Tagged: sport

Which is more difficult: world’s toughest sport or teaching?

 more difficult

With the Rio Olympics and school term in full swing, I poured a glass or red and asked myself: Which one is more difficult: the world’s toughest sport or … teaching?

For the record, I played THE sport for 20 years, 15 of them at the highest international level, coached it at that level for another 5. I have also been a teacher for 15 years. If you want to see my playing/coaching as well as teaching/education credentials I would be happy to expand. In short, it would be reasonable to say I know enough about both to attempt to answer the question. I do so using five categories, defined by a suitable dictionary definition and stated in each case.

Pressure (a sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources)

In the sport – the kind of pressure in the definition is incredibly intense, focused, but then again fairly organised and usually does not last very long. The battle(s) last seconds, minutes, hour(s) at most. Sure, the lead up is often interpreted as ‘pressure’ but that’s not the thing in the heat of the battle of either centre-forward or fast break or man-down defence that you tell your grandkids about one day and for which you are known for.

Mention “sense of stressful urgency caused by having too many demands on one’s time or resources” to me as a teacher and I’ll thank you for putting just about any day I spend at school in a sentence. The ‘urgency’ part could erupt any moment, the demands on me by students, colleagues, admin, parents and beyond are too many to count and always too many to fully attend to. They are also constant, never ending it seems. As for intense, telling a child in tears and standing in front of you that you can’t help them because you have to help someone else, putting on a calm face discovering the lesson you’ve planned with twenty teens wielding sharp tools is going to fall apart because some unforeseen event and you have to come up with a great Plan B (and C, and D …) on the spot, copping abuse from a parent or their progeny while ‘acting adult’ are just a few of the countless examples of getting the butterflies in your stomach going like crazy. You rarely ‘nail it’ and there is a sense of constant triage, rarely one of systematic, orderly, heavily invested in yet predictable progress and feedback you get by scoring that goal.

Decision-making (action of process of making important decisions)

If you have never heard a sports commentator hailing a player or coach for their ‘decision-making ability’ please listen out for it. In a dynamic sport like water polo, decisions are made frequently. Position, ball location, shot clock, score, momentum, shooter, tactics are just some of the factors that a water polo player regularly takes into account throughout the game, more so when they are directly involved in the action. “Seeing a step (or two) ahead” is a hallmark of a great player. The playmakers are a valuable commodity for this very reason and their fast-processing ability, borne with and out of experience.

Just how often does a teacher make a decision? According to research quoted by the highly respected Dr Larry Cuban  – one every 0.7 seconds! Yes, you read that right. Just like elite athletes, they mix the routine with the unexpected. Non-stop. They, well we, have to ‘read the play’ and make decisions that are sometimes more akin to chess grand masters, eight or more steps ahead, just to bring a lesson to an agreeable end after one or more (un)expected, teacheable or otherwise, events. And that’s every day, not just during the weekend league game.

Endurance (the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way, the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear)

Water polo players have to bear a lot and play at their peak of mental and physical capacities for an hour a game. Add to this the gruelling training day in day out that makes games seem easy, if possible at all, and you can’t possibly be a wimp. You simply would not make it. You would eliminate yourself and/or have all the excuses before not making the grade. Bear the wear and tear for about twenty or so years, if lucky maybe ten of those at the top level.

As a teacher, unlike my sporting career, the toughest years were probably the first few years. As the aquatic pun would have it, I was “thrown in the deep end” and I had to swim. I had to withstand the storms of volatile teens, unfamiliar content, new surrounds, endless curricular changes, difficult staffrooms and my own demons of insecurity. I’ve had to read articles screaming that “if only you [teachers] were better our kids would be better off” while knowing very little of what I do will make a lick of difference for all the structural issues that are the real issue but one too hard to address. And please don’t think life has gotten all peachy now with a few years of teaching under my belt. My elephant skin got thicker, my ears more attuned, my head wiser but my heart no less aching seeing the issues, especially those relating to inequities affecting those in my care.

