Thursday, June 18, 2015

Teaching vs. coaching

The title reflects the subject I've been pondering lately, but to get something right right now - I do not think the two processes/roles are actually conflicting or in some sort of opposition. As it often is, most phenomena happen in some kind of continuum but for one reason or another, a lot of people will only see the polar extremes of that continuum. And that, of course, offers a distorted view of how things are 99% of the time.

So, let us begin with what the differences are between a teacher and a my own view and for the purposes of this article.

The essential role of the teacher is to present a subject of choice in such a way that the students will understand the matter and become able to approach the practice (hopefully), with the goal of mastering/internalizing/functionalizing that knowledge. The coach, on the other hand, is concerned more with the latter part, i.e. the practice and its results. In other words, in the more specific physical training context, the teacher works on the technical material/curriculum, while the coach works on the practitioner/athlete.

I have already written about teaching and what makes a good teacher, so this time I'd rather turn toward the other side, i.e. coaching.

For the visual types, and not my own design

In the world of martial arts and general combative training, I do not see enough coaches, in comparison with the percentage of teachers. Especially so in the so-called traditional or classical styles, where the heavy emphasis in training is on learning the curriculum, which means making sure that some "sacred knowledge" is not lost or deteriorated in some way. In those circles, the focus of performance is on whether something looks adequately or seems proper. The principal criterion here is often visual, so the student may be told that something is done "like this, not like that", but when asked "why", the teacher typically answers that it is the right way of doing it. That, of course, is not an explanation at all.

To the coach, the main issue is not whether whether any technical element is done this or that way, but - does it work! And the work part means in the circumstances it is meant to be used in. That is why in most fighting sports we only discuss the individual styles of a fighter, not so much in the term of "lineage". Take a look at boxing...there are definitely styles in it (peek-a-boo, Texas slip 'n' slide etc.) but the bottom line is whether a boxer can hold his or her own in the ring. And that is also why you see different types of fighters coming from the same gym - the coaches work on each one's personal strengths and weaknesses to optimize their performance.

My most recent encounter with the dichotomy of teaching and coaching (which peaked the inspiration for this article) happened during the seminar with guro Roger Agbulos of the Astig Lameco school, a couple of weeks back. Namely, his approach to conducting a seminar is different to most other instructors I have met, being that he will keep harping on the same technique or principle for longer than the majority of other. On top of that, guro Roger will usually spar a lot of participants of the seminar, and then also have them spar among themselves, while offering tips from the side.

When asked about it, he said he would rather spend three hours on a couple of techniques than go over a lot, because it enables him to coach the practitioner in real time. More specifically, it gives enough time to see what are the problems/mistakes that the individual trainee will exhibit, and then work on correcting them. It also means the coach will tweak and adapt the material to suit the particular trainee, not the other way around. Ultimately, to a committed coach, what counts is the result, not the amount of technical knowledge or the size of the arsenal.

The author being coached by Roger Agbulos
Naturally, in order for the process of coaching to take place, it entails certain prerequisites. There has to be continuity in working with one coach/trainee; fairly high level of mutual trust is needed, too; both sides have to be aware of their roles and responsibilities in the process, and so on. Of course, when an instructor only does occasional seminars in particular places, and with a group(s) of people who do not show up repeatedly, the above conditions are absent. In that case it is very difficult to be a coach. Add to the equation that some folks are naturally more inclined to one role or the other, and consequently you have two broad categories that could be described as a "seminar instructor" and a "club instructor". 

And yet, these aspect do not necessarily exclude each other. Remember, most things happens are somewhere on the continuum line, hence consisting of various degrees of both extreme polarized values. 
As my friend Mladen Jovanovic rightly preaches, the best results are usually accomplished through the complementary approach, where you choose the right tool for the task at hand, instead of upholding a dogmatic attitude of things are done. 

In conclusion - know your goals; know your tools; know your trainees... An then mix and match the ingredients in a deliberate and attentive way for the best results.