In the last post, researchers Dr Jim Denison and Dr Joe Mills discussed the role that power can have on important aspects of coaching - such as the coach-athlete relationship, reflection, problem-solving and planning. I found it to be a fascinating post, and I was really looking forward to this part II of a three-parter. And it has not disappointed at all! I really think this is an important read for all coaches.
It's pretty long - but well-worth your time.
So without further ado:
Disciplinary Power: recognizing some of the forces in coaching - a guest post by Joe Mills & Jim Denison
INTRODUCING A NEW VOICE TO COACHING
In our first post we argued that coaching is by its very nature as much a social process as it is a scientific process. As a result, all of what coaches know and do is effected by a whole range of social issues and dynamics that are themselves formed within and through complex relations of power - the continual negotiation of different points of view.
In this post we build, considerably, on how power works in the social world - or ‘real’ world - and what power is. Thus, while we recognize that the statement, “coach with an understanding of what power does” is easier said than done and that it also risks sounding pretentious, as you will read in this post, understanding what power does is as relevant for a coach as understanding what gravity does given that human movement is effected just as much by relations of power as it is by gravity’s forces.
In this regard, by thinking about power, we believe we are working at a similar level of applied practice as any other sport scientist or performance consultant whose aim is to provide coaches with new and exciting insights and perspectives relevant to becoming more effective. In point of fact, we actually believe we are working in a ‘new’ way within sport science practice because, to the best of our knowledge, we are the first coach developers/sport performance consultants to talk about coaching from its naturally ‘social’ perspective - a new and fresh voice.
The idea that coaching is greatly influenced by relations of power is not an idea that we plucked from the air; nor is it just our own opinion. Rather, our thinking in this regard is informed by the work of a number of important and influential philosophers - Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze - who dominated French intellectual thought in the 1960’s and who we believe can offer an exciting and fresh voice to the world of sport. These scholars, who collectively have been labeled post-structuralists, have been the springboard for our extensive research program that to date has resulted in over 40 peer-reviewed academic publications and presentations, over a dozen invited talks and keynote lectures at some of the world’s leading universities as well as numerous workshops and seminars with practicing coaches.
Post-structuralism is generally acknowledged across every social science discipline today as the most progressive theory of human behavior in large part because of the more complex and subtle ways that these thinkers thought about how power works. To begin, for the post-structuralists, what counts as knowledge or any practice that is coherent, logical or meaningful depends on relations of power. In other words, as they argued, power is not the possession of particular persons; it is at work at all times and in all sorts of ways wherever attempts are being made by people to produce knowledge, make sense of living or help individuals perform in optimal ways - that is learn, grow, develop or thrive - such as teams, universities, businesses, schools, labs, etc.
As a case in point, while coaches certainly have a lot of power over their athletes, athletes also have power over their coaches. For example, an athlete can leave her coach at any time if she thinks he is not doing a good enough job. Granted, the coach-athlete power relationship is very rarely equal, but neither is it very likely to ever be in the hands of the coach alone. Coaches know this, which influences them to behave in particular ways, depending on the situation. So, as we said, power is present and active in all situations and at all times and is always based on relations between people and the institutions they come from.
Thus, for the post-structuralists, reality, or any thing that counts as meaningful, is not some thing out there in the world but some thing that is produced through the constant interplay or negotiation of people’s relationships. This is what we meant by the idea, ‘perspective shapes knowledge,’ that we explained in our first post.
Now, this is not to say that the blood and bones of sport, or the material or physical world does not exist, only that what we understand and say about these things is greatly influenced, shaped and formed by context and history - the continual negotiation of different points of view or the complex, intricate and often invisible workings of power that give rise to the inherently subjective process of meaning making. Which is why thinking about what power does is so very important.
However, and this is just as important, what we say, or the knowledge and ideas that are produced as a result of our relationships, often come to be understood by most people ahistorically or as the ‘natural’ state of the world - the way the world is. And it is with this particular point in mind that we intend to show next how such an everyday coaching practice as planning is not only ‘unnatural’ but is much more problematic than it is normally thought to be.
