“Andrea, this is really good reflection on your coaching session! I think you have to be a little less critical, but the fact you can be critical will make the process that much more valuable to the learning of both you and your students.”
These are the first two sentences of my official mentor’s feedback on “Assessment Task 4 – Mentored Coaching Review” – the 4th of 6 “Assessment Tasks” for Part 1 of my “Level 3 Certificate in Coaching Paddlesport” Portfolio. I will turn in the portfolio the next morning when I show up for Part 2 of my assessment – the “Final Practical Assessment Day” that includes Tasks 7 – 9 of the assessment.
I’m sitting in the kitchen of a B&B owner in Scotland who has become a friend. She’s helping me figure out what to take out of my portfolio before my assessment the next day. If I pass, I’ll be the 2nd American to earn this award.
Tomorrow, I won’t teach a specific skill to a group of paddlers; I will teach my students whatever they most need right now in order to continue their progressions as paddlers. It should make use of whatever environment we happen to encounter. It should incorporate a variety of teaching techniques, based not on my own style, but what works best for each of them. I’ll have to demonstrate an ability to teach each of them differently – different details of content, different styles of coaching, different rhythms and pacing, different ratios of explanation versus exhortation to “experiment with XYZ and tell me what you discover…”
It’s what I do. I coach paddlers, from a variety of backgrounds, with a variety of skill levels, who learn in a variety of ways. I coach them together, and I pay careful attention to what each of them most needs to learn next, and how each of them will best learn it.
I enjoy coaching a group with mixed skill levels. Students often have opportunities to learn a great deal – those at higher levels can start observing and providing feedback, which skyrockets the learning process; and those at more beginner levels get to watch what more experienced students are doing, which serves to move them along faster as well.
I also enjoy coaching people in different stages of development in the same group. The Long Term Paddler Development model posits that different styles of teaching are appropriate to different stages of skill development. Beginners, especially young people, often have little interest in details of blade angle or placement or the nuances of good body mechanics for a specific stroke. There’s a greater emphasis on movement skills and fun than on details of technique. They will paddle again if they have fun. Silly games that build balance or efficient movement or comfort in the water are often the most effective coaching strategies for students in this stage. When a person moves to the next stage, they become much more interested and engaged in a detailed break-down of a particular skill or stroke. They will likely have a specific goal – they want to complete an expedition or assess for a specific award. It’s been fascinating to teach students at different stages of development in the same group, move students along from one stage to the next, and begin to develop a set of “markers” by which I can see that someone is transitioning from one stage to the next.
My most frequent strategies for coaching mixed groups are variations or combinations of splitting the group or pairing people up. I might have two people engaged in peer coaching while I give another group a guided discovery activity. I might have a group of two or three engaged in “group guided discovery,” which often becomes divergent guided discovery as each student comes back with a different insight or challenge and heads back out with a new task. While this group is engaged in this process, I may be providing a more didactic session about a specific skill for another group, and assigning tasks that engage this group in bilateral and then random practice of the skill. I may send a few people out to experiment in the wind, while I keep others in the lee. Often there’s a game (or several!) that involves everyone – and always my hope is that the game has everyone practicing or learning at the level they need. Sometimes people get brain-tired, and we just play a game or go for a paddle.
There are coaches in the group, and I try to keep them engaged as well – hopefully trying out a new coaching style or coaching in a slightly new environment or experimenting with mentoring or with orchestrating a session as opposed to providing all of the direct coaching in a session.
For my portfolio, I have to document all of this. Or rather – I need to document this past year’s coaching with my two “official” students for the assessment. For these two students, I need to provide:
Annual plan – an organized teaching plan designed to fit their needs and meet their paddling goals
- 12 session plans – written session plans for 12 of the sessions I delivered as part of this annual plan
- 12 session plan reviews – each session plan needs to include my own reflection
- review of the annual plan – I need to reflect on the whole plan as well as on each session
- student profiles – a thorough assessment of each of my students
- coaching log – 35 logged coaching hours in “Moderate Water Conditions”
- record of experience – I need to show that I’ve continued to paddle personally in appropriate waters
- mentored coaching review – my official mentor for this award needs to observe a coaching session, and both of us need to reflect on it
- mentoring others – I need to show evidence of mentoring at least two other coaches
I’ve learned a lot from the process – and created a LOT of paper. Right now the portfolio is around 60 pages, and my coaching log is another 50.
Helen makes me a pot of tea, gives me some shortbread, and encourages me – again — to take out anything I can from my portfolio. She reminds me that this incredible community, and the students who might have come with me to Scotland for the assessment and didn’t, and the students who are with me but won’t end up being the two who I officially coach for the assessment – she reminds me that while the coaching sessions with them and the profile of the group and of each of those students are important to me and an integral part of the whole picture that can’t be taken out, they are actually immaterial to the portfolio and to my assessor. That takes out 7 or 8 pages of the portfolio. I finish my tea and shortbread and head upstairs to take things out of my coaching log. My coaching log shows over 2000 hours, with over 300 after the first of two trainings for this award. It needs to show evidence of 35 hours. So hours – pages – come out of my logbook.
