western society is becoming more static and in consequence less fit but is richer and sports participants are much more inclined to try and buy success. Governments recognise the importance of sport in managing a rapidly aging population but seem to struggle to make their sports initiatives stick. Many sports are richer, but that money does not seem to find its way down to the grass roots where facilities are constantly under pressure from developers and strained local government budgets. These pressures are combining to increase the pressure on coaches to succeed, often change the definition of success and certainly the way they work and interact with their athletes.
I came to sports coaching late in life, having only discovered my sport, Archery, in my early thirties. Like many people in the sport I competed to a reasonable standard for a number of years and like many keen amateur sportsmen became involved in club life. This mainly revolved around running Beginners courses as an experienced archer. At that point I had no coaching qualifications at all. I followed the system by which I had been taught to shoot without any critical analysis. It seemed to work as by the end of the course my students were hitting the target. I never sought to analyse my coaching performance because I was only barely aware that that was what I was doing. I never wondered whether, if I had been a better coach, they may have finished the course not just hitting the target but hitting the middle of the target.
Looking back, I realise, I did not think like a coach and I was mainly instructing archers on how they could hit the target. I made no attempt to try and teach them the underlying motor skills necessary for archery and generally assumed that they would pick it up instinctively. When they struggled, I found ways to get them onto the target, like teaching them to change their aiming point rather than address the underlying reasons they were missing the target. In short, my limitations as a coach was restricting my archers’ ultimate potential. Poor technique once learnt, in later years, is remarkably difficult to unlearn.
I worked in this way for around ten years. I had no formal training in either the technical aspects of archery or the other elements that make up performance. My coaching consisted of telling people what worked for me and trying to get them to implement it. Sometimes it worked for them and sometimes it did not. When it did not, I walked away and left them to struggle. I had reached the limit of my own coaching performance. At the time I did not realise that was going on and generally blamed the archer for being thick or uncoordinated. It was the archer’s problem and not mine. Psychologists will tell you this is cognitive dissonance in operation but looking back I shudder at the damage I was doing to many archers’ enjoyment of the sport and often their long- term engagement.
Around the turn of the millennium British society began to change and we became far more focused on child protection. Society also became more litigious with victims of abuse and physical injury more likely to sue for compensation. This led me to a growing disquiet about the way I was continuing to teach archery to groups of Beginners. I was getting worried about being sued. I did not think I was doing anything wrong, but I wanted to be sure. Therefore, I decided that I ought to go and find out how to do it properly. In effect, over 10 years after I started coaching. I decided to learn how to coach. Looking back, I still did not think I needed to change my behaviour. I just needed the badge to show I knew what I was doing in case of problems. My experience of coaching at that point was still very instructional in nature and my coaching was based on that model. Simply people did as they were told, or they would not make progress.
I look at coaches across many sports, I listen to them talking to each other and it is clear I was not alone in my perception of coaching. Instructional, coach determined coaching is still the predominant coaching system in place. At the lower end of the coaching ladder this often leads to problems as the coach is operating beyond their technical knowledge. When they get into difficulties there can be a number of reactions. Firstly, they can make it up as they go along and hope nobody will notice. It preserves their ego but does nothing for their performer. Secondly, they blame the performer for the problem. The performer will not be working hard enough, has a poor level of co-ordination, has a poor attitude towards the coach. The list is endless, but the result is always the same. The participant drops out of the sport with a negative view of coaching, that sport and often sport in general.
I signed up for my first coaching course in 2002 which represented the first step on my formal coaching journey. I was not quite sure what to expect but I was sure I would not learn much because it focused on teaching beginners. At the time ArcheryGB had a four stage, coaching ladder and I was taking the first step known as Assistant Coach. Over several weekends, we were drilled into the official teaching beginners process. I learnt how to regiment the first session to make sure it was run safely. Because I had been taught archery by a coach who had gone through this training, unsurprisingly, the teaching beginners process I was using was very similar to the one on the course. I could follow it by rote. That aspect reflected both the need in archery for strong safety procedures and the cultural strength of seeing those strong safety procedures echo down the shooting generations. You will find similar cultures and procedures in all shooting sports. It does make it quite hard to move away from those procedures and the innovative coach is always having to defend themselves on the grounds of maintaining the safety standards.
I was assessed at the end of the course, passed with few problems, got my badge and passed my child protection check. I was now a licensed ArcheryGB coach. I cannot say I had developed much as a coach as I had not really thought at all about how I was coaching. The tutor had briefly touched on learning styles in the training but much of the course was spent in drilling the group to managing the safety on the range and keeping the participants from injuring themselves. I was in effect given a structure for a Beginners course and as long as I could pass the role played, practical assessment at the end of the course I was deemed safe.