In fact, as we will illustrate, quite a number of the effects - both good and bad - that coaches’ planning practices produce have as much to do with the workings of power as they do with the workings of science. But to help us see the work that power does we needed to turn to one of the post-structural thinkers we previously mentioned, Michel Foucault.
EFFECTIVE COACHING AS PLANNING
In today’s sporting world, a coach without a coherent, well-thought out training plan is like a fish without fins, a rower without oars or a priest without a sermon. We may be getting carried away, but you take our point. Although there is a lot more to effective coaching than planning, there can be no question that the designing, monitoring and adapting of training plans is seen as essential to athletic performance. Thus, athletic training is based on Hans Selye’s principles of stress and adaptation and Lev Matveyev’s principles of cycling or periodizing those adaptations: the body adapts to the types of stresses placed on it, so that ‘periods’ of training can be systematically alternated. However, recently thinking about stress and adaptation has begun to include an understanding that training adaptations are mediated by a host of psychological and emotional processes making planning a much more individualized and contextual process than previously thought.
For the most part, though, coaches’ training plans continue to be fashioned by different ‘periodized’ models designed to manipulate and control volume, intensity and density and other combinations of work and recovery in order to adapt specific energy systems and neuromuscular pathways targeted at improving performance. Linear, random, traditional, step-wise, wave, undulating, over-reaching, single, double, triple, super-compensation, overcompensation, short-to-long, long-to-short are all different periodization models, and although there is much debate about the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, what is clear is that they are all more effective than random training or just ‘making-it-up-as-you-go-along.’
Simply put, organizing or planning training is something that works, makes sense and puts athletes on the podium. That is to say that a rational, planned, systematic, coordinated, integrated, stable, predictable, manageable, progressive, principled, accurate, efficient, logical, controlled, deliberate, strategic approach to coaching enables coaches to act optimally by gathering data, managing uncertainty, reducing unpredictability and retaining control. Which in turn means that a large amount of coaches’ time goes into overseeing these processes in order to be able to make the most effective planning decisions. Clearly then, there is much virtue to planning training programs as planning does something very important, it enables athletes to produce exceptional athletic performances.
However … and yet … but … still … nevertheless … that is not all that planning does. And thanks to Foucault we began to see that much of what we know and believe to be ‘natural,’ ‘innocent’ or ‘objective’ about planning is not the case at all. More specifically, based on an extensive analysis of the history of the prison that Foucault conducted, and his particular understanding of power that he developed from this analysis, it became clear to us that many of the techniques and approaches - the many, many details - that are part of coaches ‘normal’ planning practices today were actually developed to meet a need that has very little to do with being an effective coach. So what was this history of the prison that Foucault described and what was his particular understanding of power?
Further, why have coaches adopted a set of practices that might not necessarily be in their best interests? It is these points that we turn to now.
DISCIPLINARY POWER AND PLANNING
According to Foucault, in the mid-nineteenth century when emerging capitalist economies required large numbers of organized bodies to thrive, the emphasis of prisons changed from punishment to transformation. In other words, reforming or transforming prisoners to be able to work in factories became the priority. But for this reform to take hold a new way of thinking about power was needed; power had to be able to operate more efficiently in order to control large numbers of prisoners. As a result, new ways of organizing or disciplining prisoners emerged, ways or techniques that Foucault categorized under the heading, disciplinary power.
As Foucault showed, so effective was disciplinary power at controlling, organizing and transforming prisoners that its techniques, and the many details surrounding these techniques, quickly spread to other institutions such as schools, factories, hospitals and the military - any place really where the transformation of individuals into obedient and dutiful followers served the larger interests of capitalism. And not to be left out of this sweeping cultural change, as ours and many others’ research have clearly shown, these techniques also spread to sport given how effective they were seen to be at managing, coordinating and systematically progressing people’s development.
Now remember, as the post-structuralists clearly showed, because of power’s relational nature, with the exercise of disciplinary power always came some productive effects. And, as we already discussed, the systematic transformation of athletes through a series of planning protocols is productive; it does have positive effects because athletes win.
