Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What do you do when you're under pressure?

Wandering around a certain online bookshop, I found myself scanning a book about performing under pressure. I haven't decided whether I want to read it yet or not, but it's sure to show up on my "recently viewed" items for a while, so I can always go back for it. I thought it might be interesting from a tennis playing perspective and from a therapy point of view too. The later because as a therapist you feel the pressure to diagnose a problem and find a solution when a client presents with an issue.

Everybody knows that pressure impacts performance. Some people seem to deal with it far better than others, but no one is immune to the effects pressure has on our ability to do whatever it is we are trying to do. In fact the evidence apparently suggests that everyone performs worse under pressure than they would normally be able to do.

If you play sport competitively then this will not be news to you. )Neither will it be news if you spend some of your time doing presentations of any sort, or leading meetings, organisations or working to a deadline.) If that sport is a solitary activity like tennis or golf, then you are quite alone with the pressure.

So how do you cope? It's always struck me that you need a strategy. I was talking to a tennis friend some time ago, and they were quite surprised that I said that every time I prepare to serve or receive on the court, I do so with a plan in mind. I might not execute the plan, but at least I have one! The plan might be simple: get the ball in play, or it might be a little more detailed: first serve wide, second shot cross court to the other side third shot down the line to finish. Whatever it is, there's always something I'm going to try to make happen. Doing this doesn't make me play any better (sadly) but sometimes it stops me trying too hard or trying to hit the high risk shot when it's not necessary.

So what might a strategy for coping under pressure look like?

In the book I was scanning there were a series of chapter headings that I suspect are the authors' distilled wisdom on the matter.

  • Confidence
  • Optimism
  • Tenacity
  • Enthusiasm
Now, I haven't read the book, but these four words seem to form an interesting strategy. How would you turn them into a plan? It strikes me that it might boil down to a simple approach that starts with a basic assumption that there is no reason at all that your plan shouldn't work. Normally we're beset by doubts about the plan we have. We see all the things that could go wrong and almost expect at leafs one of those things to occur. If you were to stand by the tee on a golf course that requires you first shot to avoid a lake on the left side of the fairway, you'd probably see a lot of shots veer sharply to the left and disappear below a ripple of water. 

At this point you'll probably hear the unfortunate golfer declare, "I knew that would happen,"  rather than, "I didn't expect that!" The point is simple, we tend to expect the worst outcome rather than the best. Perhaps "confidence" is about setting your mind on your ability to achieve the best outcome. If you can't imagine yourself hitting the best outcome target, then look for a next best alternative rather than the worst case scenario. For example, it's 30-40 and you're serving. What's your plan? My best outcome plan would be a wide sliced serve taking my opponent right out of court and giving me an easy second shot into an open court. But what if I've missed the last 3 or 4 wide serves? If I can't imagine myself hitting that wide serve I might go for a body serve instead. On the other hand, I might still go for the wide serve because I know I can do it and when I do it right it's a very good serve indeed!

I guess this is where optimism kicks in. Confidence assures me that I can do this because I know my abilities, optimism encourages me because it expects the best outcome. Tenacity and enthusiasm suggest something about holding onto the self-belief that comes from confidence, even if the plan doesn't work this time. I'm not quite sure what I understand enthusiasm to be in the context, I'll have to read the book to find out!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A year with Polar Loop

I've had my Polar Loop for almost a year now (it was a Christmas present last year), and I've worn it almost every day since then. Accepting that these fitness monitoring bands are more about trends that truly accurate raw data, it still makes interesting reading to look at the numbers it produces.

I have my Loop set set to a very active day that would normally take about 1.5 hours of running or similar high intensity effort to hit the 100% target activity level. Given the amount of time I spend on a tennis court, this isn't usually problem, and as some of you know, I often hit 300% on my big training day on Friday each week.

Anyway, I had a quick look at the numbers for 2015 which showed an average monthly amount of activity as follows:

Total time spent being active: 7 days (i.e. 168 hours of activity a month)

Total steps recorded: 429026 (this is all movement converted to steps)

Distanced covered: 326Km

Kcal burned: 88127 (that's around 3000/day)

Those are pretty impressive numbers given that I don't go out of my way to exercise for the most part except the occasional swim, walk or short run when I'm not playing tennis.

I wouldn't want to use this information to plan my diet, but it does give some indication of my activity levels and why I occasionally feel a certain lack of energy when I get to my last coaching session on a Friday evening and find myself ready to flop onto the sofa when we get home after the weekly visit to the supermarket after finishing on court. Imagine what an 8 hour day on court might look like!!

I'm not convinced to Kcal number is accurate because I'm sure I don't eat that much on a typical day. In fact I know I don;t because I've used an app to measure that and it doesn't come near 3000.

