Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Coaching

The Seahawks' season ended on a disappointing note last Saturday with the team's 24-22 playoff loss to Dallas. Still, it was a far better ending than most analysts predicted at the beginning of the season, when Seattle was projected to win four to six games and miss the playoffs completely.

I say "most analysts;" not everyone was so pessimistic at the beginning of the season, and that includes Yours Truly. I was very curious to see how the 'Hawks season would go this year, but I didn't see the loss of key players as the same grounds for disaster as even the local reporters. After all, the team was still returning proven blue chip commodities in the two areas most important for American football: quarterback and head coach.

True, having those two pieces doesn't automatically guarantee success (see Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Green Bay this year) but, in general, a proven, veteran quarterback always gives you a chance to win games, and a solid coach can turn the most motley crew of rag-tag yokels into a team. That's what happened this year with the Seahawks, as Pete Carroll coached up a defense consisting of cast-offs and young players (and, yes, two pro-bowl linebackers...one of whom was injured most of the year), to the point they could grind out a ten win season and make the postseason as the #5 seed in the NFC. In the end, it wasn't quite enough to win a close game against a good team on the road, but for me it demonstrates the importance and value of good coaching.


Pretty good coach.
I think it's easy for folks, especially non-athletes, to underestimate the benefits of coaching. Coaching is more than simple instruction or teaching, and it is different from "mentoring," a term I've grown to dislike as it's proliferated through our language in recent years. In a coaching relationship, a person with a certain amount of expertise (the coach), provides training and instruction to another person (the person being coached), with the focus of accomplishing a specific task or objective.

Per Ye Old Wikipedia, the term "coach" comes from Oxford, circa 1830, when it was applied to tutors whose aim it was to carry a struggling student to success in a class or exam...the same way a horse drawn carriage would carry a traveler to a difficult-to-reach destination. The term was quickly adapted to  sport, where a coach's aim is (presumably) to transport a team to victory...and from there the word has evolved into a part of our ever evolving lexicon.

These days, we have coaches for all sorts of things: "life coaches," "relationship coaches," "personal finance coaches," etc. Some of us (i.e. "me") may turn up our noses at these (can a person really be more expert at living my life than I am?), but that doesn't mean we should denigrate the concept of coaching, nor of how it works and how it can be useful.

A person with expertise in a field...even minor expertise...can hold up a mirror to what we are doing wrong (or what we could be doing better), helping us sharpen our skills to an end result of being better than when we started. My 71-year old mother doesn't get out to the golf course anymore, but when she did (15 years ago or so) she'd take the occasional lesson from the resident golf coach at the course she belonged to. Not because she didn't know how to play, or how to hold her club, and not because she had any plans to turn pro; my mother will tell you she was a mediocre golfer at best (though she enjoyed the game). But having a coach can still help you improve and develop your potential. A coach can help you become the best whatever it is that you want to be. And if your hobby of choice is something you love, this is probably important to you.

[back when I still fenced, I paid for weekly lessons from my coach for the same reason, even though my opportunity to become an Olympian...or even be competitive in local tournaments and such...had long since past]

The last two years I've had the great joy of coaching my son's (school) soccer team. Because it is youth sports and we're talking 6- to 8-year olds, my objectives of coaching are a little different: helping kids improve at basic skills (passing, dribbling, shooting), getting the kids to work together as a cohesive team, and instilling in them an enjoyment and love of the sport such that they'll want to keep coming back in future seasons. The latter isn't just important because we'd like healthy, active children, but because if players start dropping out we won't be able to field enough players for a full team...and then even the kids who want to participate will have to look elsewhere for their fun.

Fortunately, it appears I'm a fairly good coach (at this level). The parents like me, the kids like me, and everyone is having a good time...probably me most of all. It helps that I give all the kids equal playing time (spreadsheets work great for this), and that we tend to dominate our games (we don't officially keep score or track wins/losses...but the kids know). And that's helped grow our program. My first year we had eight kids on the team. Last year we had ten from my son's school (out of sixteen kids in his class), plus four kids from another, smaller school who didn't have enough players to field a full team. I'm hoping to add at least two or three more next year, as we will be required to split into two teams ("boys" and "girls") and we'll need at least 6-8 kids for each squad. But I'm pretty confident we'll get there...there was a lot of enthusiastic support at both schools.

