200607 Reflection

Recently I attended the Virtual Coach Developer Summit hosted by the United States Center for Coaching Excellence. Coach developers are people who educate and train coaches and support them in their development – an interesting mix of practitioners in national governing bodies, entrepreneurs, and academics in college and university undergraduate and graduate coaching degree programs. I came away from the three days of presentations with some interesting ideas on how to improve how I train fencers and trainers.

One of the interesting ideas plays a key role in andragogy (the activity of teaching adults, rather than pedagogy which deals with children). In every panel presentation in the Summit, the term “reflection” played a critical part in the discussions. We reflected on this and reflected on that. And I hate the term “reflection.” It is a squishy term that means what it means to whomever is using it – there is no established definition and description of the parts of the process. It always reminds me of my youth as an Air Force officer, sitting in the officer’s club bar at Wallace Air Station in the Philippines, with my colleagues three or more sheets to the wind, reflecting on how much we were distressed by the buzz that the radar put on our audio tape recordings when it’s beam swept past our quarters every 12 seconds.

But in that squishyness there was a small bright light, so I plowed through a wide variety of sources written in education-speak, and came up with the following as a disciplined process for reflective analysis and synthesis:

(1) Reflection is an individualized mental process of analysis that plays an important part in how we process knowledge and experiences.

(2) It involves identifying the components of the new knowledge and experience …

(3) And reviewing what we know and have experienced, and comparing that with the new knowledge and experience …

(4) In order to put what we have just learned or experienced in context with the past knowledge in order to advance our understanding of the problem.

(5) And in our case as fencers, to develop a course of action appropriate to conditions.

For those of our readers who were or are going to be philosophy majors in college, it is very Hegelian Dialectic.

So, can you do that in the fencing bout … no, it takes too long, you have to think too much … and probably a hundred other reasons ending up with “no, I just want to fence.” I can’t as a trainer do much about “stupid,” but you can as a fencer.

Most, if not all, sports require a disciplined mind as a precondition to success in competition or in the simple pursuit of perfection, even if it never results in competition. Fencing is one of these sports. You have six opportunities to use a reflective process in conjunction with a fencing bout:

(1) Before the bout – in development of the bout plan.

(2) During the phrase if you are fencing “eyes-open.”

(4) At the end of the phrase – as your drill for the period between “halt” and “fence.”

(5) In the central 20 seconds of the one-minute break between periods in the direct elimination.

(6) After the bout in the period of waiting for the next bout in the pool or for the start of the direct elimination.

There are a couple of key points here. First, the time line is variable, from milliseconds in eyes-open to an hour or more in the wait for the direct elimination. As the time increases, the natural inclination is to think more and more about the possibilities, becoming more uncertain about your course of action, and eventually achieving decision paralysis. Fencing is a sport of concealment, risk, and commitment. Do the analysis once, make a decision, go execute.

Second, although there are six possible uses for a reflective approach, the approach is the same. That means that you can develop a drill that can be applied to all six situations, variable only in the amount of time available for its application.

Third, like any skill, your drill must be practiced. If we understand that thousands of repetitions of deliberate practice are required to master one specific technical skill in your toolbox, the same standard must apply to mental skills. When you achieve automaticity in applying your drill, the questions go away, the steps go away, and the brain produces a clear set of instructions for the body to apply.

So, know what you know, figure out what you need to know, apply the synthesis to the problem … and practice the process for every touch in every bout. No short cuts, no “I just want to fence,” if you want to have fast mental processes that make quality decisions under pressure.

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