The next morning arrives, my portfolio is what it is, and we walk down to the center to start our day. All I need to do is what I’ve done with them for more than a year – just coach them.
I’m unsettled and anxious. I hate assessments. I never, ever perform at my best. Before I assess an award, I have to build my skills to be above standard – if my skills are at standard, I won’t pass. And I’m one of those people who consistently, foolishly, always underestimates my skill. Always.
We arrive. Gordon welcomes us and lets us know the kettle’s on, we have tea all around, and we make a plan for the day. I know what I’d really like to do with them; and I have some concerns about my ideas. I really want them to get to paddle in Kyle Rhea – it’s a tidal gate that can flow at 8 knots on a spring tide. Three hours later it will be still, and three hours after that it will flow at 8 knots in the other direction. You don’t get water like that in Chicago. I really want to do some more navigation with them first – so that they have some basic ability to predict what we’ll see at Kyle Rhea. And the three who will be assessing their 3 star awards the next day are all nervous about their rolls – I’d like to do some rolling review with them.
I’m concerned because I don’t know if navigation, an on land session, “counts” for the assessment. I don’t feel as easy or natural coaching in 8 knot current as I do in waters that we DO get in Chicago! And if I do a rolling session, it needs to include at least three of the four people who are with me, not just my “official” students. Rolling can be challenging to teach in a way that keeps 3 people engaged. They all have rolls. They need individual feedback and confidence-building – they aren’t going to benefit from doing hip snaps off each other’s bows. I don’t know if a rolling review sets me up well to demonstrate Level 3 coaching behaviors. Gordon admonishes me that it’s about what my students need, and not about me at all.
I settle on a plan. We’ll spend some time in the classroom working on tidal navigation. Then we’ll head to Kyle Rhea for an introduction to moving water where they get to see what they’ve just learned. We’ll end with some rolling in a big eddy when we’re close to slack.
We have a decent day. I can’t claim that it’s my best day coaching or my best day paddling. It’s not my worst either. My students – and not just my two “official” students, are completely engaged in navigation and they learn more than they need to know for the 3 Star they’ll be assessing the next day. My two “official” students respond with different levels of stress to fast-moving water, and they learn some stuff. The three who are assessing their 3 star awards tomorrow all regain their rolls (in cold salt water) after various amounts of tweaking, and I involve my 4th student in the coaching for their rolls. Ironically, given my concerns this morning, this is the session in which the largest number of people are involved in the most variety of ways.
I pass the assessment. In some ways, it’s a bit anti-climactic. I delivered what felt like sort of an average quality of coaching – with high stakes and in an amazing venue.
When we arrive back at the classroom, we go through the last bit of paperwork. There’s a (long) checklist of each coaching behavior Gordon needed to see – and he tells me when he saw each one. My own assessment would have been more critical, but Gordon just goes down the list and matter-of-factly tells me when and how I met each requirement. I guess I’ve done all right…
On the way back to the shop, Gordon says to me – “You’re at the highest level of coaching now.” I’m a bit taken aback – and he tells me that’s what the L3 is. It’s the highest coaching award you can earn. Level 4 is a 2-year graduate degree – and it’s “targeted at coaches operating at the forefront of paddlesport coaching”
I don’t feel like I’m at the highest level. I watch other coaches who are incredibly skilled. John Carmody, my Level 3 mentor, who can ask two questions and his students come back three times the paddlers they were at the beginning of the course; Jen Kleck, who is grace personified on the water and can pinpoint the one thing a student needs to hear; Gordon himself, who has a nuanced, fun activity to develop any skill on the water; Rowland Woollven, who takes you paddling and wiggles his mustache at you and leaves you with a depth of knowledge you never imagined you could gain; Phil Hadley, who will spend the entire day making dumb jokes, and leave everyone in the class thinking they’re a rock star and paddling or coaching like they really are. These coaches can provide an individualized experience for each member of a large class, in whatever venue they find themselves. They are remarkable coaches.
I don’t coach like them. I aspire to, but I’m nowhere near their level of expertise.
Gordon says I shouldn’t be comparing myself to them. So I guess there are gradients of “highest level” of practice. I come away with the idea that the benchmark I‘ve just hit is another starting point; a place to construct a new foundation from which to learn and improve.
I tell Gordon I really want to get good at this. He looks me straight in the eye and says in his Scottish brogue, “So do I.”
Leaving me with the idea that the very best coaches know that there is so much more to learn. They aren’t the coaches who sell themselves as “the best.” They aren’t the coaches who sell themselves as experts. (Those who do most likely aren’t.) Instead, they are curious about how to do it better, ready to put in the work, and excited about the opportunity.
I’m home now, and I have a page-long action plan printed out and in my log book. It’s my plan for improving my paddling, my knowledge of the sport, and my coaching. Because someday, I really want to get good at this.