Technically I had replaced my own instructional process with a more defined, organisation approved technical process. I had not really changed my coaching behaviour or even thought about my coaching philosophy. I was a cog in the coaching machine. I could produce archers at the end of my Beginners courses but I still believed archers’ individual performance during the course was down to their innate talent rather than impacted by my coaching.
This does reflect across many sports where their initial training is focused on the basics, managing safety and knowing the essential rules. The new coach becomes quite mechanistic in their approach and believes that is the only way to coach. New entrants to a sport experience that type of coaching as the way that sport is taught and carry those expectations up the performance ladder. It is common to have to teach participants who progress up the performance ladder that coaching is not just about being told what to do by a coach with a better technical knowledge base or reputation.
I had though, at the end of my Assistant Coach course, got the learning bug and decided that I wanted to go on and train for the next level. At the time, this was known as club coach. The training was meant to pick up from the beginners training and teach the knowledge required for an individual coach to operate successfully as a coach in a typical club environment. In Archery there are three main bow styles, recurve, compound and longbow. There are many similarities between them but there are sufficient differences to require separate training modules to prepare the coach for the technical aspect of training archers in each of the bow styles. We also started to look at how to coach and some very basic sports science.
At that time much of the coaching in clubs revolved around a process of observation and analysis of the archer, telling the archer what they were doing wrong and then telling them how to put it right. The course reflected this activity and a large part of the final assessment would be based on how well you could analyse what an archer was doing and your coaching solutions. I found this section particularly difficult because I found it hard to know what I was looking for or how to see things happening. My main experience of shooting to that date was my own performance. Once I looked at the target, I could not see what was going on anywhere else with my body. As such I was trying to take my proprioception of my shot and transfer that understanding into a visual interpretation of another archer’s shot.
Looking back, I think we were all struggling with this element. I now know that experience improves your ability to interpret what you see when an archer draws a bow. You develop your own schema within which you can interpret the important elements of what is going on with their draw sequence, but this takes time to form. On the course I just got frustrated with my own inadequacies and nearly gave up. It gave the coach educators, who had that experience the sub conscious opportunity to boost their own ego by telling us what the archer was doing wrong but only the very best coach educators were good at explaining not just what they were seeing but how they saw it.
National coaching foundation videos formed a small element of the course and I found these interesting. They were very dated but were an early introduction to the concepts of Speed, Strength, Skill and Stamina. They also taught me how to look at sports as either open ended or closed looped sports. Archery is a clear example of a closed loop, chained sport where the required sports sequence has a clear start point and a clear end point. This is much the same as taking a penalty kick in football. The actions to take the participant from the start to the finish of the process occur in a precise order, each completed step leads into the next step until the action is complete. Open-ended sports have a much greater fluidity about them, where actions taken can be dependant upon the progression and phase of the play. Individual decision making and pattern recognition are far more important in coaching these type of sports.
Closed loop sports would appear to be easier to coach as the coach just needs to understand the chain of actions, compare the participants chain against the ideal sequence and then fix the deviations. In practice this does not always work as parts of a participant’s chain is determined by their specific physiology. The athlete may not be physically able to achieve the ideal sequence. Sometimes the ideal chain evolves or fragments. The technical model of the perfect draw in archery has evolved over the years, not always for much benefit. Often different coaches have different ways of doing things and if they achieve medal success with their archer then other coaches will follow their technical model. It is highly likely these other coaches will not get the same results and then the technical model will move on again.
Archery has a specific challenge whereby to achieve the perfect shot the string on the bow would have to pass down the middle of the archer’s bow arm. This would represent a perfect alignment of the forces generated by pulling the bow back, with the target but is clearly physically impossible. The archer has to adapt their shooting technique to deal with this situation and that need to compromise has led to a number of different ways to open a bow. Each of those ways have advantages and disadvantages but in selecting the desired approach to opening the bow the archer is choosing to influence their overall technical chain. The coach then needs to be able to understand why the archer has chosen that chain, work with the archer in refining that chain or try and convince the archer to change their chain to a different technical model.
The majority of lower level coaches are likely to opt to try and change the archer’s approach to fit their current ideal model of shooting technique. ArcheryGB effectively encourages this by publishing a technical model that they want all coaches to adopt. The participant who is told to change their technique may not find it easy or achieve better results. There are several reasons why this may happen which I will come to later but the net result for the archer is they put in a lot of work, make no progress and then give up on either the coach or the sport. Coaches often defend that decision by claiming that one approach over another will lead to injuries. Shoulder injuries in archery are common but generally they are caused by the archer pulling a bow with a higher draw weight than their body can handle rather than purely by poor technique.
