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Q&A: Martin Toms

It was through Twitter that I first came into the brilliant mind of Dr Martin Toms (@DrMartinToms). While most of us involved in coaching tend to focus on the performance side, Martin has a unique, and vital, outlook.

So when he reached out to catch up I cleared some time and made sure the meeting took place.

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Hi Martin, thanks for joining us on propelperform.com. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘academic’ (or formal) qualifications?

Sure – although I actually came to academia through teaching and coaching, so I like to think my work is grounded in the real world!

I was fortunate enough to study sport at University as an undergraduate having always dreamed of playing sport, injuries curtailed that chance by the age of 17.

But I found an outlet for this interest, and whilst at University I started coaching cricket on a full time basis.

This then led to me undertaking a research based Master’s degree exploring kids perspectives of sport in an inner city School, which led on to a teaching degree, more coaching and eventually a PhD in ‘Developmental Socialisation’ of children in club sport.

So it has been rather a circuitous route – but one where my focus has always been on the (undervalued) notion that we need to better understand the social dynamics (through the Bio-Psycho-Social context) of sport in order to address and influence participation.

What practical experience has shaped your views?

Definitely my experience as a young child – where I actually found that my local club became a second home and a surrogate family (in such a way that I still consider some of the adults who were there at the time as ‘aunts and uncles’).

At the same time it was these experiences that made me realise that the value of junior sport is not just sport but the wider benefits and structures that it can give to us.

Grass roots clubs are (effectively) an extension of the family unit, and the way they act, behave and run is very similar to that of a traditional nuclear family. At least, that is the way that they should run!

As a coach, my focus has always been on coaching the youngsters and using the value of enthusiasm to develop engagement.

As I always say – we need to measure success in youth sport not on performance but on enjoyment and retention.

Not every child we coach will be a star performer, but for most we will be role models and in the future they may well do what we have done and ‘give back’ to the sport.

That way I hope the legacy of grass roots will continue – even though there are many challenges to it at the moment.

Success

What 3 questions should every Parent should ask their kid’s coach?

A very good question – but I’d say that watching how the coach interacts and doing your homework before your child gets involved in coaching is vital.

And it also assumes that the parent knows what sort of questions to ask!

A problem with all sports coaching is that (unlike teaching) it is unregulated beyond the ability of the coach to impart knowledge at a coaching award exam.

Whilst you cannot ask a coach if they are altruistic or egoistic, you can find out what their focus or background is by asking them about how they got involved in coaching and what their aim would be for your child.

Rather than asking questions of the coach, I would ask questions of the club – and find out how other kids/parents interact with it.

A coach who boasts about the matches his team have won or shows off trophies in his filing cabinet might not be one who has the children’s interest at heart.

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A coach who engages, supports and interacts with the group and provides opportunity and enjoyment (regardless of the result) might be better.

3 Coaching behaviours a Parent should see as a warning sign?

Simple – any behaviour where the coach puts themselves and not the child at the centre of it. Period.

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What message would you like to send to sports administrators?

With the best will in the world we cannot turn life (or development) into a linear process – but if we can all acknowledge that it is not linear and that each child is different (and has different Bio-Psycho-Social backgrounds and needs), then we can make a positive difference by treating them holistically as young people – not as bodies to be coached.

What would you add to every coaching qualification/course?

The ability to reflect on your own sporting upbringing to better understand why you coach like you do.

Of course the problem with this is that it doesn’t help the ‘tick box’ approach to imparting knowledge and coaching facts that every coaching qualification requires.

I’d also add in the ability to adapt to situations – and become a ‘Chameleon Coach’. But that is almost something that is learned.

It would be fantastic to have sports coaching become a recognised profession and (like teaching and other industries) have some regulation/licensing, but not as a constraining body as much as an advocacy one.

However, in reality I cannot see this happening for many reasons.

