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Q&A with Richard Shuttleworth


From L-R: Vincent Ong, Head of Youth Coaching at NYSI, Tan Wearn Haw, Director of NYSI and Richard Shuttleworth.

Richard Shuttleworth is a High Performance Coaching consultant who has worked on high performance and development in a range of Olympic and World Cup team and individual sports. Throughout his career, he has developed an expertise in a number of areas including elite and development coaching, athlete and team performance, as well as education and support. 

The National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI) invited Richard to come to Singapore from 16-17 April 2018 to conduct a series of four workshops for our local coaches. He sat down for an interview with Leslie Tan, NYSI Head of Athlete Life, and Vincent Ong, NYSI Head of Youth Coaching.

Leslie Tan: Maybe you could talk about how Eddie Jones transformed himself from a very directive coach to one that now takes a very different approach – implicit coaching.

Richard Shuttleworth: Yeah, I think it’s a good question, really, and I think looking at case studies like coaches who have transformed themselves are really good places to start and Eddie Jones is one of them. 

I think Eddie Jones is one of many coaches, who changed himself for a reason. He knew why he needed to change and that was the first thing for him. He had a lot of success but was also struggling at a certain time in his career in Australia. He probably tried to maintain control with less success while the landscape and environment around him was changing. He admits he could have done things differently and maybe like many coaches he never really has gotten over that but this is what drives successful coaches. 

I believe when he left Australia and went to Japan he became more open-minded to ideas which he had previously not adopted. It was almost like there was a new opportunity for him to possibly change, so I don’t think that was necessarily forced on him by anybody. 

He would have become more self-aware because I think he’s quite a resilient, self-driven character, quite strong, quite steely. He will always believe he will find the right way that’s going to work. And I think it got to a point where he realised, “Maybe his good friend Bob Dwyer, who’s a former Wallabies coach, maybe he is right.” 

Because Dywer was saying to him, “Just give responsibility to the players, you’ve got some of the best players in the world. Should you be taking all this pressure on your shoulders, and trying to give them all the solutions and try to have the perfect game plan, because it’s never going to work. Allow the players to have some responsibility for what they do.” And one of the best coaches was Bob Dwyer. 

He got to Japan, and he must have reflected, became self-aware and then realised changes were needed. He had more conversations and thought, “This is my opportunity now to change the way I coach and also allow players the ability to change the way they play the game and how they make decisions.” He’s half-Japanese so I think he knows the culture well. I think he would have had a good idea on the strategy and how he would implement this through his staff and players. 

Allowing Japanese rugby players to make decisions is a fairly new concept ‘cause I think within their culture, particularly within team sports, where you’ve got a number of players, they like to be highly organised, they like to know their roles and responsibilities, take orders so they know what they’re meant to be doing. 

So he came in there not necessarily wanting that. He was going to break that down. I think it’s easier (in) Japan to do that because I think that he’s well-respected as a coach and they were going to listen to him. I think he thinks that was the best thing in his learning journey. 

The key moment may have happened when things started failing in Australia where he changed the game plan every few weeks. The players must have been contemplating what next and finding it difficult to adjust to all the changes but I guess he thought he had the answers and all the solutions. So yeah, he would have developed a new style of coaching from this experience. 

He works closely with Scott Wisemental, who knows this approach inside out in rugby, also a friend of mine. He worked as the Wallabies skills coach and he helped Eddie Jones to train in a different way, to give more responsibility, and then train and design practice differently so it allowed players to make their own choices and own decisions on the pitch based around key principles and a framework.

With this method, training was a bit messier. It looked slightly less organised at times. It was very fast, but lots of good mistakes and poor decisions, really. But training was an opportunity for the players to put this right.

But over time, that improves and I think he had the support of the other coaches to trust the playing and training model and to trust the approach. Obviously, that worked out and it started to shine through. 

When you play a team like South Africa, who are very structured team at times, they want to know what should happen next. He probably knew there was an opportunity to beat them if his players could adapt and make decisions quicker than them and adjust on field. His success early on as a coach was a bit similar to that.

I guess like most top coaches they’ve learnt from making mistakes, sometimes you hit rock bottom, question your belief in what you’re doing, lose confidence. And then suddenly you become open and you have to try things because you know what you’re doing is not working.

Leslie Tan: How did you come to this approach in your own coaching career?

Richard Shuttleworth: I think it was quite different from that. I started my rugby career in Hong Kong and I was playing for the team, so I was coaching the team that I played, called ‘Hong Kong Football Club’. 

I had a very good friend of mine, from New Zealand, on the team. I designed my first week’s training session. At the end of the first week, I ran a series of drills and this New Zealand guy, at the end of one of my training sessions, took me to the side and basically said, “What are you doing? The stuff we’re doing has nothing to do with the game of rugby.” 

I hadn’t realised what I was doing, I was in my own world of trying to design the most perfect training sessions that were completely isolated. It was because of him, someone whom I respected and listened to, that I changed as a coach within weeks.  

