Monday, 27 June 2016

Beginning to Coach with Power in Mind - a guest post by Joe Mills & Jim Denison

In the last post, Professors Denison and Mills went into detail on how power works in the social world - or ‘real’ world - what power is, and how this power can affect our coaching.  Hopefully the last two posts have provided one exciting insights and perspectives into becoming more effective coaches.  In this third - and final - post, Professors Denison and Mills illustrate how planning can be made sense of differently when one considers what power does as well as what it has done in the past.

I'd really like to thank Joe and Jim for writing this series, and allowing me to host it on the blog.  It's a very interesting field, and their take is truly unique.  I hope that these posts have brought this important work to a larger population, and that the readers can see value in what is presented.  

Joe and Jim would like to thank their colleague Tim Konoval for his input in shaping the ideas in this post following his recent spell as a Foucualdian-informed coach developer working for a season with a university cross-country coach (publications on the impact of that program will be forthcoming).

If you have not yet read parts I and II, I encourage you do so.  If you have, then ...

Please enjoy Part III:


We ended our last post with a number of examples of how many normal and everyday planning practices, when viewed through Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power, can undermine coaches and athletes in various ways without them realizing it. To support this claim, we argued that because we tend to understand the world ahistorically - as the only way it is possible to be - it is very easy to forget that the knowledge and practices of planning result more from relations of power, or the shaping of different perspectives, than any intrinsic qualities of truthfulness in the scientific method.

As a result, we continued, while there is no question that science has produced a great deal of useful knowledge that has progressed our thinking and our practices, there is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ about the formation and development of that knowledge. For example, the science of ‘bio-mechanics’ was conceived at the same time that heavy industrialization was dominating the landscape and so drew from engineering (one of bio-mechanic’s founders Karl Culmann was a railroad engineer) to break-up and analyze the body as a ‘system’ or ‘structure’ with discrete and isolated ‘functions.’ In other words, given a different historical moment or context the idea that the body was intended to function as a ‘system of isolated parts’ might have never arisen.

Following on from bio-mechanics, and as more and more discrete and minute elements of the body and performance became micro-analyzed through further ‘advances’ in science brought on by specific social and cultural developments, such as the rise of capitalism, we see now in coaching a dominant logic that views athletes as having a variety of different ‘bits’ to be worked on - a series of compartmentalized parts that are assumed to work well together when they are put back to make athletes whole again. 

Granted, this logic does make sense to a degree, which is why the specificity and precision of the disciplinary techniques that form coaches’ planning practices in the ways that we described in our last post lends itself so beautifully to the ‘compartmentalized-transformation’ of the athlete. But when examined critically this logic doesn’t make as much sense as you might think, which is why our central theme throughout this series has been to question that which supposedly ‘makes sense.’ For as we showed in our last post, this so-called ‘sensible’ scientific compartmentalized-transformation of athletes also creates a number of problems. 

In other words, science and planning give, but when applied wholesale or without taking into consideration all that science and planning do, they also take away. 

But this does not necessarily have to be the case. Change is always possible. All that remains to ask is, how? And towards that end, in this, our final post in this series, we want to revisit the examples from our previous post to illustrate how planning can be made sense of differently when one considers what power does as well as what it has done in the past. Thus, rather than science and planning giving and then taking away, we hope to show how they can keep on giving. 

As you read through our alternative planning logic, you might find some of our suggestions easier to accept than others; some may be more straightforward to implement; some, however, might make you uncomfortable and lead you to question your preferred coaching style; you might find that some are similar to each other and that some are more philosophical than practical, while some, you might think, are impractical, unworkable and make no sense at all. However, keep in mind throughout that it is not our intention to promote these suggested solutions as the final word on these problems. Rather, they are ideas or recommendations for beginning to think and coach differently; they are starting points for a fresh approach to coaching, a coaching logic or philosophy that has as its priority the development of coaching practices that are less disciplining and docile-making.

In other words, we are suggesting, in line with our post-structural sensibilities, a gradually developing philosophical or cultural shift in the way you think about coaching - that new voice for coaching that we referred to in our second post. Accordingly, we begin with some solutions to the problems we identified in our last post that are more philosophical in nature, or that encourage broader thinking and doing, before we offer some more practical solutions to the remaining problems we identified in that post. 