Still, my expertise as a soccer coach is fairly limited. My son...who spent nearly three years in a South American country where the boys eat, drink, and breathe futbol...happens to be a talented athlete with a passion for the sport. Last April he tried out for (and was accepted to) a local "premier" team that plays high quality, competitive soccer 10-11 months out of the year. It's been a bit of a transition for our family to become "soccer people," but it's been very good for my son: the training and coaching he receives from dudes with British accents and extensive resumes (not to mention deep connections to the local MLS team) is far and away greater than anything I can teach him. He loves it, and his skill long ago outstripped anything I've learned about the sport after decades of play.

Even so, he enjoys playing for his school team, and wants to continue playing for it (seven weeks, every Fall). He understands that I, as a coach, have a much different objective from his premier team coaches: building a foundation for a consistent, coherent team and trying to bring everyone up to a similar level of skill. Diego's coaches at Seattle United, on the other hand, have the objective of developing each individual's talent and skill to their greatest potential. They are not overly concerned with team building, or even winning matches against other premier squads; instead they are seeking to train and groom players for long-term success at a high level.

Here's the reason I write all this (and the reason I've been wanting to write about this subject for over a year): I am of the opinion that our hobby...specifically the Dungeons & Dragons game and particularly individuals who wish to take up the mantle of "Dungeon Master"...could benefit from some coaching.

Ah, hell...that's not a strong enough declarative. I think DMs need coaching...not simple one-time instruction, and certainly not just examples of play from some YouTube video, but on-going training with a pointed objective of creating quality, competent game masters. Waaay back in September of 2017, I hinted at "strategies for enhancing and retaining player enjoyment" (though I never wrote the follow-up post)...this is one of the main ideas I wanted to propose.

And it's not a matter of me thinking there's not enough coaching available; over the last couple years I've come to the conclusion that there really isn't ANY coaching available. Not in the way I think there needs to be.

"And why should there be?" some folks are certainly asking. "It's a game, not a sport. A fun hobby, not a way of life. Read the instructions found in the book and then try running a few games...you'll get how to do it."

Really?

Most of would admit that Dungeons & Dragons (and role-playing in general) is a bit more complicated than your average game. I think people can easily see that the instruction manual, even for "basic" editions, is a bit more cumbersome than that found in your average board game...even those of the "Euro" variety. And, um, we do coach other games, just by the way...my soon-to-be eight year old has a chess coach with whom he's trained (along with several classmates) for an hour after school every Monday the last three months. And didn't I just read something about a new, competitive video game league being formed???

[Jesus...there's your "decline of Western Civilization" right there, folks]

I've bitched before, long and loud, about the lack of teaching available for D&D, how the game is marketed (and written) almost entirely for individuals who are already experienced players, and how the corporation's general strategy for acquiring new players is: 1) get people interested (with "buzz," strategic marketing, and pretty books), 2) have them join a game and learn from 'experienced' players who are probably half-assing the game themselves, then 3) get them to shell out money for adventure campaigns till they stop being willing to do so...probably because they throw up their hands in confusion or boredom or despair of ever being able to do it like those video-stars that first got them interested in the game.

Rinse and motherfucking repeat.

[mmm...do you coach the 7-year olds with that mouth, sailor? Let's tone it down a smidge]

Not really a coach.
That's a vast simplification, of course, but the real fact of the matter isn't (I don't think) one of vast "corporate conspiracy" so much as a lack of plan for growing and cultivating the hobby (which I've also talked about before). Because the job of the corporate suits is to make money and the job of the game designers is to write games for publication (to make money). As long as the money continues to flow into the coffers (and the paychecks into designers' bank accounts) no one's worried too much about where the hobby is or isn't going. When there's a downturn, they'll just layoff a bunch of staff, until they're ready to put out the next product that's going to give them a cash infusion.

[something tugging on the edge of my mind here about history repeating itself...]

