Monday, January 27, 2014

Bill's MVC Award

When I'm jogging I like to listen podcasts on my iPod. I don't listen to music very often, usually it's one of four podcasts ("The Vinyl Cafe" w/Stuart McLean, "Under the Influence" w/Terry O'Reilly, "Mike & Mike in the Morning" [ESPN] w/Mike's Greenberg & Golic and "Prime Time Sports" w/Bob McCown).  The first two are weekly podcasts while the latter two are weekday podcasts. Of the weekdays my favourite is "Prime Time Sports" w/Bob McCown and his panelists, as it's sports from a Canadian perspective. "The Bobcat" as he is affectionately known has the on air personality not unlike that of Donald S. Cherry of "Hockey Night in Canada" fame (enough said I suspect in describing Mr. McCown).

The lead topic for his most recent podcast, with his regular "Friday Round Table" contributors, was "female coaches" and the possibility at some point that a female might coach a professional men's team. Needless to say, the panel pretty much sided with the "highly unlikely" viewpoint, not that a woman would not be capable from a variety of perspectives but that the "glass ceiling" would be very difficult to break if not as close to impossible as it might get.

It was pointed out that females have played key roles with high profile professional men's teams, most notably in the National Hockey League where a female teaches "power skating" and does so so effectively that the panel agreed that there were many, many NHL players who owe at least part of their professional careers to this woman. But, as a head coach, hmmm, not very likely and the reasons, valid or not, are many.

Canadian's National Women's hockey team has had many male coaches but although Canada has never had a female coach its national men's team, I wonder what the likelihood might be for that to occur at some point. What say you?

In the sport of curling, in Canada, there have been female coaches at the Brier but not at the helm of a men's Team Canada to date. I'm not going very far onto a limb if I were to say that very few Canadians would take much notice if that were to occur.

All this talk on "Prime Time Sports"  plus the fact that we're into "award season" led me to reflect on the "Best Performance by a Coach in a Single Game", my MVC (Most Valuable Coaching) Award.

My choice for the award is Daniele Savageau, Coach of Hockey Canada's national women's team (2001-02) and here's why.

By the time the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City rolled around, the rivalry between North America's 39th parallel cohabitants in the sport of ice hockey had been ratcheted to the frantic point. To say that the USA was eager to capture its first IIHF women's gold medal and of the Olympic variety at the expense of Canada would be putting it about as mildly as possible. By the way, that hasn't changed and in a few weeks in Sochi, Russia, the rivalry will be renewed, big time! Although Canada and the US have been the only women's national teams to play in the gold medal game, finally there are other countries sending viable teams to the quadrennial event.

Leading to the Salt Lake Games, it’s worthy of note that the USA had finally fielded a team that was the equal of Canada. That had been demonstrated in the 2001 IIHF Women's Championship whereby Canada scratched out a narrow victory. Actually one could easily argue that the team the USA Hockey sent to the Utah city was not only its best, but was the prohibitive favourite to bring the gold medal south of the border. In preliminary games between the two countries, the American women were 7/7!

It was evident from the drop of the puck at the E Centre in Salt Lake that the official was clearly out-of-her-league. She was overwhelmed by the intensity of the contest and everything that went with it. This was in the days before the two referee system so she had no help getting the game back on track. It would be easy to point a disparaging finger at this official but as stated above, she was placed into a position for which she was not prepared. I’m sure she did her best. That notwithstanding, penalty after penalty was called on Team Canada, most of them, by anyone's standards witnessing the game, were unjustified, to the point that it's my recollection that Canada played a full one-third of the game short-handed, one-third! In the midst of that maelstrom, Coach Savageau came to the team's rescue.

Sensing the injustice being perpetrated on her team, Coach Savageau would have been fully justified to rant and rave about the unfair treatment her team was receiving from the official. She had to know that had that been her response of choice, many hockey rednecks would have applauded her as she acted in defense of her players.

But she took the high road, realizing that to give in to the instincts described above would most certainly rub off on her athletes and she needed them to be focused on the task at hand, remaining disciplined to the tactics needed to deal with the hand dealt to them. She knew she was not going to affect a change in the way the game was being called. Her only control was to ensure that her team reacted in a manner that most promoted a successful outcome.

Inwardly she might have been burning up but as with great athletes, she not only deserved an MVC Award, she also could have been given an Oscar for her acting performance. She was unruffled throughout the game and her athletes picked on that and played with poise and discipline, eventually prevailing.

As the game progressed, I kept asking myself what I would do in her situation. I don't know but I would hope I'd keep it together as well but I'm not sure that I would have done it with her grace and dignity. It was the best single game coaching performance I'd ever witnessed!

