Coaching is creating a space

Uncategorized Jun 12, 2019

“That is what writing is: creating a space in which something can be said.”

- Karl Ove Knausgaard 

I happened upon this quote while scrolling my Twitter feed. I was skimming for nuggets of wisdom when this scrolled by me. I blew past it at first, but something caught. Like a nail snagging my clothing as I slid by, it caught me, forced me to pause and look back at it.


It had nothing to do with sports. Then again, much of what I read, study, ruminate on has little to do with sports. That is the fun part: connecting other disciplines with no seeming connection back to the youth sports. I see the footprints of excellence everywhere and try to follow them until I can discover something new to share with youth athletes. The more "off path" I go, the more exciting it is to bring it back to the game. Excellence can be found anywhere, you have to look for the footprints.

This quote was obscure compared to the myriad quotes I find and share, yet it hung there like the early morning marine layer. Hinting at something beautiful behind it, taunting me to wait for the fog to recede for clarity.

I pondered it. I walked around my back yard with it. I laid on my office floor and rolled it over and over in my mind, like a child trying to solve a Rubik's cube. If I roll it long enough, the answer may be revealed.

 Knausgaard was speaking directly to me. I didn't know what he was saying.

 "So is coaching."

I wrote that on a scratchpad by my computer and left it for a day or two. I knew when I stumbled across it again, I would have clarity. The marine layer would have receded.

Three days later, like an explorer discovering a lost and ancient city, I reread the quote, and my note, and made a connection to what I love most: developing coaches.

That is what coaching is: creating a space in which something can be said!

Not only by the coach. By the game, by the athletes, by the opponents, by the teammates. The coach will say something, and should, but that was not what Knausgaard had me tripping over with his quote. It was the SPACE created by the coach, in which others can say something that made sense. He had touched on something profound beyond the typewriter. Coaching is creating a space. For learning, for exploring, for growing, for interacting, and connecting, and experimenting. What if our role was to build a space where learning unfolds?

 The quote is from a book Knausgaard wrote on his writing process titled “Inadvertent”. I found a Goodreads entry that lists a number of favorite quotes. These other quotes brought more clarity and connection to his original for me.

 “Literature is not primarily a place for truths, it is the space where truths play out.”

 "Writing is about making something accessible, allowing something to reveal itself.”

 “Yes, I write because I want to open the world.”

 There is the blend of quotes that provides the philosophical underpinning of this post: that coaching creates a space in which something can be said. That coaching is about making something accessible, allowing something to reveal itself for the learners to discover...and explore. Coaching is not a place for hard truths, but a space where all truths play out and it is up to the learner to decipher the truths that matter most and adapt them to the game.

That finally, among all of this mind-bending and confusing philosophy of sport coaching there is this: the vast majority of us coach “because we want to open the world”. Writers write to create a space, to open a new world, to unlock something in others and this is why the vast majority of us coach. We want to open a world to our players.

 We want to provide our children with a space where the truth of learning can play out for them, and a space where something new and wondrous and transformational becomes accessible. We want to open the world, through the vehicle of sport. Profound. Yes. Simple. Yes. Easy to accomplish. No.

Balancing Knowledge of with Learning of

We want to open this world for them. Unlock the door, swing it wide open and let them explore, however, we have the knowledge of the game that must be transferred to them. We cannot sit idly by while they struggle when we hold the test key, can we?

Knausgaard addresses this struggle we all have to actually accomplish our mission of creating a space where children explore, say something, and access a deeper meaning. We struggle mightily to allow the space for them to actually learn. He also says, “It is one thing to know something, another to write about it and often knowing stands in the way of writing”. 

This is the obstacle to our creating the space and allowing that something to reveal itself to our athletes. For us, as accomplished coaches, and many as former players, it is one thing for us to know something, another to COACH that something and often knowing stands in the way of coaching. 