One thing I WOULD like all coaching courses to more effectively consider is progression through the coaching system, but with that the realisation that you should be able to become a Level 3 (or whatever level is the highest in your sport) coach who has the best skills and abilities to work at any level.

It should be possible to become a Level 3 coach with a specialism in grass roots sport, as it should be a Level 3 coach with a specialism in elite adult athletes.

Different skills but same recognition.

What should someone interested in coaching ask themself before applying for the position/undergoing the education/embarking on the journey?

Not just why they want to do that, but what is it about their own life and sporting history that means it would be beneficial to do this, and ultimately to ‘pay forward’ to the next generation.

Whilst we take the love of the sport to be central to this, we also need to be aware of the fact that we (as coaches) are facilitators of the experience for young people – whatever level they play at.

It is the creation of this environment and the ability to act as a catalyst for learning that is most important.

So, my key question to them would be:

What positive difference can you make to someone’s life through coaching this sport?

It’s about the young person not the sport after all.

Mt Coottha Bike Ride

What 3 characteristics does every great developmental coach have?

The ability to reflect, the ability to reflect and the ability to reflect.

Seriously, everything that we do as coaches has to have its roots in behaviourism (not in coaching content), so the ability to reflect upon coaching sessions, individual athletes needs and the creation of appropriate scenarios is crucial.

As Wade Gilbert & Pierre Trudel (2006; 114) said: “Ten years of coaching without reflection is simply one year of coaching repeated ten times”.

In the case of a developmental coach this reflection needs to be ongoing, pre and post session and needs to be engrained in an altruistic ethos.

It seems as though every sport is intent on offering ‘year round’ programs out of a fear of ‘losing’ kids – What practical solutions do you have that might prevent this from continuing?

There is a huge fear of losing kids (as if they are ‘owned’ by the club or sport!) which is completely ridiculous.

As my own research has suggested, and as the wealth of research is now arguing – focusing upon one sport increases drop out, injury and burn out.

What we need to do to be effective is to create far more multi-sport clubs, where kids can play different activities all year round and engage and learn skills that will be useful to them in other sports.

There are clearer links now between sports and skill transfer that can be beneficial, and what is wrong with someone developing skills in another sport anyway?

If they are lost to your sport, but discover a new sport that they might play for life then the only loser is you……. But then it isn’t about you as the coach is it?!

Your view on the nature v nurture discussion?

Clearly there is mix of both of these issues, however you might have the most talent in the world at a certain activity, but if you have no access to play it, you are lost.

However, what is always forgotten in this debate is that natural talent is not a requirement to play recreational sport.

Yes, you do need some ability (which itself can be learnt) but to take part, enjoy and have life-long love of the game is not dependent upon nature.

It is, however, dependent upon nurture, opportunity, engagement and participation.

So – at the top level then nurture is vital to develop the natural talent that may exist, but at the grass roots level it is all about nurture and involvement in the first place.

Thus, to me at every level, nurture trumps nature.

Kindy play

Your view on the 10,000 hours blacklash?

The whole concept of 10,000 hours is one that has turned into an urban myth.

As we know, there is no evidence for this in sport – apart from the subjective guess and rounding up that some people attempt to do!

The concept that it takes a long time and a lot of practice and play to ‘possibly’ become good at something is important though.

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There is no guarantee after 10,000 hours (or whatever figure you wish to use) that an individual will become an expert at any activity – in particular sport.

Yes, a lot of practice in a closed skill activity might well help you – but to apply it with such wide and sweeping generalisations that the media (and others) have done is ridiculous.

I implore everyone to bury the concept of 10,000 hours and instead take up the banner for “diverse sporting experiences and skills that can lead to lifelong participation and enjoyment at whatever level the participant chooses”.

Our obsession with getting to the top level is a little like putting together detailed plans for what we will do when we win the lottery.

Dr Martin Toms is a senior lecturer in Sports Coaching in the School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences. Click here for more information. 

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