Because I was relatively young and I think I was probably educated enough to think that, actually, he had a point. I started to then think about coaching methods. Maybe there’s different ways to coach and I hadn’t even been exposed to that. You don’t get told that there are different ways to coach in coaching courses; you just do level one, two and three. I understood about learning methodologies, so after a few weeks, I changed straightaway and it was a case of going on a journey to explore. I then went back to university to explore coaching both academically and kept coaching practically in 1999.

Leslie Tan: Do you think there are cultural barriers that prevent this approach from taking root in Asian cultures, as opposed to more Western cultures?

Richard Shuttleworth: Yeah, there are definitely socio-cultural aspects to it. I think over history, the culture and what we call the form of life – why we do what we do – becomes embedded and implicit in society. I think that societal pressure on coaching and sport is always there and is ever-present. It is interwoven into the fabric of sport. You can’t separate them. So the way Singaporean teams play or the way sports are conducted are very much a fabric of Singaporean society.

Leslie Tan: Which links to what you said about just working with a guiding coalition because you can’t change everybody.

What top coaches will do is to leave a legacy to make the place better than what it was along with a guiding coalition of people who believe that and carry that forward. 

You shouldn’t bring somebody in to be the saviour to change what you’re doing if you don’t believe that you’re not making your decisions. You need to understand your society and why you don’t make decisions or why you make poor decisions or why you don’t even make decisions, and understand society and cultural influences. 

I think in the last two days, I’ve really just inspired or stimulated people’s minds to think: “Hmm maybe we can do things slightly differently.” If they, together, interact and work, it’s very powerful because in a dynamic open adaptive system, the sum of its parts is greater than its whole. 

So I think it’s very powerful when you think that you could actually change the course of the future or the discourse of the Singaporean approach to sport, once you have a critical mass of people that inspire throughout the pathway. 

The diagram I showed is: “invite the action, create the need”. There is already a need. It’s not like I come here to create a need so that I can be used. I never go anywhere praying that you must do this approach. There’s always got to be a need there and someone invites you in, then you come and meet halfway. 

I think, maybe, it’s Singapore being more self-aware, being more responsible and self-organising themselves. Using those exact things we’ve talked about today on a large scale. It’s just a different scale from ours but the same principles apply. It’s a model you could look at for the future of how you run things because you’ve got the ability to control that in Singapore.

Leslie Tan: But we’re quite small.

Richard Shuttleworth: Yeah, but you do have to control these sort of constraints. You do need control over them. It’s not in a negative way. It’s so that you don’t have autocratic or directive, didactic coaching going on still. If you’re going this way, everyone has the support, beliefs and the values of that system. The way you deliver it, of course, has a number of ways: “nudge, nudge” or you can just have mass structure change. It’s different ways of doing things. So you guys have to decide what’s best for you.

Vincent Ong: I think it would be good if you give a quick explanation on what constraint-based coaching is and can deliver, at least at the high-performance coaching side.

Richard Shuttleworth: To me, the constraint-led approach to coaching or constraint-learning approach is a paradigm shift in thinking. It’s more than just a coaching approach. The danger of calling it an approach is that, at some stage, it will lose its importance and seen as a fad. It’s not an approach to coaching. I believe it is a paradigm shift in thinking about human behaviour. 

How does human behaviour emerge? The previous approach was information-processing theory, which was, we construct skill. It’s a motor programme and we look for errors and variability, we detect it and we correct it. We construct and build, so you’ll hear words like “we produce”, “we execute” and “we manufacture”. That’s old paradigm. 

The “constraint” is a paradigm shift in thinking about how movement skills emerge under constraints. It’s a shift in thinking about how athletes come through a system to be very effective, effective for success in the Olympic Games and the Commonwealth Games. 

The more practice you have at looking at case studies of athletes coming through, like the table tennis players or Singaporean sailors who have been pretty successful, you start to look at how those behaviours start to emerge under constraints. 

We’ve got system constraints, like this establishment. We’ve got coaching constraints every day at the micro-level. I think that different scale of analysis is looking at constraints. I think I try to touch more on micro-constraints in the last two days at the coaching level. 

At the system level, it’s more of what we we’ve been talking about today. It’s about how can we change system constraints to afford more effective behaviour in an athlete i.e. make better decisions when we’re not here, or enable them more opportunities to make decisions and learn. 

That may not fit with the Singaporean education system, where it’s very constrained, with assessments each week, there is no chance to explore, no chance to look outside and question why am I doing things a certain way. You’re limiting learning in a way, but you’re maximising their performance at school at a specific point along their journey as it’s very enclosed, it’s very refined… but that doesn’t transfer very well under dynamic situations, when you go outside of that system. 

So I will try looking at the bigger picture now and try to look at ways we can adapt those principles to the way we run at a systems level. In short, “constraints” is quite powerful, it’s not just an approach to coaching – it’s a philosophy, ideology and a paradigm shift in thinking.