In one of the later example problems from our previous post, we presented the case of Laura, a shot-put coach whose throwers failed to improve despite her expanding her scientific support team. We explained how one of the paradoxes of increasing one’s scientific support is that with more information there also comes more ways for a coach to constrain and restrain her athletes - to use her power - because there is now more data and more aspects of preparation for her athletes to think about, to adhere to, to report back on and to be ‘made docile’ by.

Now, keep in mind, we absolutely - and we cannot emphasize this enough - are not suggesting you sack your scientific support team. What we are suggesting is that you begin to become more aware of the possible effects that increases in monitoring and surveillance can produce - the effects of how one uses his or her power to control, measure and judge. Or in more simple terms, we believe it is critical that coaches begin to look for the ways in which doing some ‘thing’ that clearly seems to make sense doesn’t and then, importantly, stop doing that ‘thing’ and begin to think how to work around it. 

Unfortunately, Laura was not able to do this. Why? Well, most likely because any awareness of the ‘workings of power’ was not part of her decision-making framework and as a result she remained unaware of ALL that her coaching techniques and practices were doing. Moreover, because she is bound by the dominant assumptions that underpin these practices, her performance enhancement techniques as well as her problem-solving strategies can only come from within this ‘scientifically-driven compartmentalized-transformative’ logic, hence the expansion of her scientific support team as her approach to becoming a better coach. Thus, despite the untold number of unintended consequences, contradictions, paradoxes or ‘things’ that Laura might even sense doesn’t make sense from following this logic, she continues to follow it and hope that eventually she will find a scientific solution that will work. Except of course that is likely to be a long wait because the same monitoring logic that contributed to Laura’s athletes’ docility in the first place is likely to be the same logic from which any so-called solution will arise. Which for our way of thinking about how to avoid making one’s athletes docile is not a solution at all.

Does this mean that coaches are scientific dupes? Of course not. We know that coaches rarely apply any scientific knowledge or advice literally and indeed are very often experts at ‘bending’ knowledge to suit their own contexts. But at the same time, as we explained in our previous posts, one effect of power and the long-lasting legacy this has had on the formation of sport and modern coaching, has been to establish and solidify science and data-driven or evidence-based coaching practices as true, best, natural and indeed the ‘only’ way. As a result, the logic underpinning these practices tends to remain undisturbed while at the same time any alternative logics remain marginalized. Therefore our proposed ‘new’ skepticism, we believe, goes a step further than even the best coaches’ skepticism of science because it involves questioning any sense of trueness, naturalness or normalness in how one coaches. Instead it means seeing one’s practices as social constructions formed within and through relations of power, which by definition means that it is possible to change them when they are not working as well as they could.

And it is here - at a broader philosophical level - where we want to intervene in terms of how you see knowledge working. For as we previously stated, while there is no question that science produces reliable knowledge that does progress practice, there is in reality nothing ‘natural’ about this. There is always a historical and political connection to everything we do that is related to the workings of power - nothing is innocent. And so, the normal, true and natural thing is actually a subjective, artificial and specific thing. Again that doesn’t mean that thing is ‘bad’ per say or that it is useless - absolutely not. But it does mean that when applying that thing within a particular context or to a specific case it might make less sense: it might be a much more questionable thing to do than even the best coaches realize. For example, while the laws of motion cannot be questioned, how those laws apply to every moving part in the body in a meaningful and coherent way - that is all 100+ joints and 700+ muscles each of which are free to vary with certain degrees of freedom - seems a very important practical question that needs to be asked because it better reflects the realities of movement.

Therefore, getting back to Laura, for her to begin to understand why more of a supposedly good thing - more sport science support - may not necessarily be so, she would need to move from a place where she relies on the ‘one truth’ that science provides, to a place where ‘multiple truths’ exist. After all, the world is not static and fixed but continually changing, which is why it makes such good sense to adopt a way of thinking and doing - a post-structuralist coaching philosophy - that better reflects this everyday reality. In other words, as opposed to a reductionist scientifically-driven compartmentalized coaching philosophy, a post-structuralist coaching philosophy can help you understand and manage more effectively the ‘continually shifting’ ever-changing nature of the world and by association coaching.

