Monday, 18 April 2016

Introducing a New Element to Coaching: Power ... a guest-post by Joe Mills & Jim Denison

I was initially going to place this blog-post within the on-going strength series.  But I really feel it deserves a place on its own.  It's also going to be quite extensive - as this is post 1 of 3.  I'm really excited to host this important writing by two very well respected researchers, writers, and Professors - Dr Joe Mills and Dr Jim Denison (bios at the bottom of the page).  I know Dr Denison through Kevin Tyler and Derek Evely, as he was the former Director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre, and I have really enjoyed conversations and emails with him over the last few years.
To give you a quick understanding of the next three posts, Dr Denison summed it up quite nicely in an email a few months ago:

Our research expertise in high-performance sports coach development and education is based on the work of the post-structural philosophers who dominated French intellectual thought in the latter half of the 20th Century. Their work has been and continues to be enormously influential across a wide range of applied professions but has yet to be applied to sport. These ‘thinkers’ collectively illustrated the history of why people ‘think and do’ in the ways that they do, in order to demonstrate that what people believe to be thorough and true is actually limited, imperfect and infused with problems. Thus, building on George Santayana’s quote: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, we can state: “those who are not aware of their past, are condemned to repeat it.” This is not to say that coaches are necessarily unaware of their past, but what the post-structural philosophers brilliantly demonstrated was how people are constrained by tradition, convention and history without realizing it. 

One of the key concepts of this post-structural approach to coaching is based on a specific way of viewing the role of ‘power’ and its many unseen effects. It is the impact of these effects on coaches’ effectiveness and athletes’ performances that Joe and I use as the basis of our work. 

Jim goes on to discuss the very important role that power can have on important aspects of coaching, such as the coach-athlete relationship, reflection, problem-solving and planning.  

Like I said - I am really looking forward to these posts.  Stick with it, and I have no doubt they will improve your coaching practice.   I hope you enjoy them:

Introducing a New Element to Coaching: Power
a guest-post by Joe Mills & Jim Denison

Whenever a person instructs, organizes or attempts to motivate another person or a group of people, as is the case in coaching, there will always be many unseen, complex and ever-changing processes that surround these interactions. Therefore, alongside their tactical and technical know-how, coaches need to have an awareness of ‘all’ that ‘really’ goes on in coaching. Because if a coach doesn’t know about these ‘unseen effects’ or ‘all that really goes on’ he or she will never be as effective as he or she could be. In other words, as a coach how do you guarantee that effects that you can’t see are not undermining you? 
This blog-post is the first in a series of three where we will attempt to make coaches aware of an array of ‘effects’ in their daily training environment that perhaps they had not considered before. Therefore, building on George Santayana’s quote: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, we state: “those who are not aware of their past, are condemned to repeat it.” This is not to say that coaches are necessarily unaware of their past, but what we intend to show is how even some of the best coaches in the world are constrained by tradition, convention and history without realizing it. 

For example, consider the unseen effects of employing a coaching methodology based largely on numbers, data and ‘best practices’ - so-called objective facts and dominant practices - in order to ensure that one’s athletes progress in as controllable and predictable a way as possible when the reality of sport is that it is dynamic, contextual, unpredictable and ever-changing. Not only that, but every athlete is so uniquely different that not only will the same coaching behaviors not work for everyone but what might have worked before for a specific athlete might not necessarily work again. 

