Coaching & Development, Performance | Mar 5, 2021
Exploring approaches to pedagogy at UK Sport, the English Institute of Sport and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

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“For 15 years, we’ve used the rhetoric of athlete-centred coaching, with the intention being that it puts the learner at the heart of the pedagogue, teacher or coach’s decision making – it’s time to put that rhetoric into action.”

By John Portch

Those are the words of John Alder, the Head of Performance Pathways at UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport [EIS], as he describes the ways in which the paradigms of learning and interaction are shifting across talent pathways in Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Alder is speaking as part of a Keiser Webinar, where he is joined by Lucy Skilbeck, the Director of Actor Training at the globally renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art [RADA], to discuss the development needs of athletes and coaches in elite sport and the performing arts.

“I think that we as a society really need to look at valuing the work people do in developing young people from the earliest ages,” says Skilbeck.

The session, which was moderated by renowned coaching advisor Simon Jones, attracted 350 attendees drawn from members of the Leaders Performance Institute as well as a selection of high performance practitioners from across the globe.

The following is a summary of the main observations.

Work to better understand what the learner needs

Both Alder and Skilbeck note that talent development pathways are becoming ever more individualised in order to meet the shifting needs of the modern learner.

“I hate to generalise, but there’s been a shift in the experiences and expectations of young people,” says Skilbeck, who cites both the impact of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement in sparking greater levels of reflection and introspection at RADA. “They have a very strong sense of their identity, individuality and position in the world.”

She adds: “We really have nurture the individual within their training. We have to see them, recognise them, appreciate where they come from and we have to be more bespoke in how we work with them.

“One of the things that’s been revealed to us over the last 12 months is that we haven’t done that often enough. We need to be developing a facilitative relationship with the student. We are allowing them to be their full true selves and we’re following them as they develop as well as trying to guide them in their development.”

RADA has moved away from the notion of the teacher as a guru setting a defined pathway. “Teachers need to be responsive to the individual circumstances of the people we’re working with. There’s a different sense of responsibility and a different sense of duty of care that’s developed and accelerated over the last 12 months.”

Alder sees parallels in sport, where a young athlete cannot be taken at face value when they first walk through the door of an academy or training programme. “On what basis am I making judgements about what the learner needs next?” he asks. “We must try to understand the young athlete before making decisions about the experiences they need or where they might go next in terms of their development – we have to attune to those needs.”

Find the balance between challenge and support

With a growing understanding of the young athlete, Alder argues that it is incumbent on sports organisations to strike a better balance of challenge and support for the learner.

This means equipping coaches and teachers adequately and, in December, UK Sport and the EIS published its Performance Pathway Coaching Position Statement. Its purpose is to help establish UK coaching as a competitive advantage. “UK Sport and the EIS believe there are four priority areas for the specialist development of pathway coaches and coaching practice – recognition, recruitment, pedagogical knowledge and critical thinking,” they said in a joint press release. “To support this, there is a suggested need for a workforce of coach developers with the requisite knowledge and skills to develop pathway coaches and coaching.”

Alder says: “The genesis of it was dissatisfaction and the undervaluing of coaches in the development domain. We talked about redefining the pedagogical relationships and therefore the domain-specific skills, qualities and experiences required to be effective.”

“A real area of interest for us is getting that balance right between challenge and support and how adversity can be used as a powerful teaching tool with the right support. The requirements are quite different when you’ve got an aspirational 18-year-old taking their first step on the journey versus a multi-medallist.”

RADA is also adjusting to the swiftly evolving dramatic arts landscape, with actors increasingly working on personal projects and students having greater agency in navigating their own pathways. The school has adapted its curriculum accordingly. As Skilbeck says: “One of the things we’re looking at is how we can develop a more facilitative relationship with the student and how we make more space within the timetable for the student’s independent development. We’re also looking at how can we foster in them a greater sense of independence and understanding of themselves as artists and actors; as people who can make and create work as well as deliver other people’s work. Pedagogically, how do we work with them to facilitate the growth of their individuality rather than a monocultural process?

“Taking people on this journey through the training requires them to sit in their memories, in their experiences, some of which may be traumatic, such as adverse childhood experiences; there’s an enormous responsibility to look after them but we have to make sure that we’re also developing resilience in them.

“In terms of developing teachers, we have to be smart in the ways we are upskilling and reskilling our teachers so that they have a stronger confidence in working with people who’ve had adverse experiences or for whom this emotional work is particularly challenging.”

