Q&A with Netball Coach Christopher Koh
Local coaches attending the workshop conducted by Richard Shuttleworth, a high performance coaching and skill acquisition expert.
Christopher Koh is the coach of the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) netball team and an assistant coach for the World University Netball Championships (WUNC) team. He shared with us his thoughts on Richard Shuttleworth’s workshops and gave us an insight on his approach to coaching.
What do you think of the principles that were shared during the workshops?
I think the principles shared were refreshing and industry-transforming in many ways. It challenges the established mindsets and practices in a myriad of different fronts, such that just to understand where to start requires a bit of thinking and planning in itself.
What made you allow your captain and vice-captain drive training sessions for the athletes?
I wanted to give athletes more voice and autonomy in making decisions that would impact them most directly. Ultimately, they are the ones who are going to benefit - or not - from the training sessions and matches. They perform the actions and feel the effects of it, so getting their input from a first-person perspective is always relevant. I also wanted to break away from the belief that coaches know best. I want to move towards a state where the coach is "relieved" from the traditional roles coaches are deemed to play. Instead, athletes are at the forefront and the coach is a consultant, facilitator and encourager. My athletes must know that they are not simply thrown into the deep end, but that I will be there to assist and advise them should they need help. They must see the coach as part of the team - when the team loses a game, the coach loses with the team as well. (They must understand) that everyone shares responsibility in a loss, (as opposed to) thinking that they are at fault because they did not follow the coach's instructions.
By allowing them to drive the training sessions, what difference or effect did this have on your athletes?
When athletes are empowered and have a say in training sessions and matches, they have a sense of ownership for their own performance, as well as the overall learning outcomes for the team. I find that they take more responsibility for independent self-learning and start asking more relevant questions, and this greatly improves their understanding of the game. They start researching online more often too. They also become more motivated at trainings and games. The team becomes more bonded because they constantly discuss and check with one another about training and learning matters. Attendance and punctuality is no longer even an issue.
What are the responses or feedback you receive from your athletes, other coaches, and administrators?
I understand that the local system is not fully ready to embrace this concept yet. Hence, most of the time the responses are less than ideal.
In terms of the athletes, most cannot adapt to being given such responsibilities and having to decide on training and match matters. They just want to come, listen and follow instructions, workout, get more feedback and instructions, and go home. Initially, I had athletes who commented that they didn’t learn much from me because I wasn’t giving them much feedback all the time. However, I am beginning to see a growing number of my athletes who relish this opportunity. They have stepped up spontaneously to lead discussions, and drive learning and performance outcomes for the team.
With respect to coaches, most were players who had "been through the system" of coaching pedagogy, where the "coach knows it all" and everyone should perform everything the coach instructs without question. It is usually easier to replicate this system rather than have one where coaches can frequently be asked by the athletes why they have to move in a certain way, run to a particular space et cetera. There is no push factor for any coaches to change. Having said that, there are coaches who are more open to trying out new ways of doing things. They accept that there will be some chaos initially, but believe it will benefit their athletes more in the long run.
As for administrators, many of them are (either) former coaches or people who have never coached a team before. I remember an interview for an age-group position where I was asked how I would plan trainings for the team if I were to be selected. I said that for elite level athletes, the proportion of technical training (drills) should be scaled down, with more time allocated to developing players' techniques into applicable skills during games. I advocated for devoting more time to developing team communication on- and off-court, and getting players' input for the programmes since they are the main stakeholders. However, I was simply laughed at.
Moving forward, how would you improve the coaching eco-system in Singapore?
We can begin by doing the following:
- Education - Key agencies can assist by organising similar workshops not only for coaches, but for athletes, fellow educators working in schools, polytechnics and universities as well as administrators. The fear of adapting new practices comes from not knowing how it will turn out. Education can mitigate the unknown.
- Modeling - Pick successful local and foreign examples of coaches and teams (even individual athletes) that have implemented and practiced this concept to conduct sharing seminars, so that more people can see that this is in fact a functional model they can emulate. For example, we could set up a “Community of Practice” Programme, which would allow coaches to come together and exchange best practices.
- Develop "buddy" systems for coaches so they can learn from peers. A more structured mentorship model can also be considered. Of course, who we select as mentors are important as they impart best practices and values to the coaches they are mentoring.