Build back better.

‘Build Back Better’ a mantra that has become synonymous with a hopeful post-pandemic return to sport. I’ll be honest that it’s easy to become overwhelmed with this concept and I’ve found myself pushing back on it. Not because I don’t believe it’s important or that I think it’s impossible. The fact is that many grassroots sport organizations and even those at provincial and national level will prefer a safe return to normality with programs that have a proven track record and limited risk. The thought of investing dwindling and limited resources in a new, untested program is daunting and can be a big risk. Sport organizations will each assess their threshold for risk when it comes to how and if they build back better.

So what can we do within our own sphere of influence?

As a club executive the responsibility is far reaching and requires an assessment of governance and operations for both technical and administration. Extrapolating on that assessment is a completely different story and for anyone wanting to know where to start I recommend the recently published book ‘Don’t Blame the Soccer Parent’ by Paul Varian. This book walks any new or experienced club leader through the finer points of club operations.

As a coach I want to talk about two excellent tools that can empower us to frame our programs in a way that can truly build back better. These tools are of equal benefit to any sport but this is Soccability Canada so we’re going to use para soccer as our lens.  These tools are the Transformational Coaching Model out of Queens University, Kingston and the Principles of Quality Participation in Sport from the Canadian Disability Participation Project (CDPP). When we get back on the pitch with our players and families these tools can take our session to the next level. The reality is that most accessible soccer programs ask more questions of their players before they even hit the field in order to gain a greater understanding of the athlete’s needs. The tools enable coaches to take; 1. More ownership of their on-field delivery and 2. Frame a structured reflection of that delivery post-session. In fact the CDPP toolkit heavily informed the Ontario Soccer booklet Everyone Plays, released in 2018 at the Ontario Soccer Summit.

Good coaching requires a thorough plan that is stage and age appropriate for the participants. It addresses the 4 Corners of development (technical/tactical, physical, psychological and social) recognizing that each practice may have a greater focus on one area than the others. We should also understand that within a practice it can be those transition moments between each drill or at water breaks and player entry/exit when the social and psychological components of player development can really be enhanced.

Knowing that, and building a football practice with all of it in mind can set a coach up for a sound practice but that’s only half of the story. Sport is about people. It’s about how we connect with players and their support network before, during and after the practice.

The first tool I want to consider is the concept of Transformational Coaching in sport, developed by Dr. Jean Cote, Professor at the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queens University in Kingston. I first heard about this tool in 2017 when I was privileged to hear in-person from Dr. Cote and Dr. Jennifer Turnridge (Queens University) at a coach workshop we held at Pickering Football Club. It was presented to our competitive and high performance coaches, and what I remember taking away specifically from that workshop was the need to connect in a meaningful way with my players. I wouldn’t have described myself as a ‘Neutral’ coach (right at the centre of the chart below) but closer to a transactional coach (I would push and motivate with penalties for those that didn’t work hard enough) however I didn’t always push myself to be a transformational coach, often I felt like I spent more time focused on the technical or tactical development of players with just a glancing eye on their social-emotional development. Of course this would be adjusted depending on the age group, gender and ability of the player group. If we take the continuum below I would be somewhere slightly right of centre on the ‘Engaged’ line and slightly north of centre on the ‘Effective’ continuum. Knowing what I learned back then it wasn’t good enough and simply lazy.  

Understanding what Transformational Coaching looks and feels like I felt more empowered to be demonstrable. For example, I would often compliment a player in that moment when they make a great pass or shot, if they positioned themselves well or communicated with team mates. What I didn’t do was take the opportunity to revisit that moment with them during a stoppage in play or after the game/practice where I could hear their thoughts in order to build confidence and motivation in my players. As coaches we probably find ourselves focusing on the players that are struggling and in doing so others feel left out but a Transformational Coach creates that environment where any player feels comfortable and safe. When that happens they are more open to sharing their thoughts and feelings that in turn builds team cohesion and individual motivation.

The Transformational Coaching workshop talks in depth about the 4 I’s of transformational leadership, overarching habits that as coaches we need to use with our players. The 4 I’s are:

  • Idealised Influence – practice what you preach
  • Inspirational Motivation – believe in your athletes
  • Intellectual Stimulation – involving athletes in the coaching process
  • Individualised Consideration – a person centered approach

While we won’t use this article to discuss the 4 I’s, the chart above shows clearly how they translate into the coaching behaviours we can use with our players and families. I say families because in para soccer and many grassroots programs there are times when the coaching behaviours can be just as valuable for parents to see on the touchline.

This leads nicely into the CDPP project entitled ‘Quality Participation in Sport for Children, Youth and Adults with Disability’. While the Transformational Coaching model gives us the habits and behaviours to become a better coach, the CDPP project provides an excellent tool to measure the effectiveness of our coaching. Reflecting on a coaching session we often focus on the expectations we have of our players to improve over a period of time and based on a periodised plan that recognises each player develops in a non-linear fashion. Our challenge as coaches is to make sure we move everyone forward in their development in a way that is not only age and stage appropriate but also in a positive way that maximizes retention to sport. CDPP describes quality participation as being achieved ‘when athletes with a disability view their involvement in sport as satisfying and enjoyable, and experience outcomes that they consider important’. What I love about the CDPP model is that it digs deep into the measurement of quality beyond the physical environment, program environment and social environment which it describes as the 3 Foundational Strategies. Using 6 Building Blocks we delve deeper into the assessment of our programs from the perspective of the athlete.

At Pickering FC I’m really excited to see us using the CDPP Scorecard as a way of assessing our program quality with the PFC All Abilities program. In partnership with the athletes and their families we can start to gather evidence on the quality of our program and while we often get plenty of positive feedback this will enable us to identify areas for further improvement. Our Player Reports will now include a 4 Corner Model and a Quality Participation component blending the best of both tools. From this feedback the outcomes become our actions to guide Transformational Coaching habits and wider accessible needs if required.

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