I suppose the point is this: if you find collecting such data motivating or at the very least rather entertaining and interesting, and if you understand that it's not a precise measure, then you might find it helpful to wear a device. Having done the data collecting thing a few times using a pedometer and now the Loop, I still find myself intrigued by how the numbers build up and what they might actually be telling me.

Mind you, how loose the jeans are getting is also a pretty good indicator that something's happening!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Will the Davis Cup inspire people to play tennis?

After Team GB triumped in the Davis Cup final a few hours ago, John Lloyd made the comment that, "We have to use this success to inspire people to play tennis." I don't suppose many involved in tennis would disagree, save a few die hard club members who would prefer their regular Sunday four were not disturbed by an influx of new players making too much noise and ignoring the etiquette of the club rules.

The question is how do you turn this success into greater participation? The Olympic Legacy is struggling to inspire more people to take regular exercise let alone take up a sport. I don't hold out much hope that this weekend's tennis will produce a flurry of action of the courts in the middle of winter, and by the time Spring come around, it might have been superseded by something else.

That's not to say it's all doom and gloom, but things have to be reimagined and there has to be some investment from somewhere in the kind of facilities that will make tennis accessible and enjoyable and at the right sort of cost for a wide range of people.

Tennis is a sport you  can play all year round. You can play indoors as well as outdoors. However, it is treated in schools, or so it seems, as primarily an outdoor, summer sport. And that presupposes that schools have tennis courts and coaching available. In my local area only one of the senior schools has tennis courts, and they are currently used as overflow parking! Primary schools have no facilities for tennis.

If you want to play indoors then you need to join a local health club that has courts, and they usually add a premium to your membership if you want access to racket sports. The only other indoor facility I know of locally is 30-40 minutes drive away, cost £20 per hour to hire a court and you are limited to an hour only. Most 3 set matches take around 1.25-1.5 hours to play. Imagine the frustration of constantly running out of time to finish your match! And, then there's the cost of coaching. Imagine if you as a coach have to hire the court at £20 an hour. That's going to make your lesson at least £40. That's a big financial commitment for a parent wanting lessons for their child.

It might be nice to cart the Davis Cup around the country stopping off at schools and tennis centres, but unless the LTA starts to invest in local park courts and community facilities, I can't see how we could sustain any interest and enthusiasm over the long term. Maybe instead of charging clubs hundreds of pounds in membership fees, the central organisation could channel some of that money into getting more community initiatives up and running.

Of course it's not just about money. I have two courts in my local park. They need a good clean, but they're playable. The Sports Club with which I'm involved through rugby has just refurbished two courts. It could have been three had the LTA offered a grant rather than a loan. The Health Club were I do some coaching has some unused outdoor courts that could be repaired, possibly even be brought indoors if there was a partnership between the club and the LTA in some way. All this would take money, but it also needs coaches and volunteers to help manage and run imaginative programmes. A shiny trophy on the back of a bus might inspire but it won't sustain.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I came to tennis late in life and love playing and I love coaching. There are plenty of more experienced folk out there who have spent far longer in tennis that I. I just hope someone takes the time to ask them how we can move forward and get parents and kids to take up the game.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Rugby, referees, rules and reviews

So the inquest into Northern Hemisphere rugby has begun alongside varying degrees of outrage over last minute refereeing decisions. There had to be one, or in this case at least two, controversial moments before the final whistle of the weekend.

To be honest, Gavin Hastings comments about the way the referee sprinted from the field were the most telling. I've played, watched and spent a fair amount of time on the touchline and, at the end of the game no matter how the players might feel about the officials, they have always shaken hands. So it was a surprise that he left as he did. As to the two notable moments of controversy, the yellow card for a deliberate knock-on is really not that controversial, no matter what I've heard some  commentators say. Unless the rules have changed significantly, if you go for an interception with one hand you are going to be judged to have not tried to catch the ball. It may be instinctive, but until they change the definition it will almost always be seen as deliberate.

As to the penalty. TV replays in high definition are all well and good, but we all know that the referee has to make a call based on what he sees. It's been splashed all over the media that the rules don't allow a referral to the TMO, so technically there's no argument for it. At the beginning of the tournament there was a lot of moaning about overuse of the TMO, and there have been times when referees have appeared to be over-cautious about decisions. You simply can't win. And just to clarify, as far as I'm aware, the referee had to decide whether he thought the Australian player had tried to play the ball or not. If it hits him from the Scotland knock-on then the player who picked up the ball is still offside. If he plays the ball intentionally, then the player is not offside. Would you have been able to judge that in the split second available? I think that's why the players would feel robbed, but ultimately accepting of the decision. On of the things that you notice in rugby is that referees generally are willing to explain their decisions and tell players what they saw.

