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A sporting chance to motivate

Phil Revell finds out how the techniques of successful sports coaching can be transferred to the world of education.

Business leaders such as Sir John Harvey Jones will tell you that any fool can read a balance sheet, but it takes real talent to be able to manage and motivate people.

Sports coaches are motivators par excellence - they take athletes through the long winter of training in preparation for a season of competition. And you don't have to look very far to see that the skills are transferable. Jack Rowell, who has just stepped down as the England rugby coach, was also chairman of Dalgety Foods and a director of several other companies. Before leading England to the World Cup finals he made Bath the most successful rugby club in Britain.

Frank Dick, president of the European Athletics Coaches Association, was until recently the British Athletics Federation's director of coaching and an athletics coach during Britain's most successful run of athletics honours. Having retired from active athletics coaching, he now coaches business leaders and believes that his ideas can be used in any management situation - including education.

He argues that in any culture there are enthusiasts and cynics. The trick is to bring the enthusiasts on board while simultaneously neutralising the negative effects of the cynics. He also warns against top-down communication, which starts with a vision and ends at the chalkface with apathy. The troops have seen it all before and the last time it all went pear-shaped, so don't expect their commitment.

To achieve real change, Mr Dick believes in starting by enlisting the support of the enthusiasts at every level. "Treat the cynics like a river treats a rock," he says. "Don't waste energy trying to move it. Go around it."

New players have to be treated very carefully. Mistakes at this stage can destroy confidence and ruin future performance. "Never give a beginner player to a beginner coach," he says. "These moments are far too precious." New teachers should therefore be guided by the very best teachers available, and time has to be set aside to ensure that proper coaching can take place.

Sporting skills are not learnt in complete blocks. Tennis players don't begin by learning how to power serve, instead skills are taught in easily digestible bites. Even accomplished players will go through drills to work on particular aspects of their game. Coaching in teaching, argues Mr Dick, should be no different. The skills of any job can be broken down into components; in teaching these components are preparation, starting a lesson, classroom control, use of aids, questioning technique and feedback.

The job of the coach is to identify strengths and weaknesses and to help the player to work on both to improve performance. One fault of appraisal systems is that too often they focus on weaknesses. "You have to work to people's strengths as well as their weaknesses, otherwise where does their motivation come from?" A key starting point is that the player has to want to improve. And motivation is the key. Frank Dick has no patience with those who point to outside constraints which prevent them doing their job properly. "People in problem situations sometimes begin to feel a sense of hopelessness and there is a terrible danger that heads will go down. We have to accept personal ownership for what the future is going to bring; we have to make decisions and act on them."

For managers, he argues that the key is to set goals that people can achieve. "I don't want you to climb somebody else's mountain. I want you to climb your own. You may think that this is crap - he's just talking about positive thinking. It's not crap - your boat's going down. Jump in the water, are you thinking about drowning or swimming? That's the start, you accept ownership, that you can make a difference."

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