The New Year is a convenient time to make changes big and small. We make resolutions and goals in an attempt to alter the fabric of our lives for the better. Here at the Feedback Loop, we’re going to be altering our content for 2017 (hopefully for the better). We’ll still be bringing you quality blog posts on the art of feedback and reviews on a weekly basis every Tuesday, but there’s going to be more consistency to the material in two important ways.
First, we’re going to have themed content with multiple blog posts focusing on a broad topic. For example, our first theme is one of the fundamental types of feedback: coaching. There will be blog posts related to this topic through the month of March. Second, there will be a stable of columnists who have proven their chops as both writers and feedbackers, with each columnist contributing a handful of blog posts on each topic. For our coaching segment, I’ll be joined by Jacob Milicic and Jenn Scott. We’ll still have other content as well; Joe Wiesenberg’s Feedback will be a regular monthly feature, and we’ll have guest posts from time to time, and who knows, you may see those guest authors evolve into future columnists. Today, I’m going to kick off our themed topic with an introduction to the coaching process.
In judging, we don’t have coaches in the traditional sports sense, a non-player who provides guidance and direction to the team. Instead we have mentors. Mentors are not quite the same as coaches, nor are they teachers, another prevalent coaching relationship in our culture. Coaches and teachers tend to be older than their charges, sometimes by an entire generation or more. As a result, those relationships adhere to a strict hierarchical structure where the coach is the boss. Mentors are much more our peers, possibly older and wiser, but more often they’ve just been doing this longer and thus have more experience at it. Among Magic Judges, I find that I tend to be on the older end of the spectrum both in real age and in the number of years I’ve been doing this. But those factors aren’t hard barriers to forming a coaching relationship. Nor is skill.
Think about the relationship between Michael Jordan, the best basketball player in history, and his coach on the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, also regarded as the best coach in NBA history. Jackson was not a better basketball player than Jordan, and yet he coached him. This points to something fundamentally important about coaching that people need to remember: you’re never too good to be coached.
You’re never too good to be coached.
A coach isn’t necessarily better at a thing than the person being coached, but they provide a solid outside perspective that helps the subject see their own strengths and weaknesses and guides them in finding a way to improve. This principle holds true for mentoring relationships in judging, and it’s probably much easier to see how it can be possible as we have such diverse sets of skills in rules knowledge, deck check ability, logistics, feedback, and more.
This is why I push back on the culture of identifying too strongly with our levels in the Judge Program (whenever I publish staff schedules for events that I head judge, I leave levels off). There’s no such thing as a “lowly Level 1” in my eyes, as every judge has the capabilities to be a good coach for someone else in the right field. Levels are a shortcut to describe broad strokes of skills, but they don’t tell us much about the fine print.
If we’re all going to be coaches, then it’s important for us to understand what that means. Here’s a rough outline of how a coach can help his or her subject (which I call “the player” because I’m a creature of habit).
Understand the desired outcome
This doesn’t necessarily need to happen at the outset, but it’s important to establish this understanding between the coach and the player. What is the player’s goal? Knowing this will allow the coach to tailor their feedback towards that goal.
For example, if I’m shadowing a judge on a ruling, there are a couple of things that I could pay attention to:
- Is the ruling accurate?
- Is the delivery good?
- Does the judge’s body language and posture convey confidence?
- How does the judge interact with the players?
Among these things, I can’t realistically watch for them all at once (at least per ruling). Narrowing the scope helps refine the coach’s eye.
Observe the behavior
In sports, coaches watch their players during practice, whether it’s full scrimmages or a repetitive drill like batting practice. A bit of assessment happens here as the coach will break down the performance into component sections of good and bad. Observing behavior again and again can reveal patterns that a single observation couldn’t, or might show that an early observation was just a fluke that doesn’t require follow-up coaching.
As I said, understanding what the player wants to improve upon helps the coach to make more relevant observations. Many judges ask for feedback, but rarely do they narrow their scope on what they want feedback on, and for a coach it can be intimidating to try to figure out some feedback in the dark.
