I’ve written about Greg Chappell previously and he certainly has a similar mindset to me when it comes to learning and coaching sport. I was forwarded this Greg Baum article by a reader and it offers a contrarian approach to developing talent. Chappell believes that coaching is getting too structured, while simultaneously impeding natural instincts. Here’s some snippets of the article and my thoughts added.

“In developed countries, structured environments, with highly intrusive coaching methods that have replaced creative learning environments, have reduced batting to an exercise in trying to perfect the imperfectible.”

CS: And this is exactly the mindset of modern golf coaching. We’re focused so much on building “perfect” technique that we’ve forgotten about playing the game. Worse, along the way a lot of really talented kids are having their flair and enthusiasm beaten out of them as they’re forced to conform to the status quo.

Consequently, writes Chappell, batting skills have deteriorated alarmingly. He might have been thinking about Phil Hughes. When Hughes first arrived on the scene, his technique looked home-grown. Now it looks as if it has been rebuilt by a committee. Stand by for the next laboratory redesign.

CS: This is one of the most profound things I’ve read on this coaching caper. “His technique looked home-grown. Now it looks as if it has been rebuilt by a committee.” How true. Going through the technique factory isn’t going to get you into trouble (from the selectors/coaches/general public) but what is it going to do with your game? Conforming to the norm can be a safe option if you don’t want to rock the apple cart, but if you want to be the best in the business I’m almost certain you’ve got to do it your way.

Chappell’s thesis is that in developed cricket countries, with lavish facilities, career coaches and banks of auxiliaries, the instinct of young players for the game is dulled rather than sharpened.

CS: I couldn’t agree more. It’s counter-intuitive but is all this fancy coaching working? Daniel Coyle, who spent months looking at talent hotbeds all over the world says, “choose spartan over luxurious”. He goes on to say that state-of-the-art practice facilities, fluffy towels and oak-paneled offices signals our unconscious minds to give less effort. “Relax, you’ve already made it”. And here’s the best bit from Coyle, “Simple, humble spaces help focus attention and the deep-practice at hand: reaching and repeating and struggling. When given the choice between luxurious and spartan, choose spartan. Your unconscious mind will thank you.”

This is something all sporting organisations should consider before spending all that money on that new training facility.

“The developed countries have lost the natural environments that were a big part of their development structures in bygone eras,” he writes. “In these environments, young cricketers learnt from watching good players and then emulating them in pick-up matches with family and friends.

“Usually, any instruction that was received was rudimentary, while interference from adults was minimal. In these unstructured settings, players developed a natural style while learning to compete against older players, during which they learned critical coping and survival skills.”

CS: Yes! It’s how we’ve always learned but something that has been forgotten about. They key here is “critical coping and survival skills”. Instead of leaning on a coach for the answers (or the coach imparting an overload of wisdom) you’re forced to learn yourself. And it’s this that helps when we’re out in the big bad world by ourselves. We’re accustomed to fighting for ourselves and getting the job done our way. We’re better prepared for the heat of battle.

Which leads back to Chappell. His theory is that talent, including sporting talent, best flourishes when the talented are left to their own devices, in a creative environment, but “without too much interference from adults”. After all, when they are tested on the arena, no one will be there to hold their hand.

CS: Chappell is on the right page here. He’s not against all coaching, but just limit the amount and encourage individual talent to appear.

Chappell writes that if he had his way, he would educate coaches not to present as all-knowing fonts of wisdom, but as managers of “creative learning environments”, in which young cricketers would learn “with minimal invasion from adults”.

CS: I love the phrase “creative learning environments”. It’s exactly what coaching should be and can only lead to better results. Driving ranges are stale and boring – there’s not much good to be had there. But the golf course might be the ultimate learning environment, a place where magic really happens. It’s a pity that most coaches are now stuck on the range and rarely venture outside where there’s no ball dispenser and certainly video camera.

“minimal invasion from adults” should be plastered on the walls of every school. Teaching isn’t about filling their minds with rules and regulations, but rather, to inspire, encourage and to point somewhere in the general direction. The really hard learning stuff is best done by the kids, when they play, and it happens subconsciously. Adults, for the most part, just get in the way.

“I can hear those who believe that batting is all about technique asking how these ‘free-range’ cricketers will become technically adept,” he writes. ”All I can say is that for the first 100 years of Test cricket, that is how the very best were bred.”

CS: It’s so obvious and so true and doesn’t matter what sport (or skill) we talk about. Look at any great champion from yesteryear, how did they learn? Were they stifled by thoughts of technique and doing things “perfectly” or were they allowed to “play” and have the technique find them? And this is the fundamental difference in mindset. Is great technique and performance built by analysis and extreme coaching or is it developed by guiding, challenging and mentoring students to perform naturally? I’ll leave the answer to one of the greatest sportsman of all time, Don Bradman,

“I would prefer to tell a young player what to do than how to do it.”