But what about Northern Hemisphere rugby then? There will lots of talk no doubt about looking to the South to learn lessons, there will be talk about coaches and conditions, skills and the number of games played. I don't know what the answer is, but a careful look at Argentina might not be a bad place to start. I wonder how different it might have been had they been included in the Six Nations rather than the Rugby Championship? Watching them against Ireland they seemed to look for space at every opportunity but not carelessly. They were still massively competitive up front, but they seemed to have learnt how to play rugby across the full width of the pitch. A lot of this has probably been learnt from playing the likes if of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa on a regular basis.

The thing that has once again marked out the best teams from the others has been the speed the ball is recycled, the way the least number of players needed at the break down commit, and the width of the game. By contrast, the likes of England were slow and static, with little imagination. They simply weren't good enough.

Going on this World Cup, the Six Nations could be very interesting. A resurgent Scotland could be a real threat to Wales and Ireland, and England, unless things change dramatically, could be struggling if they are not careful.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Where now for England Rugby?

No doubt the papers will be full of analysis of England's failure to qualify for the knock-out phase of the Rugby World Cup. There have already been some lengthy interviews with much hand wringing and talk of new lows in the aftermath of losing to Australia on Saturday evening. But let's get a bit of perspective here.

Firstly, it is only a game. Yes it's disappointing, but it's not a disaster. Australia were a far better team, more clinical in attack and dominating at the breakdown and set piece. It's hard to argue with their victory. Secondly, Wales did a fantastic job of staying in the game the previous week, pushing England into errors and eventually getting ahead and holding on to the lead. The way they defended the rolling maul in the last minute was a lesson in getting yourself organised when you know what's coming!

As for all the questions about the decision not to kick the penalty, I actually think it was a courageous choice that didn't work out rather than simply the wrong choice. I think England should be praised for putting it all on the line and Wales should get credit for defending the play in the way they did.

We all knew going into this tournament that the group stage was going to end in disappointment for one the top five teams in the competition. It happens to be England. It's tough, but there it is. Other big teams have suffered in the past. Wales themselves know only too well how it feels to go out in the group stages ('91, '95 and '07). Nothing is guaranteed. Just because we happen to be the host nation is rather less important.

I hope that any review is not a search for someone to blame and if Stuart Lancaster is to be replaced, then I hope this is done with dignity, a proper appreciation for what he's achieved, and without a sense of panic.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Bouncers at the barn door!

There's been a conversation happening on our local section of Streetlife that brought a smile to my face, and made Anne laugh, all about free range eggs. It began innocently enough with someone posting a perfectly reasonable request for any information about where they might be able to buy free range eggs locally. There was mention of a farm that once was known to sell eggs, and there was even assurances made that hens do indeed continue to lay eggs during the winter, but not as many as during the summer apparently.

And then it happened.

Someone had the audacity to mention that they got their fresh eggs from the supermarket. This they considered much safer because these eggs were stamped, unlike the local produce. That elicited the following response:

Big fresh eggs does not mean that they are free range. A lot of commercially raised "free range" eggs are in reality barn eggs with openings onto a yard. These openings are usually guarded  by chickens high up on the pecking order. Other chickens are not allowed out. If you value the welfare of these birds, you will look for small producers.
Now I must say I've never seen an egg with an opening onto a yard, but the scarier image is that of the chicken bouncers controlling access to and from the yard! I can see them now in their black, somewhat tight and ill-fitting suits and their sunglasses blocking the path of helpless hens just wanting to pop outside for a roan around the farmyard! "Sorry miss, but you can't go out there, is far too dangerous for the likes of you. Better stay inside where it's safe."

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

High Tech Tennis

I've been loaned this book (High Tech Tennis) by Jack Groppel, and I'm really rather enjoying the read. It combines two of my favourite subject: tennis and biomechanics! I'm five chapters in, and although the first two were useful, it's at chapter 3 that it starts to get interesting. At least for me.

Chapter 3 is all about footwork. You can't overstate the importance of footwork in tennis. In fact you can argue that if you're going to build a tennis player, the place to start is with footwork, then bodywork and finally racket work. Think about it for a moment. The last thing you do is hit the ball, the first thing you do is move into position to hit it. It's a simple principle, if you can't get in the right position to hit the ball, it really doesn't matter how good your stroke mechanics are, you're not going to make the shot. Footwork is crucial. Reading through this chapter, and the next one on power and control, just makes me want to practise more! The problem is, it's hard to find anyone who wants to practice.

One of the interesting things in the chapter on footwork is the way the drills are organised. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a drill, it's simply a pattern of activities repeated over and over again. For example, you might do a forehand drill where you hit cross court to a target zone and keep going until you make 100 shots in the target (or until you need oxygen!). What is interesting about the footwork drills is that they are done based on the average length of a rally with rest periods that reflect the average time between rallies and also average length of the changeover. So, for example, you might do one drill repeated 5 times for 10 secs for each cycle with 15 secs rest between the cycles. That simulates a typical game. I'd never really considered planning drills in that way. I could probably run 5k in 30 minutes, but you simply don't run like that on a tennis court. On the other hand, doing explosive movements with short recovery periods between is typical of tennis.