I had the chance at a sports conference to briefly meet Coach Savageau. I took the opportunity to shake her hand and tell her what I just told you. In her understated demeanor she simply smiled and thanked me. I knew that Coach Savageau had been a police officer in Montreal but research led me to the knowledge that her law enforcement duties was in the area of narcotics. I’m no expert in criminology but one does have to be to know that the criminal element in the world of illicit drugs is comprised of individuals not likely to win any citizen-of-the-year awards. I learned that in one instance, the actions of Officer Savageau who ordered a forced entry into a known drug location, saved the life of a fellow officer. This is one tough woman!

No, I don't know where she is today but if someone reading this does, please forward this posting to her. She needs to know how I feel about here amazing coaching performance and the role modeling it has provided.

Coach Savageau, on behalf of my readers, thank you and please accept “Bill’s MVC Award” for the best performance by a coach in an incredibly difficult situation!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

It's Not The What. It's The How!

We are blessed in Canada with two (not to be exclusive) dedicated and effective sport agencies. They are the National Coaching Certification Programme and Coaches of Canada! The NCCP is primarily responsible for coach/instructor education while C of C provides for certified coaches a number of services to fulfill their coaching career. I can't say enough good things about these bodies. They are not the problem, they are the solution!

Those of you who follow my scribblings on a more or less regular basis know how I feel about coach certification. I won't go on about that here but for those who are reading my posts for the first time, I fall back on the motto of the 3M company, who I believe was the first corporate sponsor, or at least one of the first corporate sponsors of the NCCP. "Every athlete deserves a certified coach!" If you want your athletes to be the best they can be, then you should set that example and be the best coach you can be and part of that aspiration is to get certified. The programme is for you and your athletes! I know, I know, you're a busy person, barely enough time to attend practices and games with your young athletes. Make, then take the time to get certified. It's not time consuming and the benefits to you and your athletes are exponential in relation to the time spent at the courses. Trust me! If you require further convincing, there's an article in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" dedicated to the topic ("Coaching Certification: Why Bother?" pp14-16).

The problem as I see it is not about the NCCP courses, their cost, the quality of the instructors (they're excellent by the way) or any other tangible aspect of them. It's about the person who, with certification in hand, just doesn't understand the importance of "pedagogy"! OK, let's turn to the dictionary for a definition of pedagogy.

Pedagogy (/ˈpɛdəɡɒi/ or /ˈpɛdəɡi/) is the science and art of education, specifically instructional theory. An instructor develops conceptual knowledge and manages the content of learning activities in pedagogical settings. Modern pedagogy has been strongly influenced by the cognitivism of Piaget, 1926, 1936/1975; the social-interactionist theories of Bruner, 1960, 1966, 1971, 1986; and the social and cultural theories of Vygotsky, 1962. These theorists have laid a foundation for pedagogy where sequential development of individual mental processes, such as recognize, recall, analyze, reflect, apply, create, understand, and evaluate, are scaffolded. Students learn as they internalize the procedures, organization, and structures encountered in social contexts as their own schema. The learner requires assistance to integrate prior knowledge with new knowledge. Children must also develop metacognition, or the ability to learn how to learn.

Another way to think about the difference between education and pedagogy is to recall the difference between "strategy" & "tactics". Strategy is your plan and tactics is/are the way(s) you're going to employ to execute the plan. Education is a plan and pedagogy is all about the modalities you're going to incorporate to execute the learning.

Clearly it's the "art" not the "science" that's the premise of this post. The NCCP, in conjunction with provincial and national sport governing bodies, does a fine job with the science and more about sport's science later in this post. I'm more interested in the "art" part, much more! I think I've learned a thing or two about the science of our sport along the way and hopefully have retained most of it, at least those details that can assist curlers and curling teams. But, I'm constantly concerned about how I deliver that information 'cause if the delivery doesn't match the quality of the information, it's going to fall on deaf ears. The coaches will feel that they've done their job, they've covered the material but how much of that coaching/teaching has reached the "customer(s)? It's not about the coach, it's always about the athletes!

I could go on with examples of pedagogy in the coaching & instructing of curling but I'll leave that to the NCCP courses or perhaps when our paths cross at a coaching symposia in which I'm involved but it's easy for me to tie a red ribbon around pedagogy by saying that your attitude as a coach is just as important as the attitude of your players. A talented player without the right attitude very quickly performs like a much less skilled player. I sometimes cite the phrase that "under pressure, one sinks to the level of his/her preparation" and whereas that may be true I would argue that you could add "... the level of preparation and attitude." If your attitude/philosophy as a coach is to "empower your athletes", solid pedagogy will find you and you will be inspired to constantly upgrade and refine the way you present the information you have. 