ANYway, I think (yes, little old me, who is a very small fish, even in terms of this particular niche of a niche)...I really do think that even a little coaching (i.e. a little more than none) could go a loooong way toward improving, not only the quality of play around gaming tables, but also our perception of the hobby itself. And by "our" I mean "everyone who's aware the hobby exists" (whether or not they play D&D).

Because a game that has coaching is a game that has a perceived desire for improvement...and that usually means it's something respectable (i.e. worthy of respect) rather than just a "silly pastime." Silly pastimes are things that are just fine when played by children, but held as contemptible when pursued by adults. Because adults should be "doing something better" with their time...as if playing golf or tennis or piano was so much more world-shaking in its impact on our communities and the world at large.

All right, that's enough to chew on for now. Probably more than enough.

10 comments:

  1. I remember it was Branch Rickey that brought workouts, calisthenics and Spring training to baseball, in the 1920s, more than fifty years after baseball went pro.

    He had his detractors.

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  2. Very interesting post. I think you're absolutely right. GMs definitely need coaches, or at least someone to collaborate with to get better. It would vastly improve the hobby if more people looked at GMing as a craft to be honed. Especially if those same people had clear avenues toward improvement. Do you think players need coaches as well?

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    Replies
    1. @ Andrew:

      Not really. Definitely not in the same way DMs do.

      But then, I'm speaking from the perspective of an older edition player, where the onus of a game's "success" (as I measure it) is almost entirely on the DM. In old editions of D&D, players may succeed or fail, live or die, and still have an enjoyable, even thrilling, "good time"...provided the DM is doing his/her job adequately.

      Later editions (especially 3rd and 4th) require quite a bit more "player training," especially as characters grow into the upper levels. Much of this training revolves around character "builds" (mostly 3E) and combat tactics (mainly 4E) in order to achieve a certain baseline effectiveness...though this, too, may be adjusted at the purview of the particular DM.

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  3. Does coaching have to be formal? I like watching my DM and seeing what I like and dislike about what he does. I like to look at his handouts and his DM screen for hints.

    Our styles are so very different. I’m not even a DM, I’m a Referee. I don’t master, I adjudicate. but I can still pick up on what he does right and attempt to incorporate that into my reffing.

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    Replies
    1. In the NFL (and other sports), there's a lot of talk about "different coaching philosophies." You can have a different approach to coaching (harder, softer, focused on tradition, outside-the-box, etc.) and the folks you coach will still gain benefits. Some people respond better to one particular coaching style; some folks reap dividends from exposure to multiple coaching styles.

      But, yes, I'd like to see some "formalization" to coaching...even if different coaches utilize different approaches. Coaching is more focused than simple demonstration.

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  4. I agree 100%. I now have a reputation in Busan for my DMing, and a several people wanting advice for running games have come to me over the past three years or so. I'm always happy to help them, both from my own experience, and from resources like blogs and forums.

    Being a referee/game master can be daunting. I had Frank Mentzer's basic set and a lot of trial and error when I started out. But still, around 2000 I got active online, in 2006 got active in the OSR, and I definitely think I improved a lot over what ~20 years of trial and error taught me.

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  6. The neurologist weighs in,
    winning the superbowl comes down to the team who has had the least injuries through out the season.
    Stats are fine, but luck and chance are paramount.

    In the era of litigation for CTE / chronic traumatic encephalopathy, game play has changed.
    Tackling has been modified to prevent helmet to helmet contact, therefore, more knee and ankle injuries.

    You can have three concussions and bacterial meningitis and still graduate medical school with honors (the marvel of neuroplasticity). However, one good shot to the knee, ankle or hip and you are limping for the rest of your life.

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    Replies
    1. While I don't disagree (I saw a single random injury dismantle my team's defense in the '05 Super Bowl), all NFL teams sustain some injuries over the course of the season. Part of coaching is taking the pieces you still have and mitigating those issues. I think the Patriots are a great example of mastery in this regard.

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  7. I love to read your articles because your writing style is too good, its is very very helpful for all of us
    Good luck with your plans, and keep posting!
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    ReplyDelete