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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Books on the Body-Mind Connection

I am really pleased to say that the next blog entry has been written by Dr Jennifer Leigh, an expertise on yoga and somatic education.  I asked Jennifer to recommend five books on a genuinely fascinating topic - and one that is of great relevance to both sport and education - the body mind connection.

When I was asked to recommend five books on mind-body connection I have to say that my brain froze.  I looked at the (shelves and shelves of) books that I own on aspects of this and was completely flummoxed.  I could recommend lots of them.  Others I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.  My main concern though, was who I would be recommending them for.So I have decided to recommend one book from five sections of my bookshelves (bar the really freaky ones) with a little bit of an introduction as to why it may be relevant to the mind-body discourse. 

The idea of a mind-body connection is not exactly universally accepted.  The ascendancy of the mind over the body and its importance in the development of Western philosophy and later medicine, psychology and sport can be traced back to the days of Plato, the Orphic and Socrates: “the body is an endless source of trouble...only the mind can reach existence”.  For example, Descartes’ dualism was firmly anti-organic, built on earlier notions of the physical world, and described in the words of Alan Watts as, “the domain of corruption and evil”.  The division or schism between mind and body can thus be seen to have affected Western society from its earliest days, with the body being seen as inferior to the mind. 

In contrast, in yoga philosophy and practice a mind-body connection is an assumption.  The purely physical aspect of yoga, asana, has been emphasised in recent years, sometimes to the exclusion of all else, turning yoga practice into an exercise form.  Yoga could be a valuable practice for any sports person.  But which book on yoga to recommend? 

I have chosen Dynamic Yoga by Godfrey Devereux (1998).  Devereux’s approach to yoga is physical, strong and active.  His explanations of the poses are clear, and if you can get over the extremely revealing shorts he wears, the photos are helpful.  The book is comprehensive, covering the poses you would encounter in most Hatha, Ashtanga or Iyengar yoga classes.

Eastern philosophy has a different starting point and language when talking of the mind and body, illustrating “the irrelevance of Western theories to non-Western contexts”.  The traditional Eastern view of the body and mind is that they are inseparable aspects of the same human existence.  A book that explores the martial mind-body connection is Peter and Laura Ralston’s Zen-Body Being (2006).  It is a bit of a how-to manual with exercises designed to help the reader experience a greater sense of their body-being.

The importance of the body-mind (or embodied mind) as opposed to a body/mind split in the philosophy of psychotherapy can be traced back through Freud and his discovery of the power of the unconscious over the conscious and his work on the power-relationship between therapist and client.  Linda Hartley’s Somatic Psychology (2004) traces the history of psychology and its sorry relationship with the body, which has tended to either ignore it (in the context of cognitive or social psychology), or treat it as exclusively functional (in biological and neuro-psychologies). 

In a discussion of Eastern philosophies and their resemblance to Western psychotherapy, Alan Watts states that both are concerned “with bringing about changes of consciousness”.  Western psychotherapy has as a primary concern with the study of the mind or psyche as a clinical entitity, whereas “Eastern cultures have not categorized mind and matter, soul and body, in the same way”.  By increasing awareness of the body-mind and its movements, it is possible to increase awareness of that boundary of and relationship with the world (and all others in it).  Alan Fogel’s The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness (2009) explores how the physiology of the body and psychology interact within a therapeutic situation.  He illustrates this with the use of psychology, neuro-biology and the Rosen Method, a form of somatic bodywork. 

My final book is a collection of writings on the principles and techniques of somatics in Don Hanlon Johnson’s Body, Breath and Gesture (1995).  The book forms a history of the field, including how it has fragmented into the disparate approaches and techniques that are found today.  Johnson focuses on Western somatic body awareness disciplines, many of which were developed after the turn of the last century.  Some of the practices outlined may fall into that ‘hippy’ section, however I find it to be a book that gives a very clear sense of the broadness of the somatic field and the scope of work and practice that people are engaging in to increase their sense of a mind-body connection.


Jennifer Leigh is an accredited Somatic Movement Therapist, a Qualified School Teacher and an experienced Yoga Instructor.  Her doctoral research was a study on children’s perceptions of embodiment. She is currently working as a Research Associate at the University of Kent on a study looking at Costs and Outcomes of Skilled Support for Individuals with Complex Needs and an evaluation of ‘Imagining Autism’, a drama intervention for primary school children with autism.  She also has a killer pair of legs.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Arts of Storytelling and Learning

I recently came across an interview with the US radio and TV host Ira Glass.  He was talking about the art of storytelling, and his basic message was this:

hard work, grit and stick-to-it-ness are needed if you are going to create great work.