As coaches we love to work with athletes who are passionate. Well, the reverse is also true. When an athlete senses the passion a coach has, the partnership is extraordinary as are the results. I've used this slogan before, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care!" The best way, in my view to demonstrate passion is to care about your athletes first!

Bill's Three Magic Phrases

I have gone on at some lengths on this site about the partnership that must be created between coach/instructor and player/team. If the athletes do not see you as a "partner" in whatever they feel they need to do or what your expertise leads you to feel the athlete/team needs to do, it's just not going to happen in my view. Establishing that "partnership" is another aspect of the "art" of coaching/instructing. I wish I had a formula that I could provide that would ensure that valuable aspect of the relationship would be in place but I will share three phrases, I call them my "magic phrases", that I feel go a long way to establishing that bond which along with solid pedagogy makes the work you do with your athletes both extremely rewarding and effective.

"I don't know, but I'll find out." Don't try to be the man/woman with all the answers and the person who never makes a mistake. Your athletes will respect you much more when they see that you too are not afraid to fail and when you do, you learn from the setback and emerge a stronger more informed coach. And sometimes answers to questions might not be close at hand and you are enthusiastic about finding them. Respect; don't leave home without it!

"The sport science tells us..." I find myself using this phrase more and more. Thankfully, I'm relatively close to the cutting edge of the research that is taking place in the sport of curling and more and more is taking place. When you can state to an athlete that it's the sport science that tells us (insert data here), then you have been taken out of the equation. You're that partner that's arrived with verifiable information that can be of great value to the athlete. Conversely, you're not the one who flatly states, do it this way! Now, of course, we don't have the sport science to back up everything we're trying to impart to our athletes so a fallback position is, "My experience with athletes/teams in your situation tells me ..." It's tantamount to saying that, "It's my personal view that ..." but the difference in the way the athlete/team sees what you're saying is impacted more positively by the former phrase as opposed to the latter. But, when it IS my personal view on a matter, I tell my athletes that it is. To not do so is disingenuous in my view.
Oh yes, and by the way, certification puts you "in the loop" when new sport science discoveries are revealed!

"I have a suggestion." When I feel that I need to step in and stop an athlete from heading down the wrong path on an issue, even after I use the "sports science" approach, for me it's always a "suggestion", never an "ultimatum". I try as best I'm able to get the athlete to naturally come around to a position whereby a positive change is affected. I'll take as much time as required to do it that way. It's not time efficient but it's far superior to the, "Just trust me. Do it this way!" approach. I wait to see it in the eyes of the athlete that he/she feels there IS better way but is not quite sure how to proceed. I know that's my signal for, "I have a suggestion." Now we're back to that partnership thing again, aren't we! 
Did you get the "there IS a better way" part? That speaks to the crab grass in the lawn of instruction. You will be a very frustrated coach/instructor if you don't honour the "learning curve". You may be four square behind whatever it is you're trying to teach but until the athlete is convinced it's a better way to do something, it isn't going to happen! They're in the trough of the learning curve. They'll eventually rise out of it resulting in superior performance. Your role through that process is to be supportive.

As I write this I'm sitting in the main lodge of the "White Point Beach Resort" near Liverpool, NS watching the Atlantic surf crash into some very large rocks. Liverpool is the host for the 2014 M & M Meat Shops Canadian Junior Curling Championships. Last night was the "players' meeting" and reception. At the players' meeting, many dignitaries speak to the athletes and coaches. The chief umpire makes pertinent comments and sponsors welcome the athletes. The last person to address the group is me. I attend the junior national championship as a coaching resource for the players and coaches. Any coach and his/her team can meet with me about any topic "outside the boards". At last year's event, that happened 18 times so if history is repeated, I'll be a busy person over the next nine days.

Before I speak we clear the room of all other adults. I speak only to the athletes. It's my only time to speak to them as a group. Here's what I said last night.
  • The ice and stones do NOT know this is the 2014 M & M Meat Shops Canadian Junior Curling Championships!
  • The only people that really matter once the game starts are your teammates!
  • Your value as a teammate for the next nine days will be much more important than your value as a curler.
I'm going to say exactly the same three things to Canada's two national senior teams in Dumfries, Scotland in April as we attempt to defend Canada's two gold medals won in last year's World Senior Curling Championships. A curling team is a curling team. Curling is age neutral when it comes to performance.