None of this was really reflected in my continued training. My level 3 (County Course) was much the same as my level 2. To pass the final assignment the need to acquire technical detail was much higher. The aspiring level 3 coach was required to produce a portfolio of work with archers of a higher shooting standard. However, the view of archery as a physical, closed, chain looped system predominated. The coach was still portrayed as the expert and the archer the subject of the coaches’ ministrations. Coach educators talked about participative coaching, but the majority of practicing coaches were very instructional in practice.
I moved on to level 4 training (senior) which was the highest level of coach available in ArcheryGB and for the first time started to critically evaluate the coaching I was doing. By the time I started my level 4 training I had been working with some high-level archers and was beginning to find that some things did not work on a universal basis. There were certain elements of the shot sequence, like being in alignment, that were clearly more important than other elements of the chain, yet we were still putting the same emphasis on each of the elements of the chain. On qualifying as a level 4 coach I quickly moved on to become a tutor on the course and I often used to remark that senior coaches generally concentrated on posture and alignment whilst level 3 coaches used to fiddle around with the bow hand.
I am saying that what I meant was that senior coaches understood that certain elements of the shot sequence were core to the archer’s performance and needed to be effective for the archer to succeed. However, moving the archer from their existing technique to a “better” technique in those core areas was hard work and needed complete buy in from the archer. County coaches on the other hand were still looking for instant results and tried to fix low risk areas that potentially were not going to have a big impact on the archer’s progression.
I think it is quite clear that the higher up the technical ladder of coaching a coach progresses in any sport the more they understand what they do not know. At the bottom end of the coaching ladder this unconscious ignorance can be quite helpful. As long as the aspiring coach is given a framework for their learning that is not too rigid, and they limit their work to the appropriate level of performer they have the best opportunity to develop their skills and experience. Only if they try and work with a higher- level performer, whose needs fall outside their knowledge and experience do problems occur. It is what they do not know, they don’t know, that causes the damage or the failure of their coaching programmes. I see good examples of this in archery where the L1 coach, who has not been taught anything about the relationship between the strength of the archer and their ability to execute their technique making coaching decisions such as increasing the draw weight on the bow that subsequently destroys that archer’s shooting technique.
As they approach more senior levels coaches should understand that coaching a sport becomes a complex matter where the interplay between the technical requirements of the sport, the physical requirements of the sport, the individual physiology of the body in front of them, the mental resilience required and a whole host of sports specific issues that determine performance are key. The current coaching theory of “Team Me” where elite sports performers engage specific help in different key areas for their performance from several experts totally reflects this situation. One of the hardest things for coaches to learn through their coaching journey is when to let go, seek help or pass their performer on to another coach. In fact, this can be quite a liberating thing to learn. I do not particularly like setting up archers’ bows for their specific shooting style, tuning the bow as it is known in the sport. I can do it to a high standard, but it takes a long time, I find it boring, and in my mind, it contributes limited added value to the archer’s results. I would much prefer to delegate this task to another person who is as good or better at setting up a bow than I. This frees my time to work in areas that hold my interest and my specific expertise.
Certainly, as I moved into high level coaching I learnt not just about how much I did not know about coaching archery I realised I was going to have to start to specialise in certain areas to get anywhere close to the level of knowledge required to coach an elite archer. Modern sports science has taught us a lot about how the body works and how to get the best out of it but as that body of knowledge expands it is physically impossible to keep up with it all. It is better to accept the areas where one is not an expert and seek expert help rather than try and muddle through.
After I had been practicing as a level 4 coach for a while, I had the opportunity to go and study coaching archery with World Archery. There were a number of high-level coaches on the course, from all around the world and it widened my perception of coaching again. Clearly coaches from other countries work in different languages and have different ways of teaching. Some coaching behaviours that are permitted in some cultures would not be in others. The first time I saw a coach from a Latin tradition put his hand above a ladies’ breasts to push her chest down my jaw dropped because this was not coaching behaviour you would see in the United Kingdom. I would have to use a different process to achieve the same result, but I would probably take longer about it. What I had not anticipated was the difference in coaching driven by other cultures different perceptions of how the sport is experienced.
Teaching archery in the United Kingdom and I suspect to an extent in other English-speaking nations is about the visual aspects of technique. The coach and the archer see what the archer is doing. Feedback is in terms of external cues and conversations. For example, a coach would say to an archer at the end of his draw,
“Your drawing elbow is too high. Let me show you where it should be.”
