The joy of coaching something you don't understand
What knowledge do you need to be a good coach? Is being an expert yourself important? What if knowledge was a hindrance, that made you judgemental, stopped you asking the right questions, prevented you from listening and closed you off from the real possibilities? Could knowledge be stifling rather than a foundation to great coaching? Could it stunt learning rather than encourage it? Becoming Head Coach of the England Blind Cricket Team has made me think about these things. This was my chance to coach a game that I knew nothing about. How many coaches get that opportunity? We normally stick to what we know. Blind cricket couldn't be further away from my previous experience and knowledge. The game was different, with different rules and different equipment. What started as an unknown, exciting challenge, developed into being a profound influence on my understanding of coaching.
The chance to be inquisitive
You can’t help but be inquisitive the first time you see blind cricketers play the game. It is unique. Your head fills with questions beginning with “How” and “What if.” You explore possibilities without any boundaries, and make no judgements. You really enjoy watching the game and have a thirst to understand more. It is so thought provoking. It was a really productive state, that I can only link back to the time I picked up a miniature cricket bat in the back garden with my Dad aged six. It was childlike.
Do we become less inquisitive as our knowledge grows and our sensible experienced hat takes over? Do we jump to judgements too quickly as history tells us that things can’t be done like that? Or do great coaches stay inquisitive throughout? Do they stay childlike? I know I want to.
Where does knowledge come from
I had no experience of the game. I hadn’t even seen it. Isn’t the coach meant to be the expert? That definitely ran through my mind. My knowledge and experience didn’t fit. My only option, but what a great option, was to use the only source of knowledge available...the players. The coaching came in unlocking this knowledge. Giving the players the opportunity to play, watching intently, asking relevant questions, really listening, followed by lots of thinking. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. The players had to show, and communicate what they knew. It became a learning cycle for both player and coach. It took time. It needed to and it felt liberating. We solved problems together and got greater understanding. No prior knowledge seemed like an advantage. The players had a voice, a very strong voice and I was listening attentively. They felt valued and responsible for their own development. The coaching skill came in unlocking it and using whatever keys worked for the players in front of me.
Does knowledge in the wrong hands equal conformity and normality rather than really exploring true potential? Do we skip the problem solving and jump into judgements that fit our knowledge or experience? 100% in my case, but this experience has opened my eyes to another way.
The need to listen
I am convinced that there is a difference in our level of listening when we need to listen compared to when we want to listen. In this case I needed to listen. Of course I wanted to, but I needed to. I had no experience or knowledge, my knowledge was only going to come from listening. It was more attentive, it didn't always lead to answers but mainly to more questions. The information was heavily processed and etched in a longer lasting impression. I wasn’t waiting to talk, I wasn’t waiting to impart my knowledge or experience, the coaching was in questioning, listening and soaking it up.
Person before the player
Knowledge of the game is important but so is knowledge of the individual. Who they are, where they come from, what makes them tick. The game didn’t get in the way. I didn’t know the game. This created time and space to develop a meaningful, productive relationship. A real opportunity to talk about what really matters. Not just the surface stuff. At the time this felt like a luxury, it now feels like a necessity. What do we remember about our great coaches? The way they made us feel. This has to start with a relationship.
Would we have had this time if I was the expert? Would the game have got in the way? Not knowing the game gave us more space to cement a relationship.
This experience was a fluke. It wasn’t planned. I didn't expect that it would completely challenge the way I thought about coaching.
I am certainly not saying that knowledge is evil. It isn’t when used in the right way. This experience has highlighted to me what makes a great coach. They have a constant thirst for knowledge, and never feel that they know enough. They are always inquisitive. They see the game from outside the box, they don’t entertain boundaries, they find solutions. At the centre of everything that they do is the player, the player is the knowledge, the player is the one who has to perform, the coach helps them become the expert. They unlock potential that even the player didn’t know they had, they question and listen with the skill of an interrogator, not with the manner!! But above all, they build relationships.
If you get the chance, coach something that you know nothing about and see how it makes you think.
Ross is Head Coach of the England Visually Impaired cricket team, who have recently won the Ashes in Australia. Cricket is his passion and over time he has been lucky to be involved in many different roles - playing, coaching and supporting. He is a ECB Level 4 Mastercoach who lives in Hampshire with his wife and young family.