Host Richard Parkin interviews Professor Richard Light about the Holistic approach to training. Parkin analyses the A-League with resident football analyst Kate Cohen and Ann Odong covers the W-League.

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 Part 1

(Interview begins at 25 min 32 sec)

Richard Parkin: Welcome back, this is the Leopold Method radio show. Our very special guest today is Professor Richard Light. He’s the Professorial Research Fellow at Federation University. Professor Light is an expert on physical education and coaching pedagogy and has done extensive research on the Holistic approach to training, which is what he’s here to talk to us about today. So welcome Professor Light.

Richard Light: Thanks very much for having me here.

RP: Look, just to start for our listeners back home, can you explain what the Holistic approach to training is?

RL: Have you got an hour?

RP: Yeah (laughs).

RL: Look, as it suggests, it’s taking the game as a whole. So some of the problems we’ve had in the past with traditional coaching is the temptation to make something complex simple. And we know that football games are very complex. If you break it down into fundamental skills that need to be practiced out of context and then somehow go back and hope they make sense, it doesn’t work. So the Holistic approach is how can you look at the whole game and skills, communication, tactical knowledge, decision making, awareness and all those things are developed in a context that’s actually transferrable. You so often see a skill drill approach where you have a sensational Tuesday/Thursday night training, and it doesn’t transfer on Saturday or Sunday.

RP: Yeah, look as an amateur coach that’s certainly the experience I’ve had where you do that drill, like volleying in couples or something like that, and it’s going magic and everyone’s playing well, and exactly as you say come Saturday it doesn’t quite hold up. What, then, is the difference between the Holistic approach and say this isolated practice?

RL: This isolated practice has this conception that there’s one correct way to do a skill. And if you watch any expert player in any sport they don’t all do it as it is in the textbook. They do it as it works, and that’s what a good skill is. Rod Thorpe, with his Teaching Games For Understanding ideas, he differentiated between technique and skill. So he said, look technique is a performance of a movement out of context, whereas skill is a performance of that skill in context. So you see that difference there. If I’m taking our soccer class – football I’m sorry – I don’t have football background but I often put my hand up because I want to show them how you can do a Holistic approach. I ask… one of the mistakes is that people think ‘oh look, the Holistic approach is like Game Sense for example, and it’s against skills. It neglects skills for tactics.’ But it doesn’t. It’s a whole approach, so when I take a lesson, and it’s normally a lower level of students, I will say ‘what did you do to learn dribbling.’ And almost 100% of the answer is dribble around the cones. And so the question is what relevance has that got to the games?

If you look at the work of educators like John Dewey he’ll say – and he wasn’t referring to sport I don’t think – if you practice one technique or one isolated skill you become very good at that skill and that’s all. And so you need to have that skill in a context that develops something else rather than just the foot on the ball and what you’re doing with it. So what I do is I pick an appropriate size grid with a small number of players, one ball each and ask them to dribble around the space. And if they’re not moving and exploring maybe put some stipulations like you’ve got to touch each boundary once or whatever. They’ve still got that basic dribbling skill and you can still stop them and ask or tell them what they should do, but they’re moving around in a context with other people in it. So, they’re looking for space, they’ve got to develop game awareness of their environment and they’re making decisions. It’s pretty low level decisions but they’re making decisions. Before Robbie Deans was sacked as Wallabies coach I spoke with him and he said every practice has got to have something to do with awareness and decision making. That’s the Holistic approach, it’s got to have those element of the game to be meaningful.

RP: Looking at the Holistic approach then, now this is something that has come to Australia – it’s been around what, I guess since the ’80s or so. Do you feel there has been resistance to adopting this within the coaching fraternity?

RL: There are two things I want to answer there. The first – these ideas have been around a long time, Wade’s book on football coaching in the UK, I would say 1968, ’67, and the French and German work as well, right back then. Thorpe, with his Teaching Games For Understanding he picked up those ideas and when he came out to Australia in the ’90s many times he worked with local coaches and they developed the name ‘Game Sense’. Primarily because coaches didn’t want to have an association with schools, they wanted to have it separate. So the ideas have a – like most ideas nothing’s really new – they have been back for a long time. You’ve got to ask yourself, over all these generations and changes and contexts why hasn’t it really dominated? I actually feel that just recently it’s starting to get traction in Australia and New Zealand and a few of the places i’ve been to in Asia. I feel that we’re just on the verge of actually having some significant change.

RP: What’s changing though? What was the resistance to it, and what’s changed in the past couple of years that you see that momentum forming?

RL: There’s been a – it’s easy to take the mickey out of academics in ivory towers and everything else – that’s long gone I’ve been in an ivory tower. But I think a lot of the research, that at last there is empirical research on it that now when I’m writing papers I can cite people who’ve done studies or suggest that this is the case, that you know, you do improve your skills and execution by playing a Game Sense approach. I think that’s made a contribution. There’s been quite a shift in the 1990s in the US there was a tactical versus technical debate and that did no one any good. And I think there’s a hangover from that as well. Because the answer is it’s all important, you know it’s not one or the other and that shouldn’t be the decision…

RP: It’s almost like a false dichotomy making you choose between two key aspects.