“Resilience is one manifestation of psycho-social development and the qualities and characteristics that will enable young athletes to flourish,” says Alder, who notes the parallels in the trauma of competition with the challenging nature of a range of acting roles.

“We’re interested in the idea of an athlete’s curriculum, which is the totality of experiences that an athlete has. The role of the coach and other leaders in that pedagogical relationship in creating that curriculum and the importance of being progressive and coherent and building on what’s gone before in equipping young athletes for the road.

“Broadly, you prepare the child for the pathway, not the pathway for the child, although I’d caveat that with the path can be a useful teaching tool as well.”

Looking beyond so-called elite success

For all their achievements, Skilbeck and Alder readily identify areas for improvement. At RADA, for example, for a number of years there was a ‘spine’ running through its curriculum, including a resilience programme that promoted self-regulation and self-moderation in students. Reflecting on the curriculum in light of the impact of Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement, Skilbeck says: “what we realised is that we haven’t kept up to date with what we might now want our outcomes to be. They need more diverse skills than we’ve given them in the past and that’s going to be the focus of the next five years.

“Our curriculum was progressive and coherent, but one of the questions we’re asking is what do we want our graduate actors to be able to be. The most capable, fluent, virtuosic, classical actors that move between film, television, radio and stage with ease – now we’re saying ‘yes, we want all that’, but we want them to be much more independent, creators of  their own work, we want them to have a much better business sense of themselves as a – I hesitate to use the word – brand. We want to be able to celebrate whatever direction they go in because I think it’s really important at RADA not to think that people haven’t done well if they’re not on the stage at the National Theatre, a Hollywood film or The Crown. Take the people who want to retrain as a teacher, psychologist, or move into youth work or law, we must also recognise that the developmental pathway of our programme has given them the transferable skills, confidence and communication skills to go into those other fields.

“That’s a celebration and that’s a success as well.”

Again, Alder sees parallels with elite sport. “The narrative has shifted towards development. A finite group of people can go to an Olympic Games let alone win a medal  – attending is an amazing achievement. Our duty of care as custodians of our industry is to ensure those developmental experiences enable athletes to make the long journey to an Olympic Games but they’ve also got to provide a rich experience that means they leave better for it, as good citizens.”

“I think that’s a responsibility of elite organisations in particular,” adds Skilbeck. “If we only value what we call elite success, then we’re undervaluing and undermining the achievement of all our other students. In the arts, and I’m sure in sport, there’s a raft of human development skills, training, understanding and developments that take place through any kind of rigorous training process.

“We put emphasis on reflective practice. Students are incredibly capable of seeing themselves and recognising where they are and using those skills to be able to face and tackle anything they encounter than a specific acting-related obstacle or challenge. They come out as really good communicators, team players and with a curiosity and empathy about the human experience, which is really what acting is.”

Coaches and teachers must also understand that progression may be non-linear for young people of varied backgrounds and experiences. “As teachers, devisers of the curriculum and pedagogues,” says Skilbeck, “we have to be listening, watching and looking for those moments of development and change and looking particularly at those moments when people are not making that development.

“We talk of flipping the feedback and, if one of the students isn’t progressing, instead of looking at the student we need to be looking at ourselves and going what do we need to do differently; what are we not doing to enable the progression of the student who at this point seems not be making the shift we would anticipate or expect and that’s a change in pedagogy that we need to be implementing. What is it about the way we’re communicating? The way we’re paying attention to your individual needs? What are we not seeing or not hearing? What are we not listening to when we see you withdraw or slow down?”

The coach of the future

In addition to increased pedagogical understanding, Alder says that the coach of the future will need to broaden their working knowledge of a wider variety of disciplines. “How do the ideas within learning development, such as neuroscience, manifest in a young person in front of you?” he asks. “It sounds clichéd, but critical thinking, particularly given the unfiltered knowledge sources we have at our fingertips through our phones, Google and social media.

“Those professional judgements Lucy was talking about. What am I not seeing? How am I coming this conclusion about what’s needed or getting in the way? What’s my role? How do I design learning experiences – the professional judgement process.

“Looking forward, nourishing those things in young coaches and, from a position in Olympic and Paralympic sport, recognising and championing domain-specific coaches. You could be a world class development or pathway coach. It’s not always a stepping stone to a senior role. Some may have aspirations in that direction but it’s recognising you could be an absolute master of your craft at developing talent and appropriately acknowledging, rewarding and celebrating that.”

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