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The Importance of Reflection for Parasport Coaches
Plenty of research exists around reflection and how coaches use the technique to develop their coaching practice. However, there is far less evidence around the use of reflection by parasport coaches. Do the different challenges they face with their athletes lead to different approaches to reflection? Or is their reflective practice comparable to coaches working with non-disabled athletes?
New research from academics in Canada answers these questions and provides some interesting points to consider for coaches working in any sporting context.
Early parasport coaching research found that a lack of parasport-specific coaching resources and formal training led to many parasport coaches relying on what they had learnt in the non-disabled context or informal learning environments.
Clearly, this is not ideal for personal development. While there are similarities between parasport and non-disabled coaching, such as the technical and tactical coaching aspects, the need to understand behaviours and personalities, and learning how to work with other experts in the field, parasport coaches face many other different and unique challenges.
Aside from the key physiological challenges of working with disabled athletes, individual athlete needs such as specialised equipment, prosthetics and medications can all have a direct impact on coaching plans.
And despite these unique challenges, generally, there are fewer resources available for parasport coaches, fewer paid jobs, smaller budgets and fewer coaching peers or athletes to learn from.
To overcome these challenges, parasport coaches have had to be more creative, both in their use of adapting what they learn on non-disabled programmes and by using creative reflective techniques.
A team of academics in Canada have conducted new research to explore how four high level parasport coaches used creativity in their reflective practice, enabling them to enhance their own coaching and providing potential learning for coaches in any sport.
Methodology and theory
The researchers developed case studies with four parasport coaches who had over 10 years’ experience of working with athletes for national federations in Canada. The study was framed by the research question ‘How do parasport coaches use reflection in their coaching practice?’
The team used Jennifer Moon’s extensive work on learning and reflection as a framework for understanding how the coaches used reflection techniques.
Moon sees reflection as a process of thinking afresh about existing knowledge and experiences. She suggests it is a tool for personal learning that, if undertaken correctly, will lead to personal development.
Describing the knowledge, feelings and emotions individuals possess as a ‘cognitive structure’, Moon asserts that the structure is important as it guides what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to learn.
Moon identifies five stages in her ‘map of learning’ (see below). Individuals will choose a path through these stages depending on their cognitive structure and the learning environment they are in.
The early stages are described as surface learning where learners notice what could be learnt and try to make sense of it.
By the third stage, they are making meaning, or in other words, relating the new learning to what they already know. The fourth and fifth stages are termed deep learning, and this is where Moon sees the role of reflection.
In the fourth stage, the learner absorbs the learning and its meaning into their cognitive structure, it becomes meaningful, and they can use it to come to judgements or conclusions. Finally, at the fifth level, the learner deeply understands the learning and can use it to restructure or change their thinking.
The team saw coaches involved in this study operating at the fourth and fifth levels, using reflection creatively to deepen their learning and improve their coaching practice.
Specifically, the researchers identified four key themes from how the coaches reflected:
Creative reflection techniques
Reflecting on educational experiences
The majority of the formal education the coaches previously experienced was not specifically designed for parasport.
Therefore, they used their earlier learning from their time as students, athletes and even coaches as a foundation they could build on by reflecting on what they needed to change in order for the learning to be effective with parasport athletes.
They reflected on what they had previously learnt in the classroom and considered how they could apply it to a parasport setting. For example, one coach drew on his kinesiology degree to develop a better understanding of athletes with cerebral palsy (CP).
By reflecting on his learning, specifically how CP manifests itself in the brain stem and affects motor control, he was able to design training sessions that more closely matched his athletes’ needs.
Reflecting with a ‘lens of adaptability’
The coaches also recalled how they reflected by wearing a ‘lens of adaptability’ at all times, even when they experienced disability-based training courses (which may not have totally matched the needs of their own athletes).
One coach said he spent a lot of time thinking about anything that could impact on his athletes’ performances and experiences. He then used this thinking to modify his coaching, whether it was related to new equipment, his own training plans or even the temperature outside.
Another coach explained how she had adapted her training programmes to suit visually impaired athletes.
Recognising that they had not experienced a high performance training environment before, she questioned herself on how she had learnt to coach in a non-disabled environment, how she had learnt about the environment as an athlete and how the training process itself could be suitably adapted.
By reflecting on her own experiences in the same environment using a lens of adaptability, she was able to create an environment that enabled her athletes to prosper.
Reflecting with others
The coaches also reflected when working with their athletes, and with other experts and coaches within the sport as this gave them the opportunity to overcome challenges they may not have been able to overcome simply by reflecting on their own.
For example, one coach talked about how watching his athletes was not enough. Having never raced in a wheelchair, he could only reflect on how his plans impacted on the athletes’ performance by having constant discussions with them before going away to reflect and try to improve things again.
Another coach explained how the lack of technical coaching material in her sport led her to reflect on what other countries, coaches and even sports are doing as a way of improving her own tactical ability.
Depth and timing of reflection
The fourth theme is apparent throughout each of the three themes above – the depth and timing of the coaches’ reflection.
All of them employed a ‘before, during and after’ approach to reflection.
One coach described this in practice as reflecting on her previous actions at training sessions before the next session started, modifying her tone of voice during the session based on the impact it had on the athletes, and reconsidering the whole session afterwards once it had been completed.
Learning from the research – no on/off switch
While all the coaches took a ‘before, during and after’ approach to reflection, they arguably went beyond this, reflecting in their everyday coaching to the point where there appeared to be no on/off switch for their reflective practice.
This ongoing approach to reflection typifies what Moon describes as a deep approach to learning. The coaches were keen to constantly improve and, given the lack of resources available to them, used creative reflection techniques to enhance their coaching practice.
Their creative approach is something that may challenge coaches in both non-disabled and parasport environments to reconsider their own approaches to reflection.
Download the Research Summary: The Importance of Reflection for Parasport Coaches.
If you are interested in finding out more about this area, this summary is based on the article below: Taylor, S., Werthner, P., Culver, D. and Callary, B. (2015) ‘The importance of reflection for coaches in parasport’, Reflective Practice, 16 (2): 269–284.
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