RL: Exactly. And like I said earlier with the dribbling example, they can’t be done separately if they’re going to be meaningful and actually result in better players.

RP: Now you’ve recently published a book looking at the Holistic approach in rugby, from your research what are the key challenges in taking this theoretical approach to mums and dads to the grassroots levels?

RL: You know we – and me included – I think made a mistake. To me it’s natural, this is the only way to coach any sport. And of all the sports that it’s suited to football is the one, absolutely. And you see with Barcelona and a lot of the coaching methods all around the world now either take it on or take on parts of it and be influenced by it. So for me it just seemed natural and it took me a while, maybe I’m not very smart, to realise it’s actually really difficult. It challenges some really deep assumptions that people have about coaching. Things like the coach has to be in charge, the coach has to have superior knowledge that he or she transmits to the players, the coach has to be in control, even to the extent in some sports that the coach has to lose his temper and punch the wall and throw his clipboard on the ground and shout at the players.

RP: Hairdryer in the Nigel Clough approach…

RL: Yeah. Exactly. But this actually demands far more, it’s far more demanding than I though five or six years ago. Working with people, you know I’ve been working with Greg Chappell with cricket, with Eddie Jones the Wallabies coach now in charge of Japan, he’s shifted to Game Sense. He’s just written a paper with me saying it’s the only way to go. Greg Chappell is very much a proponent of this sort of approach and think it’s the answer to our batting ills. It might be a good time bring that up (laughs).

RP: Looking then at the role of sporting federations to do with this rollout of Game Sense, have they done enough, have they been helpful in this process? Or is there more that sports federations can do in getting this approach out to the grassroots level?

RL: I’ll give you an example of a book I’ve just published, myself and some colleagues. The RFU – Rugby Football Union in England – they decided years ago that Game Sense would guide all their coaching. We worked with one of my colleagues, a PhD student, he was doing his PhD on how that is going and it’s not going too well. One of the problems is in the end it’s not authentic. You need far more effort to make sure that it’s authentic, that this is the approach that we started off thinking was good. Because what happens is it gets passed on down the line without good education. As it goes down the line the coaches know less and less about it and in the end they’re teaching something that’s not the original idea. That’s why things like this fail.

RP: So it’s almost like a Chinese whispers going down the line and less and less is passed on. What inhibits that – that base level of community coach awareness I guess?

RL: I think NGOs actually taking a bit of time and effort to find out what it is they’re after. In my book on Game Sense from 2013, I read… there’s lots of model for this, like Teaching Games For Understanding, Game Sense, Play Practice and all these other things. There’s a real temptation to have models that you should do A, B, C, and if you don’t do that then you’re not doing the right thing.  My approach is to say there’s a framework – I looked at all these approaches and thought what have they got in common? Well the first is that with games that the training is in a modified game or a game like activity. To go back to the dribbling exercise, that’s very simple, that’s not a game. But it’s got elements of a game in it. And that comes to how much you focus – so if a coach want to focus on a skill, say dribbling or shooting, then they narrow the structure. But if a coach is working on a decision making, or elements of a full game, then you’ll open up the structure, give them more scope to make mistakes and to reflect on it and so on.

RP: I’m speaking to Professor Richard Light about Game Sense. We’ll go to a quick break and have more after this.

Part 2

RP: You’re listening the Leopold Method show on 2ser, your home for intelligent, insightful football analysis. In the studio with me is Professor Richard Light, and he is here to talk about the Holistic approach to training. Now you spoke generally about this, let’s look at specific training sessions. So how does the theory of the Holistic approach – Games based, questioning, all this stuff – how does that get transferred into practical implementation?

RL: There are two main elements to this. One is the, obviously a coach decides, probably in discussion with the players, depends on how old they are but even young kids should have some input as well, about how we went last week, what we’re going to work on and why we’re working on it. They need to understand how it all fits in, and then you decide, well what’s the best way to achieving this within a Holistic approach? If it’s a skill, if the coach really feels like a passing skill is not working well for them then he would – he or she would – design a game with that in mind. I understand you’ve got resources for coaches to work with, but one of the important things is how you manage the game. You design the game to suit the players levels, the skills, your intended outcomes – but once you start, either as a team or you’ll have them in small sided games normally – group by group they might be quite different.

You need to find the exact right level of challenge, and that means to engage them. Look elite players are kids, if they’re not engaged they’re not learning, they’re not enjoying it and they’re not motivated. They’ve got be engaged. So you have a set of tools, and typically it might be the number of players, the balance between two teams if you’re working in teams – like a 5-on-3 or a 4-on-1 depending on the skill. You’ll have the size of the area, so typically the larger it is the easier it is. But not always, so you decide the size and you can play with shapes as well – you can work in a square, you can work in a rectangle that’s much narrower, or you can work in a rectangle that’s wide.

RP: I guess this comes back to the real nut of it. How do we help coaches get that right level of complexity and that right level of challenge to ensure that each session has effective learning?

