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KGB VOL 25: Two ways to look in the mirror.

Reflection is a very important practice in the coaching and high-performance professions. This “hard look in the mirror” approach has been around for decades in all types of organizations. It can happen in two ways:

  1. You can look AT yourself in the mirror, a physical once-over. You’ve done it a million times: You scan to see how your clothing looks, what your hairstyle is doing today, or if you still have ice cream on your face from that Ben and Jerry’s transgression last night. 
  2. You can also LOOK YOURSELF IN THE EYE, a psychological or emotional check-in. You are not scanning a scene; you are looking inward with intent. Maybe you are participating in some self-talk, making an affirmation, or pushing a one-sided “wake-the-heck-up” conversation. 

Either of these activities has value, but the second often has more long-lasting effects in increasing our performance. 

The purpose of reflection is to work out what is already known and add new information with the result of drawing out knowledge, new meaning and a higher level of understanding.1  

As coaches, when we look back over a season or while simply evaluating a game or practice, how we look at things is important. Are we making that cursory, superficial look at the overall appearance of the activity or are we going deeper, reflecting with focus and intent? In the private sector, I have found success by looking globally first. I take in as much relevant data as possible and try to run it through a filter to tease out what matters most. Once deeper issues have been identified, we can reflect on that information with a focused lens.

Let me give you a general example. In the off-season, I work with an amazing skills coach. He has an innate ability to look at a player first in the context of the game, looking AT the player’s game. Then he breaks down the relevant skills, both technical and tactical, to improve the competition process, looking INTO the player’s game. Together, we employ a few on-ice tests that allow him to see what he wants to see in the stride as well as various change-of-direction strategies (stop/start, turn, etc). We video record and time all these assessments for additional data points. Once we have video, he pulls out workable skills. Due to the nuance of his approach, we have had to work on a common language to understand each other and to make this collaboration meaningful to the player and each other.

Once these on-ice attributes have been identified, we hit the gym and look for performance-limiting factors that may be identified in this setting (joint restriction, muscle imbalance, nutritional considerations, etc). Together we develop a comprehensive approach to an off-season plan for each player. 

In coaching (and in life), when things go as planned, GREAT!! When they don’t, we typically are forced to reflect. In this example, we are forced to ask: 

  • Was the player prepared to play and did not achieve the desired result? 
  • Was the result unattainable due to deficiencies in their game or lack of preparation?

Clearly defining your process takes reflection. Maximizing your process takes reflection. When you look in the mirror of your season, games, or practices, make sure you both look AT the game as well as INTO the game. You will need to know what skills you have to call on in order to make decisions that will propel you to higher performance.

Higgs and Titchen (2000) name three types of knowledge that are critical for decision-making: propositional, professional craft, and personal knowledge:

  • Propositional is scholarly learning such as books, journals, and empirical scientific methods. This is quite literally what you have learned in an official capacity about your coaching craft. For many of us, this comes in the form of a college degree, an official training program, or both. This usually constitutes the nuts and bolts of coaching and prepares us for advanced study and, hopefully, some of that OJT, on-the-job training.
  • Professional craft encompasses professional experience and procedural skills. Here we ask, what previous coaching experiences can you call on? What systems of decision-making have you been exposed to that you may want to include or avoid? What special technical or tactical skills might you have that allow you to reflect through a unique perspective? In coaching we learn so much from our peers in an unofficial capacity. These relationships drive our processes as we develop our own coaching style. This type of reflection is invaluable. When we learn through observation and experience, the lessons tend to be very powerful, both good and bad.
  • Personal knowledge is derived from an individual’s ability to reflect on their experiences. In your previous experience, what have you learned about yourself? Do you have positive or negative tendencies that need to be recognized and addressed? Coaching happens fast and decisions have to be made, usually on the fly. We need to use reflection as a way to look back at our decision-making habits while under pressure and take the time to notice and name these habits for future reference. As a fan of sports, I like to observe a coach’s body language during times of stress. This is a subtle but infectious form of communication that seems to calm or totally activate the people around them. 

Kolb (1994) offers a way to systematize our practice of reflection:

Kolb’s model begins with (1) a concrete experience. This is the actual event that is under consideration. It is followed by a period of (2) reflective observation that includes analyzing emotions and linking prior experiences and knowledge, a deep look INTO the situation. We then turn to (3) abstract conceptualization. Though the term sounds complex, it really isn’t. During this phase, we study the situation. Literature is consulted and, through discussion with colleagues, an individual modifies their thinking and reassesses the situation. Finally, we engage in (4) active experimentation. In this last phase of growth through reflection, an individual tries out new theories, approaches, or solutions in similar or new situations. This then becomes the next concrete experience on which subsequent reflections can be made.

An example of employing this model may be seen while addressing a tactical issue within your team:

  • The concrete experience is the tactical issue you want to address, let’s call this one defensive zone coverage. In today’s game, we would most likely use video to review tactical decision-making within a team setting and the actual event can be reviewed intently.
  • The reflective observation is the time used to consider potential solutions based on the three skills we mentioned above. 
  • When you decide to move to abstract conceptualization, you are studying other teams’ videos and running your ideas through your colleagues or trusted advisors and looking for feedback and contributions. 
  • Your active experimentation phase in this case is the team meeting with the video support and a subsequent discussion about implementation of the revised defensive zone strategy. 

Run the process and adapt it to your personal preferences. Just like any skill, deep and productive reflection takes practice. Leaning on colleagues or mentors is crucial and avoiding confirmation bias or convincing yourself that you are right is critical. Always surround yourself with people who respectfully push you to be better. 

  1. Paterson C, Chapman J. Enhancing skills of critical reflection to evidence learning in professional practice. Phys Ther Sport. 2013 Aug;14(3):133-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ptsp.2013.03.004. Epub 2013 May 1. PMID: 23643448.

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