When I'm watching the rugby players at the club train, I'm often wondering why the backs and forwards are doing the same things. I can understand doing certain things the same, but forwards generally don't sprint the same distances backs run, so why would you train the same way?

Forwards are most often involved in rucks, scrums and mauls. They have to learn to pick the ball up off the floor and then run short distances with it. If they're not running with the ball they need to get back to their feet and follow the player with the ball to the next ruck or maul. Backs generally receive the ball through the hands and already running when they do. Good training mixes these things up but also focuses them so that players can build their skills.

But this book is about tennis not rugby, so I'll stop digressing and make one last observation form the book that caught my eye. In the footwork chapter there's a great picture of Jennifer Capriati setting up for a backhand. It's a great picture because you can clearly see how the weight transfers and takes her forward into the shot. Oh to be able to do that consistently!

And the best quote from the book so far? Well that has to be the description of what to do when the ball is coming straight at you. Are there complicated movements to make, or detailed descriptions of when to take the racket back? No. The answer is simple. When the ball comes straight at you: Get out of the way!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Building nuclear power stations is not the best solution

Listening to George Osborne you might be wondering why we haven't been building nuclear power stations on a regular basis for the last 40 years. His declaration that the new station to be built with Chinese investment, underwritten by UK taxpayers of course (we wouldn't want anyone taking a financial risk without a taxpayer bailout clause now would we), would produce clean energy is nay part of the story.

While it's true that a nuclear station does not produce greenhouse gases, they do produce waste that takes a long time to become safe. We have to store it in steel containers, in water before we encase it in concrete and bury it somewhere. Okay, there are probably a few more options, but don't be fooled, radioactive waste takes a long, long time to become safe. In some cases we're talking about not just a decade or two but several millennia. 250 millennia in at least one case before it become half as dangerous as it is now.

So while there are no CO2 emissions and other nasties being pumped into the atmosphere, don't think it's all plain sailing when it comes to nuclear power. There is a price to pay. Nuclear power is no panacea to solve our energy needs. We need some joined up thinking. Renewables have to be part of that plan, and a big part of the plan. I know there are issues with the costs of producing energy from renewable sources, but which would you prefer, cheap energy that has a lasting legacy in the environment, or the development of an energy strategy that will use a wide variety of generating programmes?

At university, all those years ago (next year it will be 40 years since I started my degree in Chemistry and environmental Science) a friend of mine had a T-shirt carrying a simple message: The only safe fast breeder is a rabbit. I'm not sure if today's nuclear station fall into the fast breeder category or not, but the message might still have a degree of pertinence.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Marginal Gains

If you have any connection with sport, even as a casual observer, you have probably heard about the principle of marginal gains. Dave Brailsford, formerly head of GB Cycling, talks about the aggregation of marginal gains. In other words, lots of small gains add up to make a big difference.

Of course this thinking isn't limited to sport, but is possibly most easily explored and understood in a sporting context where improvement is easier to see. On the hand I suspect it is easily transferrable to industry, work, lifestyle and anything else you might want to consider.

For me, I'd like to apply it more stringently to a number of things, not least if which is improving my tennis so that I can actually get through the first round of more tournaments! But I think that with a bit of thought I can apply all the principles to a whole lot of things, including improving my coaching, being better organised, becoming a better therapist, etc.

But where do you start? Well obviously you ned a plan, but before a plan you need to change the way you think about the stuff you are wanting to improve. It's no use saying I ought to do better, or I could do with losing some weight, or I'd like to be a better golfer but... You have to start from the principle that you will make changes.

An article I read recently talked about having a "Marginal gains mindset" defined as:

  • Knowing the foundations that are in place which will be built upon
  • Having a desire to improve
  • Seeking out every opportunity to get better
  • Committing to the process of making a gain in every area I can that will help me be better 
  • Exploring everything that will make a difference, including peripheral things that I’ve not considered before
  • Acknowledging that there is much I don’t know and can learn
  • Taking every opportunity to learn from others about how I can get better
  • I’ll be committed to my marginal gains approach, irrespective of the attitude of those around me
  • I’ll be 100% disciplined and committed to trying out this approach to see how good I can be

That's quite a list and quite a shift in perspective for some. At it's most simple I guess you could reduce this down to three or four simple principles:

  • Understanding exactly from where I am starting
  • Fully committing to making improvements
  • Developing a plan and sticking to it
  • Accessing any help I can get

Once you've got the mindset you will need to develop a plan. The plan starts with a clear statement of where you want to get. For example, I want to win more matches, but I'm not sure that's my goal or the outcome of my goal. The goal might better be defined as improving my rating from 9.1 to 8.1. Either way I have something against which I can measure progress. Obviously you also need to know where you are currently in relation to your goal and then you need to work out how to get there from here! Sounds simple, but it isn't. 