Moreover, understanding that ‘truths’ are just that, plural and not singular, means that as a coach you are not trying to impose or ‘force’ a truth onto a person because that practice should work. Rather, you are moving slowly and cautiously and always problematizing what you do - actively ‘looking’ for problems, contradictions, paradoxes or effects that you wouldn’t normally expect. For example: is there such a thing as ‘too’ much strength? At what point do bulky muscles impede the joints they surround? Why did that music intervention over-arouse one athlete yet under-arouse another? Why did that imagery protocol work at the start of the season, but not now? In other words, problematizing doesn’t mean looking for problems because you want to be annoying or pessimistic but because you want to prevent your athletes from being undermined by practices you previously thought of as normal, best or sensible. That is, practices you now know may not necessarily be working in your athletes’ best interests because you recognize how they have been constructed through various relations of power as opposed to some objective knowledge making process. 

And not practicing in this way leads us nicely into our example problem concerning Emma, whose coach was unhappy with her Silver Medal performance because he thought the Gold was possible if only she had been able to drop another two kilos. Now, the normal thing for Emma to do in this case in order to better prepare herself to win would have been, as her coach was trying to impress on her, to lose the two kilos, which she didn’t do, hence the problem for her coach. Except the actual problem may not have been Emma’s inability or unwillingness to lose two kilos but her coach’s reliance on norms, measures, base-lines, times, statistics and numbers to help Emma perform her best, rather than taking a ‘whatever will or needs to work in Emma’s life’ approach to help her perform her best. Therefore, instead of the disciplined, linear, progressive, additive ‘2 + 2 = 4’ approach to coaching that imposes a raft of norms, measures and statistics onto Emma that are assumed to result in better performances - because of the power they hold as being true and correct - we believe that Emma’s coach could have been helped by problematizing what other effects those norms might have. 

For example, what if Emma’s coach developed a greater awareness and appreciation of the fact that Emma might be more likely to perform her best if she has checked off the broader characteristics of being happy and content as opposed to making some monastic sacrifice to achieve various 1% marginal gains that in the end might lead her to resent everything in her life related to sport? Not only that, sacrificing her happiness for the sake of sport could significantly increase the pressure that Emma places on herself when she competes (e.g., “I have sacrificed so much, I have to perform now or else it’s all been for nothing”), which as we know can be a serious problem for many athletes. 

In this way, the invisibility of happiness and confidence as performance measures could be placed against the visibility of two less kilos. And as a result, ‘well-roundedness,’ or control over one’s life as an athlete, could be held up and valued just as high if not higher than the norms surrounding body fat percentages and other KPI’s. Tough to do? Indeed it would be in this science-driven, evidence-based (read visible) world. But worth it? Big picture wise we certainly think so because a happier athlete is intuitively more likely to remain in sport longer and thus have greater opportunities to learn, grow, develop and improve.


In one of our final example problems from our last post, we described how Luke was unable to show any ‘spirit’ or ‘fight’ or just simply ‘go for it’ no matter what his coach said. As we argued, this might have been because through the everyday exercise of disciplinary power by Luke’s coach, which has as its focus making bodies - remember Foucault’s prisoners, soldiers, workers and pupils - efficient, productive, controllable and predictable, a predictability that is easily maintained and reinforced through a range of monitoring and examination technologies - from logbooks, to videos, to stopwatches, to time trials, to scientific data and so on - Luke could have easily begun to experience his daily training environment as a ‘learning machine.’ That is, a machine where his body has been broken down and compartmentalized to such a degree that he has in effect become a ‘machine’ within another ‘machine:’ a docile body and not a thinking and engaged athlete. 

In other words, ‘knowing’ that one of the stand out ‘truths’ in sport is that ‘you get good at what you practice’ there is the very real danger that if athletes are constantly and regularly subjected to coaching practices that are highly rational, broken-down, compartmentalized, planned, systematic, coordinated, integrated, stable, predictable, manageable, progressive, principled, accurate, efficient, logical, controlled, deliberate, and strategic… then that is how they (or various parts of them) will likely perform because that is what they have practiced doing. 

Put another way, how can Luke possibly learn to ‘go for it,’ if his training is always oriented around something other than himself - his specific pace in his specific place, his watch, his log book, his coach’s instructions, his benchmark workout, his teammates’ workouts, his Garmin and so on? Thus, if Luke’s coach really wants Luke to show more ‘spirit and fight’ when he competes then he will have to disrupt the cumulative application of any number of small details (the disciplinary techniques we outlined in our second post) that ordinarily make coaches believe they are doing a great job. Otherwise, it is inevitable that having been made docile by these small details, which paradoxically and as ‘logic’ holds are all the ‘right’ things to do, Luke will be less willing and capable of ‘taking a risk’ because the primary impetus for his growth, development and performance has been imposed on him by the comprehensiveness in his routine and the supposed right things to do. 

