The fundamentals of coaching are often thought about in terms of the basics – what to do and how to do it.
But there is an elemental question that often lies unasked whenever coaching practice or strategy is considered, when a new theory, concept or piece of evidence is presented or uncovered that might change an approach.
How do you know what you know? Are you pointing someone towards the truth, or are you sharing a belief which you have made up or inherited?
In recent years, as science has played a greater role in sports, a trend has developed to making coaching ‘evidence based’.
While this seems like a good thing, it raises important questions. Questions that many coaches, coach developers and indeed scientists are unable to answer.
What exactly is ‘evidence’. How does it come to be known? What exactly is the nature of knowing?
All these questions are philosophical in nature, rather than scientific. But they are crucial when it comes to understanding ourselves, the players we work with and the games we play.
Perhaps the true fundamentals of coaching come before coaching itself?
Where Is Your Experience Coming From?
When talking about strategy, about skill acquisition or problem solving, every good coach will acknowledge the importance of having a clear understanding of the context in which a task will be taking place.
When asked about context, most coaches would point to ‘the environment’. But what is the environment? How are we aware of it? What makes your experience of a shared environment, different from the person you are coaching? How does our own experience of the same environment vary from moment to moment?
Environment is a perception. A subjective evaluation. It is not an objective reality.
Our beliefs as coaches, and those of the players, are as a much a part of the environment as the field of play. When a coach manipulates an environment to change behaviour, they aren’t changing reality. They are modifying a perception. Regardless of the environment, if someone’s perception changes, then their behaviour is likely to change.
Which brings us back to the main question that should be addressed before we learn the fundamentals of coaching.
How do you know what you know?
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
What is it that allows us to perceive the coaching environment? To be aware of the task facing us and the players, aware of the challenges, aware of our capacity to address them?
The answer is that we are conscious, aware beings. This may seem obvious. But what makes us so? What is consciousness?
A simple definition is that consciousness is what is allowing you to be aware of these words, right here, right now.
It is the reality that perceives.
What creates the distinction between objects which have awareness, and those which apparently do not?
The Hard Problem of Consciousness (a phrase first coined by philosopher David Chalmers in his book The Conscious Mind) is one of the most relevant ‘scientific’ conundrums currently facing humanity.
Regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, the question of how we are aware of our experience impacts the lives of every single one of us, 100 percent of the time.
Despite hundreds of years of study and conjecture, and billions spent on research, scientists and philosophers are still no closer to knowing how or why people are conscious, while stadiums and goal posts are not. This may seem like a problem which has little or no relevance to the fundamentals of coaching on a day to day basis.
But nothing could be farther from the truth.
What is ‘Reality’ ?
According to the latest evolution of physics, the primordial element of reality is a set of sub atomic particles, described in the ‘standard model’ of quantum physics.
These are the building blocks from which everything else in nature is constructed. From cricket balls to solar systems. From single cell amoeba to world beating athletes. From blades of grass to state of the art stadia.
All are fundamentally made from the same ‘stuff’. The common name for it is ‘matter’.
There should be an explanation for every object, event and phenomena in nature, in terms of the dynamics of these particles; their movements and interactions with each other.
The so called ‘hard problem’ is this:
There is no reason or explanation, even in theory, why specific groupings of these inert particles become conscious or aware, as is evidently the case with most living creatures.
Think about that for a second. The most basic thing you know is that you know. You are aware. And you know that you are aware. But science has no idea how or why that is the case.
The Love of The Game
So, as science currently stands, there is no explanation or ability to predict the properties of our subjective experience, in the context of the sub-atomic particles from which our brains and bodies are comprised.
This experience includes the feelings of joy when a goal is scored.
The thrill of a golf shot as it climbs into a clear blue sky.
The flash of insight and creativity that unlocks a packed defence.
The beauty and grace of a topspin forehand.
The warmth of a hug from a team mate.
The bond between a close-knit squad of players.
None of these experiences can be explained in terms of the basic physical elements from which they supposedly arise and in which they take place. As far as we know, there is not even a theory about how causal relationship between an atom and a feeling could occur.
Yet we know these experiences as ‘facts.’ We know them as more than that.
For most of us, they are the very essence of why we play and coach the games we love.