Skill (the ability to do something well; expertise)

Breeding a top class water polo player is a messy, risky proposition. The genes, the environment, the systematic development, the web of career-defining moments has to align just right (and with a dose of luck) to produce a top level player. Very, very few reach it there. There, the elite make it look easy. They have the range of skills, from swimming, shooting, blocking, defending, turning, reading the play and more. Yet their expertise is beyond the mere technical ability. They seem to live and breathe their game. Youngsters and others try to copy, emulate, inspired by them, only to discover theirs is not a bag of skills to master but their own path or rather their own web of moments that can’t be simply copied, cloned or somehow reproduced to the same effect.

If you have been in the teaching game over the past few years, you will have noticed the intensification of attempts to define ‘good teaching’, see what skills and attributes it’s made of and then come up with a formula to follow in (re)producing it in both the new graduates and practicing teachers. Frameworks, standards, instrumental measurements are attempts to reduce the irreducible, contextual act of (good) teaching that is far, far more complex than any Olympic final in water polo or any sport for that matter. Teachers are increasingly expected to be a competent, expert even presenter, negotiator, mediator, public speaker, manager, counsellor, coach, mentor, technician, organiser, nurse, researcher, statistician and more. And while the range of skills and abilities demanded is expanding for both elite athletes and teachers, the latter win hands down.

Toughness (ability to absorb energy and deform without fracturing)

The elite water polo players are a tough bunch. They may not carry the bruises of various football codes, crashes on the roads or falls of equipment but they certainly know what ‘cracking under pressure’ means in a physical and mental sense. I for one had to play (no, win!) a game where my entire next year’s salary and that of my coach and teammates depended on it (we won…just). Elite athletes see on TV and the ones you don’t are under immense pressure to perform. Deform without fracturing. And they can only do that for a few years.  

Speaking of deforming and fracturing, the figures for teachers’ careers are starting to look scarily more like the short-lived careers of elite athletes. Not because they ‘get old and slow’ and lose the athletic edge but simply because they get bruised and drained by the emotional highs and lows, the expectations, shaped largely by societal expectations but (soon) internalised as their own, incessant demands on their mental and physical capacities and more. The statistics are scary. In Australia, not unlike in USA, UK and similar environments, close to half of the teaching graduates leave the profession within the first five years. The tough survive.  

So finally, which one is more difficult: toughest sport in the world or teaching? I have to disappoint you here – there is no clear winner. The point of this exercise was not to actually have a clear winner (good for you if you have decided for one or the other though). They are fundamentally different in their purpose: performance, winning and beating the rest versus learning and building capacity in others. There are too many variables to come near any commonly agreed upon decision. The point of the exercise was however to appreciate the many similarities they share. If you are going to pick the finer points and argue technicalities – you’ve missed the point of this exercise.

To finish off this little exploration, I would like to ask you to do the following few things:

Appreciate the effort of not just the athletes you see on TV but of all those who bust their guts every day in their chosen sport. You will never see the vast, vast majority of them but that does not diminish their endeavour. Most don’t do it for the fame and money because, contrary to popular belief, there rarely is a lot of fame and money in sport.

Appreciate the effort of your child’s teachers, many of whom are akin to the elite athletes you cheer for on screen. Except they want your child to do the winning, not themselves. That would be their biggest reward. Fame and money? Please, don’t.

Do not pity neither athletes nor teachers in their difficulties. We do this by choice. Acknowledge, respect but do not pity us. We love what we do, as impossible as that may sound sometimes even to ourselves in the doldrums of struggle. 

Finally, whether it’s some player who missed that final shot or a teacher who somehow did not spot the beautiful talent of your child – the last thing they wanted to do is to do that deliberately. Understand before you blame.

Sports Moodle

World Swimming Champs - Womens Water Polo
2007 World Champs Melbourne http://www.flickr.com/photos/flying_cloud/466828962/

From 2000 to 2004, I ran an elite/development squad of female water polo athletes at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS). This was just one of the many parts of my 15-years long sports coaching career, from juniors to multiple Olympic medal winners.  I have very fond memories of the time but as I look back, I would have done many things differently too, particularly in the running of the squad, working with athletes, fellow coaches and supporting staff at WAIS and beyond. I also wish I had Moodle THEN !

If I got my old job back today, I would get myself a Moodle and..

First, there would be no more paper printouts of schedules, pool changes and types of sessions. One calendar, accessible 24/7 and from anywhere with internet connection. Every player has a mobile with it … so there. Any changes would be seen immediately as each player logged in. And for lengthier up-to-speed items – there is always the News and Notices forum, a default in any Moodle course.