But what Foucault also showed was that along with the productive effects of disciplinary power came a number of unintended consequences - in fact a whole array of unexpected problems. Moreover, because of how power tends to naturalize that which is actually subjective as objective, it can be very easy to believe that these consequences cannot be challenged, let alone changed - they come to be understood as ‘the’ way the world ‘is.’ With respect to planning, therefore, what if many of the unintended consequences associated with coaches’ planning practices were the result of planning’s historical legacy - nineteenth century prison reform to drive capitalism - not its innate truth? What if planning’s taken-for-granted logic as a rational, systematic and coordinated activity actually limited coaches’ knowledge and practice? What if the exercise of disciplinary power by coaches was undermining athletes’ performances?
We believe these are profound questions with important implications for coaching. However, before we respond to these questions through a number of real world examples taken from track and field, let’s take a look at the techniques and their associated details that Foucault revealed in his analysis of the history of the prison. And as you read each of these keep in mind how you (likely) use them in some way in your planning and routine organization of your daily training environment.
The first technique that Foucault discussed concerned the way in which ‘spaces’ were used. As he noted, in prison spaces were:
- Enclosed - specific ‘things’ happened in specific places.
- Partitioned - within each space, each individual has a specific place.
- Functioned - specific spaces have to be ‘useful’ or have a specific function.
- Ranked - the specificity of space and what happens in each space meant that people can be easily judged and classified according to their abilities.
The rational, overt and obviously specific organization of spaces in these detailed ways meant that spaces could now be used more effectively to supervise, hierarchize, reward and measure people.
The second of Foucault’s techniques concerned the way in which time was used, which was:
- Timetabled - time is divided into smaller units.
- Elaborated - appropriate movements are broken into more precise elements.
- Correlated with the body - to ensure the body moves precisely and efficiently.
- Correlated with objects - to ensure objects are handled precisely.
- Exhausted - wasting time is impossible.
Because time, like space became organized so precisely, time was not used now, it was exhausted thereby ensuring maximum efficiency.
Foucault’s third technique concerned organization itself, which was:
- Successive or parallel - development occurred through segmentation or more simply ‘one bit at a time.’
- Analytical - parts were re-organized (planned) into tasks of increasing complexity.
- Examined - progress according to the plan could be tested to ensure people were on ‘track.’
Following this technique, exercises could be organized and coordinated into a series of exercises to manage individuals’ progression.
Finally, as Foucault expressed through his fourth organizational technique, all of these forces - space, time, organization - could be combined which led him to explain how:
- Small units come together to comprise an efficient machine.
- The individual is but one element that is part of a multi-segmentary machine.
- An individual’s performance must be held in perfect time with the performance of everyone else in order to ensure the maximum force of all parts of the machine.
In total, it was through the daily and regular application of these four techniques and the specific details associated with each of them, techniques that at the same time are continually reinforced and sustained through such mechanisms as observation and monitoring, that the whole disciplining process becomes normal, and indeed natural: you do ‘this’ and ‘this’ in ‘this’ way and at ‘this’ time and ‘this’ is what you will produce. Such clarity in the exercise of discipline also meant that through the actions of a number of carefully chosen assistants and the administration of a battery of exams to check individuals’ progress, spot their weaknesses and develop exercises to overcome those weaknesses, keeping everyone ‘on track’ became possible. Or in Foucault’s words, “discipline made possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body.”
BUT… and this is a very important but, as well as bodies (in our case here athletes) becoming productive through the exercise of disciplinary power, because of the meticulous control by someone else in order for this to occur, those bodies also became docile. That is they are ready to accept instruction; are easily managed or taught; are submissive, malleable and obedient; are unquestioning, compliant and following; are apathetic, un-thoughtful and even mechanical, or worst of all, they are robotic. And as scores of research has shown, including our own with a number of high-performance distance running coaches, this is the unintended consequence of planning’s historical (read subjective) legacy that can be disastrous for athletes.
Of course, as social scientists it is impossible for us to provide objective evidence of the presence and effects of docility as a result of coaches’ planning practices, just as it is impossible for any applied sport science researcher to claim a causal link to performance following any intervention he or she might design. However, through some specific examples taken from different workshops and seminars we have done with a number of track and field coaches we believe it is possible to illustrate how a focus and adherence to efficiency and order and measurement and monitoring can produce athletes who are less not more prepared to manage successfully the challenges of training and the uncertainty and chaos of competition.