 We know the answers. We know the skills. We know the path. How could we possibly allow children to fumble around in the dark when we could easily turn on the light for them. We feel compelled to show them what we see.  And this, knowing gets in the way of coaching. Sport doesn't have an answer key. The answers are not time-tested and concrete algorithms. It is a puzzle with myriad and ever changing solutions. It is to be solved by the player, not the designer.

Coaching should not fill the space and provide all the answers. It should simply provide the space for solving. The space to create, to learn, to reveal, and to attempt. If we fill all that space, they have no room for the growth.

It's like the beauty of negative space in fine artwork. It isn't only the brush strokes that create the painting, it is also the space the artist purposely leaves that makes great art great. Great coaching knows that juxtaposition of a paint stroke here and a space to grow there. It is our opus, our masterpiece, as coaches to learn how to delicately balance what we say at the training and what can be said in the training. What we coach to them and what can be learned by them. They need us to coach, they do not need us to play the game for them.

 The same can be said for great music. As much is said in the silence as in the sounds. Our challenge is to write the score of their learning that gives them both sound and silence in harmony - that’s the space in which something can be said. 

Defining Space in Coaching

How does coaching provide that space and how can we allow coaching to rule where our own knowledge wants to obscure? By how we define “space” in our coaching practice. 

Space equals time. We must have patience. We create the space and then we are obligated to let them learn within it. This takes time. Sports and learning should be lifelong pursuits and thus the most important thing we can do is to be patient. Create the space and allow for it to reveal what needs to be revealed. 

Space also means exploration. How many of us looked to the stars in wonder as children, wanting to be Buck Rodgers or Captain Kirk and go where no “person” has gone before? When Kennedy said we would set foot on the moon, he wasn’t saying he would tell us what it is like, he meant, we would put a human being on the moon. And thus, generations of children have grown up wanting to go to space too.  We would KNOW what it was like. Space was there to explore, not to ponder. Playing sports is about exploration. Not pondering what it would be like to play, but playing. Not to be told what to do, but to explore with our own hearts, minds and bodies. As coaches, we create the space for them and then we must let them explore it. 

Space is about revelation. Why would we describe what the Mona Lisa looks like when we can take our kids to the museum to see for themselves. To have them feel that emotion, interpret the mind of the painter, intuit their own perception of what spoke to the artist. How many artists, musicians, writers, and actors were born the day the true beauty of the arts were revealed to them when they experienced them first hand? This is what sports should be for our children. Do you recall the first time you played the sport you love? That first moment of revelation of the game that sparked a passion in you that has grown stronger each day of your existence. Entire nations and beyond fall hopelessly in love with their team and their sports heroes through that revelation. Children must be given the space to fall in love with the game so it becomes a lifelong passion and a place of pure joy for them. 

 Finally, space is an opportunity for them to speak (to teach once is to learn twice). To try new things and fail, and use that failure as a road map for plotting a better course next time. To speak to each other and teach each other and support each other. We create the space for truth to play out among the children so our role becomes that of guide and fan and witness to their own learning. When your players are able to take the opportunity to teach each other in the space you create and you see the light bulbs go off for a group of children who once were lost and frustrated, that is the moment you understand what it means to coach. 

 Here are some ways in which you can create space as a coach:

