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Andy Grant
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Coaching Skills

Develop Your Coaching: Ten Ways to Solve Puzzles and Mysteries

Practical problem-solving guidance for coaches, based on a number of potential ‘real life’ scenarios

Why do coaches need to solve puzzles and mysteries? What is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery? And why does any of this matter to you, the coach?

In his collection of short stories ‘What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures’, Malcolm Gladwell referenced Gregory Treverton, a US national security expert, who made the distinction: “A puzzle has a clearly defined end result. It is a puzzle only because part(s) of the information is not available. It can be solved providing all the relevant information is made available.”

A mystery does not have a clear, definite answer. It’s not about the lack of information but it’s about making sense of it. Solving mysteries requires judgements and the assessment of uncertainty. You attempt to solve a mystery through using professional judgment to determine the most probable outcome in a given situation. 

Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions, mysteries often don’t. In very simple terms, puzzle solving may be seen as the science of coaching while solving a mystery is the art of coaching.

Five ways to improve puzzle solving ability

  1. Develop a wide range of both sport-specific and generic knowledge. This might involve attending courses and workshops but also gaining knowledge from less formal sources, such as the blogs available on the internet. Challenge yourself to read an article that isn’t linked to your sport, such as a paper from an academic journal. It may not have an immediate impact, but can prove useful at a later stage when a puzzle needs solving.
  2. Collect data. How much and what type will depend on the potential help you have available. If you are lucky to work in a well-resourced club or coaching environment, then you can draw on specialists such as a performance analyst, physiotherapist or sport scientist. If you don’t have this kind of network, you can still gather data. For example, you could ask a parent to shoot footage of performance on a camera, smart phone or tablet. You could also ask parents to count the frequency of one element of performance - successful passes, number of steals or interceptions or successful drop shots, for example.
  3. Take a systematic approach to solving the puzzle. That is, go through a checklist of the knowledge areas including tactical, technical, physical, mental, lifestyle and social to identity possible solutions.
  4. Establish a network of coaching support to share thoughts and ideas. Puzzle-solving is most effective when there is a range of informed views being shared.
  5. Find information from a range of sources. For example, asking parents for their views, watching players interacting with each other or finding out when significant life events may be occurring for your athlete.

A number of excellent problem solving examples are provided by the famous Liverpool FC Boot Room. Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley et al were systematic in getting to the root of problems, eliminating possible solutions one at a time.

For example, one time they traced a recurring knee injury to goalkeeper Ray Clemence to using the heavy clutch on his new Ford Capri (it was the 70s, remember).

Another time a succession of poor results in matches in London was found to be due to travelling by train in the afternoon, and eating dinner too late at night. One rearranged travel schedule later and the puzzle was solved. 

Five ways to improve mystery solving ability

  1. Use your judgement to assess scenarios that may come up in competition. This will provide your players/athlete with a strategy to help them achieve success. Try to go through a range of ‘what if’ scenarios. A great example is provided by Sir Clive Woodward. He and his coaching staff would talk through a number of potential scenarios, such as being down by 5 points whilst reduced to 14 players with 8min to go and you have a penalty kick at goal, and so on. The outcomes are uncertain, the behaviour of the opposition can’t be known with certainty, and by going through this process they can attempt find the best possible solution for each scenario and solve the mystery.
  2. Have knowledge of the personalities and inter-personal relationships of the people surrounding your coach-athlete(s) relationship. Being able to accurately judge their likely behaviour and actions in different situations is important in mystery-solving. Make a commitment to get to know your athlete(s), their parents, the other coaches and staff in your club and any others.
  3. Reflect and self-evaluate on the success or failure of previous solutions to mysteries. You will enhance your judgement and develop a bank of probable outcomes in a given situation. Try to keep a logbook of all your coaching interventions – eg phone call with a parent, dialogue with other coaches, verbal instructions you provided during competition - with a self-evaluation of the outcome. The more of these you encounter, the more accurate judgements you will make in the future. And if you don’t have time to write, make a voice recording - most smart phones will allow you to record your dialogue.
  4. Use a mentor to improve your mystery-solving skills.  An experienced mentor can help you develop your ability to size up a situation, to make an accurate assessment of what is happening and what is likely to happen.
  5. Spend time mystery-solving with other coaches. Add some structure to your post-training cuppa by discussing issues and coming up with solutions.

