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Looking In the Mirror – A Coach’s Catalyst for Change

With the start of a new year it’s natural to use this fresh start as an action to take stock on our annual accomplishments and disappointments.  In the past, we’ve formulated a couple of ways that you can go about formalizing this annual evaluation process.  We see it as an essential activity for coaches who are driven towards continuous learning and improvement.  Looking back at our personal ‘annual reviews’, it’s fun to see how this process has sparked ideas and projects that ended up creating significant results for us.  While we’ve focused on this reflection process in a macro view of our coaching business and development, this year we want to share our thoughts and experiences related specifically to contemplating our coaching skills and how we can improve.

‘Are you getting by, or are you getting better?’  This is a question that we have heard a mentor pose to clients on several occasions.

It’s a seemingly simple question that is inherently complex and thus very difficult to answer.  Why? You have to answer it yourself through reflection. While it’s often uncomfortable to look at oneself from the perspective of the third person (nobody wants to see what they don’t want to), or to question and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it– it’s an essential and enlightening process.  It brings us full circle and cuts to the essence of why we are all here: we don’t know what we don’t know– and we have a strong desire to change that.  We are infinitely curious.

Despite the fact that we haven’t been writing, we’ve still been learning – quite a bit, in fact.  How? Reflection.

Reflection is the primary means through which we grow and evolve. Our practice is informed by our experience, and we need to invest the time and energy to look at said experience with a critical eye.  A thorough examination of our choices and behaviors helps us identify and reinforce the actions that correlate to success, and therefore the things we should keep doing, as well as the actions or choices that led to the opposite result.  As coaches, it is our job to evolve.  Given that 2017 is upon us, we want to dig a little deeper into this topic, and provide you with an example of the result of some of our own reflection, so that the entire coaching community (ok, we digress–any readers that have endured the prolonged break) can hit the ground running in the new year.

Dr. Wade Gilbert, a professor of Kinesiology at Fresno State University (and regular guest lecturer in Matt’s Coaching Effectiveness class at UBC), is one of the world’s leading experts on coaching science.  Much of his research focuses on how coaches develop their expertise.  Through his years of research, he’s identified that informal learning is a primary means through which expert coaches grow and develop.  Much of that informal learning is triggered internally, by reflection.  All coaches think about their experience, but only the experts try to understand why and how they can improve on it.  In other words, experts are curious about their performance, and have a desire to do it better.

We know that having experience and learning from that experience are catalysts for growth.  So, what are the mechanics of the process? How do you process that experience and make adjustments to your behavior?  How do you integrate it into what you do? While, we’re still trying to answer those questions ourselves, we have been following these two practices to help us get improve: Reflective practice and critical reflection.  Yes, they sound similar (which they are), but they are inherently different.

REFLECTIVE PRACTICE V. CRITICAL REFLECTION

When we think about reflective practice and/or reflection, the image that comes to mind is a steady stream of thought on a car ride home.  These are the relatively short, internal conversations that we have with ourselves, daily, that don’t require significant effort.  They’re mental ‘notes’ that often focus on problems we encountered, or about things that went particularly well in a given instance.  Sometimes, these conversations lead us to discover a different way to go about addressing a situation.

Critical reflection, on the other hand, is much more significant.  These are the reflections that force you to take a step back and consider the beliefs that underpin your actions and behaviors. They often represent an internal inventory-taking of your coaching skills and beliefs, and facilitate a deeper dive into self-improvement, often involving interacting with third parties, and other members of your coaching network for answers.  These are critical, evolutionary moments that identify gaps and signal action towards closing them, ultimately leading to relatively permanent change in behavior.

Reflective Practice Critical Reflection
Constant process; daily Event-specific endeavor; not scheduled
Identifies smaller, specific problems Identifies the origin of problems
Develops minor solutions Develops major solutions
Reasoning of behavior Questioning of behavior
Surface learning Deeper learning
Very little behavior change More significant behavior change

The point we want to make is that over the last 6 months, we’ve been thrust into opportunities that have illuminated the shortcomings we have as coaches.  The fleeting thoughts about an occasion that didn’t go as planned are often more frustrating than productive.  Critical reflection elicits more intrigue than frustration, it actually moves the needle.  Through continued reflection – both in the daily and critical sense – we’ve given ourselves a chance to grow and improve.