I would have a published, annotated annual plan in a shared space, where the players could see what sort of training we’ll be doing, why so, and see how it fits within a myriad of other plans. Previously, this had been always a big printout job that frankly mostly got lost in girls’ bags, together with wet costumes, caps and towels. Maybe a simple webpage, even a wiki with a table in it would do just fine, or even an Excel or Google Docs spreadsheet, linked to be accessible with a single click. And because even the best laid plans change, the changes would be shown immediately in the document. This way, training plans (annual, cycle, week, even session) would not only be easily accessible but easily stored for any future use, reflection, and analysis.

A bank of drills and plays, ours and opposition’s (in either printable or video format, depending how far we’d want to take it) would be there at the fingertips of anyone we allow, not back at the office or ‘left it at home’. I remember printing out a forest before a tournament for the players and shoddy scouting notes on opposition shooters from my own playing days, pre-Moodle (Always a goalie! Crazy, I know 🙂 )

But I would not use Moodle just to keep the training plans, playbook (yes, the most downloaded extra module in Moodle is called ‘Book’) and scouting notes. For example, one of the biggest pains (literally) of any athlete and their coach are the injuries. A simple wiki, paged further into each player’s name would be great to create and keep a permanent, trackable record of each player’s recovery. And the best part? Let’s say the player sees the physio at our institute … instead of typing an email to the coach that needs transferring, storing (forgetting to) the physio simply types a couple of notes [if important] straight into the wiki after the treatment. For sensitive athlete information, the coach would simply adjust the level of access on various activities and resources – because in Moodle, you can. Any sports science details (physiology, psychology, nutrition, biomechanics … yes, coaching an elite squad is not easy!) – all there in one place, easily updated by the relevant person, even the athlete themselves. The repository could grow, perhaps easily turn into searchable database in Moodle (yes, you guessed it – standard in Moodle) and offer a coherent, integrated picture of athlete’s progress over time.

I remember the times I used to fiddle around with cameras, tapes, burning (multiple) CDs and DVDs in biomechanical analysis sessions. Each player had a CD to look at themselves, never really comparing and learning from (the analysis) of others. If I were to do it today – record straight onto hard drive, analyse with appropriate analysis software, then upload the exported videos onto a shared space on Moodle (multimedia plugins and multimedia centre block make this a breeze). If they were in a Moodle database, named eg. ‘Shooting Analysis – March 2010’ I could easily add comments and maybe allow players THEMSELVES to self-analyse before seeing a biomechanics specialist and myself about their technique. And if we’d want to go external in analysing a video or critical snapshots of eg. a game … there would probably be a plugin for that (eg. VoiceThread) or just an embed, even a link. All there!

Any master of their sport will tell you that one of the pre-requisites for success is to be a constant learner of the sport you play. Having Moodle (the ‘L’ in the acronym does stand for ‘learning’…) would make it easier for me as a coach to encourage and facilitate players to become ‘students of the sport’. There were countless occasions where I came across an interesting article, clip, website, something that would really be useful to players in my squad. The trouble was, when gathered at training, I couldn’t ‘waste’ 20 minutes of whole-squad time on such items (unless, of course really important). With Moodle I could easily post the interesting items up for players to access and maybe mention, talk about, refer to (geez, even quiz them…bloody teacher-in-me 🙂 ) in our interactions. For example, water polo has an incredible history nationally and around the world that local kids who were playing the game were not aware of. Once they would come across some classic material, stories and examples of masters of the sport they played, they would (and always have!) gained a much deeper understanding of it and respect for the sport itself. With lots of these things ‘on tap’ via Moodle, the chances only increase.

So far, I have only talked about things that I as a coach would put on Moodle for players to access – schedules, documents, lists, calendars, videos, notes etc.  This is a bit like the first steps of Moodle use in schools – teachers put their ‘stuff’ in and students access it. Because sport can be quite ‘army-like’ we have ‘experts’ who know and ‘novices’ who don’t (and need to get there, faster the better), many people don’t see too much point in involving players in creating their paths and contributing, they ‘just do it!’ (ah, the number of times I said that 🙂 … ). But I beg to differ and Moodle is well built for that!

