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THE STATE OF THE GAME
by John Riches
Australian Correspondent

A PROFILE OF THE WRITER

The Who, Why, and Wherefore of Sound Coaching

In the amateur sport of croquet, coaching is seen merely as the help beginners need to grasp the fundamentals. In the professional sport of croquet, sound coaching of players is essential to achieve the winning edge in competition. Sound coaching comes from an organized approach to the training and development of competent coaches.
In the Australian croquet scene, and I suspect also in other parts of the world, we coaches have a lot of work to do in order to establish credibility. We have to overcome certain long-held prejudices based on the out-moded idea that croquet is, and should remain, a purely amateur sport (for "amateur", read "one that should not be taken too seriously") in which the notion of paying a coach to assist you improve your play is often looked upon as a violation of sacred tradition, and more or less akin to outright cheating.

ERADICATING POPULAR MYTHS ABOUT COACHING

Even at the top level, among players with whom we might expect to share some degree of enlightenment, there are myths about coaching which will be difficult to eradicate. The main ones are....

  1. "Coaching is necessary for beginners who don't know how to play the various shots, but good players should know how to play them correctly and what tactics to use."

    Try convincing Pete Sampras, Greg Norman, or any top athlete, gymnast or swimmer that they have no need of a coach! On the contrary, the higher the level at which you play in any sport, the more vital it is that you have the regular assistance of a competent coach to help you maintain your game at top level, and eradicate minute errors before you yourself are even aware of them, and more importantly, before they become entrenched habits which can be very difficult to eliminate.

  2. "But I am already the strongest player in our club (region/state, etc.), so there is no-one I can get any further help from".

    Why do we imagine that the coach should be able to play at a higher standard than the player whom he coaches? Is Carl Lewis's coach a better athlete than Carl? In fact, top players rarely make the best coaches, due to the fact that most aspects of the game come so naturally to them that they have never had to give any deep thought to what they actually do and why they do it.

  3. "There is no need for a coach to be present with the player or team during a competition, as his work should all have been completed before then; it is too late to change anything after the competition has started."

    People who peddle this line are merely displaying their ignorance of what coaching is all about. Once again, any top athlete in almost any sport will tell you that this, too, is nonsense. In fact, psychology (and in particular mental preparation, game by game) assumes greater significance in croquet than in almost any other sport. A good coach can be of incalculable help to a player in assisting him to prepare for variable playing conditions, a particular opponent, new tactical ideas being adopted by other players, and in settling him down for the next game after a devastating loss or a nail-biting victory.

RECENT ADVANCES IN COACHING IN AUSTRALIA

It seems that South Australia in recent years has moved well ahead of other Australian states in the setting up of an organised system for training coaches and coaching players. The SA Coaching Committee has worked hard for the last ten or so years, on such things as preparing materials; conducting research in the area of bio-mechanics in conjunction with our local Sports Institute; carrying out experiments designed to test our theories on the way balls behave in particular shots when struck in various ways; collecting data for statistical purposes; training coaches; coaching players; working out exactly what should be taught, in what order and at what level; and most important of all, finding the best ways of teaching the things that need to be taught.

The Australian Croquet Association has now adopted many of our ideas and materials, and is assisting other states to become more involved in the advances being made.

The generally unenlightened attitude to coaching in this country until recently is illustrated by the fact that about 15 years ago the ACA as a member of the National Coaching Accreditation Scheme published an "Australian Croquet Manual" written by Ron Sloane, who was recognised at the time as a leading player and coach. It is a useful book, with many important insights into the way the game should be played; but it fails to make any mention at all of the most important aspects of coaching. It tells you the information that a coach needs to pass on to his players, but not how to actually go about passing it on in the most efficient and effective manner. It tells you what the coach should recommend his players to do, but not how to get them to do it.

DIAGNOSIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF THE COACH'S JOB

This idea that the sole or main function of a coach is to tell you what you are doing wrong and what you ought to be doing differently, is another commonly accepted myth. A coach who does nothing more than tell you that "You are hurrying your forward swing and twisting the mallet. You also need to make sure that your backswing is straighter." is no better than a doctor who tells you that you have appendicitis and need to have the offending organ removed, but does not know how to go about removing it. You need to promptly find another doctor and/or coach - one who knows not only how to diagnose your problem, but how to fix it!

Diagnosis - telling the player what he is doing wrong - is only the first step in the process of error correction. There is an enormous amount of knowledge that the coach needs to possess if he is to satisfactorily complete the task that as coach he should be undertaking. This will usually involve the development of correct technique (since knowing what you should be doing and being able to do it are two very different things); setting of practice drills; designing a training and competitive programme; goal-setting; monitoring of progress; and many other things which need to be done in order to ensure that the player adtually learns the correct technique and is able to use it in pressure situations without reverting to his old incorrect technique.

In the coaching of tactics, also, there is much work to be done. A coach must do much more than work out the tactical ideas which a player should be using, which will vary from one player to another, depending on the percentage success rates of their various shots. Telling the player that some aspect of his tactical game is unsatisfactory and needs to be changed will rarely be of much help. Much time has to be spent out on the lawn playing through various situations in which the new tactic applies; ensuring that the player understands why he needs to use it as well as when to use it and when not to; and most difficult of all for the coach, finding ways of ensuring that the player actually thinks of the new correct tactic in a tense game situation under pressure.

Much material is now available covering the areas I have touched on above, and there is also good material on many other areas of essential coaching knowledge which have not been mentioned here; but there is still a very long way to go and much research to be done. Compared with other sports, the science of Croquet Coaching is still very much in its infancy.

HOW TO PROMOTE THE IMPORTANCE OF COACHING

So how can we go about gaining credibility and establishing more firmly our place in the sun? It will take time, but there are some things we can do immediately.

FIRSTLY, every coach who is still playing the game should ensure that he himself has a personal coach, whose help he seeks regularly; and he should not hesistate to let everyone know how much he values the assistance. Remember that your coach need not be able to play as well as you can.

SECONDLY, we can advise every player we come into contact with that when some aspect of their game starts to give trouble, they should immediately seek the services of a trained and accredited coach.

THIRDLY, we should warn against placing too much reliance on the advice of anyone - even a top player - who has not been properly trained as a coach. After all, would you allow a 'doctor' with no training or qualifications to treat your appendicitis?

FOURTHLY, we can point out to every leading player, and certainly to every team, that if they do not have their own coach, they are going to be competing under a severe disadvantage against others who have recognised the importance of good coaching and secured the services of a competent coach.


John Riches will have more to say on various aspects of coaching here in future editions of his column, "The State of the Game."


 
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