ACTIONABLES

  • Keep a journal. Logging your days and jotting down your thoughts helps you become aware of any patterns that exist.  The notes serve as an informational foundation for critical analysis and eventually, change.
  • Budget time to be critical. Going deeper into your reflections to create understanding, and ultimately change, takes time and effort.  Ensure that you are setting aside time either monthly or quarterly, to be self-critical, such that you can get a plan in place to close any gaps that you perceive to be apparent.
  • Be vulnerable. Seeing yourself in action is a great way to understand your behavior.  You’ll become aware of a number of great things, as identify a few areas to improve.  Also, it is OK to not know.  Seek the opinions of others, as it’ll help close your knowledge gaps and make you aware of new solutions.  Yes, it is an uncomfortable process, but very much worth it.
  • Remain as objective as possible. It can be far too easy to grade your paper against unrealistic standards. This can be done with film (as you’ll see below), or through a trusted friend/advisor who is invested in your success.  360 degree reviews or anonymous surveys are also helpful tools that can inform you of blind sports in your practice.

AN EXAMPLE FROM MATT

One of my biggest challenges is staying sharp, mentally and physically, day in and day out.  I feel very strongly that my effectiveness, and behavior, is directly related to the amount of energy I have available.  Over the past few weeks, I felt ineffective, but couldn’t quite figure out why.  Physically, I felt fine. And mentally? I thought I was sharp.  Still, something was missing – I was getting by, not getting better.

In the offseason, we do a lot of instructing and a heavy emphasis is placed on refining techniques and building skills.  When doing a lot of ‘teaching’, I find it easy to get into a pattern that is very directive and very generous with the provision of feedback in an effort to guide the learner to the desired outcome as quickly as possible.  It is as if we work extra hard to reduce the amount of mental effort required on behalf of the learner such that we can make the learning process ‘easier’.  In attempting to accelerate and simplify the learning process by reducing the amount of cognitive energy invested by the learner, pre and post movement, we end up having the opposite effect; we severely limit their learning.  They end up relying on our guidance to make corrections rather than making adjustments based on their evaluation of both the intrinsic and extrinsic feedback they receive from the movement, relative to their kinesthetic concept of what they are trying to learn.

I felt ineffective because I had it backwards.  I became overly concerned with WHAT the athletes needed to do, and didn’t place enough energy into HOW those interventions were carried out.  As a result, what needed to happen (their learning), didn’t.

So, what did I do to make the corrections?

To start, I set different goals for the day.  The goals focused on the learning environment we created, as opposed to the specific content that was to be learned.  My aim was for the client to be more cognitively engaged than in sessions past.  My plan to achieve that goal was twofold.  First, I wanted to ensure that I was cultivating the athlete’s capacity to accurately detect error.  The goal was to provide them with the opportunity to contrast what they did vs. what they intended such that they could calibrate their sensory feedback accordingly.  Second, I aimed to optimize the provision of feedback, delaying it until after the athlete had the chance to evaluate their intrinsic feedback, as well as establishing a bandwidth, outside of which prescriptive feedback would be provided.

Next, I wore a GoPro and filmed the day to gauge how successful I was in executing my objectives.  I wanted to see what the environment was actually like.

Below is a video excerpt from a session where we worked with an athlete on developing their control over the speed of their putts.  As stated prior, my objective was to provide the client with a better learning environment; one that challenged them cognitively, technically, and physically.  I structured the activity with the end goal of expanding the capacity of the learner to accurately assess the result of their movement in the absence of feedback, and in improving their ability to detect, and correct, error.  I wanted to help them close the gap that existed between what they think happens, and what actually happens, when they act on a decision.  Check out a brief snippet of the video below to get a better idea for how I ended up delivering feedback in this session.

Was it perfect? No.  But it doesn’t have to be.  I learned more through this critical reflection than I had an any number of traditional educational activities.

What will you do to generate a similar experience?

We’ll give you some time to reflect…

– COREY LUNDBERG & MATT WILSON