Mistakes, Facilitation and Coaching Olympic All Stars – Arjan Vos

Arjan Vos is a Dutch women’s water polo coach and was responsible for a diverse squad at Queensland Academy of Sport. Some members of the squad were just beginning their elite water polo journeys as teenagers. Two of them – Bronwen Knox and Ash Southern – have been named in Olympic All Star teams. He is renowned for his approach to his athletes and the loyalty and trust he inspires.

In this conversation Arjan shares his coaching philosophies including:

  • the role of facilitation vs goal setting as a coach
  • His key coaching question and why it applies to juniors and veterans: What is their goal and how can I contribute?
  • why it’s important stay out of the way and not to give too much as a coach
  • the importance of truth
  • why coaching is an attitude
  • why creating space for mistakes is essential to improving
  • how and why he develops critical thinking in his athletes
  • his reflection strategies
  • and more.

Have you had any great coaches, teachers or mentors? What were their philosophies? Let me know in the comments.


People mentioned:

Resources:


 

Questions for My Dying Father

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll never forget when Dad called to tell me he had a brain tumour.

That night, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. A million things were running through my head. Amongst them was a query: “If Dad might be dying, what questions  could or should I be asking him?”

[At that point we didn’t know that it was a glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), an incredibly aggressive brain tumour. The clock was ticking fast. He died 6 months later on the 24th of Jan 2016.]

So I started an Evernote file called “Questions for Dad”.

I listed some of my own questions and began the search for others.

Over the following weeks and months, I collected questions from friends who’d had their fathers or mothers die – what they had found useful, wished they’d asked, or topics they wished they’d covered with the benefit of hindsight.

Recently I was asked for the questions I’d gathered so I wanted to share them here.

Some of these I was able to ask, others there just wasn’t time or capacity to address. The GBM dramatically affected Dad’s cognitive function and within two or three months, lucid conversations of any length became rare.

Uncomfortable conversations

As you’ll see below some of the questions sparked uncomfortable conversations, others were immensely practical, and others were really uplifting. Often they were a combination. I’m grateful for them all.

I found this 3 part framework really helpful as a purpose for the conversations I wanted to have with Dad:

  1. Please forgive me.
  2. I forgive you.
  3. Thank you, I love you.

(Unfortunately I can’t find the reference article but it may be linked the Hawaiian practice of Hoʻoponopono.)

I feel fortunate to have asked questions and had conversations that included the first two and that highlighted the third.

A small request – if you have any questions that you found to be good in the process, please leave them below in the comments. It would be great to make this a useful resource for people who stumble across this googling in the middle of a dark night.

I hope you find this list useful.

Thanks.


Questions for Dad

  1. What has become more important to you over time?
  2. What advice would you give your 30 year old self?
  3. What are you most proud of?
  4. What are you least proud of?
  5. Is there anything you’d do differently if you knew what you know now?
  6. What do you regret the most?
  7. When do you think you’ve been happiest in your life? Why?
  8. What do you wish you’d asked your parents before they’d died?
  9. What’s something I don’t know about you?
  10. Are you proud of me?
  11. Why did you and Mum get divorced? Why did you drift apart? What were the underlying reasons?
  12. Do you have any advice for me for my marriage?
  13. What do I want out of this?
  14. What do you want out of the next few weeks/months?
  15. Who would you like to spend time with?
  16. Is there anything you’d like to do together?
  17. Do you need help with your will or finances?
  18. Can you tell me about your childhood, teenage years, video/audio?
  19. What did you love in those years?
  20. What did it feel like to have children?
  21. How do you feel about mortality?
  22. What one thing would make you feel better today?
  23. Is there anything left unsaid in our relationship?
  24. Please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you, I love you.
  25. What event had the biggest impact on you?
  26. What was one of the worst moments in your life? What did you do about it?
  27. What was life like before you had children?

Other resources I found useful through that time:

 

Tatiana Grigorieva – Transitions, Fear and Willingness

Source: Fox Sports

Tatiana Grigorieva is an Olympic silver medallist (in pole vault, Sydney 2000), mother, coach, entrepreneur and all round fascinating person.

