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Mar 07 Coaching the Human Animal

Jan. 20, 2012, 3:21 p.m. (ET)

An advance heads up to start this blog, it is going to cost you the price of buying a movie, which you likely have not seen and which has become one of my favorite movies ever – documentary really – as it teaches huge lessons to all those wanting to be a better coach, teacher, or parent…so you have been forewarned.

With grandparents and a father who spent their lives in medicine – my grandfather John Kessel even being awarded the French Legion of Honor for his work in removing the elephantiasis disease from the South Pacific – I found myself taking many science classes in college. Somewhere along the way, my path to being another doctor in the family met with the sport of volleyball, both coaching and playing from the start. I still study biology, as it is the study of life – and I would like to say I still am a doctor of sorts – giving out prescriptions to solve unhealthy individual and team problems.  More importantly though, as a teacher, I continue to look at ways to teach more efficiently and joyfully. 

It is with this background in mind that I took Psych 101, and trained my rat in a Skinner box to roll a marble, run through a hoop, and pull a rod into the box. That I also trained it to “set” that same marble, and almost got an “F” for being too far out of the box, so to speak, taught me several lessons – the biggest one being the power of positive and intermittent reinforcement.  I will never forget the joy my rat had in seeing me, and repetitively performing the routine, without getting a reward every time. I will also never forget the “hiss” of a classmate’s rat which was taught by punishment, and the way his rat only performed with the threat, or application, of punishment.  I also can say I did not need thick gloves to handle my rat, as someone else needed…

You see, as much as I know the science shows teaching a motor skill to a human is best done by showing, and not telling, or if you are telling, to keep it simple, as words have little meaning to beginners in learning a new motor skill – I always marvel at what great animal trainers do without those tools in their teaching options.  I mean, when you train a dolphin, or seal, or any of the large predators of the world – starting with lions and  tigers and bears – OH MY! - to do those amazing tricks, do they show the animals what they want to have happen? Nope. Do they explain or tell the animal what they want to have happen? Nope.  Yet, through shaping and positive reinforcement, they teach these athletes of the animal world to perform remarkable and quite complex motor programs.

One of the big take aways from studying all these trainers, is that not one used punishment. Perhaps guidance at times with firmness, but never punishment. No wind sprints, no pushups, no conditioning, No yelling at, but certainly yelling for, in the process of learning every increasingly complex skills, and in the case of the at least the aquatic animals, yelling pretty much is a joke anyways.  Let me note here a favorite Mythbuster show “lesson” – that bullets fired from guns of any size, even the huge 50 caliber monsters, can only penetrate the water to a depth of about a yard…so those shots of escaping people swimming with bullets zinging by, are just not real…so good luck with yelling at someone from above the water’s surface…. Then again, if it is an animal, not sure how specific your words can be to get your teaching across – tone of voice perhaps, but words? Nope.

 Working in the Wounded Warrior program has brought me into contact with some other amazing people, and in some cases, their animals. The service dogs of the blind and wheelchair bound veterans are simply remarkable examples of the power of praise and intermittent reward, and not of punishment in any way.  Kevin Stone, 2004 and 08 Paralympian , Army Vet, and one of my teaching partners in Germany this fall for a large Warrior Transition Unit Europe,  has a service dog “Mambo.”  In a recent email Kevin writes  “Okay, I never expected this to happen, I wrote to SMA Chandler III after my clinics at the Valor Games and ask for an official enlistment. it could be that SMA Tilley (Ret) after the Chicago trip remembered an idea I had for Mambo, stemming from a ceremonially bestowed rank of Corporal at Ft. Huachuca. Not only did Sergeant Major of the Army John F Chandler III enlist Mambo via-absente, but the Commanding General of the Army also retired Mambo via-absentee as a Corporal/E4, gave him his coin (I guess we know who the top dog is with the top NCO coin) and presented us both with a letter and a Coin of Excellence from the Adjutant General of the Army's Commanding General Disabilities Agency. SMA Chandler's 1st Sgt Stafford did the all the research, and now the rest is history.

