Synthesis Essay

When It All Changed

Have you ever looked back on a decision and realized that everything changed at that very moment? I recently experienced that “A-ha!” feeling when I looked back on my choice to attend graduate school at Michigan State University (MSU). Naturally, I gained the professional recognition that comes along with obtaining a higher education degree, such as an M.A. attached to my name and potential salary bumps. More importantly, however, my experience at MSU forever changed me as a person, coach, and teacher in ways I never thought possible. Specifically, three of the biggest changes occurred when I learned about the mental side of athletes (and students!), understanding and implementing the constraints-led approach and learning how to implement a formative assessment design in sport. Indeed, while I figured that attending graduate school would help provide me with tools for my career, I never imagined leaving the Masters of Arts in Education (MAED) with as much information and knowledge to impact the next generation as I will.

It’s All About The Mental Game!

As teachers and coaches, we all know students and players alike can get inside of their own heads. Whether it’s getting jammed up during a test or getting jammed up during a critical moment in a game, students and players spend a lot of time thinking when we’d rather have them performing. But what can we do about that, isn’t it just part of life? 

Throughout the course of KIN855, Psychosocial Basis of Coaching, I worked to understand what the best coaches did to get their players to play well. Indeed, from Pat Summit to John Wooden, some of the most legendary coaches to ever exist, elite coaches employed specific techniques to help their players learn and perform throughout a season. While one might think that instruction and correction were the most important aspects of coaching, it turns out that silence and praise are some of the most important features of great coaching. This allows players the opportunity to explore failure and retrial without the fear of someone judging them every second. Ultimately, this likely leads to an athlete (or student!) feeling confident come game time– translating to higher performance.

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Interestingly enough, as coaches and teachers, we are painfully unaware of our own coaching/teaching techniques. Often times, we think we are positive, hold off on minor corrections and generally let our players or students work through a problem. Through the observation of peers and research, however, I realized that most of us are the exact opposite of what we hope we are. With the opportunity to learn and observe others, however, I learned an important lesson of self-reflection. There is a LOT that we as coaches and teachers can do to help our players and students mentally, so they perform beyond our expectations, but there is a lot we can do to hinder them, too. Ultimately, I left this course appreciating the simple recognition that we must look beyond physical outcomes. Coaching and teaching is just as much about our interactions as it is about the content. If I wish to be successful, I must acknowledge and work on the mental side, too.


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Constraining Something New

I have to admit that before I took KIN868, Skill Development of Athletes, I had no idea what the constraints-led approach (CLA) was. In fact, I think I spent a quarter of the 2019 Spring Semester still trying to understand what the CLA was. Finally, after many research papers and listening to the perception-action podcast by Rob Gray, I understood that this very approach could change the way I thought about coaching (and teaching!). 

First, the constraints-led approach asks coaches to recognize that everything is a problem with a unique solution. That is, there isn’t one best way to shoot a lacrosse ball or save a soccer ball. While there are methods that produce consistent results for many players, coaches should realize that every player is different, and therefore the goal of practices should be creating small problems that players must find solutions to, not teaching repetitions on repetitions as many do. In order to do so, the CLA employs “constraints” or ways to eliminate possibilities of action. There are three kinds of constraints, individual, environmental and task.

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For the purpose of this class, we focused mostly on task constraints or those affecting the goals, rules, or equipment being used. Specifically, in Project 2, I was tasked with coming up with a practice plan using the CLA in order to help one of my players shoot a lacrosse ball better. Instead of having the player shoot on an empty net (repetition instruction) or break down her shot to small components (part-whole instruction), I took many of the tools I learned in the class. 

At first, I used analogies (like you’re dunking a ball) and a wall to shoot over to help her realize she needed to get her arms up more. Then, I put two goals together for her to run through so she could feel moving and shooting in a straight line for efficiency. Finally, using a defender going about 50%, I had her put it all together for an on the run shot.

While this may seem basic, this viewpoint of instruction has drastically changed the way I view my classes and teaching…even when I’m just trying to explain something to a friend! It is near impossible to get someone to understand something that they cannot feel. Therefore, it is up to us as coaches to create different situations and problems that allow players to produce an ideal movement solution. While I grew up in a generation of performing something over and over again, or breaking it down to the very first step, I don’t think I will ever employ those tactics after my semester spent studying the CLA!