In this interview I did for the Queensland Academy of Sport Action TV series, we explore:

  • the transitions that have shaped her life through sport, business and motherhood including how she went from a hurdler to a silver medallist pole vaulter in just 2.5 years
  • how she manages fear
  • her meditation habits and the importance of visualisation in accelerating her training
  • how she encourages her athletes to think about the long term
  • her early childhood in Russia and why her mother made her sign a study contract when she was 13 years old
  • why willingness is the #1 characteristic of the athletes she works with
  • what it felt like to be jumping in the middle of the Olympic stadium for Cathy Freeman’s historic 400m gold medal.
  • and much more.

Enjoy!

What’s helped you through transitions? Let me know in the comments below.

Links from the interview:

“2 Chairs” decision making

The first time I used the 2 chairs game as a decision making technique was when I was invited to go to the Australian Institute of Sport on scholarship for a year straight after finishing high school.

Frankly I was terrified.

The AIS was the training ground of the best players in the country and I was afraid of what the environment would be like, of being alone (I didn’t really know anyone well in Canberra), of leaving my mum and dad, siblings, friends and a university placement offer…

The stakes felt incredibly high. Should I go or should I stay? I asked everyone I trusted – coaches, family, friends –  some said yes, others no, others asked great questions.

I was secretly hoping someone would make the decision for me.

They didn’t and in hindsight couldn’t. It was mine to own.

Enter the 2 Chair game

It was my mum (who’d learned it from my gran) who suggested this 2 Chairs game to try to help clarify my thinking.

[Note: Part of great decision making and problem solving is how you frame the question in the first place. This exercise assumes you’ve done that. Once you’ve framed the question to a yes/no, go/stay kind of answer, then this 2 Chairs game can help to crystallise your thinking.]

Here’s how it’s played.

How to play

  1. Place 2 chairs in a room facing one another.
  2. Allocate one chair as the “Yes” chair, the other as the “No” chair. (Or Go/Stay chair etc)
  3. Sit in the Yes chair.
  4. Say out loud all of the reasons you can think of as to why you would say yes. Stop when you run out of reasons.
  5. Change chairs to the No chair.
  6. Say out loud all of the reasons you can think of as to why you would say no. Stop when you run out of reasons.
  7. Repeat the chair swap until you run out of reasons completely.
  8. Which chair will you sit in? Have you made your decision?

Guiding principles

  • There are no trivial reasons. Say them all out loud.
  • This can be played out with trusted people in the room to help prompt your thinking or can be done alone.
  • Keeping notes can be useful.
  • Keep moving between the chairs even if it’s only for 1 reason at a time.

The Outcome

I went to the AIS. This decision was pivotal in accomplishing my Olympic dream.

This game helped me to voice all of the opinions and data I had gathered and settle on a Yes decision. Ultimately the deciding reason in the Yes chair, was that I didn’t want to look back and regret passing up the opportunity. All of the other reasons really paled beside that.

Since then I’ve used this process and shared it with friends for similar decision making situations. Reflecting on the original and subsequent experiences, I’ll add a couple of final thoughts.

  • I’ve found the physical movement between the chairs useful to really get into the mindset to extract all the reasons running around my head.
  • Sometimes I find myself sitting in one chair over the other and realise that the decision has been made.
  • Even when it hasn’t led to a clear decision, it has always been useful to extract the for and against.
  • Decisions are rarely as binary as yes or no. Is there a third way? A middle path? What are other questions that are useful in making better decisions?

 

Using Death as a Compass

“But time, is on your side, it’s on your side, now” Cold Play

Sadly Coldplay were lying. It’s never on our side.

When I think about flying, it’s essentially a tin can thousands of meters above the earth travelling at hundreds of kilometres per hour. It’s a humbling reminder of how precious life is.

So every time I get on a plane, to fly through the air in essentially a tin can, I ask myself 2 questions:

“Does everyone I love know I love them?”