Moreover, even if Luke’s coach does allow Luke to decide what to do, because there is such a strong understanding of what the ‘right’ things to do are, it is almost certain that Luke will choose to do what his coach would have had him do anyway - a self-imposed docility - which is in reality no choice at all. In other words, Luke remains, for the most part, passive - even when his coach ‘thinks’ he is allowing Luke the freedom to choose - when to succeed in sport an athlete needs above almost everything else to be active. In terms of what it might actually mean in practice for a coach to disrupt the cumulative application of discipline’s various techniques, we will take this up in our final three examples. For now, though, we want to discuss two more cases from our last post where, like all of our examples up to this point, we believe the solution is more philosophical in nature. 

If you recall, we discussed the case of Jan, who despite considering himself to be an athlete-centered coach proud of his ability to design individual training plans for his athletes, saw two of his athletes, Scott and Dermott, quit because they were feeling burnt-out. Again, like Luke’s coach in the previous example, what Jan failed to recognize was that his idea of individuality was oriented more around Scott and Dermott’s individual differences to carry out his training plan - a so-called correct and ‘tested’ training plan - rather than any true differences in their needs, interests, motivations, preferences or backgrounds. For example, it is likely that Jan willingly accommodated Scott’s needs by changing his Sunday long run to Monday one week because Scott was visiting his girlfriend’s parents on that Sunday. Just as he likely saw the benefit of Dermott only completing six of a planned 10 repetitions in a particular workout because of his tight hamstring. 

But hopefully as you can see, these changes are quite superficial and obvious accommodations that will not counter in any serious or sustainable way the disciplined, docile-inducing, specific, monitored, measured and machine-like workouts that Scott and Dermott still carried out based on Jan’s reductionist ‘scientifically-driven compartmentalized-transformative’ training plan.

Along the same lines, in another one of our examples, Brandon also left the sport because training and competing had become a drudgery, something he thought he could solve by changing events. Except for Brandon, neither of his events - the 100m or the long jump -  were the problem; it wasn’t his event that needed to be changed for him to rejuvenate his love of track and field just as it wasn’t his attitude or commitment that needed to be adjusted. What needed to change was the docile-inducing machine-producing disciplinary framework that ran across his coach’s approach to training. Therefore, at the end of the day, all that Brandon really achieved by changing events was to switch places within the same framework, which is not a change or starting afresh at all. It is more of the same and therefore an inadequate solution to his declining motivation.

In other words, it didn’t matter which event Brandon was training for, because like Scott and Dermott, he had been made to feel through his training program like a ‘machine on a production line,’ and so it was this production line that he needed to get off. Such a change, of course, could only occur if Brandon’s coach was able to problematize how his training program was so ‘disciplining’ that it had the unintended consequence of stripping away any fun and enjoyment of being an athlete for Brandon. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter how ‘new’ or ‘sophisticated’ or ‘advanced’ Brandon’s coach’s production line might become in order to keep Brandon excited and engaged because at the end of the day it is still a production line making people into machines. 

Now, in terms of a solution to these problems involving Scott, Dermott and Brandon, what we are suggesting that Jan needs to do to truly coach in an athlete-centred way and what Brandon’s coach needs to do to reduce the possibility of more of his athletes quitting, is alter dramatically their reliance on their normal training plans and begin to give serious attention, not just lip service, to all that’s going on in their athletes’ lives and all that has gone on in their lives - their particular movement histories. This means not allowing themselves to be wholly dictated by particular - arbitrary, artificial, constructed, compartmentalized and systematically structured - periodization plans and schedules or the latest advances coming from the sport sciences. In other words, Jan and Brandon’s coach need to begin to coach in ways other than those methodical, systematic, predictable, controlled, inherently cautious and economically efficient ways that, as we have previously discussed, are a legacy of modern sport and coaching’s historical formation as an institution that mirrored the sorts of control and organization required of a capitalist society, an aim that has very little to do with what sport and coaching should be about: people working together in original ways to produce something unique and exquisite.

We clearly acknowledge that such a shift in thinking is likely to be very challenging for Jan and Brandon’s coach. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Perhaps they can begin to trust that Scott, Dermott and Brandon all want to do well and so rather than having to be managed they simply need to be guided. As a result, they might be able to begin to consider how to tap into some of their specific characteristics and histories and become more comfortable in not always knowing if their athletes are on track. 