Not a radical idea, I know.  Especially in the era of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.  But Glass introduces another element that I've never seen mentioned in the literature of expert performance, and that is TASTE.

Here is what he says:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit."

This sense of frustration will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to learn something.  Especially something complex.

For example, in the last few years I have tried to learn a number of difficult things including golf, sketching, and Italian. Each of these activities had their own challenges.  My main difficulties with Italian were linked my my apparent inability to hear the differences between many of the sounds and 'phonemes' that made up the language.  In my head I was speaking like a character in a Fellini film, whilst to my teachers I sounded like Phil Mitchell in a pizzeria.  With sketching, I had to learn to overcome my tendency to impose my preconceived ideas rather than what I was observing.  Chairs have four legs; faces have two eyes; those are the facts, whichever way they are facing.

And don't even get me started on golf!

Yet, as expertise theory (and common sense) would predict, the more I did these activities, the better I got, more or less.  And the pace of my improvement seemed ti be strongly associated with the quality of support and feedback I received from my teachers and coachers.

Ira Glass' discussion of storytelling is relevant to those interested in learning and expertise because it hints at a principle behind both practice and feedback: taste, or (if you prefer) AESTHETICS.  In other words, movement towards competence or even expertise in these areas is only possible because the learner and the teacher have their senses of aesthetic judgement - some attempts are better than others; some actions are desirable, not just because of the outcome, but because of an intrinsic value; generally speaking, grace, and fluidity and poise are preferable to their opposites.

Aesthetics are STANDARDS.

It seems to me that taste acts as a powerful motivator for both learners and teachers.  Both are inspired by a sense of the way a skill or technique is supposed to be, and - from time to time - their senses coincide!  If we wish to get better at our chosen activity - if we want to bridge the gap between ability and ambition - we need to be clear that we need to do the work.  There are no short cuts.

It is the responsibility of teachers and coaches to make this clear to the learner from the beginning.  Nothing of value is learned easily.

Glass again:

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So practice and feedback are vital elements in the development of expertise.  But both of these, I suggest, assume a sense of taste or aesthetics.  Practice, if it is for any purpose, must have some ambition.  And feedback is always with reference to a standard of performance or imitation.

Knowing helps explain our frustrations as we learn AND teach, and it helps explain why practice and feedback are so important in the first place.

To finish off, he is a recording of Ira Glass himself talking about storytelling, accompanied by some beautiful typography.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the issues raised in this entry.  Criticisms, too!

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Heroes and Zeros: who have been the best and worst Education chiefs in the UK?

The Secretary of State for Education is one of those government positions destined to attract a lot of attention. Holding overall responsibility for the nation's schools and pupils is difficult enough. It is made much more difficult by the evident fact that none of us seem able to agree on the aims, character or organisation of schools, in the first place1 Indeed, whether we need schools, at all!! Which raises some interesting questions: What has been the 'best' Secretary of State? And who has been the worst? In the name of impartiality, I offer no commentary on the candidates (I will almost certainly do this after the poll has closed, as I am only human). If you want to remind yourself of the basic facts, you can go use Wikipedia. Thanks you for your contribution.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Coaches' Cross-Training: 10 steps to becoming a better coach (and human being)

According to Wikipedia ...

Cross-training (also known as circuit training) refers to an athlete training in sports other than the one that athlete competes in with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to neglect the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses.

Why should athletes have all the fun?

Research suggests that coaches tend to rely on a relatively narrow range of professional development practices. It also shows that these practices rarely lead to significant improvement in performance.

So, perhaps we need to try something new ...

Learn something new
. By far the best way to understand your students is to become a student yourself. It doesn't really matter what you learn, although the less 'relevant' the better. Experience being a beginner, and all that it entails.

. There is a huge amount of information available today, and some of it is not completely crazy! The internet, in particular, gives mostly free access to endless books, articles, blogs and newspapers. Quick tip: if you are searching for something wholesome and challenging to read, don't use Google; turn, instead, to its geeky, bookish half-brother Google Scholar ( Your life will never be the same again.

Take time considering your own body. Apart from the obvious benefits of practices like Yoga or Tai Chi, or other 'somatic' methods, these practices encourage attention on the internal experience of the body.  
And the body, after all, is the thing all sports people have in common.