Now THAT is a humbling reality check, to have your dog be pulling rank on you after years of training…. Again, when you talk to all these K-9 specialist and others, you find that the training of these dogs who serve, sniffing out bombs or getting things for their masters, is always done positively, not through punishment…

So en route to working with the kids and coaches on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City this year, I spent the night on a beautiful 400 acre ranch in Las Vegas, NM, owned by my college roommate Brad Turk and his wife Leslie.  They train horses, and that nite, from arrival to the wee hours of the morning, Leslie and I, with Brad, a Physics major throwing in his two cents of the cosmos, exchanged ideas on teaching animals, including human ones. I marveled at the parallel worlds of how she had gone from a trainer using force and punishment, to one using praise, shaping and gentle ways.  On my return, I studied more about training such big animals which you partner in such an intimate way as you ride on their back and literally become one team of two.

This led me to a book by Tom Dorrance –Talks to Horses -  True Unity – willing communication between horses and humans… which led me to the documentary Buck, winner of the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival,  and many other awards.  It is simply a MUST own, to share with parents of your club in a team bonding/learning evening at a qualifier or other overnight trip with your team, or somehow else share and talk about the lessons of great teaching and parenting found throughout the movie.  It has a hard ending too, which you may not want to show younger players in a program, but again, I would chose to do so as there are powerful life lessons even in that one segment.

Here is the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IShjmWYuHZ0

And the DVD cover ….and FYI,  137 of 151 have reviewed it on Amazon with 5 stars….

Buck Dvd Cover

Buck Brannaman was raised by a very abusive father, and then joined a foster home with over 20 other boys, resulting in a wide variety of forms of competition both in and outside the house. (Note – I watched Howdy Doody, Gene Autry, Sky King and other “western/cowboy” shows and have a fine appreciation of a true cowboy’s talents including the use of his rope)  His father had taught him to trick rope – and several points along the way you see him show this closed motor program talent (remember, we can always get to be better at serving, our one and only closed motor program, so I will use trick roping as another example of why/how we can serve even better…), while his foster father taught him to shoe a horse and mend a fence. Then a fellow named Ray Hunt, who learned from Tom Dorrance, taught Buck how to change the way he was teaching horses, and the rest is history of a wonderful example of becoming a better coach… He is a “horse-whisperer” who uses leadership and sensitivity, not punishment to teach.  

You likely do not know that I collect one liners to remind me in just a sentence or so, of key points learned on my journey to being a better teacher, coach and parent. This document is over six pages of single spaced sentences summarizing most of the things I have discovered in over 40 years of coaching.  Below, I will share a short list of those I took from “Buck”… one which the DVD cover notes “There’s no wisdom worth having that isn’t hard won…”  Make sure to also go to the Bonus tracks, as there are some other great stories there worth seeing and hearing, like Betty’s story – let’s do it for the kids….

The biggest challenge of a horseman is to control their own emotions.

You allow a horse to make mistakes, the horse will learn from those ++mistakes no different than a human, but you can’t get them to dread to make mistakes for fear of what is going to happen when he does.

Fine horsemanship – you can discipline and discourage, or discipline and encourage.

Blessed are the flexible, for they will not break.

You gotta quit on a good note, just like the last 2 minutes of a date…the dealbreaker…

Do it with a greater joy, not specializing, by letting dressage horses do cow roping…

Soluitur en modo,   Firmitur en rey  - Gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.

So to all the coaches, parents, players and club directors who are helping USA Volleyball grow the game, thank you.  Somehow we must stop the tradition of using punishment as a viable way to get our players and others to learn to love the game.  It does not match up to the principles of good teaching, nor the laws of learning, as any effective animal trainer, like Buck, can attest to.  If you have any examples of great, positive teaching, please feel free to share it in the comments below or email me at john.kessel@usav.org. Best wishes on and off the court as this season progresses.

Comments
The following comments were made on our previous web platform and have been transferred here to maintain the historical record.

On January 24, 2012 Wes wrote

Coach Carter is another great movie. I feel inspired to be a better coach every time I watch it.

On February 01, 2012 Julie Matthews wrote

Beautifully written. I'm adding "Buck" to my list of movies to see! Julie

On February 20, 2012 Mike Christie wrote

I agree that punishment or motivating by fear is not the best way to coach players although I believe most coaches do it because that is the way they were coached. I often find players struggle with confidence and are afraid to make mistakes which just leads to paralysis and more mistakes. I try to avoid punishment at all time. The only time I struggle with this is when I believe that my team is not focused or are not trying their hardest. How does one deal with their team in a positive manner in this situation? Any advice would be appreciated.

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