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Being vulnerable, scaffolding learning, and the challenges of online learning: An interview with Dr. Blake Bennet

CoachesLeadership 10 Min Read

Dr Blake Bennet is a lecturer in sport coaching and sport leadership at the University of Auckland. Blake also coaches the New Zealand Men’s Kendo Team, the Wolves. Andy Rogers interviewed Blake as a follow up to his article about digital remote coaching of the Wolves.  

In this wide-ranging interview Andy Rogers interviews Dr Blake Bennet. Some of the highlights includes: 

  • Blake further unpacking his thoughts on coaching and educating in the digital medium, including some of the challenges that coaching online presents 
  • An introduction to ‘scaffolding’ and using a more knowledgeable other 
  • Using symbols to create identity within a team 
  • Being vulnerable as a coach, especially as a learning coach 

N.b. this interview was conducted in the midst of lock-down, while sport has resumed in New Zealand, all of the lessons are still relevant today. 

Welcome Blake. So, you have got a couple of hats on today, talk us through your roles. 

One of my hats is a lecturer at the University of Auckland, in the Bachelor of Sport, Health and PE. In that context, what I do is coach the coaches, or the junior coaches as it were. The other hat that I have on at the moment is my work as the men’s coach of the New Zealand Kendo Team. The Wolves, as we like to be called and working with them in the preparation for the World Championships in Paris, fingers crossed in 2021. 

I’d like to start with an interesting question. The name of the New Zealand Men’s Kendo Team –  The Wolves. What’s the backstory there? 

Prior to being The Wolves we were simply the New Zealand Kendo Team. Nicknames are not something that’s done in kendo, being a really traditional martial art, which is a form Japanese sword fighting or Japanese stick fighting. It’s got really deep roots in traditional Japanese culture. The name the Wolves though, symbolically it is about bringing us all together – the wolf pack and all those sorts of ideas and images that you can bring a team together around. It’s a new sort of lease on life for the for the New Zealand Kendo team and I’m quite eager to see how it plays out over the next sort of 13 months as we work towards the World’s. 

Awesome. Blake you and I have had a few conversations about coaching and learning and we throw various ideas around. One of the ideas that I know that you’re quite big on, as am I, is the concept of thinking of coaches as educators who really care about their athletes and students. Covid has had a massive impact on that. How have you responded as a coach and as an educator? 

With my university hat on, one of the big challenges that I’ve had personally, and I think some of my colleagues have as well, is that when we were chucked into lockdown and we had to go online to do our teaching, we tried to recreate the face to face experience using the online medium. And it’s only just starting to hit me now after a discussion that I had with a couple of colleagues, that we can’t expect this online setting to be a straight replication of the real-world setting. It’s just different. As educators, we can’t pick up certain cues. There is this dissonance between what we can pick up in the flesh and what we’re picking up over a tiny little camera. The other thing is the impact that the online, or the virtual meeting has when you are interacting with either a student or an athlete. Having the camera on you, either when you’re delivering or when you’re answering a question, it can be quite confronting for a lot of people. You are the focus of that moment in that time. Compare it to a ‘normal’ coaching context. When we ask athletes questions, we know that athletes sometimes are like deer in the headlight – either they don’t like being asked or are not used to being asked questions. But at least when you’re in the flesh, there might be other people in the room, there might be other distractions, you can sort of demonstrate your answer with your body language, whatever the case may be to sort of take the pressure off the learner. That doesn’t happen here when you have got a camera directly pointed at you. So, one of the things that we’re finding in the classroom context with online university courses is that students turn the mic and the camera off. Now as an educator or a coach in that space it’s really disconcerting, because you might be talking to someone here or am I just sort of looking at a blank screen – that’s really off-putting. I liken it to all the students in my classroom with their head down on the desk, asleep or checking their phone. It’s really distracting. But as an educator in this new world, in this type of context, we have to start to get used to the different ways that people are going to take on information, absorb information and interact with the facilitator, the coach, or the educator. 

Most of the community that will be reading this will be community coaches. They will be reading and going, what does that mean for me? What sort of advice would you have for coaches running online meetings or working via virtual technology with their athletes? 

The first thing is being comfortable with the technology ourselves. You know, it might be a bit of a cliché, but there’s a truth in the fact that young people tend to have bit of a head start on many of us in the virtual space. It’s a little bit less natural for some of us who are older to make that shift. But if we can move past that, and work with the user-friendly tools that are available, whether that be a Facebook Messenger or Google Hangouts, or WhatsApp, or whatever the case may be, we start to break that initial barrier down. I think it was a piece that you wrote Andy, about being vulnerable and being okay with being vulnerable in the digital context. I think that’s a really, really sound piece of advice. Because the last thing that we’re finding with students, as well at university, is when there’s glitches in that technology or that smooth transition between sharing a screen and moving on to this, this feature of breakout room or whatever it might be… If we don’t get those processes right, it’s distracting for the learner on the other end. So, with keeping that in mind, it’s hard to be vulnerable, but I think it’s just part of the learning process. Importantly, part of it is framing your vulnerability to the learner or athletes. 