Watch others coach. By all means, watch those who do your sport. When you do that, you pick up tips and ideas from those who have followed - more or less - the same training programme as you. But if you are looking for radically new ideas that force you to rethink your whole philosophy of coaching, you really need to connect with those from completely different backgrounds. For a start, how about one of the following: a golf professional; a PE teacher; a martial arts instructor.

Go to conferences. Sport conferences are a mixed bag. Some are great; others are poor. The best events have inspirational keynotes from leaders in the field, stimulating workshops and seminars, and good food. But even the most desperate affair has one compelling reason to attend: other coaches to talk to. Oh, and the bar.

Keep a journal. In this modern world, it is possible to keep a journal online, and there are some excellent IT programs to help you structure your thoughts, and even remind you to write in the first place. Personally, I prefer old-fashioned paper (Moleskine, to be precise). Either way, there is little doubt that keeping a regular journal helps record and clarify thoughts in way that simple reflection sometimes cannot. As the great philosopher Karl Popper once said, "My pen is cleverer than I am!"

Learn to spot bullshit. Sport, like almost every other of life, is bombarded by bullshit: from special training gizmos, from physio-neuro-psycho-bollocks, to gurus. There are some great books discussing the dangers of bullshit, such as Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, and countless websites [search "skepticism"]. Next time someone claims that a little crystal in a magical wristband improves balance or coordination or 'energy', hit them with one fo the books.

Read business books. Business books have two great virtues. First, they talk about many of the topics that occupy sports coaches. Obviously, some of them talk specifically about coaching, and it is a fascinating exercise to compare the assumptions and practices of sports and business coaches. But there are also books about communication skills, leadership, change, values and vision; all topics of interest to sporty folk. Second, most business books seem to be aimed at a Primary School reading age. They tend to be short, to the point and accessible. Different people seem to have different tastes in these books. My favourites include The One Minute Manager, Influence, and FIsh!

Use social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Google+, and their kin have become enormously popular in recent years, with hundreds of millions of people around the world signing up. Whether or not a 'FB friend' is a real friend or not is an interesting question for late-night discussion (on FB!). But it is difficult to argue that social media offer sports coaches a remarkable access to information and insights from professional colleagues from every corner of the globe.

Learn to drink proper, Italian espresso. This is nothing to do with coaching. It is just one of those things every civilised person needs to learn!

So, what do you think? What would you add to the list? What practices have you found particularly helpful?

Please share your insights.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Baby Plays Ping Pong Like a Pro

This video of a baby table tennis protege is going viral.  But just in case you've missed it ....

Please let me know if you know of any similar remarkable early specialisers.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A couple of great pictures - science and exercise

(Alastair Dryburgh via Daniel Pink)

The first image is a lovely representation of the growing evidence of the value of behavioural prompts for physical activity.

I like the second image partly because it is just funny!  And partly as it hints at a world where the sane and the reasonable cause as much fuss as the crazies.

(thanks to Prof Glynis Murphy, via Dr Jen Leigh)

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Making Sport a Daily Habit: What Motivates Children to Take Part in Sport?

I am really pleased to present a Guest Post from Ed Cope, a specialist researcher in Youth Sport at the University of Berdfordshire in the UK.

Ed's topic is one of perennial interest and importance: children's participation in sport.

Comments and responses to this (and previous) posts are positively encouraged.

In most sport coaching contexts, children can choose whether or not they wish to participate in sport. Therefore, it could be assumed that all children who engage in some form of sport or physical activity do so because they want to. However, not all children take part in sport for the same reasons. A large body of literature exists that documents children’s motivations for taking part in sport. This blog discusses the key findings from the literature that specifically relate to children’s motivations for participating. Furthermore, a number of recommendations will be made, which will enable coaches to deliver more developmentally appropriate coaching practices.

Children engage in sport for a variety of reasons. From comprehensively reviewing the literature, five common themes have consistently emerged. Each of these themes will be briefly discussed in this section.

Perceived competence
Children with a high perceived competence level are much more likely to participate in sport, than children with low competency levels. High competency is achieved when children experience a feeling of success. Alternatively, children’s competency levels decrease when they experience failure. It is often the case that children perceive competence against the level of effort they exert. Therefore, if a child is rewarded for the amount of effort they put in, their competence levels will likely increase.

