Coaching & Development, Performance | Apr 30, 2021
Dr Scott Drawer of the Millfield School feels we have deepened our understanding but that the fundamentals remain the same.

Dr Scott Drawer, as the Director of Sport at Millfield School in Somerset, is well placed to discuss how young people are learning differently than they were a decade ago.

By John Portch and Matthew Stone

“I think one of the things I observed when I came into education was just how much sport had moved on and how education maybe hadn’t in the sense of how it supported the delivery of sport’ he tells the Leaders Performance Institute.

Dr Drawer, who has previously worked for Team Sky, the Rugby Football Union, UK Sport and English Institute of Sport, made the transition to Millfield in 2018. The school has a triangular focus on academic, pastoral and sporting development. “That’s been a real eye-opener for me,” he continues. “I’ve had to go back to learn again to better understand how education and sport in school, particularly for young people in that 13 to 18 age group, comes together. This school really believes in dual academic and sporting development. How do you provide both without comprising either to provide the best opportunity and choices for young people as they develop? We should not be forcing one way or the other especially at a time in their life when the rate of change and development is the most rapid.

In the first instalment of our interview, Drawer reflects upon society’s growing understanding of human development and his own development as a coach and educator.

The impact of the science of human development

Drawer’s studies on the science of human development have led to some intriguing conclusions as he has built his understanding.

“If anything, I guess my big take home from that is, I don’t think young people are learning differently in any sense,” he says. “The environment around us has changed tremendously as has our understanding of learning and development due to the emergence of neuroscience and our understanding of how kids develop and emerge over periods of years. We understand more and more about brain development, and how that influences young people through what is the fastest development period in their life. There is also more tech and social pressures around individuals and then layer on the impact of  the pandemic. Those environmental factors have changed the most, but has that dramatically changed the way we educate and develop young people? We have certainly had to evolve and our toolbox has expanded but have the core underpinning principles around pedagogy changed that much in the past decade?”

The Leaders Performance Institute asks Drawer about the potential impact of evolving technologies such as AI, virtual and augmented reality and other learning tools. “There will definitely be more methods and approaches,” he continues, “but I think you can’t get away from the core ingredients around what helps people be successful throughout their lives and what we understand about learning and development. The research and understanding around this takes time to evolve.”

Drawer cites author Helen Pearson and her book The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives. “It is a reflection of years of science, of tracking generations of children for more than 70 years. They spent years and years trying to understand what made some children successful and others not so. They’re called the ‘rocks of development’ and they won’t ever change. It has become an important reference text for me; seven decades of evidence of following generations of children, about what enabled them to be as successful as they could be; parenting, consistency of routine such as bedtimes, parents engaging and reading to their kids, and other new experiences. I think if you get some of these early experiences right through our approaches to parenting, you can then apply it to a sporting context and you’re on the right road.

“Going back to those ‘big rocks’, they are the factors that provided the foundations for people to be successful in their life. When you’re designing a sports programme, you’ve almost got to park the sport to the side and think about these as young people in development. What are the things that make a difference? Which is why we spend more and more time trying to support and embrace parents who know their children better than you do, and have a good understanding of them and how you can bring them on the journey as well.”

Are certain parts of that journey, or certain age groups, more important for development than others? “I guess there isn’t a particular age because you do get differences in rates of development, but I think one of the things that we’ve probably failed to recognise is that development is not over as early as we thought especially when you consider brain and psych-social development.”

“The reality is some of the behaviours you see in young people, are exactly because of that, because parts of the brain are not fully formed. So, adolescents may be highly self-conscious, they feel under the spotlight, and may come across as disorganised. They certainly have a desire for thrill-seeking, risk-taking. They like immediate gratification; intense, emotional experiences. There’s lots of characteristics that you’ll see that you may, as a coach, think are just poor behaviours. They’re not mini adults in that sense. Some of these behavioural characteristics are normal, and our ability to recognise that is important, as is our ability to adapt our method of delivery to get the best out of young people. Often we blame the children, but we’re not thinking about the unique circumstances of their maturation.”

Creating positive experiences

Dr Drawer feels that leaders and teachers are more conscious than ever of the development needs of young people and he too as reflected on his approach in his three years at Millfield. “It is about what you do with that knowledge and how you apply it in any context,” he says. “It’s having the time and effort to really try to understand people, and understand their perspectives and everything that’s going on in their lives to get that right.”

In some respects, the complexities of the environment initially took him by surprise. “For young, talented sports people who are still in education, their lives are super busy. If you can just imagine if you’re doing sport before breakfast and then you’re doing your lessons and then you may be doing some sport at lunchtime; then you’ve got more lessons. If you’re at boarding school, you’ve got all the pastoral and peer pressure. When you add all of that up, it’s significant.

“If I were a student, I could go to a maths lesson, for example, and have a really poor lesson and that influences my behaviour, and then go onto the tennis court and I take that behaviour out on my tennis coach. Understanding all those transitions and connections is really important because that’s how you can then get the best out of people. You’ve got to understand what’s going on in that young person’s mind and why they may exhibit particular behaviours at particular time points. By doing that, you can then get the best out of them.”

The aforementioned technologies can become distractions if not properly managed. “We’ve just got to manage those distractions a bit better in some respects,” says Drawer, who goes on to cite his former manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, the Team Principal of the Ineos Grenadiers. “He used to talk about success and performance being about talent plus hunger and belief, minus distractions. Finding ways to manage that, particularly for these young people, is something that we’re all racking our heads with. There isn’t a right or a wrong way and it depends on the individual. If they have a love and passion for sport, you have something to work with.

“Our job as a coach is to try to create those positive experiences through the way we design our sports and the way we construct them, because that’s just another learning environment. Whether you’re in the classroom or on the football field, we’ve got to think about how we create those practice and development environments where people feel like they’re getting better.”

Download the latest Performance Special Report, Psychological Safety: The origins, reality and shelf life of an evolving high performance concept – featuring the athlete, coach and academic perspectives.

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