DOCILITY AND [UNDER] PERFORMANCE
As our first example of how the details of disciplinary power can undermine an athlete’s performance, consider an 800m runner, let’s call her Sarah, who is in a race that includes the best runner on her team, who despite the fact that she is clearly struggling, Sarah is hesitant to pass her. Why? Now of course there could be many reasons to explain this situation, but from a Foucauldian perspective one explanation could be that through the daily ranking and ordering that occurs within Sarah’s training group - because of how her coach organizes his athletes to make it easier for him to supervise, hierarchize, reward and measure them - Sarah could have easily begun to feel as if she was locked into ‘her specific ranking’ no matter what else might be happening around her. As a result, Sarah finds it hard to break out of this space - it’s the space she’s always in - that she has become normalized to occupy and pass her teammate.
Or consider Richard, a 1500m runner, who typically gave-up in races when he heard a split time slower than the 60-second lap pace he was intending to run. Why? Again, as with Sarah, there could be multiple reasons for this, but one reason might be that Richard’s coach may not have considered how the strict and regular application of time, either through the administration of a formal timetable to organize practice or the timing of every single repetition and recovery that Richard ran in training, or indeed every time Richard runs, could have begun to function in such a way that how Richard thinks about what is possible for him to achieve as a runner, running negative splits in a race, for example, has become heavily correlated with the way in which time is used and administered every day in training. In other words, Richard knows that running 60 seconds per lap is useful, running 61 isn’t. Thus, while regulating time can be very useful for a coach to ensure that his or her practices run efficiently or that his or her athletes develop a sense of pace, as Foucault showed in his research on prisons, when the body is minutely and precisely controlled through regulated cycles of time, time actually begins to penetrate the body to the extent that individuals’ estimation of their capacities and capabilities becomes fixed within the strict boundaries of what counts as important.
As another example, take Cassie, a 400m runner, who on a Tuesday failed to run her 3 x 200m ‘benchmark’ workout as fast as she had done a month earlier and as a result decided to scratch from Saturday’s race. Why? This example speaks to the way in which bodies can be controlled (read limited and constrained) through successive or parallel segments of movement. Put differently, whenever a series of exercises, like a benchmark workout, field test or time trial, is used to examine an athlete and make sure that he or she is progressing according to the plan, athletes can easily begin to believe that to be useful and productive they can only progress in relation to a specific or pre-ordained itinerary and not in relation to their own feelings, thoughts and experiences, which of course can change at any moment within the midst of a race or competition. As a result, while set plans can be very effective for organizing large groups of people to be reasonably productive they may be less effective when one is attempting to get an individual to do something outstanding, exceptional or exquisite, as is the case for track and field coaches.
Or what about Brandon, who lost his motivation to be a sprinter and decided to become a long jumper thinking it would be fresh and new and like starting all over, but after a year felt the same way about the long jump as he had about the sprints and quit track and field altogether? This example points to Foucault’s concern with the way in which the combination or composition of disciplinary power’s forces can mean that “there is not a single moment of life from which one cannot extract forces.” So in truth, nothing substantial had changed about Brandon’s routines - only his event - as the disciplinary forces remained the same - an unceasing extraction of forces. Accordingly, Brandon’s ‘motivation problem’ might have had less to do with him and more to do with how his coach exercised his power in the design and implementation of his training plan.
Now let’s consider an example involving a coach. Laura worked in a high-performance environment with a small group of very committed shot putters. However, she couldn’t understand why after expanding her sport science support team to include a sport psychologist and an exercise physiologist her athletes were not throwing any farther. Why? This example illustrates well one of the many paradoxes at play in the exercise of disciplinary power. As Foucault showed, observation, surveillance or monitoring can increase or tighten the effects of power in a way that makes it harder for individuals to believe they have any control over their development. As a result, there could have been an increase in Laura’s shot putters’ docility because of the additional people overseeing their development that led to a corresponding decrease in their performances. Not only that, her throwers now have considerably more to think about when they compete. That is, considerably more performance ‘aspects’ to take into consideration. So rather than being ‘freed’ to perform, Laura’s shot putters are potentially being ‘constrained-even-more’ to perform. So it is, that because of the complex ways in which power operates, a coach’s decision that was seemingly made in the best interests of his or her athletes - expanding one’s sport science resources - could actually backfire.