I mentally tick through my list of wife, children, family and friends. If they might not be sure, then I have a job to do when I land.

“If this plane goes down, am I content with what I’ve accomplished and the impact I’ve made so far in my life?”

If the answer is no or halfhearted, it’s time to take stock.

 

The Art of Learning: Fractals, Water Polo and Marketing Templates

“We do not learn from experience, but from reflecting on the experience.” – John Dewey

[This post started out as a book review and became a reflection on my own experiences of learning. The idea of fractal learning is one that I would love your feedback on in the comments. Is it useful? Could it be applied in a way that helps us to learn more rapidly or teach more effectively? With more depth or more focus on the passions we have?]

Josh Waitzkin has a fascinating story. He is:

  • 2 x US Junior Chess champion (his father wrote a book about his journey called Searching for Bobby Fischer which was turned into a feature film of the same name),

  • Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion (2004) – the martial arts version of Tai Chi – and has subsequently coached others to that same title,

  • and founder of The Art of Learning Project.

I’ve read his book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance and loved it.

The Art of Learning:

The Art of Learning

The book explores Josh’s journey from US Junior chess champion to world champion as a martial artist in Tai Chi Push Hands. As he learned TaiChi, Josh began to see how his deep understanding of chess was influencing his learning process and vice versa. Josh subsequently spent years deconstructing his learning process across the 2 pursuits and shares his universal themes in the The Art of Learning.

Josh’s principles of learning:

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset
    A beginner is open to all possibilities, is excited to learn and is not afraid of failing. As a beginner there is no expectation to succeed or produce results.

    As your skill level increases, so too does the expectation (often self-imposed) for you to produce results. We stop learning when those expectations make us too afraid of making mistakes. Cultivating a beginner’s mindset helps us overcome this fear of mistakes so we can continue to learn and improve.

  • Invest in loss
    By training, practicing and competing with people who are better than you, you will be forced into making mistakes (losses). These losses become investments when you take the time to reflect on them to understand what happened and why. Through this reflection you can learn and then refine and improve your skills and performance.

  • The study of numbers to leave numbers
    Another way of wording this principle might be to call it the study of a skill to make that skill automatic. By studying and practicing your skills, you gradually absorb them. They become intuitive, automatic, no thinking required.

    Remember the basics of how to catch a ball? Keep your eye on the ball and watch it into your hands. Do you repeat this to yourself every time you catch a ball? When you’re first learning – sure. However, after practicing for a while, you don’t think about it anymore. In fact, often you forget someone even taught that to you.

    This is one of the key difficulties for masters trying to teach beginners – they have forgotten what they have learnt and how they learnt it.

  • Making smaller circles (condensed technique)
    Over time you work on finer and finer details within a skill, condensing your technique to use less effort to achieve the same result. To progress to smaller and smaller circles you’ll need to follow the above 3 elements every time:

    • adopt your beginner’s mindset,

    • invest in loss to understand and learn the finer level of a skill

    • then reflect, study, and practice the new “smaller circle” of the skill until it is automatic. Then you can progress to even deeper levels.

  • Slowing down time (enhanced perception)
    In a competitive arena, if you are “making smaller circles” by focussing on finer details of a skill than your opponent, you will feel like you have more time. The greater the difference in skill level, the greater the time difference will feel.

Fractal Learning

As I was trying to understand these principles, I started to draw. This is my original drawing and notes:

Fractal Learning.png

 My notes on the side tie it back to Josh’s themes:

  • Level 1 Novice sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 2 Intermediate sees 3 skills to master

  • Level 3 Expert sees 3 skills to master

  • And so on

  • Cultivating a beginner’s mindset is about forever being open to, and then seeing the next 3 skills to master.

  • To move deeper into the pattern and down a level to more condensed technique you must invest in loss.

  • You progress to a deeper level when it is internalised by study, reflection and practice.

This drawing – of smaller and smaller circles within circles – immediately reminded me of fractals.

