On Coaching: The Feedback Loop
Coaching is a hard thing to do well. That’s something we’ve learned over the last decade or so of passing on the principles, methods and concepts of parkour to tens of thousands of people across every continent on the planet. It’s something very close to our hearts and as we’ve seen the global network of A.D.A.P.T coaches expand and develop, we’ve acquired at least a small insight into the truly challenging responsibility that is being a coach.
As a result we are asked countless questions on this area of what we do by those wanting to know how best to do it; what not to do; what are the key points; what makes a great coach..? The answers are often long and complicated, but I think it is possible to distill the essence of coaching just as it is possible to distill the essence of any great skill. And so, with some trepidation, I will aim to delve into coaching as its own particular practice and share some of the insights that I have gleaned from what now amounts to many years accumulated on that frontline.
Many of the points and principles covered in these articles will be applicable to the coaching of any discipline, of course. However, my principal aim is to identify those elements and concepts specific to parkour and to the coaching of parkour, which will at times necessitate the presupposition that the reader has a solid grasp of parkour training. The most effective coach knows his subject matter as well as knowing coaching methodology.: it is an unwise man who would learn to drive a car from someone who himself had never driven. That would be an accident waiting to happen.
So, before we look at coaching, we must first take a brief look at parkour itself.
What is Parkour?
Parkour is a movement-based training discipline that arose from notions of challenge, exploration, adaptation, and physical and mental functionality. At its most stripped-down it is comprised of training to overcome any obstacle in one’s path, or to cross any terrain, as quickly and effectively as possible using only one’s personal physical abilities. Beneath this surface-layer description it carries with it powerful concepts of self-reliance, health and strength – both inner and outer.
In practice it involves running, jumping and climbing and the ensuing creation and perfection of any movement skills that are required to navigate a given situation. The original French term art du deplacement means ‘art of displacement’ and is perhaps the most descriptive of all the names that have been applied to the activity over the years since its inception. However, as with all true transformative practices, it is more than the sum of its parts: parkour is also a road to self-improvement, a Way in more than just a literal sense.
There is an essence to it, captured in its developmental period in the late Twentieth Century, that has proven difficult to verbalise but that clearly permeates the practice, the philosophies and the lifestyles of almost all serious practitioners. It is, perhaps, one of those nebulous phenomena that can only be truly understood through direct experience.
We will go into more detail regarding this ‘spirit of parkour’ at a later stage. Suffice it to say for now that it involves and includes the core concepts of freedom, personal responsibility, adaptability, constant improvement, playfulness, determination and an unyielding spirit in the face of challenge and adversity.
The easiest and most direct way to gain an insight into the essence of parkour, as with any art, is to immerse oneself in the practice. We would sincerely hope that anyone looking to guide others in this discipline will already have progressed sufficiently far down that process of exploration.
What is Coaching?
A simple question, but an important one to get straight from the very beginning.
There have been countless works produced on coaching methods, theories, practices and systems of all kinds, the most relevant of which will be touched on in the following chapters, and amongst all the theorising it’s easy to lose sight of what coaching is, at its heart. And that is, quite simply, helping people get better at something they want to get better at.
Now, there are innumerable facets to this process – hence the countless works – but it always comes back to the simple analysis of whether or not the people we are coaching are improving as a result of our input. This is the coach’s guiding principle, his litmus test and his raison d’etre. It must be at the centre of everything the coach does, it must underpin his choice of every method, exercise or programme.
In short, it’s the coach’s job.
It’s important to understand that coaching is not simply facilitating a training session. Owning a gym does not make one a coach. Any adult athlete can – with access to relevant necessary equipment or practice ground – train or practice any discipline by him/herself, at any time and without the guidance of a coach. With a small amount of resourcefulness and sufficient motivation and time, most people can teach themselves the rudiments of most activities – especially with the ease of access to information and learning tools that our current technology provides. Parkour is a prime example of this, especially considering that it is a particularly individualistic and elastic concept and one which actively encourages practitioners to ‘find their own way’ and evolve their own movement according to their unique anatomy, physiology and psychology.
So if one can begin practising parkour by oneself, for free and without even the basic need for a specific training space or specialist equipment that so many other sports or physical activities require then why go to a coach? Indeed, why does coaching exist at all for parkour?
The answer is this: feedback.
The Feedback Loop
Coaching is, in essence, a fairly straightforward concept. The athlete does something; there is feedback on that thing; the athlete acts on that feedback and attempts the thing again in an effort to do it better. Then, invariably, there is feedback following that attempt, and so on. This is a feedback loop, and the principal role of the coach is to provide the feedback.
Now, of course, feedback from any given action can come in multiple forms and from multiple sources. For example, once we have sufficient understanding of our activity we are able to ‘coach’ ourselves, analysing why something failed and then trying again with that data in mind. This is a tool and a skill we should all develop and use as often as possible, and with this alone we will see results and enjoy a certain amount of progress and success.
However, what the coach brings is not only her (hopefully!) advanced knowledge and experience on the subject, but also an objective view of the athlete’s developmental process. As individuals we are often blind to our own errors and failings, simply because we have practised them for so long that we simply cannot recognise what it is we are doing that is ineffective. Practise the wrong way long enough and the right way will feel wrong.
More often than not it takes external analysis of what we are doing for the flaws to be identified. It requires objective feedback, and there is no quicker and more efficient way to receive this than from an experienced coach.
The Coach as Guide
Added to this, the coach has another important role to play – that of guide into and along the ever-deepening paths of whatever discipline is being practised. To be coaching or teaching any art, I believe, one should have achieved a fairly high personal level of experience and skill in that art.
When it comes to parkour it is important to remember that it is not simply a method or concept of movement, but rather a method and concept of self-improvement through challenge, discovery and peak experience. There are important values and principles at its core, without which the movement alone is simply another form of athletic sophistication. Such self-knowledge is quite clearly the true treasure that results from training in parkour, and it is this treasure towards which the coach can help guide less-experienced practitioners.
To be able to perform this role requires deep reflection on the part of the coach, which usually only takes root after several years of exposure to and practice of the discipline. But this is important, this experiential understanding of the art you are trying to impart; it grants the coach some confidence, that he or she actually has lived these methods and principles and therefore can talk about or teach them with some authority. Such an individual will know well the crucial tips and keys to acquiring real skill, as well as the particular and subtle dangers and pitfalls that accompany training in any discipline, and that knowledge is priceless to a developing practitioner.
So the parkour coach must first acquire this understanding, through years of hard-won direct experience, then learn the science and the art of imparting it to others in an effective, measured and selfless way – a skill that demands just as much training as parkour itself.
For information on becoming a qualified parkour coach, visit the ADAPT Qualifications website.
The term ‘parkour’ derives from the French word ‘le parcours’, which translates as ‘the way’, ‘the route’ or ‘the course’.