This then, is The Hard Problem of Consciousness as it relates to sport. How do we know what we know? How are spectators experiencing what they are experiencing? Why do players feel what they feel?
Consciousness is what makes experience possible. It is the fundamental and universal element of each and every sporting moment.
Yet despite all the research and study, there is no scientific explanation of what it is or how it arises.
For honest, well-intentioned coaches, this raises serious questions. It seems to me, that if you don’t know how you know what you know, how can you attribute a value to that knowledge? Are you pointing your players towards truth, or just sharing your own current, subjective beliefs? Or those of someone else? On what are your fundamentals of coaching based?
What is ‘reality’, and what is inference, guesswork or plausible assumption?
Are you educating, guiding and supporting your players towards well-being, happiness and fulfilling their potential?
Or misleading them (albeit unintentionally) with false information based on an unexamined supposition – an explanatory abstraction?
The State of Play
If you are honest, you will admit that most of your knowledge and your beliefs, are mainly an amalgamation and interpretation or development of other people’s.
But if those individuals, no matter how qualified, don’t understand the true nature of their experience, then does their knowledge have any more validity than yours?
This is where coaching currently sits.
In a swirling mass of ideas, theories and concepts, which may or may not be true, which may work one day but not the next.
An idea which was accepted best practice one day, is superseded by the next new idea which comes along and is deemed worthy by whomever is deemed to have authority at that particular moment in time. A few years later, the old tried and trusted is back in fashion.
No wonder so many coaches and athletes are struggling and frustrated. The fundamentals of coaching appear to be based on sand.
Fortunately, there is a remedy for this confusion and endless seeking.
Take a Break
Firstly, stop looking outside yourself for answers.
Give yourself a break. Stop reading books, going to lectures, watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts, at least for a while.
What is the point of consuming more knowledge and information until you have a reliable frame of reference to allow you to place a value on it?
Many coaches are addicted to information. But will more information make your players better? Will it set them free, or bind them up? Is your job to give them the answers, or to help them find out for themselves? If it’s the latter, how does more knowledge help you to help them?
Stop trying to become a better coach for a while. Just coach. Enjoy the experience. See what happens.
The second part is harder, as it almost certainly goes against years of conditioning, and calls into question one of the main concepts on which our entire culture is built.
Drop the belief that science has, or one day will have an explanation for everything. And therefore, so will the rest of us. Just think for a moment about all the scientific models that have had to be revised over the past couple of hundred years. What are scientists sure about today, that in 50 years time will turn out to be false?
The Hard Problem of Consciousness cannot be addressed using the current scientific model. Science cannot study consciousness, because consciousness is prior to science.
Science takes place within consciousness.
Otherwise how would the scientists be aware of the results they are observing? What is being studied is what is studying. Only when scientists accept this premise, are they likely to make progress in understanding the implications of it.
Your own direct experience is the best guide for this exploration.
Many coaches, especially those who are young and have less hours on the clock are nervous about relying on their own experience to judge what is true, and what isn’t. If you only take one thing from this article, I hope it will embolden you to let go of this fear.
Trust your experience. By experience I don’t mean your memories. I mean what is happening right here, right now.
At the end of the day, this is the way most coaches work, including the great ones. They have an insight or an idea. They try it out, to see if the theory matches with their experience, their current reality.
If so, they adopt it. If not, they move on. What I am proposing here just makes the process more efficient.
By understanding more clearly how you know what you know, you can trust your experience more, rather than basing your fundamentals of coaching on the theories, beliefs or or instructions of others.
What Can You Trust?
The beauty of grounding your coaching practice in a thorough exploration of the true nature of experience is its simplicity and the ease by which your knowledge can be verified from that point onward.
You have the same capacity to explore and know consciousness as the most qualified scientist or decorated coach.
You have the same access to the source of your experience as Pep Guardiola or Steve Hansen.
When it comes to understanding the true nature of consciousness, you can trust your experience rather than believe the words of scientists, experts or anyone else, including those written here.
In certain circumstances, it is wise to listen to people who have more information, more access to knowledge than you do. For example, when a physicist tells me that space is curved, and that black holes exist, I am inclined to believe her. Physicists have access to sophisticated measuring equipment which allows them a perception of the universe which I do not have.