Sticking with another coaching example, Emma’s coach struggled to celebrate after she won a Silver Medal at her Conference Championships because he believed she could have won the Gold if she had only dropped two kilos. Why? This example illustrates how understanding athlete development and performance as progressive, rational and linear - an effect of coaching’s dominant scientific logic - can become hugely problematic. What is informing Emma’s coach’s disappointment is the idea that an objective measure such as body weight can be correlated directly with performance. This is to privilege homogeneity and normality at the expense of heterogeneity, emotion and happiness or other contextual factors that greatly influence an athlete’s performance, perhaps in some cases even more so than a couple of extra kilos of body weight; it is to view the athlete as being made up of a number of discrete parts that should be able to be ‘assembled’ or that get ‘magically’ put-back together to form a highly functioning machine through the strict application of a number of specific disciplinary details, such as a weekly weigh-in.
Or here is an example probably every coach can relate to. Despite numerous pleas from his coach to “step-up,” or “show some spirit or fight” or “stop being afraid to take a risk,” Luke never seemed to develop that “go for it attitude” and reach the standard of performance that his coach believed was well within him. Why? This example speaks to how, through the normal and everyday exercise of disciplinary power athletes can begin to feel as if they are just a cog in a system. As a result, while an athlete can become highly skilled and very active within such a system, at the same he or she is likely to become very passive with respect to making decisions on his or her own or taking risks.
As our final example, consider the case of Jan who prided himself on being an athlete-centered coach who always thought about his athletes’ individual needs when designing their training. This was why he was so surprised when Scott and Dermot told him they were quitting the team because they were burnt-out. Why? Well, as Foucault wrote: “The exercise of disciplinary power and all its details fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways; it establishes calculated distributions.” In other words, while a coach might think that he or she is meeting his or her athletes’ individual needs and differences through his or her willingness to modify his or her training plan (the sets, reps, recoveries, times, distances, etc.), in reality such minor accommodations are unlikely to disrupt or destabilize the disciplinary logic or docile-making qualities inherent in planning’s many taken-for-granted details regarding the control of space, time, movement and progression that have been closely associated with the onset of burnout if they are not being done with that specific intent in mind.
To coach is to enter into a relationship with an athlete or athletes that will undoubtedly be influenced and effected by a range of social factors that cannot be disregarded. We appreciate that this post will likely be the first time many of you have encountered a Foucauldian analysis of all that power does with respect to such an ordinary - and necessary - coaching practice as planning. We realize, too, that many of the ideas in this post might be challenging or uncomfortable to think about. Fortunately for us, we know that coaches tend to be incredibly forward-thinking and willing to consider any new idea or perspective that shows some promise to help their athletes improve. And we believe taking into consideration all that power does is certainly something that coaches could begin to do to enhance their athletes’ performances.
For example, one takeaway message that we hope stands out from this post is that viewing an athlete who is having some performance related ‘problem’ as someone who needs ‘fixing’ because he or she is not doing what’s expected of him or her might sometimes be a faulty strategy. Rather, that athlete’s problem might be a result of the social dynamics and relations of power circulating in and around his or her daily training environment - the effects of docility. In which case, a change to those dynamics and relations rather than the individual athlete needs to become the focus of any intervention or change. It’s the knowledge and practice, and the way a coach is using that knowledge and practice, that may be the problem, not the athlete.
So then, knowing this now, where to from here? How can a coach begin to use his or her knowledge and power in less disciplining, dominating and docile-making ways? How might a coach’s programming and pedagogy specifically change? What new personal qualities could a coach develop?
Answering these questions will be the focus of our next post. And just so you know, one answer we will NOT suggest is that coaches stop planning or stop caring about winning, success or performance; given the ever complex and fluid nature of power our suggestions for change will never be presented as an ‘either-or’ situation. Rather, our aim will be to suggest how a coach can begin to recognize and address some of the forces or powers present and active within his or her coaching context and the effects they produce.