Vincent Ong: And you talk about moving behaviour emerging from three variables. What are the three variables you’re looking at in terms of “constraints-based”?

Richard Shuttleworth: With the “constraints” approach, we would definitely look at the individual, that’s often called the “organism” or the “performer”. The individual is critical in this approach. The reason being is because you identify the individual as an individual. They will be unique and different from other individuals. 

So when you use a “constraints” approach, you’re not using a one-model-fits-all, you’re adapting the system and the sessions geared around the needs of that particular individual. For the individual we’ve got structural, functional, mental and physical. 

We’ve also got the environment. The environment is critical. The environment in isolation is things like the physical environment, like surface of the ground, physical objects, gravity, and the weather. It obviously rains here a lot so we’re going to have some environmental constraints in training here. The atmosphere is quite humid. It’s quite heavy to breathe, so that will have effects on skill as well. 

When you look at the environment in relation to the individual, that’s the key with the “constraints” approach. You can’t look at these things in isolation. You can’t look at a performer in isolation from an environment because there’ll be no context. The way they relate to each other, that relationship is what we’re looking at with the “constraints” approach. 

Manipulate something in the environment? How does that relationship with the performer change? That in itself is not the whole answer either – there is the context of the task. The other apex of the triangle is the task. 

I’ve spent most of the time talking to the coaches about the influence of task constraints on the performer and the environment, and the relationship as well. Some of the task constraints would be the goal or the purpose of the activity. It could be to win a gold medal in judo or sailing, and therefore what practice constraints do we place on them in terms of space and boundaries, rules and regulations, the information we give them and the equipment we manipulate. 

In my experience, everything tends to fit into that triangle. I’ve not seen anything that doesn’t fit in that so I’ve liked it from day one when Karl Newell in 1985 came up with it as a way to look at how behaviour emerges under the influence and the confluence by the interaction of those constraints. 

When a coach manipulates something, the implication for coaching is observing the interaction of the other constraints and how the performer adapts. It’s all about adaptability. When constraints react, they create variability and that player has to adapt to the environment and the task. It’s all about adaptability. 

The skill of human behaviour is how you adapt your behaviour, movement, skills and decisions to be effective in any environment. Therefore, these are higher order principles of the system we look for. Traditionally, you would look for technique or actions, but these are higher order and they will govern your actions and decisions. 

Vincent Ong: You talk about adaptability and so on, and you did say that coaches should do repetition without repetitions. Elaborate more on what it means.

Richard Shuttleworth: When you do “repetitions with repetition”, a brief description of that would be to replicate or reproduce the same movement or decision every time. There is no variability in the system, there is no choice for change or adaptation. There is minimal to no adaptation in repetitions with repetition. 

Looking at it from a “constraints” approach, it doesn’t make sense to do repetitions with repetition. We’re looking for the player and the athlete to adapt. To adapt, we need to change something. When we change something, we’re looking for change in the performance or the development of an athlete to the circumstances or the situation they’re confronted with. With co-adaptation, we’re looking for an element of repetition to gauge their level of adaption between reps and within reps. 

So we may repeat the problem but the problem may look slightly different. They may have more time, less time. It may be using different equipment. We may say, “Achieve the same outcome but in a slightly different way.” 

Each time, there’s going to be slightly different changes to the movement pattern, starting position or endpoints. We will see adaptation take place using a “constraints” approach. The issue with the “repetitions with no repetition” is that very minimal adaptation creates certainty in the athlete, that what they’re doing is working. 

So we’re almost setting them up psychologically by interacting with these very predictable, stable constraints, that we’re making athletes feel that they’ve trained for performance in the correct way. They’re getting this false sense of security, this certainty and safety behind the performance. 

What we’re suggesting is that the “constraints” approach uses safety. You support the players in terms of their adaptation and their decisions, but you’re creating an uncertain environment. The way we do that is by manipulating constraints to create uncertainty. With that uncertainty, the athlete has to feel that they can come out and find a solution or find a way physically, mentally, socially, behaviourally and fitness-wise. 

So this interactive approach equips the athlete not just in an isolated way, but the interaction of constraints helps them psychologically, physically, mentally, socially and behaviourally. The beautiful thing about this approach is that behaviour emerges as a result of the interaction of these constraints. You don’t separate anything. You don’t have to have interventions for things. 

That’s probably why I’ve thought that this approach is something that makes sense to me coming back to my first day of coaching where I was trying to design around “Perfect Repetitions”. I think coaches actually understand and are intrigued by constraints learning and coaching as well.

They may not be able to explain it in a way we just have, but they can identify with it. They probably have done elements of this coaching, but they just can’t explain it in this way. You’ll find these sorts of coaches don’t really repeat things too much anyway. They will tend to change things because they want to see adaptive changes in their athletes and that’s if their athletes haven’t changed their own training challenges already.