  1. Create space with Silence. Learn the power of saying nothing at times to let them figure it out on their own. Silence is a powerful tool in music, in speeches, and in negotiations. We shouldn’t fear it but embrace it as a tool for allowing our children to guide their own learning. 
  2. Create space with questions. I’ve said this often. We should give fewer answers and ask more questions. The genius coach learns what questions to ask, how to ask, and when to ask.  When we ask questions we empower children to take control of their learning. We also activate their brain. Curiosity is a fantastic learning tool. Asking questions breeds curiosity and curiosity gives way to exploration and testing of theories. It is asking questions that has given us some of our greatest medicines, innovations, and historical moments. If you want your children to have such moments where truth is played out then speak to their curious brains and ask questions, then give them the space to answer.
  3. Give them space through ownership and the freedom to play. To better develop that autonomous desire to learn within the context of sports, it is vital we give children some ownership. If they feel a sense of control, they will be far more inclined to "say something" in that space we create through releasing the reins. At the Padres game yesterday, for youth baseball day, the players all wore shirts that read "let the kids play". This is the easiest means for providing ownership. When teaching, leave that space for play. Once they begin to how competence, let them play. This is where they will test things out, attempt new ideas, try to put their own twist on what they've learned. This is the space where they get to say something and, possibly, see innovation revealed. Kids at play are fearless and focused. Because they have full ownership of the experience, similar to the video game experience, they are not afraid to explore the game to its fullest extent. To see how far they can push the skills they are learning, to look for the easter eggs (those hidden skills and power-ups), and to try old skills in new ways. How amazing would it be if kids approached sports in that manner? Leave them to play and they will and in that play something new might be revealed. Cruyff's now famous and wholly pervasive move was developed in play. It was not drilled into him again and again in mind-numbing drills. It was revealed in the moment of play when he held the confidence, competence, and ownership necessary to throw caution to the wind and try something new. Give them space through ownership to create their own world famous moves.
  4. Give them space on gameday. Speaking of Cruyff, the first revelation of his move happened on game day. He didn't discover it in the space at practice. He was also given tremendous space on game day to experiment and learn. Gameday is space too. We spend way too much time stalking the sidelines scripting every move of our athletes during games that we do not allow them the space to let truths play out for them. Think about how the classroom functions. Students are taught, then given space to recreate the learning in homework. The homework is reviewed and tweaked where needed, and redone. Finally, test day comes along and teachers release the reins and allow the students to show what they've learned. They are given the space to see the truths of what they have been taught played out in front of them. My son is drilled on algorithms or equations in math or physics for weeks leading up to test day, and then the teacher proves the truth of what was practiced through presenting new and unseen problems, which can be solved by the equations he has been practicing. The teacher does not stand by and call out instructions, pulling the strings of the marionette. The teacher gives him the space to experience learning for himself. Like proper teachers, we provided and guided and then left them the space to do it themselves. And if we are truly remarkable teachers, we stop teaching in that space and actually encourage them to take the learning beyond the simple replication of what was taught. We hope they solve the problems in the way we had instructed, but as a teacher gives an essay question to help students synthesize and then own the learning at an entirely new level, we encourage them to also take what they learned and create something of their own. Cruyff used foot skills and tactical decisions he learned from his coaches and wrote an essay in the form of his famous move. How many other amazing athletes wrote their own essays because their coaches gave them space on game day? Michael Jordan? Lindsey Vonn? Tom Brady? Katelyn Ohashi?
  5. Finally, peer-assisted learning is space. When we choose to get out of the way and let the players begin to work with each other for solving problems, creating accountability, and guiding learning, we have given the greatest gift of all. Boundless space that opens the world to them. As Knausgaard claimed was his sole reason for writing, the idea of opening a new world to our athletes, and one that stays with them for life should be our ultimate goal. Using coaching as the medium for creating a space and allowing them to silence, the ownership, and the freedom to play we leave the space open for them to speak to each other as peers striving together in this never-ending process of mastery learning. When one athlete attains mastery, she has the space to tell and show the others how she got there, they have the space to ask more from each other, to say that which is on mission and should be repeated and that which is harmful to the greater good and should be stopped now. Watch a world-class team perform and you will see the athletes coaching each other, cheering for each other, picking each other up, and holding each other accountable to the values, the agreed upon behaviors, and the standards of excellence they set for the group. This is coaching at its purest form - creating the space for something to be said by the athletes to each other and as we know, "to teach is to learn twice" (Joseph Joubert) and to learn for the rest of their lives! 

Remarkable coaches create that space where the athletes become the teachers too, and if you've been as lucky as some of us, your athletes go on in life to be remarkable coaches, parents, leaders, and citizens who also create that amazing space in which something can be said and they open the world for the next generation.

Nervous? Start with tomorrow's practice. Create that space for the athletes then wait to see what is said.


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