Let’s start with players setting their own goals. Give them time and space and help them come up with something realistic that they CAN explain, aim for and achieve. Say, a wiki in Moodle can be edited by a young player at 10pm when she gets the idea and writes it down. Next day, I (the coach) see the edit and chip in my part to shape things up – together. The player then owns the goal. Oh yes, there is a module called Indivudual Learning Plan in Moodle. Think we could use that?

How about team goals? Weekly or monthly focus? Coming up with rules of the squad? Many would say at this point “that’s why you have team meetings” but I have seen too many loud, Type-A personalities kill off great ideas of the quieter players in team meetings. A simple forum or even a wiki in Moodle to write, edit, confirm the rules (you can still discuss them) in a given time of a week to think rather than 15 minutes to squabble and yell over each other.

How about reflecting after a game? Season? Game? Tournament? How do you gather the rich and important voices of players easily and equally? Well, ask each player to write a quick blog entry (good to see some WAIS athletes do that already!) or a special type of forum (Q and A) where you need to post before you see what others have posted.

How about setting performance targets as Outcomes or Standards and get each player to self-evaluate how well they are doing on a regular basis with the coach able to confirm or change, then comment on the changes and the performance? No paper, all automatically collated, tracked and easily commented on either in person or online (first, if needed).

How about social events? Tour photos? How about allowing each player to personalise their own space by turning on MyMoodle and keeping a few key blocks and resources ‘sticky’ so they can’t possibly ignore them?

Now, you may say “this may be all possible and fine in team sports … but what about individual sports, particularly those with high level of technical skill involved” (yes Ben, thinking of you 🙂 . Let’s walk over to the rowing, kayaking, or swimming coach. Very technical sports, all of them.  Well, most of the above applies really. There may be fewer ‘squad meetings’ but there could be greater emphasis on video analysis (as stated, Moodle plugins handle a good lot of media, commonly exported from analysis software like SportsCode, Dartfish, Swinger, Garmin, GameBreaker, SiliconCoach and the likes). You can easily embed the clip and have a chat about it (yes, Chat is standard in Moodle) or you can just install one of many plugins (the good old Skype would probably do just fine) to have a live chat (for 0$ usually) if on remote location in a city, pool, track, river somewhere (with net access, of course). With Moodle, events, times, results, analysis, everything travels with ‘the team’ to be available anywhere with net access at any time. No more long ‘tour notes’ back at the office when jetlagged and forgetful.

Tracking of times, statistics, heart-rates can be automated by linking the resource to Moodle (eg. Polaris heart-rate system, Garmin GPS) and have it all at the athletes and coaches fingertips when required. Coaches could very easily exchange Notes (yes, there in Moodle as standard) on their athletes or even build a series of observations through them to help them with that important team selection or trials. And more, and more, and more … By the way, when it comes to individual sports, when their squads go away they often  support and work with each other more than the team sports. Not to mention a team of people behind every serious athlete.

Back in the days ( 🙂 ) and as one of the assistant coaches for the national team, I often had to consult with the Head National Team Coach about the players in various national squads, their training requirements, drills, plays, travel etc. Well, rather than playing an e-mail tag and endless phone calls, he could have gotten get a very good picture of any of the players in my squad simply by being a member of our ‘course’ (or rather ‘space’) in Moodle and talk to me and/or with the players directly, avoiding (often) the guessing and misinterpretations. I know a player who nearly missed out on the Athens Olympics berth because of such an incident!

And then imagine the entire sporting oganisation (eg. national association, sporting institute, club(s) …) sharing a Moodle (much like about 32 million people around the world do right now). And have I mentioned the social networking features of the upcoming Moodle 2.0 and things like ‘community hubs’? All of this for free, no licensing fees to pay, ever ! (I sound like a dodgy salesman now 🙂 but it’s true! )

Yes, you can do all these things across the tools like Google Docs, even the new Google Wave, wikis, blogs, email, videoconferencing, social networks, video sharing sites etc. But if you ask me – I would have all my bits under one roof, accessible 24/7, where I can control, change access and roles as much as I like (yes, sport is a competitive thing and some things are just to precious to share…) in a stable, secure and easy-to-use environment.

So, would using Moodle make me a better coach? Only as much as I would nurture the skill, experience and wisdom of my players (and my own) with the help of it.

No computer software will ever score a goal or race a world record time. But it sure can help to if used well.