For example, Jan could re-structure his training some weeks for Scott in terms of hard-easy days from his typical H-E-H-E-H-E-E sequence to an E-E-E-E-H-E-E sequence because feeling recovered and bursting with energy is very important to Scott. Or, he could have Dermott occasionally do two hard workouts on the same day because for him real challenges get him excited. Or, because Dermott also enjoys taking risks and loves the outdoors Jan could substitute an activity like bouldering for his strength work in the weight room. Similarly, Jan could forgo any reliance on ‘hard’ or visible evidence for a week, two weeks or a month to measure and record the intensity of Scott’s and Dermott’s workouts and just trust them to run hard - which is actually what they enjoy doing anyway and what they need to be able to do well when they compete. And regarding Brandon, his coach could challenge him to discover and refine on his own some elements of his long jump technical model in an effort to gain greater ownership over his training. Collectively, through these changes, Scott, Dermott and Brandon could all begin to assume and assert more control over their bodies, their development and their performances. 

Would implementing any of these suggestions really be so difficult? We would challenge any coach who would say they are too risky by suggesting that it might actually be riskier not to take these risks. That’s because from our perspective it is the unintended consequences associated with coaches’ failure to take such ‘risks’ and coach in less controlling and disciplining ways that poses the greatest risk for coaches’ success today - unless you want what you’ve always had. In other words, don’t kid yourself in thinking that your routine and known way of coaching is risk free because it’s not. 


Up to this point we have used five of our ‘problem’ examples from our last post to illustrate how and why you might consider thinking more broadly - thinking like a post-structuralist - about your practices by reconsidering how you think about coaching. With our remaining three examples, however, we would like to suggest how you might solve these problems by considering what you might actually ‘do’ differently. And to begin, let’s turn to our attention to Cassie, a 400m runner who pulled out of her upcoming race when she failed to run a ‘benchmark’ workout as fast as she had earlier in the season. 

For many coaches Cassie’s problem would likely be framed as just that: Cassie’s problem. “She needs to stop putting so much pressure on herself.” “She needs to let a bad workout go.” But this is to ignore all that power does in producing an athlete’s training plan: its scientific premise, its success in comparison to other athletes, its clear objective definition of Cassie’s abilities as an athlete and her subsequent worth as a human being. To believe that Cassie can ignore these consequences and be okay when her training results deviate from the plan is na├»ve - her status as an athlete and her worth as a human being is on the line

For something that power also does is prescribe incredibly fine margins to define an athlete’s achievements as normal or as abnormal. And in so doing, as we indicated at the start of the previous paragraph, it is the athlete who typically becomes the source of the problem - she or he is abnormal - when she or he underperforms as opposed to the power that the plan has acquired in defining normality. That is why our solution for this problem has very little to do with Cassie and more to do with her coach. Specifically, we would like to see her coach diminish, weaken or undermine his training plan’s power so that Cassie does not believe it is so important for her to produce a particular time at a particular time in order to be ready to race. So, what might this involve?

To begin, rather than Cassie’s coach talking to her about training as a series of sequential steps to follow - “you do ‘this’ and ‘this’ in ‘this’ way and at ‘this’ time and ‘this’ is what you should produce” - we would suggest that he ask her such questions as: “Cassie, what do you need to be able to do at a particular time to be able to do your best at a particular time? How do you need to feel, what do you need to think in order to feel that, what do you need to do? Are you confident you can do that, and if not let’s practice ‘that’” whatever ‘that’ is. As you can see, such an approach to coaching means not always emphasizing to Cassie what times she needs to run in practice to turn in a particular performance, such as an important qualifying time, but helping her think how she might actually run or how she might ‘feel’ her way to running to produce her performance - which after all is more likely to help Cassie reach that particular standard. 

In other words, we would question why Cassie needs to have her progress tested so much through benchmark workouts, if ever - isn’t that what races are for? Surely Cassie just needs to be able to do what she needs to be able to do. Or put another way, the most important thing for Cassie is the most important thing to do. And it is when Cassie’s coach, together with Cassie, can identify what ‘that’ is that Cassie will likely begin to perform better and flourish as a result.