In the real world it is safe to say that no circumstance or situation that a coach might find herself in could ever be called ‘natural’: an objective occurrence rooted in some fixed absolute. Rather, what a coach might find herself doing will in some manner or fashion always be the result of history and tradition and the complex development of knowledge, not some essential root response or tacit ‘truth’. So it is that the ‘nature of coaching’ - what coaching is - should never be taken for granted.
In fact, even what we might believe to be more natural than anything else, nature itself, is not always necessarily natural. Consider an eddy in a picturesque river and a man in a kayak. It is a scene that might appear in a travel brochure: fresh, sparkling, unspoiled. This eddy of course has a particular force that is effecting our kayaker. Ripples circle and cross around him and create flat spots and whirlpools; his kayak skills are being tested. He works his paddle in specific ways: slicing, digging, carving, pushing, pulling. He is trying to keep his course straight. His shoulders rotate, dip and rise. His trunk twists and his fingers slide over his paddle to find the right grip, balance, torque and tension. He feels uplifted and challenged at the same time; he is connected to nature; he is having a true nature experience. Or is he?
Imagine this river two hundred years earlier when it was marked with large rocks and its banks, covered with thick, rough brush, rose steeply. In subsequent years, as settlers arrived, a harbor was built upriver from where our kayaker is paddling today. Then following a mid-twentieth century economic boom, a dam and a power plant were built downriver. And so the eddy our kayaker finds himself in and needing to manage can hardly be said to be a natural formation: it arose out of a host of decisions, all political, some contentious and none objective. 
Similarly, sports’ many forces and what they lead a coach to believe he must do - what he must manage - can hardly be said to emanate from some natural source, factor or objective circumstance. Therefore, to believe that one has to coach in some particular or right or best way to be effective is wholly inaccurate. But this is what many coaches do. The research is very clear about this: by and large coaches coach in fixed and prescribed ways as if there was some natural law they must follow or abide to. In fact, even what many coaches might believe constitutes innovative coaching often isn’t very innovative at all because of the multiple forces, many of them invisible, directing their choices and behaviors, that is the traditions and taken-for-granted understandings of effective coaching that permeate all sporting cultures. So it is that when a coach is coaching and trying to make the best decisions, she is more accurately managing, coping or compromising - qualities that really should not define effective coaching - circumstances created by history; she is not necessarily thinking creatively or innovatively.
And yet this isn’t the fault of any coach; this is what happens when society’s knowledge is assumed to be based on objective truths, fixed absolutes and irrefutable laws. If the knowledge driving the practice is true, then it follows those practices must also be true and by extension natural, right, correct or the only way to be. But using the case of our kayaker as an example, look what happens when you question the objectivity and trueness of knowledge: you start to erode the most basic of foundations on which our understandings are based.

Let’s consider another setting, one different from our kayaker: a surgical room in a hospital. Two doctors are in the room analyzing a male patient’s X-ray of his heart and lungs. Both doctors are staring at the same X-ray, they are looking at the very same picture, it’s an objective situation. And yet both see something very different. One doctor concludes that the patient is in very good health and is ready to give him the good news. The other doctor spots the early onset of a very serious disease that means the patient will require careful monitoring over the next few months. In other words, while the picture is objective the interpretation of it is not, which by extension means it is problematic to assume that knowledge is objective and true when everyone knows that ‘objectivity’ is such a questionable concept. 
If we understand that the idea of ‘natural’ objective knowledge is questionable at best, it follows that knowledge is based on how one’s perspective impacts his or her interpretation of events. There is a striking moment in the iconic Oscar-winning Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall that illustrates this point. The lead characters, Annie Hall and her partner Alvy Singer are in a troublesome relationship and both are consulting their own psycho-therapists. In the middle of their respective therapy sessions, the screen splits to show both Annie and Alvy sitting on their respective couches. “How often are you having sex?” both therapists ask their clients. Annie frowns with irritation. “Oh, all the time,” she exasperates, “twice a week.” Alvy, on the other hand, frowns with resignation. “Oh, barely ever,” he sighs, “twice a week.”  
In other words, knowledge, opinions, statements - even facts - are perspectival, that is they come from a perspective which significantly alters perception. For instance, winners may win - fact. But who’s to say they couldn’t have performed better? Or,  every coach at some point in his or her career has coached an athlete that came within a hundredth of a second or a centimeter of his or her PB and while the coach might be delighted, the athlete might be hanging his or her head. 