RL: I think it probably comes down to coach education, and we know from the research that compared to experience over time coach education is really up against it. So with those coach education programs that had to involve engaging their coaches no matter what level they are and reflecting on their own beliefs. And one of the things I’ve done in universities where I’ve worked is to get the students to tell me what they think good coaching is. What are the aspects of a good coach, get them to bring up their beliefs that they actually may never of thought about. Our deep beliefs rarely come to our consciousness – they guide us in what we do until someone puts us on the spot and says well why do you say that? So bring them up to understand what’s guiding them and then to discuss and then reflect on practice. One of the most important things with coaches – no matter what approach they take – is reflection. Critical reflection.

RP: I guess then we’re almost talking about a dual process. On one level you’re saying to players, you need to take some autonomy too, we need to challenge you with questions so that you see what’s the best actions to do and you make those decisions, and then on a second level to challenge coaches. To say you need to self-reflect and see how you can improve those sessions.

RL: Actually, one of the things I’ve done for quite a few years now is to push the idea that if this is good enough for players it’s good enough for how you coach coaches. We don’t sit in a room and tell the coaches how to do it. This is a learner centred approach for players. You’re empowering them, to make decisions. Being wrong is to learn. If it doesn’t work, you say what are you going to try out, they try it, it doesn’t work, why not? We reflect on it. This is learning. Why would we then sit down in a room full of coaches and tell them directly what they should do and why? If we believe that’s the best way to learn, well then it’s the best way to learn.

RP: In that I imagine you come up against some institutionalised patterns of behaviour but also some cultural approaches to coaching. So with educating coaches how do you separate this point of asking players questions as opposed to telling them what to do? How do you get coaches to make that leap?

RL: You have to be gentle but firm, but you have to know what you’re doing. They’re going to ask questions and you’ve really got to have the answers, or good questions back to them. I taught workshops in Taiwan in August, and I taught touch rugby, I did basketball and it was fantastic. I did touch rugby because I knew it would be a challenge, because that whole concept of, unlike football, that you have to go forward to score but you can’t pass forward, and so dealing with those sorts of problems. In Asian cultures they do tend to, they tend to have a different sort of questioning. I found that for example that if I asked the questions they were quite reluctant to answer, but if I put them in groups and got them to talk about it between themselves, they were really engaging with it quite a bit. So you have to adapt culturally. If we’re talking about Australia, we’re familiar with our culture, and again you have to engage them in structured conversations. Reflection and dialogue.

RP: Certainly you’ve got a background as an academic, I’ve done some work at universities, and those things certainly come through in tutorials. Those people who are happy to be challenged and see that authority figure of the teacher as critically important. This approach though, it seems more of a deliberative give and take. In the context then of grassroots coaches, you know with an hour or an hour and a half on Tuesday night, are they going to come up against problems of time constraints if you’re saying that we have to be talking to kids and asking them questions and letting them do the thinking themselves?

RL: Before I answer that, because I probably should have mentioned this before. Understanding underpins all of this – if your kids or your players understand why they’re doing this, they understand the core concepts of the game, which is manipulation and space and time. And everything related back to that, you’re empowering them to think and to learn as they go along. One of the problems with this approach is not only the coaches overcoming their ingrained and learned approaches, maybe even more important is the view of others looking at them. Like I’ve had students go out and do this approach with kids and they say, ‘you tell me, you’re the one getting paid, why ask me questions?’ One kid says ‘what is this, Mastermind? Just tell me.’ I had an outstanding student in Melbourne who went to a private girls school and she got the parents in and did a game session at night with them. She said, I don’t want your kids going home and you saying, ‘what am I paying $25,000 a year for to play games?’ The parents loved it, so I think getting that understanding, and it’s very hard for a coach to change his or her practice unless the whole organisation is supportive. You know so it’s got to be on an organisational basis, not just Football Federation Australia but clubs have got to buy into it and they’ve got to support them.

RP: But again looking at these individual training sessions – I’ve been on community coaching courses where they say, if I’m giving it this at the start and chatting for thirty seconds a minute and going ‘hey guys, how do we feel about a 4-4-2? How do we feel about this or that?’ I’ll be told, you’re losing time, you’re losing attention, get in there, set the cones up and smash it. How then do we get that shift to say, well, we’re going to have a deliberative approach to our training sessions, we’re not going to have it expand out and we lose that crucial time.

RL: Look I did a study in 2004 of Australian coaches who use Game Sense, and one was a football coach. He said to me they analysed the Youth World Cup, I think in 2000, I could be one or two numbers off here, and forgive me if I am, he said if there was a 90 minute game there was 60 minutes where the ball was in play. And of the 60 minutes of play, each player had the ball on foot no longer than 2 minutes. And if that’s the case what the hell are they doing for 58 minutes? It was a rhetorical question – he said, ‘I’ll tell you what they’re doing: they’re running, thinking, finding space, all the things they have to do.’ And he said ‘ how do you teach that with a skill job? You can’t.’ So it’s that play off the ball that counts. So just say that to those people – how are you going to do that? The reason they coach like that is because it’s easy. It’s easy, like I said at the beginning of the interview, if you take a complex game like football, you can’t break it down into simple skills that don’t relate.

RP: I think that’s a pretty good place to leave it, thanks so much for coming in and speaking to us Professor Richard Light.

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