Highlight the good behavior
It’s important to isolate the good parts of the behavior and highlight it as desirable. If you’re doing something good, you want to keep doing it. This is an area of micro-coaching that we often miss out on in judging because we’re so focused on critical feedback. In sports, coaches are constantly praising small actions by their players, especially in the face of a temporary failure. For example, after a basketball player misses a shot, a coach might still praise the player’s aggressiveness, or the team’s ball movement that led to the shot. This is both a reminder to not become too results-oriented, but also to reinforce the good behavior that led up to the shot.
The next time you see strong, positive behavior from another judge, think about going out of your way to praise it to reinforce that behavior. I’ve commented in the past about how the Exemplar Program is a good example of this, but there are plenty of things that judges do that aren’t necessarily “exemplary” that deserve highlighting nonetheless.
Identify the bad behavior
Yes, this needs to happen as well, since the primary goal of coaching is improvement, and you can’t do that if you don’t get rid of the bad behaviors. Framing feedback as coaching can help reduce some of the stigma that judges feel about being overly harsh with their criticism. Make sure to understand, and to make the subject of your feedback understand that the end goal is improvement. That should make it easier for both parties to understand and accept the need for the feedback.
One important thing about coaching to correct bad behavior is to point it out when it happens (within reason). I actually had a conversation with fellow Feedback Loop columnist Jacob Milicic about this. He provided me with some coaching feedback about the way I positioned my body during a conversation on the floor, and in particular the way I would shift positions from time to time was distracting to him.
When he pointed this out to me a week after the event, I wasn’t sure why I kept moving. I speculated that it could have been because I was trying to keep my eye on a player’s match since I wanted to talk to him after he was done playing, or that I was moving to see how much time was left in the round. Unfortunately, so far after the actions in question, I just couldn’t remember what was going through my head, if anything. It’s also possible that I’m just not comfortable standing still for too long.
Had Jacob committed to coaching me in the moment, he could have stopped me as soon as I moved and asked “Hey, why did you just shift positions like that? It’s kind of distracting to talk to you when you do that.” My answer to his question could have provided me with a solid roadmap to improvement in this.
Rinse, repeat, mark improvement
Part of the coaching process is to repeat parts of the above as necessary. For example, if a coach identifies a flaw in a player’s approach, they now turn to watching for that in future iterations of observation. If the behavior no longer persists, calling that out is important for helping the player to recognize the changes and making sure they stick. If the behavior does persist, either partially or entirely, it’s important to call it out and try to identify why it keeps happening. Sometimes habits are hard to break and it could take repeated efforts to purge a particular behavior.
This is actually one of the things about coaching that gets lost in the translation to our mentoring relationships in the Judge Program. Feedback among judges tends to be random and scattershot. I personally love to work with the same judges over and over again (and to review them over and over again) to track behavior, both good and bad, and to see the improvement. When’s the last time you wrote multiple reviews for the same judge?
Chart a path forward (Where do we go from here)
A coach’s job is never done. There’s no such thing as a perfect sportsball player, and there’s no such thing as a perfect Magic Judge. Sometimes a coach’s most important job is to maintain the status quo by preventing a degradation of skills and abilities through proper training. I find this to be an apropo comparison for judging where we often train in rules and policy knowledge in order to reach a peak to pass an exam, but lose focus on the maintenance of that knowledge.
It’s also important to realize that some improvements build upon each other. When I made that list of things to observe in a judge ruling, I mentioned that it’s hard to watch for all of them at once. Maybe after making one improvement, it’s time to focus on another. In the case of something like rules knowledge, there are paths of knowledge that chain from one to another, sometimes literally in rule number order.
As for where this blog goes from here, next week Jacob Milicic will go into depth about how best to coach someone whom you consider to be a mentor to you. As this is one of the places where the paradigm of coaching breaks down the most between sports and judging, I’m looking forward to Jacob’s views on this matter.