Being able to build a plan is only part of the story. Learning to evaluate change and progress, tweak the programme, find good mentors and coaches all contribute to reaching the goal. I'm lucky that I have some excellent coaches who can help me make progress, but there's a lot of hard work to do too. 

I know that when it comes to my tennis game I need to do two or three things. I need to improve my consistency, I need to maintain my best level for longer, and I need to make myself harder to beat. Putting that into marginal gains terms is about looking at every aspect of the way I play and identifying something I can improve in each area, and then looking beyond just the playing side to fitness and even thinking.

Okay, so I'm neither a professional or even high performance amateur. But I know I can't dream my way to better tennis, so there's no alternative but to work hard and keep practicing!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

RWC 2015 is finally underway!

So, a tense Friday evening ended with a sense of relief that England managed to find a way to win with a bonus point try on the opening night. Fiji are a top 10 team, and not to be underrated as Wales found to their cost back in 2007. They looked committed and but for some missed penalties and a weaker set of substitutes, they could easily have spoiled the hosts big first night at the party. Sadly I think they will find recovering for the next match harder because of their lower fitness levels and we might just have seen the best that Fiji can offer, but we shall see.

Of course the ongoing talking point of this world cup will continue to be the make up the 4 groups. As well as the intervention of the TMO that slowed down the game last night. Given the option of using video, it seemed rather odd that the referee awarded the try that turned out to not be a try without referring it upstairs, but also strikes me as a little odd that the TMO now has the power to review anything and everything, and had it not been for the replay on the big screen even the dropped ball would have been missed by everyone except the TV. Oh well, they'll sort themselves out eventually.

Back to the groups for a moment. I know a change has been made with regard to the groups for the next World Cup, but just to highlight the oddness of this year's arrangements, here are the groups showing the current world rankings for each team.

To have four of the top ten teams in one group just highlights the absurd way it was planned in the first place.  But that's the way it is. So who are your picks to go through? South Africa and New Zealand are almost certain to win their groups, and you'd expect France and Ireland to qualify, although Italy could add some spice to the outcome of Pool D. I'd expect Argentina to qualify second behind the All Blacks and Samoa are the ones to watch in Pool B, although you would expect Scotland to be good enough to get through. 

As to group A, who knows who is going to be disappointed. If Fiji don't run out of steam, they could still play their part, but it really does come down to the England Wales game, although England have got the better of Australia at several world cups in the past, so we shall have to sit back and wait while still taking the medication!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Reinventing the wheel

It's a commonly used phrase, "Why reinvent the wheel?, isn't it. It's a good principle, after all why invest lots of time and effort creating from scratch what has already been created. On the other hand, if the wheel hadn't been reimagined over the centuries, we'd still be using stone and wood rather than alloys and carbon fibre.

Of course the basic principle of the wheel hasn't changed. Round is as good as it gets. But I'm not really talking about wheels. I was thinking about the discipline of doing something for yourself for the first time before picking up the ready-plans of others. Sometimes there is real value in spending time working out something for yourself and then comparing it with what others have done in order to refine your own work.

I remember years ago speaking at a Christmas event when we were living in South London. I can't remember what I said, but I do remember some friends going to the main church event on the Sunday and coming back to tell me that the person speaking at that event reproduced my talk almost verbatim! They were a bit shocked, but if he thought it was that good, then why not. On the other hand he might not have had anything better up his sleeve!

Over the years in ministry I reused plans and talks I'd done before, borrowed ideas from others and adapted talks and plans I came across over time. I never claimed an idea as my own, but always pointed to the source, and was never afraid to cite my sources. It was always a matter of integrity for me. But more important maybe than that, I always wanted to do the work for myself. Lifting wholesale the ideas of others just seemed lazy.

Well now I have this new dimension to my life called tennis coaching. There are a lot of wheels out there in coaching that do not need reinventing! Lots of drills and plans and well oiled practices that you can pick up, stick in a lesson and run almost without thinking. The value of this is that you can build a simple lesson structure quickly and easily. It also means that you can give more thought to what you're trying to do because you haven't got to work out a drill, you can just pick one up and know it will work. More or less.

The downside lies in not using your own brain to engage with what you trying to do. For my final assessment lesson I did a backhand rally drill. As I watched it fall apart before my very eyes, I was so tired and weary–it was the end of the day, I was last on and I'd spent the previous few hours hitting with my non-dominant hand. I was in no mood to be excited)–I just couldn't figure out how to take hold of it and turn it around. Later, a day later in fact, I realised what I could have done and a few simple things I could have changed that might have made it work far better than it did.