Now, more worryingly than disturbing the foundations of objectively true, factual or natural knowledge, what happens when further questions get asked about how perspectives have shaped the development of knowledge? For in any setting of any kind, and in any setting of any kind that has happened throughout history, the interactions that have taken place in those settings have always been dependent on the perspectives that produced the interaction. Therefore, the outcome of any interaction in any setting - that is the take-away knowledge - always depends on the dominant perspective in that interaction. This is not to say dominant in a ‘what is the dominant, cleverest, or strongest’ way (although that will sometimes occur) but dominant in a ‘what makes most sense to the most influential perspective’ way. Therefore, for coaches who rely on best practices, perhaps it is worth considering the myriad of perspectives that have shaped the development of that so-called best practice? 
In other words, because people are inherently different - and have always been different - every person in any interaction brings a range of knowledge, skills, ethics, values, emotions, roles, communication abilities, ideas, expectations, needs, identities, problems and issues to these interactions. And importantly, some people have a greater ability to influence what is known about sports coaching than other people. Coaching knowledge and practice do not exist in a vacuum; they do not drop out of the sky or magically appear. Rather, it is the result of many years of the way people have coached and lived. 
Put differently, all societies work through a system of norms and values, beliefs and traditions, routines and customs that are considered so normal that to do without them would not make sense. And because of these values and perspectives, some knowledge and some practices are passed on, while other ways of knowing and doing are not, and become forgotten. 
What knowledge and practices get passed on depends on what someone, or some institution, says or demonstrated was important to pass on - which is itself dependent on the dominant values in society at that time. For sociologists and some psychologists, this process is referred to as the social construction of knowledge. Thus, people and institutions with greater power are more influential in determining what knowledge counts and how knowledge is produced and retained, and as a result what practices can then be employed as legitimate, true and right. 
A reasonable conclusion for coaches to be aware of then is that the development of coaching knowledge and practice is incredibly complex and influenced by power, power relations, or movements of power

If power - that is the shaping of different perspectives - has more to do with the development of knowledge than any intrinsic qualities of truthfulness, it is unbelievably important that coaches begin to consider the following questions: how do I know that the knowledge that drives my practice is the best knowledge? How do I know there is not another knowledge(s) that might be more appropriate? And in today’s information-rich-superhighway of knowledge, where people are bombarded with conflicting voices and opinions, these questions are increasingly important. They are even more important when one considers how many of today’s scientific principles come from a place that bears little resemblance to where those principles are going to be applied - the track, not the laboratory.
In today’s world of fact-filled numbers, equations and irrefutable laws and the practices this leads to, it is often forgotten how those numbers, equations, laws and practices got there. In other words, we forget that it was humans themselves, humans interacting with each other in social situations that put the numbers, equations and so-called irrefutable laws into society to solve particular problems in society at that time. And as we have just stated, and as everyone knows, people don’t interact in equal ways in any social setting. Rather, every interaction in some way or another is political. That is, every interaction is in some way or another, a contested point of view. 
Given these broader issues related to knowledge, truth and politics - contested and negotiated points of views - the stand out follow-on and even more thorny question for a coach becomes: Why don’t I challenge those circumstances, the push from the forces around me, and instead of making decisions and coaching in ways that are more about managing those forces, begin to coach in ways that acknowledge coaching’s unnaturalness, that is the eddies, tides and currents or its continually negotiated form and the myriad of problematic effects these forces can produce?  Effects that we have demonstrated through our research with coaches that can objectify athletes’ bodies; effects that can make athletes docile; effects that normalize harmful or ineffective practices; effects that can forward body as machine thinking; effects that can compromise the pursuit of excellence; effects that can also limit and constrain sports’ potential to educate and enlighten and serve a larger social purpose: the development of an engaged citizenry and important life skills. 
For us, this is what it means to be an effective coach - to critique and find problems with what has become naturalized in an effort to do a better job. This is where we believe innovation in coaching really lies. And driving that innovation is above all an understanding of how power is present and active in all places and at all times - and how these presences and activities have real and lasting effects on what coaches know and do everyday with their athletes. In other words, to make better decisions we believe coaches could benefit from an understanding of how power operates within their daily training environment and what effects this has on their athletes’ growth and development. 

