“We’re our own worst enemy”


Coaches need to up their game, says Gillian Corke.

I received an email from a friend who is a long-time teacher and sports coach. I was asking her how I could get more coaches interested in improving their interpersonal skills. Her forthright response was that most coaches see no need to change their communication style. 

What I have noticed myself, is that in our bid to ‘make a difference’ in the lives of young people, we can be our own rigid barriers to success. We know what we should be doing, but we aren’t actually doing it. The signals get mixed and sincerity is lost in translation. Perhaps we have the opportunity to empower a young person in our care to develop perseverance, then we step in over the top of them at the last moment, to ‘just finish it up’. 

Perhaps a student is doing a task that will build their feeling of significance, like handing out the bibs, and it isn’t going quite how we imagined it, so we step over their efforts and intervene. Some coaches ask questions like, ‘What would you like to do first? Running?’, thinking they are offering a choice. That is not a choice and it is not an authentic interaction. It communicates that the coach has already made the decision. 

To the young people we are with, this implies that their opinion doesn’t matter and that you, as the coach, know better, or are not interested in their opinion or preferences. This may result in the child’s behaviour becoming an issue or turn into a power struggle as the adult responds to the behaviour with rewards and punishments (euphemistically called consequences) and behaviour management strategies. When working in the field of SEN, the consequences of our incongruent behaviours and intentions are even greater, because of the way that some students deal with what they see and how you make them feel, and situations may escalate unnecessarily.

When working with groups of varying ability, it is vital to work from a positive approach that values and respects whatever is offered to you by the child. At one point in my career, I taught violin in schools with up to thirty children at a time in one room. There is obviously a correct way to hold a violin, but that was not accessible to all those in the room. I modelled what I was looking for then asked them to show me what they could do. I then asked them to pair up and ‘mirror’ each other, copying what they saw from the other person so they could experience what it was like to be in someone else’s shoes. Only then would I ask them to make any changes or improvements they wanted. I would not interfere in the process other than to stop a bow going in someone’s eye. Then we would all make a glorious sound, all together, however we could. This included children in wheelchairs, with autism, mute, blind, and many other learning differences. 

To make that difference with the students, we have to make the difference with ourselves first. Cultivating our own growth mindsets and mental integration, combined with practising self-regulation techniques and self-compassion are a wonderful place to start. Accepting that there is more than one way to do something and that it is OK is another big step. When we do that, those urges to fix, rescue or do for start to recede because we have faith in the young people to learn what they need to learn. We stop asking fake questions and start delivering real choices because we’re not scared of the outcome. “What would you like to do first? Running or skipping?”

Gillian Corke
Author: Gillian Corke

Gillian Corke
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Gillian Corke is an educator with more than 20 years experience teaching music in public and private schools, sports coaching, holiday clubs, lifeguarding, youth sport, event management, the cycling industry and international communications.



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