So I think there is a case if not to reinvent the wheel then at least to imagine it for yourself. I'm trying to set out a beginners tennis course. Thinking through all the shots and game situations you would teach a group of new players in order for them to be able to get our on court as quickly as possible and enjoy playing. Yes, a plan already exist courtesy of the ITF, but I want to think about how I would do it before using their plan to improve my own ideas. It will help me think about different drills, lesson outlines and practice routines for my players. After that, the ITF resource will be really helpful as will all the stuff I see other coaches doing.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Lesson plans and life!

Who writes lessons plans? Okay, so I know that there are plenty of teachers out there who probably do/have to write detailed plans. After all, you can't turn up in a classroom full of 8 year olds and just wing it! And I suspect that this holds true across education from Primary to Postgraduate. So why am I thinking about tit?

Well, firstly because it's part of my Level 2 coaching course. I have to produce lesson plans for the coaching sessions I do. This involves not only having to plan the theme and the delivery of the content, but also a health and safety risk assessment, equipment list and a few other things along the way. It's a useful discipline, even if a bit tedious. It makes you think about how you are going to teach some aspect of tennis and how you are going to get everyone developing their skills.

Of course the thing about coaching is that you can wing it to a certain extent, but a plan tells you where you are going. I've been thinking about how I would plan a beginners course for example. I've been trying to work out how many lessons I would run, what would I do each time, how would I build the programme so that we cover the basic skills and get the time to practice them in a game based setting. I started by trying to write down everything that I thought you would need to know in order to play tennis. That's not just the basic shots, but how you score, where to stand, making decisions about what shot to play, etc. I listed 7 basic shots, but there are least another 6 or 7 I could easily add to that list, 4 basic court positions, 6 tactical intentions and 6 basic elements of play!

Who'd have thought there was so much to think about. After all surely tennis is simply about hitting the ball over the net and in the court!

Tennis is not the only thing that needs a lesson plan. What about some of your personal goals? I had a quick look back at a list of goals I set myself a couple of years ago. Some have been done (I finally built the cupboard in the extension and the partition in the garage), some have not been done, some aren't that important.

Now I'm not suggesting that you should write out a lesson plan for each goal you would like to achieve, but you need a plan. One of my goals is to get my tennis rating down. I'd like to get to a 7.1, but that might be more than I can manage. It's not impossible, but it needs a plan. For example, the only way to achieve it is to win enough matches against players rated the same as me or higher. So I need a plan for taking part in tournaments and ratings events. I think that once you get to 8.1, the win/loss ratio might come into play, but I'm not too sure. Need to look that up. The point is there are some identifiable steps to the process of reaching the goal. Suddenly I'm reminded of David Allen's Getting Things Done, and his point that a task that takes more than one step to complete is a project.

Is the reason you and I aren't reaching some of our goals because they need to be seen as projects not tasks? To get things done David Allen talks about identifying the next physical step you need to take to move towards completing the project. Identify the wrong step, and you'll get stuck.

Setting aside tennis for a moment (it's hard, but I'll try), think about some of your unfulfilled goals. Pick one, turn it into a project and identify the next step. You can apply this to losing weight, getting fit, learning a new skill, developing your prayer life, anything at all. Rather than wishing for the end result, you can make a plan. Rather than listing all the obstacles you might just be able to tick off a single step and begin to make progress.

You will need to remember to apply all those little strategies you've come across in the past. Things like SMART targets and rewards. Remember too the stages for learning something new. I've seen this set out as:

  • Unconsciously incompetent 
  • Consciously incompetent 
  • Consciously competent 
  • Unconsciously competent
In other words, you go from not knowing what you can't do to knowing what you can't do, to being able to do it and not have to think about it. If your goal is "big" then break it down into smaller goals, make it a project with achievable steps along the way. I want to organise my study again, and the thing that stops me doing it is that there is just so much to sort out. Doing some sort of plan would definitely help get on top of that particular project.

So, whilst I get somewhat frustrated having to write out these lessons plans for my course, I'm reminded of how useful planning is and that when it's done reasonably well, it actually is more liberating than restraining. When it comes to tennis lessons, a plan gives more room for creativity, no plan pushes you back to default coaching mode and you do the same stuff over and over again because you haven't thought about what you're trying to achieve. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Are we really in the last days?

An email arrived this morning with an offer for "End Times" commentaries and locally there's a conference with a title that makes heavy references to ours being the final generation before the end. Not a very encouraging start to the week! Fortunately I've had my breakfast and fortified myself for the day ahead. Mind you the weather doesn't look promising. I think I'd prefer a warmer, sunnier day for the collapse of history.