Of course we are well aware that it is part of a coach’s role to steer and direct his or her athletes’ development. However, it is the extent to which this should occur given that it is the athlete on the track or in the field who needs to perform not the coach who is in the stands that is the point we are trying to press. For example, even though we know athletes often say to their coaches, “just tell me what to do, you’re the coach,” we would expect a coach informed by a post-structuralist approach to coaching to reply, “and you’re the athlete so you’d better figure it out; and quickly.”

In other words, although you might know what position you want your athletes to be in at any given time, such as the specific spot on the runway for your long jumper to take her penultimate step, or the angle of your sprinter’s ankle prior to ground contact, or your 800m runner’s location in the pack with 200m remaining or when your cross-country runners should be in bed every night, we believe it is important that you continually problematize what your sense of ‘right’ is based on; whether your athletes agree with that; and whether there are alternatives - including suggestions from your athletes - that in fact might be better. A similar degree of problematization is also needed, we believe, whenever you think you might know the best way to motivate your athletes or provide them with feedback. Be careful not to assume that adopting some ‘model’ or a ‘series of steps’ to follow will always work or be unproblematic - truths not truth - no matter how long they have been around. For as we have repeatedly shown throughout this series, human interaction is too complicated and messy - too contextual - for any type of formula or behavioral intervention to be universally applicable.

Our next example, Sarah the 800m runner, who found it difficult to pass her faster teammate in a race (who we’ll call Susan) because of the daily ranking and ordering that occurred within her training group, presents a great opportunity to discuss how easily athletes can become normalized to occupy a particular role or position based on something as seemingly innocent (remember nothing is innocent) as organizing your athletes at practice into groups based on their times, their rankings. As one solution to this problem, Sarah’s coach could begin to think of ‘ever-changing’ positions and rankings that Sarah could occupy in training - leader, back, middle, towards the front, in front of Susan, behind the slower Jenny - accompanied by ‘ever-changing’ instructions; such as “start five seconds behind Susan and catch her before 234m,” or “start three seconds ahead of Susan and don’t let her pass you” or “run with Jenny for the first half of the rep and then see if you can catch Susan.” 

In other words, as a coach it can be quite easy to ‘play’ with and continually mix-up your athletes’ experiences of rank, which not only will mirror more precisely the sorts of positions they will likely find themselves in during a competition, but will also start to diminish the power or effects that ranking can have on athletes’ assessments of themselves as being destined to occupy a certain position. With such variable and ever-changing experiences of rank, therefore, when faced with a new experience such as being in the lead after the first three throws or jumps or feeling good enough to pass a faster teammate, an athlete might be less likely to doubt his or her capacities and capabilities and freeze.

Our final example problem from our last post concerned Richard, who often gave-up in races when he heard a split time slower than the pace he hoped to run. This situation could be said to be a result of Richard’s coach’s investment in the strict and regular application of time. As Foucault argued, time literally penetrates the body in so many different ways - macro, micro, mesocycles; months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds even - such that at all times an individual knows what is useful time and what isn’t. Therefore, because of Richard’s coach’s strict regulation of time, Richard’s body is always held in relation to time, which of course can come with the adverse effect of ‘capping’ what Richard might believe is not only possible for him to do in a race but what is also worthy of him to do. Thus, while the strict measurement and accountability of time makes sense in a manufacturing context where controlling for and preventing difference, variety and spontaneity is important, it makes less sense in a coaching context where facilitating difference, variety and spontaneity is not just important, it’s essential. As such, running negative splits was a scenario that was too difficult for Richard to comprehend or to imagine he was capable of doing, hence his decision to shut down. 

Similar to our previous example involving Sarah, one way that Richard’s coach could prevent this situation from occurring could be to ‘ever-change,’ ‘constantly disrupt,’ ‘play with’ or ‘mix up’ Richard’s experiences of time. Again, there are an infinite number of ways that he could achieve this, such as designing workouts where time is ‘drastically altered.’ For example, instead of asking Richard to average 60 seconds for 8 x 400m, he could suggest that Richard run 57, 64, 64, 55, 69, 65, 52, and 61; or run reps 5-7 in 55 seconds; or instead of taking 60 seconds between each rep, Richard could have 15 seconds between two of them, three minutes, or any time he wanted. 