This scientific way of coaching was the school I was brought up in and is a natural as walking. However, it is single dimensional in approach and tends to make the archer coach reliant. The archer needs the coach to give them feedback as they cannot see for themselves where their drawing elbow is without losing their connection to the target. Whilst coaching, the coach focuses on using mirrors or video feedback to correct the archer. The archer often takes a long time to become self-reliant and can find it difficult to practice some technical issues without the coach present.
I found Europeans approached archery coaching very differently. Their focus was very much on the proprioception of the shot or how the shot felt internally. Going back to the previous example the coach would be far more likely to ask the archer where they could feel their drawing elbow was in relation to their drawing hand. That question forces the archer to focus in upon themselves and develop much better proprioceptive awareness. Once they know what good feels like it is then much easier for them to practice on their own as they can feel when the shot is right. It also makes it easier for them to correct their technique under the pressure of competition.
At the elite end the British archers will also talk about the feel of a shot. Eventually they will get to the point where they have also developed good proprioceptive awareness, but it will likely have taken them a while to get there. The big difference is that good mid-level European archers will have already developed this proprioception because it has been coached into them.
I do not think that one approach is better than the other but simply different. I have tried to adapt my own coaching to take into account both schools of thought. Initially I thought that coaching the feel of the shot at an earlier stage would be easy but of course I had ignored the cultural aspects of learning and my students in the UK had expectations of a traditional visual approach. It took much longer than anticipated to move these students onto a broader learning base. I had to invest time in teaching them how to learn as much as teaching them what to learn.
At the time of writing (2019) Sport England was also in the process of trying to change the coaching climate in England. Several research studies across the country have concluded that their experience of coaching is turning many people off sport. The traditional view of the coach on the side lines barking out orders was putting many people off sport as a leisure past time. Elite performers and to an extent, aspiring elite performers are prepared to tolerate an aggressive environment because they see that as part of the path to getting better. However, athletes who just want to keep fit or get out and meet people find the traditional coach at best irritating and at worse hostile. There is also evidence that women in sport want to be coached differently than men. They particularly find the traditional methods of coaching uncomfortable. They prefer a more inclusive way of being coached with more input into how their sessions are designed and more input into their own coaching performance.
This appears to be more pronounced these days with a different social structure gradually evolving. Children who have experienced a modern upbringing and a modern education system are less responsive to a traditional form of coaching. They are far more sensitive in nature and far less resilient. Their educational background though is likely to make them more questioning and less accepting of a tells form of coaching. Coaches are having to adapt, or face being accused of bullying.
ArcheryGB has been partnering with Birmingham University to come up with a new way of training coaches how to coach which they hope will be embedded in their coaching structure. Coaches are being encouraged to create inclusive coaching sessions where participants feel valued, have choice over how they progress and have the opportunity to develop their technical competence in their chosen discipline. Evidence suggests that coaching in this way helps retention of participants in the sport and they report greater satisfaction with the coaching they receive.
Implementing this philosophy in practice has again been challenging. Time poor learners are often just looking for some quick pointers to get better and finding a coach who starts trying to involve them in their own development programme can be quite daunting. It has become clear to me that to really get this new culture embedded I needed to spend as much time teaching the archer about what constitutes a good shot as I do in giving them exercises to improve their own skill. Once they understand the theory of shooting perfection, they are much better placed to contribute to their development plan, more likely to commit to it and generally make better progress. However, from a coaching perspective it is much harder work.
I have found I have had to change my way of working. Instead of looking at an archer and telling them what they are doing wrong I am having to ask the archer focused questions. If an archer asks for help and I spend some time watching them shoot, then instead of giving them a detailed breakdown of what they are doing well and not so well, I show them some video and get them to tell me what they think they are doing. I then ask a series of open and closed questions to lead them to look at the areas I feel they need to be aware of or that will help them improve. That is time consuming but at the end of it the archer understands what is going on and why it is happening. They are then able to make an informed choice about what they want to work on. The coaching becomes archer led rather than coach led.
In summary, I have found learning to coach to be a continuous journey. I am now a different coach to the one I was ten years ago or twenty years ago. In ten years, I will be a different coach again. Only the archers that I coach can really tell if I am a better coach, but I do feel I have more experience to call upon in coaching situations. At the end of the day I believe the coach that has stopped learning and reflecting on what they have done is a coach who needs to retire. The coach who keeps learning is the coach with the exciting journey in front of them but a journey that never reaches a destination.