Puzzle and mystery scenarios

So how equipped are you as a coach to solve puzzles and mysteries? You can try these scenarios to test yourself. Suggested solutions are provided at the end.

Scenario 1
The performance analyst has provided you with the match data. She highlights that in the last few matches your most creative attacking player has a large drop in number of sprints in the last 15mins of a match (more than would be expected). This has coincided with the team’s loss of form. Fitness test results provided by the sport scientist don’t indicate any loss in physical capability.

Is this a puzzle or a mystery? What actions would you take?

Scenario 2
You have upped the intensity of the training for your under-14 rowing squad in the run-up to the regional championships. Most have coped well with the change but one of them struggles for consistency. After a good session, it is usually followed by a poor performance at the next one.  

Is this a puzzle or a mystery? What action would you take?

Scenario 3
You coach a College cross-country team. For the upcoming national championships you need to develop a race-plan for your number one athlete. You have collected information on the course, the weather forecast, running conditions, the opponents and every other scrap of detail required. Your athlete is looking for clear leadership from you and the race-plan is of paramount importance.

Is this a puzzle or a mystery? What action would you take?

Scenario 4
One of your best players frequently turns up late for training. You have a code of conduct that highlights the importance of time-keeping and the other players adhere to it. However, you also know that this young player lacks the parental support to get him to sessions that the other players have. Playing for your team is one of the best ways to keep him from going down a wrong path in his life.

Is this a puzzle or a mystery? What action would you take?

If you can solve these scenarios when faced with them in real life, then you have developed your coaching skill for solving puzzles and mysteries.

Suggested solutions

There are no definite right or wrong answers that can be taken from these brief scenarios, but they are designed to get you thinking.

You could see Scenario 1 as a mystery. You have an abundance of data but it isn’t solving the problem. How it is being interpreted may be the issue. Have you looked at the overall team performance during the last 15 mins? Is she sprinting less because she is receiving less passes. Or more passes to her feet and not space? Or is she dropping deep to help the defence? You have the information but you need to use your judgement to solve the mystery.

Alternatively, you may see it as a puzzle and that you are still missing information. For example, would the team psychologist identify a loss of confidence, or a loss of focus, possibly due to off-field issues? In this case you may solve scenario one as a puzzle.

I would see scanario 2 as a puzzle. There is a lot of information you can find to solve this issue and not just second-guess a solution to a mystery.

For example, have you checked his recovery strategy in terms of rest, recovery and diet? Have you monitored changes in height and weight as he may be going through a growth-spurt stage and needs less intensive training and more recovery? Or is he the last one to go through the maturation stage and the physically demanding session takes more out of him than the others. There are steps that can be taken to solve this puzzle.

Scenario 3 should be seen as a mystery. You have done as much information collecting as possible but now you need to use this data to develop solutions to a mystery. You can use your judgement to determine what may happen, but you can never be certain.

The behaviour and actions of the other runners will remain unpredictable. Therefore, you need a race-plan with several options that will include what to do if a situation arises, for example a small group lead a breakaway earlier than expected or the main rival doesn’t front-run but stays on your shoulder for most of the race.

If faced with scenario 4, I would start by looking at it as a puzzle. Have you or another club official sat down with him and his parents to find out the reasons for not arriving on time? Look at the logistics involved in him getting to training. What public transport is available? Can you arrange that he gets a lift from another parent? If this isn’t possible and he will always be late you are now in the realms of mystery-solving.

If you let him continue to play matches without any consequence, how will this affect him and how will the other players and their parents respond to this? You need to have strong intuition on how the others will react if they think you are showing favouritism.

Do you have a meeting with the other players and parents and explain the situation? If you do, are you breaching confidentiality by talking about his personal situation? Or do you kick him off the team for not adhering to the code of conduct? Rules are there for a reason after all. This is a tough one and the right solution will vary depending on each individual situation.

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Andy Grant