I'd rather hoped that the evangelical church had grown up a bit since the 70's when we were urged to pray about the EU. Not because some of its policies were concerning but rather because it comprised 11 nations and had a supercomputer somewhere in Brussels with the code "666" that clearly indicated the end was fast approaching. For supercomputer read a large cumbersome, room-filling computer with the processing power of digital thermometer available in all good pharmacies today, and the rest of the fulfilment line fell apart somewhat with the expansion of the EU, to include Greece of all nations, as far as I remember . Apparently we haven't done that much maturing over the 40 years since then.

A preoccupation with the end seems to me to be gross distraction from the present. It isn't that I'm unaware of the prophetic narrative about the unfolding story of humanity, I'm just a little more preoccupied about what to do today without the added burden of thinking it might all end tomorrow. There just seems to be far too much to do.

When I read Brian McLaren's book Everything Must Change I was challenged by the idea that if the gospel is good news then it must have something to say about everything. I guess if I wanted to push this further then I'd say that the gospel is not just about our future salvation but also about our present redemption. I don't think that's particularly revolutionary. I think we'd all agree that the response the gospel demands from us is not simply one of agreeing with a series of theological propositions in order to secure our eternal destiny. The gospel is good news for the poor, the marginalised, the refugees, the migrants, the disconnected, the sufferers the wealthy, the healthy and anyone not covered by the preceding list! As such it has something to say about our economics our foreign policy our use of military force, our response to disaster. In fact it has something to say about every aspect of our lives in the present.

It's tough enough working out the implications of living a gospel oriented life in the present without the added burden of trying to figure when and how the world around us will come to an end. If we are the final generation, then so be it. If the end comes in my lifetime, fine. I'm as ready as I will ever be. What preoccupies me is honouring God day by day, not because the end is getting nearer but because it's the thing a disciple does. My question is more about how I can bless those around me, how I can help them take a step towards the kingdom, not whether this event or that movement signals the arrival of the apocalypse.

So if you're going to the conference or if you're investing in the books, please do so in the context of the present and let the future unfold as it will. Once we've figured out how to live in the present, maybe then we can think about all that future stuff.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The art of taking encouragement when it comes

I'm not the easiest person to encourage. I'll admit it. Sometimes it probably has a lot to do with setting the bar rather too high for myself. I've always felt a bit of an underachiever to be honest, someone who's never quite fulfilled their potential. There have been the odd glimpses of what might be, but never a prolonged period of recognisable success. At least not form where I stand.

So I have to work quite hard at taking encouragement. I have to hold back the desire the say, "Yes, but..." all the time, qualifying the encouragement with a list of things that could have been better or things that didn't really work. And of course the downside to struggling with receiving positive comments is that you tend to take criticism hard too.

Anyway, psychology apart, it's been a pretty good weekend for encouragement. For those theologically minded, and who share a faith based perspective, I need to tell you that on Friday I wrote a simple prayer in my journal that closed with a simple request: Lord, send a little encouragement my way. To be honest I promptly forgot all about it until I sat down to write in my journal this morning after a hectic weekend of training and a little bit of coaching. It was as I sat, journal open in front of me, that I read and remembered the prayer. So how was the weekend?

Well, rather good, as I said. It started well on Friday with a really positive tennis lesson with my coach, and then went well through Saturday and Sunday on my coaching course, culminating in a very positive assessment of my coaching lesson on the Sunday afternoon. A quick check of the 'phone and I've picked up a bit of coaching, covering for someone for a couple of weeks while they are away and the day ended with an hour or so of coaching a mother and son. And I get paid to do it!

Now lots of faith oriented friends will respond to this from a faith perspective and that's okay. I do too. But there's also a lesson about the simplicity of taking hold of encouragement and not seeing the negatives all the time. I really do struggle to do that. Ask Anne, she'll tell how hard it to encourage me! But I'm trying.

This weekend has been great because as a Christian I can see a direct answer to a simple prayer. But faith is far from simplistic, and I'm not about to reduce my faith to some slot-machine game of pray, believe, receive as if you're trying to get three cherries in a row.

Even if you don't consider yourself a person of faith, you can reflect on how you deal with the good and the bad that comes your way. Do you let the negative weigh you down all the time, or do you look for the positives?

I'll have bad days, bad weeks even. After all I'm in a tournament again soon! But today, I'm just going to remember the encouragement and feed on that for a while.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Migrants or refugees

Watching the news as it follows the unfolding story of the migrant camp in Calais and reading the various bits and pieces that are popping up on the internet, I can't help but wonder at the way language is used the describe the people at the centre of the current worldwide crisis. Calais is just one expression of what is a truly worldwide issue. When the likes of Nigel Farage talks about adopting an Australian style immigration policy, he is both fuelling the fire of outraged middle-classes beloved of a Daily Mail headline, and more importantly missing the point completely. Even those who share the data about doctors and nurses and other overseas workers in the UK, in an attempt to point out the flaws in the UKIP style arguments, are arguing on similar ground. It's an important foil for the negative talk about migrants but we need to remember that people drowning in the Mediterranean is another symptom of the crisis as are the thousands of people displaced across the Middle East in camps in Lebanon.