Go, okay, full disclaimer here, guys. I’m not quite sure if this is gonna work, but hey, let’s give it a go. Make sure you give me feedback at the end so that you can help me to help you. 

In my work with the Wolves, we use an online platform, albeit a paid one, to connect. It’s used in a similar context as a Facebook page. What I’m finding is even though we set up these tasks and challenges for the athletes to keep them engaged, because they aren’t physically engaged with each other there are missing interactions that we take for granted as coaches. For example, I send them on to YouTube to do a search for some videos on the sport of Kendo, with the aim for them to deconstruct a strategy or deconstruct a technique. And the theory is really sound, but what I’m finding is that some of the athletes are finding it very difficult to do that, particularly to be forthcoming with the information and be willing to deconstruct a technique per say on the digital platform. I’ve discussed this with some of the senior members of the team as to why this might be. One of the things, which I thought was really, really interesting was that if there was no recognition provided to the athlete’s upon them completing the tasks, in this case the deconstruction of a video or thoughts and comments on a technique. That is, there was no sort of ‘like’ or ‘fist bump’, no acknowledgment of what they have said. And it’s very demotivating for those athletes. You know, I’m sitting here, deconstructing these things and thinking, have I got it wrong? Why didn’t I get a thumbs up? Add to that the context of social media. Think about the posts that we put up on Facebook and Instagram, and the type of feedback these same people will get from their peers. The buzz that you get when you get a ‘like’, or a certain amount of ‘likes’ or whatever the case may be. If athletes aren’t getting those ‘likes’ from each other it messes with them a little bit. So, it’s really important, I think, for the coach to follow up and give that encouragement, whether it’s to redirect the conversation or to commend the work that they’ve done. Whatever it is, they can’t be left hanging out there by themselves, just as you would do when you’re face-to-face. But because of the noise of the online space, I’m finding it’s really hard to do that. When you’re in the flesh, everybody’s there. I’m oversimplifying it, but we have the interaction of the conversation and job done. In the online space, we have to be on top of it. I think that poses a new challenge for coaches because you actually become a little bit busier if you were to do it right and stay on top of it. 

That’s a really interesting concept. We know how important feedback and confirmation is for athletes, and how that relates to their competence, particularly in front of peers. So, imagine that, as you say, if they are left hanging enough, when they’ve put themselves in a vulnerable position as an athlete in front of the appears. That could put a coach in a tricky situation. So that importance of providing that feedback, the pat on the back for the work, well done. Just even acknowledging the work that the athletes have gone through to get to that point, is really, really, really important point you raise for coaches. 

Exactly. The thing is when you say it out loud, that makes a lot of sense, you know we do it in the flesh, can’t we do it online? What I’m starting to find with the work that I’m doing with the Wolves is that there’s lots of different conversations going on in the groups that they have, so it becomes quite a lot of work to stay connected across everything. And again, being vulnerable. Feeling a little bit of anxiety around it, have I missed someone, have I left someone hanging. As a result, we have started to scaffold the group and the conversations so that the load is spread across the entire team. Whether that be across management, whether it be across senior members in the team. We are just grouping the athletes so that they can interact with each other, with a little bit of seniority in there to keep the conversation moving when required. I’m not for a moment suggesting that this all falls at the feet of the coach, that takes us back to the old days – the coach-centered approaches where the coach controls everything. Ideally, the coach can gain a bit of perspective, you know, zoom out and sort of ask themselves: 

OK how can I facilitate these conversations to be more organic amongst the athletes that I have, so that they can facilitate and scaffold the conversations themselves (with each other) while they build camaraderie and develop that team identity within the online space? 

I just want to dive a bit deeper into this concept of scaffolding Blake, you mentioned it a couple of times now and there’s a lot of evidence around to support it as a valuable learning tool. To just help our coaches understand when you’re talking about scaffolding, what does that look like in a coaching environment? 

At its simplest, when we think about scaffolding, we need to think about what the athlete can achieve by him or herself, and what they can achieve with the assistance of a more knowledgeable other. That difference there, it’s a really important consideration for coaches. And it’s an important learning journey. That is, to progress from what you can achieve only by yourself to the next level of your performance or understanding or ability with the help of someone else. There are ways in which we as coaches can do that. With the Wolves for example, I scaffold them by putting athletes into groups where there is leadership within that group. So senior members of the team are peered or grouped with junior members of the team. In that example, the conversation and learning of the group is assisted by the athletes who perhaps have a bit more of an insight about what the answer might be or know how the scenario could play out. Furthermore, I will ask the senior members to prompt questions and prompt discussion within the groups in order to push the junior members up from that area of what they can achieve or think by themselves to that next layer of understanding. This is one example, but it can happen in a variety of ways. The best way to think about scaffolding is the idea that we are supporting an athlete to move to the next layer of their understanding or ability by scaffolding that journey with the assistance of more knowledgeable others. 