From Wikipedia: A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns. Fractals may be exactly the same at every scale or they may be nearly the same at different scales.

I started to look for a fractal that would help me visualise Josh’s concept of “making smaller circles”. I found the Apollonian Gasket. Here is an animated version:

Apollonian Gasket.gif

As the animation proceeds, it is exactly the same at each level – a bit like the drawing in my initial notes although with much more detail.

On the other hand, The Mandelbrot Set – one of the most famous visualisations of a fractal pattern – varies at each level:

1024px-Mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set.jpg

Here’s an animated zoom of it (you don’t need to watch the whole thing):

You’ll notice that as you zoom into the structure, you don’t get an identical pattern repeating. Unlike the Apollonian Gasket, you get something different at each level. BUT it is still related to the whole.

Fractals really helped me to visualise Josh’s principles. So I wanted to step through 2 examples from water polo and web marketing to make these ideas more concrete.

Water Polo

I created a simplified water polo example:

Level 1 – A beginner, keen to learn, watches a game of water polo and sees 3 circles of skills she will need to learn to be able to play the game:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 2 – When she arrives at her first training session, the player becomes aware (with the help of her coach) that these 3 skills can be broken down further. For example she learns that in Ball skills there are 3 more circles – Passing, Shooting and Blocking:

    • Water Polo:

      • Ball skills

        • Passing

        • Shooting

        • Blocking

      • Swimming

      • Game play

  • Level 3 – This cycle of awareness of more detail (and capability to progress) then repeats and she then breaks each of these skills down even further.

So a branch of this water polo example might look like this:

  • Water Polo:

    • Ball skills

      • Passing

        • Forehand pass

        • Backhand pass

        • Push pass

      • Shooting

      • Blocking

    • Swimming

    • Game play

Drawn out, the pattern of smaller circles looks like this:

Water polo example

It looks a bit like a very simple Apollonian Gasket. In reality, there a more than 3 circles at each level of water polo, so let’s look at web marketing to provide a more detailed example.

Web Marketing and Templates

We started to create web marketing templates to help us teach our clients how web marketing worked and how all the various pieces of the puzzle fitted together. In hindsight, we were deconstructing the relevant skills as we learnt them.

So let’s consider web marketing as a skill set you might want to master.

The visual side of the Web Strategy Planning Template works as a good representation of the broadest level of web marketing.

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 7.46.52 am.png

Level 1: In the above image there are 5 areas that will need to be understood:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Level 2: Let’s zoom in on one – Search. There are 2 skills to learn in Search:

  • SEO – Organic searches

  • SEM – Google Adwords

Level 3: Let’s zoom in again – SEO. The Web Strategy Planning Template doesn’t give more detail, so we can use the SEO planning template to explore the smaller circles:

SEO can be broken down into:

  • Keyword Research

  • On-page SEO

  • Off-page SEO

Level 4: Let’s zoom in one final time – On-page SEO. Again, the template helps us to clarify that we need to learn:

  • Target Keyword

  • URL

  • Page Title

  • Header tags

  • Meta description

  • Image alt tags

  • SEO Yoast

  • Web page copy

  • Google Authorship

So one branch of Web Marketing might look like this:

Web Marketing:

  • Outcomes

  • Website

  • Search

    • SEO – Organic searches

      • Keyword Research

      • On-page SEO

        • Target Keyword

        • URL

        • Page Title

        • Header tags

        • Meta description

        • Image alt tags

        • SEO Yoast

        • Web page copy

        • Google Authorship

      • Off-page SEO

    • SEM – Google Adwords

  • Backlinks

  • Social Media/Content Marketing

Imagine if you expanded each of these – it would be complex right? Visually it might start to look more like the Mandelbrot Set with related but not identical patterns at each level.

In order to progress through the levels of either of these skills and “make smaller circles”, we need to look back at Josh’s principles:

  • Cultivate a beginner’s mindset
  • Invest in loss
  • Study numbers to leave numbers

All with the purpose of making smaller circles as we learn to condense our technique in order to enhance our perception.