Tests Are For The Classroom… Right?

Perhaps one of my greatest fears about entering graduate school was that I wouldn’t be able to apply what I learned to coaching. As a PE teacher, I wanted to learn new techniques and methods for sure, but as a coach, I wanted to get better, too. While I figured my concentration in Sport Leadership and Coaching would translate, I wasn’t sure about my concentration in Technology and Learning. Sure enough though, perhaps one of the most impactful classes that I took was CEP813, Electronic Assessment for Teaching and Learning. In this class, students spent an entire semester studying the ways of assessment, while ultimately coming up with a formative assessment themselves. 

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Naturally, I wanted to push myself to create an assessment for my lacrosse team. I knew this would be out of the box and perhaps a little more challenging than choosing something in the classroom, but I also wanted to be able to use it in the future. Ultimately, I created an assessment where players, put in groups, spend a practice coaching the rest of the team. Not only does this encourage learning about a specific skill enough so that one can instruct others on it, but it also allows players to learn a skill and evaluate another group coaching. Players come away with a better understanding of skills, development and take control of their own practices.

What I gained from this class was that there are assessments all around us. From video games to the traditional tests, as teachers and coaches we have a lot of tools to assess our students and athletes. All too often we look for the more traditional approach, but indeed, there are ways such as my group coaching activity that can provide more insight and learning opportunities than a simple test. Not only that, but the students themselves become more aware of their learning, giving them the opportunity to take responsibility for their learning. It is my goal to continue to develop and explore different assessment techniques, both on and off of the field. If I gain a better understanding of where my students are both succeeding and struggling, I can better help them achieve their goals.

What’s Next?

As I previously mentioned, while I knew graduate school would have a profound impact on my life, I never imagined that it would completely change the way I view coaching and ultimately teaching. Frankly, I’m not sure I would even feel this way if I attended a different school. The classes that I took, the professors that taught me and the lessons I learned were an experience that I never saw coming. Three classes had an especially profound impact on my learning, KIN855, KIN868 and CEP813. All three classes took me on a journey to view education in a slightly different way. 

In KIN855, I learned to look beyond the physical demands of a classroom or playing field. Indeed, it is our job as educators to provide our students an environment in which they can thrive. The fear of failure, choking under pressure and general negative attitudes towards performance can really impact the success of learning. If we can foster a learning environment by allowing students to explore and providing praise when they succeed, it is more likely they will find continued success.

In KIN868, I learned to explore the world of constraints. Whether it is implementing a different piece of equipment, challenging my players with different field sizes or simply creating new goals for a small sided game, there are so many constraints that I can use to help them explore solutions to problems. This also transfers to the classroom, where as a PE teacher I must be vigilant of the equipment that I use in class as it relates to the size, age and experience of a student. Ultimately, this class introduced a belief of an individualized approach, where players and students can find success in unconventional methods that work for their set of affordances.

Finally, in CEP813, I found a bridge between teaching and coaching. In both professions, we must be able to accurately evaluate our students/players and come up with proper scaffolding in enhance learning opportunities. In this class, I had the opportunity to create my own formative assessment for lacrosse. While this was sports based, it really opened my eyes to the possibilities of assessment. No longer do I view assessment as a quiz or test, but an opportunity to inform learning. Furthermore, it can provide as much information to the student as it does the teacher.

While this is just a small sample of my learning experiences throughout my graduate education, they reflect the overarching theme of an unexpected and changed path. Looking back, I see clearly now an outcome that I never imagined. Sure, I will have an “M.A.” next to my name in a couple of months, but more importantly, I came out of this program a completely different teacher and coach. I am now keenly aware of the mental and emotional side of my students, I’ve started implementing the CLA in both my classes and practices, and I’ve begun to view and use assessments very differently than I ever had in the past. I look forward to seeing how these classes continue to impact my instruction, and I hope to have many more of these reflections of how Michigan State changed my life!

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