Thursday, 10 January 2013

the voice of the silence...

to paraphrase Nice & Smooth, sometimes I can coach, sometimes I can’t can’t can’t...


...forever trapped in an allostatic state, I vacillate between knowing too much, and knowing too little...coaching too much, and coaching too little...saying too much, and saying too little...

I had a discussion with one of my former athletes a couple of weeks back, who is now coaching an elite group of sprinters.  He recently began working with a dude who has been pretty successful, but has plateaued in the last few years.  Clearly needing both a technical and a philosophical change, he made a 3000 mile move west to try something a little different.  

Problem is - this dude is old; and you can’t teach an old dude new tricks...right?  
(some would argue that you can’t even teach new dudes old tricks; or new dudes new tricks, etc...but that’s another story for another day...)

So how to manage the mid- or late- career athlete requiring a technical overhaul to reach the next level?  
Just teach him new stuff, you say? It’s that simple!  
Well - I would argue that the ‘old dog’ cliche - like all cliches - is a cliche for a reason...’s just not that easy.  

Older athletes have a career-full of moving in a certain manner.  Of sprinting in a certain manner, that has become their ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ way of moving.  Changing this is a delicate and difficult process - even for the most experienced coach.  
But - and this is key - it must be done!  

If the athlete is to progress to the next level, and is clearly limited by mechanical  or technical inefficiency, then a change must be made. You are doing the athlete - as well as yourself and your profession - a disservice if you do not intervene.

In my own coaching career, this has probably been the most demanding element - when to step in...when not to...when to talk...when not to.  
The ‘whens’ are clearly more challenging than the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’.  

As a younger coach, I often looked at coaching as an opportunity to prove how clever I was.  Dragged along by the inflated ego, I was the classic ‘over-coacher’.  Believing my brain contain insight infinitum, I saw coaching as simply regurgitating its contents into the athletes’ eager open beaks.  Obviously, as I matured, I got better at this, and began limiting feedback to only that which I thought necessary.  

The ‘over-coaching’ instinct, though, will never leave me.  The knowledgeable coach will spend his entire career focussing more on what not to say than what to say - how and when to hold back. He will forever struggle with knowing just what the right amount of feedback is.  When to step in...and when to stay quiet.  

But, like Miles Davis proves, the art is in the silence - the space between the notes"Don't play what's there," he told young musicians: "Play what's not there;" or "don't play what you know, play what you don't know". 

Over the course of his career, Miles was constantly frustrated by his saxophone sidemen, famously asking fellow legend, and one-time band-mate, John Coltrane, who was renown for his endless soloing: 
"Can't you play 27 choruses instead of 28?" 
"I know, I know," Coltrane replied,
"I play too long...
but I get so involved I don't know how to stop."

"Why don't you try taking the saxophone out of your mouth?" Miles advised.

His frustration with his side-men continued; 20 years later, when he asked tenor sax player Bob Berg why he had soloed in a place where he was not scheduled and had never before played, Berg replied "It sounded so good...I just had to come in."
"Bob," said Miles, "the reason it sounded so good was because you weren't playing."

If you listen to any of Miles’ earlier work though, you’ll wonder what drugs Miles was on when he said this - as for the first third of his career, the pace of his music cannot be described as anything but frenetic.  It wasn’t until he matured as an artist that he began to appreciate the power in silence. Similarly, it’s the sign of a mature coach who knows when to respect the silence...when to allow the athlete to find his own way...when to trust the process...

“Before the Soul can hear, the image (man) has to become as deaf to roarings as to whispers, to cries of bellowing elephants as to the silvery buzzing of the golden fire-fly.
Before the soul can comprehend and may remember, she must unto the Silent Speaker be united just as the form to which the clay is modeled, is first united with the potter's mind.
For then the soul will hear, and will remember.
And then to the inner ear will speak —
- H. P. Blavatsky (1889)

My grandfather was a keen gardener, but for some reason one Autumn he was having trouble with his turnips.  They just were not growing quite as nicely as he had expected.  So one day, he digs a few of them up, inspected them for faults, and gave them a nice clean.  He patiently clipped some unruly roots, and replanted them.  Still the turnips didn’t respond well, so he repeated the process - digging, cleaning, clipping, and re-planting. Once again though, they didn’t behave as expected. My grandfather continued this process over and over until finally, the turnips just stopped growing completely. Devastated, my grandfather never planted, nor ate, another turnip for the rest of his life.

The desire for control is a difficult instinct to suppress. Like my grandfather, we feel the need to intervene when things don't proceed as we might expect...but sometimes, all that is required is a little patience...trusting the process....just letting the turnips do their thing.  

As coaches, we often over-estimate our ability to influence the process and determine the outcome - all we can do is try to influence the distribution of possibilities.  This starts by letting go of our admitting - like Socrates - that  "the only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing" recognizing not only the self-organizing and self-regulating properties of the athlete’s variable and dynamic system, but also our limited role in influencing it.  

This is where we most often get it wrong.  

We must admit we cannot control, interpret, nor influence the organization - the  intricate arrangement of interconnections and interrelationships of the physical components - of the system.  

We must respect the implications of individuality...without getting distracted by causes: complex systems don't have causes. There are only potential paths of possibilities; our job is to influence the possibility of traveling the right path at the right time, by exposing the system to ‘envelopes of serendipity’ -  those ‘happy accidents’ that only exist when you remain open to the unexpected. By sweeping away the superfluous, periodically letting go of outcome expectation and trusting in the process, we allow more room for serendipitous events.  

There is a skill to this.  It exists in the space between art and science...where timing is key, and where most of us fail. influence ‘dysfunctional’ movement, we simply must step in.  Our job is to correctly recognize this correctly recognize our potential role in influencing it...

...and then to crack open the safe of autonomy - returning the system to cognition, where we can re-start.’s just that simple!

just take the saxophone out of your mouth!