So thanks to Josh for an incredibly thought provoking book that inspired me to explore and reflect on my own learning journeys. I can’t recommend The Art of Learning highly enough.

Finally I’d be really interested to hear what you think:

  • Could fractals help you to visualise your learning journey? Or to help you to teach others?
  • How might your expertise or specific skill set look laid out as a pattern?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks!

Go Slow to Go Fast – a Business Lesson from Water Polo

Club Natacio Sant Andreu - Toby Jenkins

When I was up to my eyeballs in water polo, a part of my training was weekly martial arts sessions with Andy Sutton. Back in early 2002 he introduced me to the principle:

“Go slow to go fast.”

This wasn’t just counter intuitive when I first heard it – it seemed plain mad. We’d been training one on one in a park in West End in Brisbane and it really didn’t make much sense to me. At the time I opted to file it away in my subconscious in the “too hard basket”.

Later that same year I was offered a chance to play professionally in Barcelona, for a club called Sant Andreu. I was pumped.

When I arrived in Spain, I realised they had a different approach to training. The general theme of this approach was to opt for high quality at high intensity rather than the incredible volumes we were doing at home. Each session was focussed on skills, strength, game play or swimming. In comparison to Australia, where it was typical to pile on strength work on before, or skills or match work on after a swim session, a swim set was nearly always just a swim set.

 

Go slow

I don’t remember what triggered me to dredge up Andy’s advice, but I thought it would be a good time to test if going slow could actually help me go faster.

Over the course of dwelling on and trying to practice this concept in the swimming training, I realised that by going slow with every stroke, I was able to focus on each element of the stroke from the pull at the top of the stroke all the way through to the push at the end. I concentrated on keeping my body still in the water and stayed focussed on economy of motion. By going slow, I was able to break down my swimming into discrete elements that I could then practice and improve. I felt good, I felt strong and I started wonder if there might be a kernel of truth in the saying.

It was time to test the “go fast” piece. It was time to test myself against the clock.

 

Go fast

There is one swim set that stands out for me. It was a sprint set that culminated in 3 x 100m max efforts and an opportunity to prove myself to my new team. Having been training slow, I was fascinated to see if I could embody the principle.

At the end of the first 100m, I was surprised. I’d clocked around 59 seconds (a quick training time for me) and still really felt like there was more in the tank than I’d realised. The next 100m I focussed on increasing power, while maintaining my focus on each stroke and stillness in the water to see if I could go faster. 58 seconds. Even after this, I still felt like I could go faster. I kept  saying to myself throughout these 100s: go slow to go fast, go slow to go fast. 3rd 100m – 57 seconds.

These times are by no means quick by elite swimming standards but they were amongst the best I’d ever clocked in training and particularly that I was able to improve through the 3 was completely new for my sprinting. By breaking down the 100m into a series of discrete strokes, focussing on every piece of the execution, I was able to produce these times with an ease that I still clearly remember 11 years later.

 

How is this relevant to work now?

One of the problems we’ve had recently with projects has been rework. Ads and I have sat down to address this and ultimately came to reinforce the mantra of thrash upfront in your project planning to get everything out on the table. While it feels like its slowing you down, focussing on and hammering out the details of what actually needs to be done ultimately saves huge amounts of time in the execution.

I’m also a huge believer in the agile approach to projects in that you can’t plan for everything and in fact to do can be dangerous. Slowing down to make the projects small enough to execute and revisiting these smaller projects at crucial points is also key to adjusting for new learning and delivering fast, quality projects.

 

Related quotes:

Since then I’ve heard a number of other phrases that to me, really relate to this philosophy.

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
This was taken from the movie Shooter with Mark Wahlberg where his character uses it as a mantra as he fires a rifle. A surprising source of inspiration 🙂

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” Bill Gates
I only became aware of this quote recently and I believe it reflects some of those same sentiments – to reduce the amount you try to do in a smaller time frame to accomplish much more in the longer period.

What do you think? Are there areas in your life/business that you’ve gone slow to ultimately go fast? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.