Fun and enjoyment
Fun and enjoyment has largely been considered the primary motive for why children take part in sport. However, there is no one global definition of fun and enjoyment. According to some researchers, it has been suggested that a number of sources affect what children perceive to be fun and enjoyable. These sources can be grouped into three categories; achievement (skill mastery, perceived competence and physical appearance), social (friendships, social recognition, adult interaction and team interaction), and intrinsic (excitement and energy, flow, movement sensations and good times). It is important to understand what sources affect children’s motivations to participate.

Parents have considerable influence over children’s motivation to take part in sport. In particular, parents can influence their children’s perception of competence through the role they play in their children’s sporting life. The extent, to which parents become involved in their children’s sport, will either promote motivation levels, or decrease them. It has been suggested that over-involved parents who pressure their children to win, have a negative effect on their motivation. At the same time, under-involved parents who show little appreciation of children’s efforts will also have a de-motivating impact on their willingness to maintain participating. It is recommended that parents show care and support, with an emphasis on effort, teamwork and fun.

Learning new skills
Research in swimming and athletic contexts suggest that some children take in sport in order to satisfy their intrinsic motivations of learning new skills. The reasons stated were that children enjoy learning new skills to make them better at the sport they participated in, and because of the inherent challenge it presented. In addition, it has been found that some children also wish to learn new skills to impress coaches, parents and friends/teammates.

Friends and Peers
Although not as significant a motivational factor as some of the other sources that have been discussed, friends and peers do influence children’s motivations to take part in sport. Children cite friends and peers as motivational influences when they are given the opportunity to work together, gain social acceptance, and make friendships. When placed in situations that promote direct competition, many children become de-motivated.

Key points

  • The majority of research, which has studied children’s motivations to participate in sport, has done so from a psychological viewpoint. However, children’s motivations are also influenced by a number of socio-cultural factors (e.g. parents and friends). Considering this, motivation is a context specific phenomenon, as what motivates one child in one context, may not necessarily motivate them in another.
  • Most children are intrinsically motivated to take part in sport (i.e. they participate for reasons such as wanting to learn new skills or because they enjoy participating). Coaches must be aware that they are responsible for creating the coaching environment, with this influencing children’s desire to remain intrinsically motivated. Consequently, if children are to remain motivated, the coaching environment must be aligned with the reasons for children wanting to participate.

  • Coaches, who use more positive behaviours, over more negative behaviours, have been found to maintain and increase the level of children’s motivation. Coaches should minimize their use of negative behaviours, but also be aware that constant delivery of positive behaviours such as general positive feedback will have an adverse effect on children’s motivation.

  • Coaches should look to limit the amount of instruction they give. It has been argued that too much instruction impacts on the ability of children to engage in decision making and problem solving tasks. Instead, an effective coaching strategy is to remain silent for periods of coaching practice, as this allows a coach to observe and reflect on practice. At the same time, it allows children to make their own decisions and work problems out for themselves.

  • Coaches must strive to understand the personal motivations of all of the children they are coaching. As has been highlighted, children have many different motivations for participating.

Further reading

Keegan, R. J., Harwood, C. G., Spray, C. M., & Lavallee, D. E. (2009). A qualitative investigation exploring the motivational climate in early-career sports participants: Coach, parent and peer influences on sport motivation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10, 361-372

McCarthy, P. J., & Jones, M. V. (2007). A Qualitative Study of Sport Enjoyment in the Sampling Years. The Sports Psychologist, 21, 400-416

Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., Barnett, N. P., & Everett, J. J. (1993). Enhancement of Children’s Self-Esteem Through Social Support Training for Youth Sport Coaches. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78 (4), 602-210.

Wall, M., & Côté, J. (2007). Developmental activities  that lead to dropout and investment in sport. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 12(1), 77-87.

Weiss, M. R., & Petlichkoff, L. M. (1989). Children’s Motivation for Participation in and Withdrawal from Sport: Identifying the Missing Links. Paediatric Exercise Science, 1, 195-211.

Weiss, M. R. (1993). Children’s Participation in Physical Activity: Are We Having Fun Yet? Paediatric Exercise Science, 5(3), 205-210.

Ed is currently a full time PhD student at the University of Bedfordshire. His research interests are centred around the pedagogical practices that children's sport coaches employ, and how these impact on children's sporting experiences. Ed is also a practicing children’s sports coach.

Ed can be contacted by email: