Purposefully Curious – Dan Clements

New possibilities

We have all heard the phrase “we need to be more curious” right? Well, have you ever stopped and thought about what that actually means and why we need to be more curious? Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said it best when he stated, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts”. Just take those words in for a second, what you learn after you know is a bit of a humbling dose of reality. So how do I keep learning? Curiosity as a personal trait has clearly played a part in the success of many lauded intellectual giants from artists to scientists who have arguably had the biggest impact on the world to date. Most famously perhaps, Albert Einstein is attributed with the famous quote “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious” which rather fittingly encourages us to be curious as to why the trait is that important. Well simply put, curiosity gives us vitality as human beings. By being curious, or becoming curious we are opened up to new ideas or new possibilities, it sharpens the mind and makes us become actively engaged. But perhaps most importantly, it encourages us to seek the ‘why’ behind something that then leads us to novel solutions to everyday issues.

“Yeah great – so what?” I hear you scream. Well if we apply this thinking to a performance context we can start to identify the benefits of curiosity and a way of identifying your performance advantage. In his recent autobiography England Rugby Head Coach Eddie Jones declared his advocacy for curiosity when he penned, “Curiosity is the heart of invention” and that the opportunity to learn lies in all situations if you adopt the right mindset. Whether that’s observing a pitch session with Manchester City super coach Pep Guardiola or sitting next to a stranger on a plane, by remaining open-minded and purposefully curious, learning can be endless. Could this thirst for knowledge become your USP? The differentiator for you as a coach? Maybe, maybe not, but what we do know is to be truly high performing in your field we need to bring a little something different. Simply put, if we do the same as everyone else then we will never push the boundaries of performance. If we do what we have always done, we will get what we have always got, etc…

Curiosity and new knowledge

Performance analysis and data analytics have pushed the boundaries within performance sport in relation to learning and have aided both the coaches and performance personnel’s curiosity. Matches or performances are now scrutinised to the highest degree so that all aspects of performance can be reviewed with the purpose of finding that winning edge. When speaking to the Financial Times, British & Irish Lions leader, Warren Gatland highlighted this importance in modern-day sport when he said, “In the modern game there has to be a focus on detail as we aim to give the team every possible advantage over all opponents”. And it is this curiosity around the detail that has magnified the importance of performance analysis from a coaches perspective. You don’t have to look far for evidence of this, multi Premiership winning coach at the AFL club Richmond Tigers, Damien Hardwick clearly encourages and exemplifies curiosity throughout the club. In the book Yellow & Black that depicts a behind-the-scenes season with the powerhouse club, a chapter is dedicated to this thirst for knowledge, and club staff share an insight into the head coach’s curious nature. This is in the knowledge that a desire for information will help inform better decision making which leads to a holistic view of performance, both qualitative and quantitative, an often overlooked marriage (whisper that quietly for the people in the back).

Now to most this might just sound like run-of-the-mill performance analysis and since the growth of the industry, we can say with confidence the importance of analysis has skyrocketed within professional sport (and some amateur!). Reams of data are available to coaches as performance analysis teams dissect individual and team performance over extended periods of time. As new ground is broken within the data war and clubs or organisations look to embrace algorithms and machine learning, perhaps most interestingly some coaches are turning their curiosity inward. As after all when you have endless data points and performance analysis insights available, how do we get better at using it to inform our practice? How do we sharpen our craft, which is surely the end goal right? The improvement of coaching practice to be the best possible coach for the players or athletes within our charge. This requires a certain amount of self-reflection and critical thinking, both highlighted as important traits for high-performing coaches. But as we know this level of thinking doesn’t just happen. This leads the very best coaches to become curious about the self, and what they do as a coach as a performance differentiator.

Curiosity of the self

Again, so what!? Well, it has been highlighted that this is actually really important, as research from Professor Chris Cushion and colleagues has shown that when coaches attempt to describe their coaching philosophy or how they try and behave, this doesn’t always marry up with what they actually do. Put it like this, have you ever taken a step back and watched yourself coach or lead as much as you have watched your athletes on video? Probably not. Now this insight done badly will lead to metrics or key performance indicators in relation to coach behaviour, a kind of tick-box approach or ‘ingredients’ list of best practices which is not the goal of such a task. Done really well, it can lead to enlightenment through the holding up of a mirror to your coaching performance and enrichment through a view of what you actually do. This curiosity of the self can help a coach notice their own preferences in relation to coaching, such as trends in questions that they may ask, and allows us to understand why the message given might not actually be the message received.

‘I know my methodology and what works’ I hear you say. No doubt, but how often have you turned your curiosity inward and looked at your own practice and what you do to understand why you may not be connecting with a player on the pitch for example? Such a self-reflective task encourages us to be curious and delve deeper than surface-level reflections when we are driving home or sitting in the coaches office. After all, ultimately if the goal is to perfect ones craft then we have got to spend some time reflecting on the self both in terms of what we believe and then what we actually do. To not spend this time unpicking our own personal performance is perhaps a disservice to those that matter most, the players.

Adopt a beginners mindset

This may have pricked your curiosity, but you may also be sitting there thinking it is a gargantuan task to set up or where to even start. If this is you, a quick internet search of the work by Professor Chris Cushion on the coach analysis and intervention system is a great place to start. Similarly, Rob Mason has recently investigated feedback from coaches in the AFL and this can be found via his blog. But if you also take a little look on YouTube, you will see examples of coaches who are now simply throwing on a GoPro or a microphone before they head out to coach to capture footage as a starting point. Some are working very closely with their teams analysis department to capture player performance and coach performance and then reviewing learning intentions together post-session. Others do the same then share their footage with a mentor for further feedback, all with the goal of becoming more curious to alternative insight. Quite rightly, some coaches may have a nervousness towards this given the feeling of intrusion both on the coaches and players perspectives, and those feelings would be fully understandable. But something that is not common practice is always a leap in the first instance, and openness on such an approach always removes any barriers.

Finally, perhaps in justification of such thinking, we must return to the central tenant of this piece – the need to foster your curiosity in an effort to enhance performance. To do so you must be bold, be inquisitive, and adopt a beginners mindset. Because after all perhaps legendary Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa said it best “A man with new ideas is a madman, until they triumph”.

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