The old-fashioned way to develop talent

I’ve written about Greg Chappell previously and he certainly has a similar mindset to me when it comes to learning and coaching sport. I was forwarded this Greg Baum article by a reader and it offers a contrarian approach to developing talent. Chappell believes that coaching is getting too structured, while simultaneously impeding natural instincts. Here’s some snippets of the article and my thoughts added.

“In developed countries, structured environments, with highly intrusive coaching methods that have replaced creative learning environments, have reduced batting to an exercise in trying to perfect the imperfectible.”

CS: And this is exactly the mindset of modern golf coaching. We’re focused so much on building “perfect” technique that we’ve forgotten about playing the game. Worse, along the way a lot of really talented kids are having their flair and enthusiasm beaten out of them as they’re forced to conform to the status quo.

Consequently, writes Chappell, batting skills have deteriorated alarmingly. He might have been thinking about Phil Hughes. When Hughes first arrived on the scene, his technique looked home-grown. Now it looks as if it has been rebuilt by a committee. Stand by for the next laboratory redesign.

CS: This is one of the most profound things I’ve read on this coaching caper. “His technique looked home-grown. Now it looks as if it has been rebuilt by a committee.” How true. Going through the technique factory isn’t going to get you into trouble (from the selectors/coaches/general public) but what is it going to do with your game? Conforming to the norm can be a safe option if you don’t want to rock the apple cart, but if you want to be the best in the business I’m almost certain you’ve got to do it your way.

Chappell’s thesis is that in developed cricket countries, with lavish facilities, career coaches and banks of auxiliaries, the instinct of young players for the game is dulled rather than sharpened.

CS: I couldn’t agree more. It’s counter-intuitive but is all this fancy coaching working? Daniel Coyle, who spent months looking at talent hotbeds all over the world says, “choose spartan over luxurious”. He goes on to say that state-of-the-art practice facilities, fluffy towels and oak-paneled offices signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. “Relax, you’ve already made it”. And here’s the best bit from Coyle, “Simple, humble spaces help focus attention and the deep-practice at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling. When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.”

This is something all sporting organisations should consider before spending all that money on that new training facility.

“The developed countries have lost the natural environments that were a big part of their development structures in bygone eras,” he writes. “In these environments, young cricketers learnt from watching good players and then emulating them in pick-up matches with family and friends.

“Usually, any instruction that was received was rudimentary, while interference from adults was minimal. In these unstructured settings, players developed a natural style while learning to compete against older players, during which they learned critical coping and survival skills.”

CS: Yes! It’s how we’ve always learned but something that has been forgotten about. They key here is “critical coping and survival skills”. Instead of leaning on a coach for the answers (or the coach imparting an overload of wisdom) you’re forced to learn yourself. And it’s this that helps when we’re out in the big bad world by ourselves. We’re accustomed to fighting for ourselves and getting the job done our way. We’re better prepared for the heat of battle.

Which leads back to Chappell. His theory is that talent, including sporting talent, best flourishes when the talented are left to their own devices, in a creative environment, but “without too much interference from adults”. After all, when they are tested on the arena, no one will be there to hold their hand.

CS: Chappell is on the right page here. He’s not against all coaching, but just limit the amount and encourage individual talent to appear.

Chappell writes that if he had his way, he would educate coaches not to present as all-knowing fonts of wisdom, but as managers of “creative learning environments”, in which young cricketers would learn “with minimal invasion from adults”.

CS: I love the phrase “creative learning environments”. It’s exactly what coaching should be and can only lead to better results. Driving ranges are stale and boring – there’s not much good to be had there. But the golf course might be the ultimate learning environment, a place where magic really happens. It’s a pity that most coaches are now stuck on the range and rarely venture outside where there’s no ball dispenser and certainly video camera.

“minimal invasion from adults” should be plastered on the walls of every school. Teaching isn’t about filling their minds with rules and regulations, but rather, to inspire, encourage and to point somewhere in the general direction. The really hard learning stuff is best done by the kids, when they play, and it happens subconsciously. Adults, for the most part, just get in the way.

“I can hear those who believe that batting is all about technique asking how these ‘free-range’ cricketers will become technically adept,” he writes. ”All I can say is that for the first 100 years of Test cricket, that is how the very best were bred.”

CS: It’s so obvious and so true and doesn’t matter what sport (or skill) we talk about. Look at any great champion from yesteryear, how did they learn? Were they stifled by thoughts of technique and doing things “perfectly” or were they allowed to “play” and have the technique find them? And this is the fundamental difference in mindset. Is great technique and performance built by analysis and extreme coaching or is it developed by guiding, challenging and mentoring students to perform naturally? I’ll leave the answer to one of the greatest sportsman of all time, Don Bradman,

“I would prefer to tell a young player what to do than how to do it.”

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  • Steady

    Reply Reply April 14, 2013

    Australia has created a monster in golf. I call it “Frankenstein Golf”.
    It’s a monster that needs to be cut off. It’s a mindset that has produced
    Little improvement.
    Btw Tiger should have been dqed .

  • Mike Divot

    Reply Reply April 14, 2013

    In his day it was standard opinion that Bradman did not have the best technique. He didn’t have the best cut shot, he didn’t have the best forward defence, etc. It was also standard opinion that, by christ he knew how to score runs.

    Now it seems cricket is catching the same infestation that has crept into golf. “Perfect technique” is a pre-condition of playing well. Yet I saw Fred Couples “playing well” in the Masters!

  • Grayden Provis

    Reply Reply April 15, 2013

    Re the “perfect technique” folly….

    Goal kicking accuracy from set shots in Aussie rules football has clearly not improved in the last 50 years while all the other skills have. Why? In my opinion its because they’ve been focussing on “perfect technique” and its all become too artificial. When you watch footage from the 60’s and 70’s they almost jogged back to the top of their run up, immediately jogged in again and just whacked it – often with an “arcing out” style that was very natural – and how they naturally kicked in general play. Now they try and run in in a perfectly straight line and “do everything correctly” and the results are woeful for professional sportsmen. However, I reckon we’re just starting to see a change in the wind – and it was commented on by one of the commentators in the recent Geelong game: that players are increasingly playing on and running around instead of taking set shots these days and they’re doing it even when the angle isn’t sharp. Why? I reckon its because it allows them to kick NATURALLY like they do in field play and not in the stilted, manufactured fashion that they’ve been encouraged to adopt by modern coaching. I’m with the Don. Tell the player to “put the thing through the big sticks” and let them figure out how themselves.

    The obvious parallel in golf is that handicaps haven’t improved in the last 50 years even though the equipment has improved out of sight. Why? Again, because everything has become artificial and manufactured – “manual” instead of automatic if you like – just like goal kicking in the AFL.

    I don’t know if my theory is correct but I feel much better for having got it off my chest! Thanks for listening 🙂

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply April 15, 2013

      GP: got some stuff on goal kicking coming. Keep your eyes peeled…

  • Terry

    Reply Reply May 3, 2013

    Just in the middle of reading “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. Fascinating stuff! It makes me realise that the young guns at our club are wasting their time hitting 200 balls mindlessly on the range. They should be out on the course somewhere, behind a tree, trying to work out ways to get the ball on the green. Or even practising without a club in their hands.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 3, 2013

      Terry: It’s a good book, have read it multiple times. On the recommendation of a blog reader I got his second book, the Little Book of Talent and there’s some good stuff in there too.

      I wish kids would play more in the early days – they’d learn all sorts of useful stuff including a decent golf swing.

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