One of the key things I’m starting to hear emerge from this conversation is this concept of coaches being vulnerable. We know that’s an important part of learning and growth. This concept of being comfortable being uncomfortable. If COVID-19 has given us anything, it’s given coaches an opportunity to maybe think about their role. Challenge some of the past coaching stereotypes, where the coach holds the knowledge and the coach’s role is to disseminate that knowledge and experience down to the athletes. I’m hearing things emerge like scaffolding; shared learning experiences; that your athletes in some situations know more, for example, technology, than the coach itself. This is really asking coaches to rethink and reshape, based on their past experiences. How would you respond to that in terms of coaches that have been coaching for 30-40 years? You know, what, what are some of the things that you would ask them to consider in this new approach? 

It can be a horrible feeling, not knowing what to do. One suggestion would be to frame it by putting your learner hat on. This is where I start to grow. I was completely comfortable where I was, but now it’s a chance for me to grow and move into the next layer of learning for myself. Then you start to get more out of it. 

To answer the question even more pointedly, this is an opportunity for us to turn the tables and turn to our athletes and say, how is this going to work best for you? What is it that you prefer in the online space? What is it that you need from me? How can I facilitate? Where is the best platform for us? What sort of content do you think you could be working on now? It’s an opportunity to flip it back and say to the athletes, okay, let’s learn together here. And I think that’s an absolutely brilliant opportunity for us to grow as well. It’s uncomfortable but as you said before Andy, that’s the sort of stimulus that we need to learn, and grow – being uncomfortable. Within all of this, if we can find that silver lining and say to our athletes, I’m here to help you, I’ve got a certain set of skills that need to shift a little bit, but I’m still here to support you and discuss your learning. If we can’t do the physical things, should we move into the mental space? What sort of mental skills training might we be able to do in this online space? What sort of goal setting can we do with the information that we have currently? Should we start planning for alternatives, plan B, plan C, plan D. Having that conversation with your athletes, might garner a little bit of insight right off the bat. If coaches aren’t already doing that, I think that would be a really important first step. 

What a lovely message for coaches. You know, how can I help you? Asking your athletes how can I help you? I’m here to serve you. 

Listen, if anything, from adversity, can come great hope, right? And there’s an opportunity here for us to take time and think about what the future might, you know, hold for us in terms of sport, and in terms of coaching, what’s your hope for the future?  

Honestly, I really hope that we can get back to what it used to be like. All things considered, the interaction in the flesh with my athletes is the thing that drives me.  It’s when I can help them to get to the ah-ha moments, and they can start to perform a technique that they weren’t able to or they implement a strategy that just works perfectly. Those are the moments that I just love being a coach. I hope that we get back to that sooner rather than later. But I think that the opportunity in this whole thing is that we can ask ourselves, what other feathers can I put in my coaching cap?  

The in the flesh stuff is really, really important. It’s what we do, it’s how we thrive. But we now have these new set of skills that we can use to support learning outside of training time. It doesn’t mean that we have to be in front of the computer all the time, but it means that we’re more comfortable both as coaches and as athletes, digesting information, communicating with each other and sort of deconstructing our thoughts in a different medium. It works for us as coaches and facilitators of learning as educators, but also for those athletes who prefer a range or a variety of different learning mediums. I think that the gold standard out of this would be to move towards blended approaches to our coaching. That does not mean 50-50. It could be anything that sort of suits the context, the athletes, the management, the resources that we have. But I think that it’s a really good opportunity for us to pick up those skill sets and work towards a blended approach to coaching. 

Great Blake, thanks for sharing some time with us today. I’m going to give you one last challenge. If you were to put a billboard up at the end of your street that coaches and parents and administrators drove past and it had your quote, your one quote, what would it be? 

The thing that I want people to take away – when they think about what it is to be a coach is that the coach is an educator and that’s it. Coach equals educator. It’s really, really important that we get that message out there. We all know it, we all understand it because it’s what we do. But we want everybody to know: the athletes, the parents, our administrators, our managers. This is an educative process, and because it’s an educative process. It means it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to learn new things and shift our paradigms around when necessary. The ultimate goal is that we facilitate learning. Our context is the sports. Mine is Kendo. 

If we can look at ourselves as educators more holistically and what that entails, then we can start to see other opportunities that the online experience can start to achieve. It might be goal setting; it might be mental skills. When you start to consider your role as an educator, rather than a technician or whatever the alternative would be, then those opportunities really start to become obvious. 

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