Through this blog series it is not our intention to confuse you with erudite or abstract terms. But - speaking as social scientists - if coaches are serious about doing a good job and happy to indulge a whole host of bio-scientific terms and concepts, it makes sense to bring forward terms and concepts from an additional intellectual perspective to advance coaches’ practices. Otherwise we’ll always get what we always had; and we can’t help but notice the general stagnation in many track and field events - despite living in an era of technological change and scientific performance enhancement - as well as a general sense of disappointment, dissatisfaction and regret among most athletes, most of the time despite all their effort and commitment to being so disciplined. 
While there is no question that science is helpful for humans trying to perform in optimal ways - that is learn, think, develop, thrive and grow - science will never be enough on its own. There will always be something else, something in the middle, something mediating those relationships, something more going on - communication, interaction, negotiation. Or in the ways in which we are thinking here: power - the relations or movements of power and all that power does. For it doesn’t matter how good the tools are or how many tools people have, unless the people using those tools understand their potential, their limitations, how they work in relation to other tools and in other structures and systems, the products they create from those tools will never be as good as they could be. Clearly, there has to be more to coaching, training and performance than simply reading and directly applying as fixed absolutes the findings from scientific papers as if they were the truth. In other words, coaches should be encouraged to start asking more challenging, more critical, more uncomfortable questions about their underpinning knowledge and practices. 
In fact, we would argue that until coaches feel comfortable at asking really uncomfortable - and we mean really uncomfortable - questions related to many of their taken-for-granted assumptions about coaching they will never be as effective as they could be or as their efforts deserve. And through this blog-series - for which we will provide two more posts - we will attempt to illustrate, based on our previous and ongoing research, why thinking about what power does should matter for a coach. 
More specifically, in the next post we will outline and explain one particular facet of power - disciplinary power - that we believe is especially relevant for track and field coaches to understand in order to enhance their athletes’ performances. And in the final post, we will illustrate how an understanding of disciplinary power and its effects can help coaches make programming decisions that are informed by a knowledge and understanding of all that power does and underpinned by a more liberating pedagogy that together can increase coaches’ possibilities to positively influence what they do with their athletes on a daily basis. 

Dr. Joe Mills is currently an Adjunct Professor at three different Universities, a Professional Psychologist accredited by the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC) in the U.K. and also a Chartered Scientist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES). He has degrees across history, politics, education as well as psychology and completed his Master’s Degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Brunel University in London, England and his Ph.D. in Kinesiology at the University of Alberta in Canada. His research is sited at the intersections of psychology and sociology and examines the assumptions that underpin sport science knowledge and the formation of contemporary high-performance sports coaching theory. He uses this understanding in order to uncover a series of hidden ways in which coaches and athletes are constrained and undermined without realizing it, thereby unlocking the deeper philosophical issues that prevent true effectiveness, innovation and progression. He has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles in both social and physical science journals, book chapters and presented at both academic and applied conferences. He is also a former international (U.K.) miler and lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  
Dr. Jim Denison is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada, and a former Director of the Canadian Athletics Coaching Centre (2010-2014). A sport sociologist and coach educator, his research examines the formation of coaches’ practices through a Foucauldian lens. Along with his numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles and conference presentations he edited Coaching Knowledges: Understanding the Dynamics of Performance Sport (2007) and co-edited The Routledge Handbook of Sports Coaching (2013) and Endurance Running: A Socio-cultural Examination (2016). In addition, Denison is the author of The Greatest (2004), the biography of Haile Gebrselassie, and Bannister and Beyond: The Mystique of the Four-Minute Mile (2003). He is a former collegiate middle-distance runner (Fordham University) with a personal best of 3:43.50 for 1500m. He was Head Boys’ Cross-country and Track Coach at Bronxville High School, New York (1986-88), Graduate Assistant Men’s Cross-country and Track Coach at the University of Toledo (1988-89) where he also earned his Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology and Volunteer Assistant Men’s Cross-country and Track Coach at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana (1991-93) where he completed his Ph.D. in Kinesiology. Denison is active as a coach developer and works closely with a number of coaches in a variety of sports to help them learn how to problematize many of their taken-for-granted practices and begin to coach differently.


  1. I've been reviewing these and other ideas these past few years and have to wonder if they're actually relevant, or helpful. Particularly in considering the sport of track & field. In the midst of all of this research, technology, and scientific advancement performances don't seem to be advancing. Then we start addressing coaching science and sport psychology and still, no significant improvements on the track.

    I guess I just want to know, how much does this stuff REALLY matter?

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