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.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Disciplinary Power: recognizing some of the forces in coaching - a guest post by Joe Mills & Jim Denison

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


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.


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.


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.


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.