Given that it is effort that produces the time a runner runs and not time that produces the time, Richard’s coach could aim to help Richard develop a more fluid and holistic understanding of what he needs to be able to do to reach his performance goals. This could involve putting his stopwatch away for a workout, or for a week of workouts or even for a month of workouts and instead of seeing his job as timing Richard he could see it as encouraging Richard to learn how to focus on sensing and noticing his body’s efforts as he searches for a running rhythm or intensity that will enable him to manage more effectively the pain and discomfort of racing. This could mean asking Richard to run repetitions where reaching exhaustion not reaching a fixed mark on the track in a specific time became the goal, or focusing on feeling the inevitable ‘bite’ in his repetitions at progressively later stages while maintaining a relaxed posture. Alternatively, Richard could run a series of repetitions that each came with a novel challenge, such as running with ease, running slow then fast, running as fast as possible in synch to a particular breath count, or running at maximum intensity for the first half and then attempting to finish without losing his form. 

In other words, when coaching with a post-structuralist mindset, where continually problematizing and changing norms, traditions and dominant expectations becomes the ‘new norm,’ there are an endless number of creative, innovative and imaginative workouts and learning outcomes one can devise. Workouts and learning outcomes, importantly, that all derive from a greater understanding of power, what it has done and what it continues to do. You just need to know more about power.


By definition sport begins and ends with winning. The question for a coach then becomes, what do I need to do to help my athletes win? The answer for most coaches is to become better at designing and implementing the right workouts at the right time to get their athletes fit. Six reps or eight, two sets or three, eight minutes recovery or 10, 85% intensity or 95%. Granted, tinkering with such details - the X’s and O’s of coaching - will always be important. But, given all that we have shown that tends to get ignored in this process, is it really the most important thing to do? 

Athletes are not machines who simply need calibrating to perform their best, even though they might sometimes want to be treated this way. You are not assembling widgets that all need to think, act, look and perform in identical ways otherwise the customer will ask for her money back. Quite the opposite in fact. You are producing something much more complex and intricate: a human being capable of doing something unique and exquisite.

That is why writing this series of blog-posts has been very exciting for us because in the same way that coaches love to tinker with the details of their training plans we know they also love to grapple with challenging ideas. And we’re grateful for that disposition because there remains pressure on all of us - sport scientists, performance consultants, coaches, coach developers - to bring deeper ideas to coaching that include analyses from all manner of disciplines. 

After all there is nothing obvious about coaching, nothing we should take-for-granted and nothing that is free of other consequences. This - applying our post-structural informed ideas to coaching - is not snake oil; neither is it just including a few ‘frisbee-throwing’ exercises into your athletes’ warm-up routine to alleviate the monotony of their training. We realize this might sound harsh, but what we are asking is that you stop operating in such obvious ways or becoming excited by ‘new ideas’ that are actually very routine and instead move beyond any blind faith you might be holding onto in the economically efficient, reductionist scientifically-driven compartmentalized-transformative coaching logic that is so dominant today and begin to question how this logic might be undermining you without you even realizing it. Undermining you, that is, because of the lack of consideration you have given to the effects of power and what happens when people come together to work, interact, develop, use knowledge, create science and produce practices to perform and progress in optimal ways. 

Therefore, as you can hopefully appreciate now, this is an incredibly exciting time in coaching because there is a new and previously unconsidered intellectual voice at the table - post-structuralism - that can help you reimagine how good your athletes can actually be as well as how much more effective you can be. However, and this is very important, as often happens when people try to bring new ways of thinking and doing to their practices there are likely to be at first many mistakes, many false starts and many, many uncomfortable moments. This often leads people to revert to the security and comfort of their old patterns of thinking - recall how uncomfortable it is to sit in your car after having it serviced when the mechanic has shifted your seat to the place he or she likes; you immediately move the seat back and ‘jar’ at how uncomfortable that other position was. 

Thus as our final point, we hope that through this series of blog-posts we have helped you move your general coaching orthodoxy (your car seat) so that you now feel uncomfortable. Yes, we said we want you to feel uncomfortable. Because know this: as soon as you move that orthodoxy back to where you are comfortable you and your athletes will be stuck; you will all be limited and constrained by dominant, normal and traditional ways of thinking about what a good coach is supposed to do, ways, as we have tried to show, that have much less to do with coaching than most coaches realize. But if you are brave enough to embrace your new found discomfort you will almost certainly begin to see your athletes becoming more engaged, connected and committed to push forward and work harder than they ever have before because now it is their path to excellence they are on and not one constructed for them by someone or something else.

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.


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