I might well do the usual checks most of us would go through before accepting a new idea or theory. Are other people saying the same thing? Is there any obvious reason why she might be lying? If the answers to these questions are yes and no, then I’ll probably go with it until my experience presents further evidence which might disagree with the original conclusion.
This is pretty much the standard process by which our individual world view is created.
It is how most of us learn about the techniques and strategies of coaching.
However, when it comes to consciousness – how we know what we know – quantum physicists, neuro-scientists and elite coaches have no better access to information than you or I do.
There are no machines that measure consciousness.
The source of my experience, the awareness available to me from moment to moment, is as pure as that available to anyone else. So, when it comes to evaluating how you know what you know, you can trust your intuition about who you really are and what is true for you, rather than relying on someone else’s opinion.
Think about this for a moment and take in the significance of what this might mean:
You are able to understand one of the fundamental questions of the human experience. One which has been puzzled over by the greatest minds in history. To do so you need nothing more than simple logic and your own gut instincts.
You don’t need experts or special equipment to validate your exploration.
You just need the curiosity to question your current beliefs and be open to a different perception of your reality.
The Most Ordinary Thing You Know
So, how might this revelation play out in daily life.
As a coach asked me the other day when we were discussing these ideas;
‘I get it, but so what?
How does understanding the nature of consciousness help us to know when we are on the right track with an insight we have had, or whether an idea we might have heard from someone else is worth following up?
Firstly, despite its significance, ‘knowing’ doesn’t feel special, exciting, thrilling or exceptional. Being aware of being aware is the most ordinary, everyday, matter of fact ‘knowing’ that there is.
Yet it is the knowledge on which all other knowledge is based. It is how we know what we know. It is what underpins everything else that we know about coaching, and about life.
It isn’t an intellectual knowing. It is a felt experience.
Gut instinct. Inner wisdom. Presence.
No special skills or training are required. You don’t need equipment or research instruments. Just ask yourself, ‘Does this feel right? Am I pointing to love, happiness, kindness, connection, oneness, enjoyment, well-being?’
Will the feeling change depending on an outcome, or do you know it is the right thing to do regardless of how it plays out? Will you change your fundamentals of coaching based what other people might think or how they might react?
Notice what happens when you hang out in the knowing that you are on the right track, but also that you are free to change course at any moment.
What happens to all your theories and concepts, worries and fears, memories and imaginings when you know you are fine no matter what the situation or circumstance, result or outcome?
Hard Problem, or No Problem?
The only thing you can be 100% certain of in your experience, that you can know for sure, is that you know, that you are aware. The validity of the content of your experience is less certain. After all, when you have a dream, you don’t know that you are dreaming. But you are aware of it
It is undeniable that you ‘are’.
Logic says that everything is the only way that it can be right now. Reality has never been any other way than as it is. Regardless of how we might like it to be.
The present moment is what it is, and it isn’t what it isn’t. And that it’s OK. And whatever happens next, that will be OK too. The more we appreciate this, understand it and live it, the more everything else makes sense.
We can play with more freedom.
Coach with more wisdom.
Train with more enthusiasm. Learn with more insight.
Live with more resilience and love.
Knowing how we know what we know, the true nature of our experience, is the knowledge which underpins all other knowledge.
It helps us to sift the wheat from the chaff when evaluating technique, strategy and concepts. It’s what allows us to show up when times are tough, and keeps our feet on the ground when events play out as we dreamt they might. It’s what allows us to say what needs to be said when it needs to be said, and to know when nothing needs saying at all.
It gives us pause before imposing our beliefs onto the people we are coaching, and allows them to trust their experience
in the same way we trust ours, we let them find their own way rather than blindly following ours.
As with all problems, The Hard Problem of Consciousness is only a problem from the perspective of someone trying to solve it.
From the perspective of consciousness, there is no problem.
It just is.
This essay draws on the ideas and works of scientist and philosopher Dr Bernardo Kastrup. I highly recommend his books and writings. You can find his website by following this link.
If you have any questions or comments about the fundamentals of coaching, or anything else on the site, please use this link to arrange a conversation. We’d love to hear from you!