By Matt Jay, Performance Manager at EXOS in Shanghai.

CHINA, just a big classroom.

Beginning my professional working career as a high school Science and Physical Development, Health and Physical Education Teacher, (it’s a mouthful, PDHPE for short), organisation, engagement and the art of pedagogy (fancy word for the method and practice of teaching) was thoroughly drilled into me throughout my haze filled university years. Flash forward to my first year in front of a real classroom of 18yr olds, at the ripe age of 22, massively underprepared for the realities of the dynamic and chaotic environment that is teaching, through trial and error I quickly developed an understanding of the importance of classroom engagement, structure and culture for lesson success. To constantly satisfy and secure the attention of my ever growing groups of millennials, my classrooms became places of questioning, purposeful debate and discussion and dynamic interaction. A place where students were challenged and encouraged to question information, not just accept it. To recognise why a certain topic was significant, not just slump in their chairs and go through the motions in a state of docility (A concept in coaching recently discussed in a post on Stuart McMillan’s blog). Mind you, sometimes docility was unavoidable, Geology and Self-Awareness are far from engaging topics for most 15 yr. olds!

Senior students were taught to inquisitively explore, question, critically analyse and investigate information; challenge concepts, offering links to their own knowledge and background to connect the dots and understand the “Why” with appropriate relevance.  Essential to the transfer of learning, and fundamental to deep understanding was the contextualisation of the “Why” with reference to the “How”. At a recent visit to track and field superpower ALTIS for their brilliant coach intern program, Head Coach Dan Pfaff, a Science Teacher in a previous life, mentioned: “The first step in teaching is making the student aware – then guidance through awareness builds confidence and mastery”.

Now, most things Dan Pfaff says are gems, however, this particular comment resonated with me. Upon reflection, was it the development of awareness of process and purpose, acknowledging and developing the “Why” that may have guided many senior students to achieve success in their final school examinations? Had students who fell short at the final hurdle, failed to grasp the concept? Or had I failed to create the individual contextual awareness for them?

After my positive experience at ALTIS and most recently hearing the excellent interview with Kelvin Giles on Rob Pacey’s Podcast, I have been reflecting on my time as an educator and the many existing parallels between Teaching and my role as a Strength and Conditioning coach; mainly, how it has shaped and molded my practice. To me, teaching lies at the heart of all coaching endeavors. In my mind, the two cannot be separated. The quest for excellence and mastery in performance comes from the development and acquisition of environment specific knowledge and physical literacy. Good teaching and coaching go beyond simply instructing students/athletes and provides leadership, growth opportunities and the transfer of knowledge for higher order success.  I strongly believe my time and experience in the classroom has positively shaped many day-to-day coaching interactions and behaviors and have often recommended young exercise/sport science students to consider such a path when forward planning their career trajectory.

As coaches/educators, we understand the requisite to know why we do something, similarly, our athletes require such knowledge to enhance and solidify appreciation of action with purpose. Snapping forward to my current role outside the “traditional” classroom as Performance Manager for EXOS in Shanghai, China; a new cohort of students/athletes present themselves. A dynamic and ever changing landscape in which athletes generally don’t know the “Why” and lack awareness in common areas of physical preparation sometimes taken for granted in Western programs.  Common conversations, albeit in terrible mandarin (on my end!), find myself and colleagues discussing the importance of simple recovery and training practices and their link to higher order outcomes. Remarkably common, athletes have mentioned water will make them fat and as such, reduce intake to appease a technical coach with a definitive body weight goal in mind. Gymnasts may stand in the sun for hours on end before training to reduce body weight or fail to eat in fear of what the scales may read. Coaches promote 3 laps of the track and static stretching immediately prior to explosive sprints, jumps, and throws.

Now, first impressions can impact our thoughts and subsequent actions in a given situation. Arriving in China it has been very easy to judge the system with a Western cap firmly fitted to my head. It is clearly evident training is approached purely from a motor learning standpoint, rather than a physiological or mechanical perspective. Less concern appears to be given to all things beyond the technical skill of the sport. Athlete well-being and basic restorative practices almost appear non-existent. As is often the case, it is our instinct to form first impressions. However, naivety and misconceptions about my new environment could alter my perception and impact my response.  Now two and a half months into my stay, and after a period of purposeful observation, it is clear to me that it may not be a lack of concern for recovery and basic training methods pursue, rather a lack of knowledge and a true disconnect with the “Why” such methods are valuable.  Chinese coaches typically rinse and repeat practices they received as an athlete, and as is often the case, reverting back to what you know and feel comfortable with rather than look uninformed and ill prepared requires less effort and allows a coach to save face, which is of considerable cultural significance here.  Banded around as the most dangerous phrase in coaching “We’ve always done it that way” appears to subconsciously drive many coaching philosophies. Athletes accept this instruction; are easily managed and obedient.  Lacking true understanding of the “why”, athletes are unquestioning, docile, compliant robots whose sport has long become a job, albeit absent of both passion and purpose.

Tasked with physically preparing athletes for National, Professional and Olympic success, foundational to that success is developing a keen awareness of action with links to purpose and outcome. To remove docility, to engage, inform and educate. The opportunity for positive growth and development in the Chinese Athlete and Coach is littered with opportunity. The gym has become the classroom. I am back where I started. This excites me!

Matt Jay

If the classroom has taught me anything, it’s the ability to engage, connect and adapt to dynamic situations. Education has become a focal point of my purpose in China. As previously mentioned, contextualisation of the “Why” with reference to the “How” will assist the transfer of learning from realisation to deep understanding. Athlete and Coach awareness will be the catalyst for improvement in what is already a remarkable training system. The road ahead is undoubtedly an uphill battle; change is never easy. However, battle hardened from the classroom, and inspired by the purposeful and precise application to technical mastery evident in my new athletes, unlocking the “Why” will be the first step toward helping my athletes achieve improved sporting and movement outcomes. As those who have gone before me understand, the Chinese system is firmly entrenched in bygone systems and change is far from accommodated in many circles. However, still very much in the forefront is Dan Pfaff reminding me that “The first step in teaching is making the student aware – then guidance through awareness builds confidence and mastery”.

Wish me luck.