But what if we change the language? Instead of assuming the only reason the occupants of the camp in Calais want to cross the channel is because they want access to our benefits system, what if we asked the question, "From what are they trying to escape?" What if we called them refugees rather than migrants, would that change anything? Would we be more sympathetic to their situation?

I don't know how or if it would change anything. It does seem to me that the main focus of the commentary we get on the issue is an economic one mixed with the usual fear factor. Talk of sending people back is typical of the economic/fear factor argument. It fails to acknowledge that money or a so-called easy life is not the driving force for many of these people and it's time we spent more time talking about that.

Perhaps the reason we're not prepared to have that discussion is because we would have to acknowledge that we share some degree of responsibility for the conditions that have generated the crisis. We don't need to beat ourselves up about that, just get off the fence rather than building it and do something positive about it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

They found me!

I'm not sure what to think, but a letter arrived yesterday about my pension! I don't really think about retiring, in fact I rather think I'll keep doing something for quite a long time yet. Given that most of what I do is part-time anyway, I can probably keep doing funerals and a bit of coaching for many years yet. Not so sure about the pitch-side stuff. Doing it is not the problem, it's getting up off my knees after attending an injury that takes the time! I think I might make it a rule that all injuries this year must be on my side of the pitch and not too far away, preferably with the player still on their feet to save bending down.

Anyway, the other thing about this letter is that it relates to my pension from my first employer. It won't be much, I was only there 7 years before going off to college for the second time. The thing is we've moved a lot since then and I can't remember when I sat told them where I was living. What's more the company was privatised and split up, so how did they find me? I was thinking it was about time I tried to track down the scheme, even if only to let them know I still had plans for what to do with the money!

I reckon the last time I sent them a change of address must be four to five moves ago. I guess they must have found me through my NI No. and tax stuff. It just goes to show that you can't hide forever! It does make you think though. What if someone out there is trying to send me a large cheque. I wouldn't want them not to be able to do that now would I.

Olympic Legacies and Participation in Sport

It's in the news again, the Olympic legacy. Questions about falling participation in sport and what to do about it are once again on the table and no one seems to have an answer. Well it might be simplistic but maybe the expectation that simply having a major sporting event in the capital city would somehow inspire the generations to get up and have a go was somewhat presumptuous. Given that we have a lot of televised sport available and that hasn't inspired a generation, then two weeks of varied athletics was unlucky to reshape our participation overnight, or even over a few years.

I think there are some fundamental things wrong both in the way we engage people in sport and the access to sport that is available. Take tennis. Tennis clubs are not alone in being fairly inaccessible places. Not because they are geographically difficult to find, but because you have to cross the threshold of the unknown. And let's face it, they can be snobby too. Golf clubs are the same.

Second, most sports are technically demanding. Kicking, throwing or hitting a ball isn't difficult, but doing it consistently is hard. When you do a tennis coaching course, one of the things they get you to do is to try hitting with your non-dominant hand. Give it a try. Whether it's a racket sport or a bat and ball sport, you will suddenly discover what it's like to be a complete beginner. If you're blessed with good hand eye coordination you might just manage to get some sort of contact, but it's hard. It's not exactly the same as it would be as a true beginner, but it gives you a good indication.

So sport is hard, physically, mentally and emotionally. I was watching an under 10's tennis tournament the other day. Lots of tears and tantrums on show. These kids are still in the very early days of learning to play, but somehow the one thing they seem to have learned really well is how to put themselves under enormous pressure to win and be the best all the time. So they have a bad day or they lose a match. Someone needs to help them understand it's not the end of the world and that winning isn't the only measure of success. It is tough. I've got a match today and I know how hard I will be on myself and I'm an adult!

I think we need to find a way of helping people fall in love with sport before we get them participating and maybe even competing. Once we get people loving the idea of taking of part then we can get them moving. I don't run much at all these days, not the long distance stuff. Actually it was never very long, 5 or 6 miles at the absolute maximum. My knees tend to complain after a couple of miles now and the last time I did a 5k (I've gone metric in the last few years) was about 6 months ago just before I got a calf injury. But I still love running. If I could run without the knee pain, then I probably would. How fast would I run? Who cares. How far would I run? It doesn't matter. It would just be for the love of running. I try to carry that into my tennis, but I'm still a bit of a competitor and it's hard not to be overly critical of one's performance in a sport that is rather more technically demanding than plonking one foot in front of the other for 30 minutes or so. Sorry to anyone who is offended by that definition of running, I do know about things like cadence, gait cycles, knee lift etc.

So it seems to me that there are two basic priorities that we need to find a way of addressing if we're going to increase active participation in sport. Firstly we need to generate a love of taking part, of doing something active. Not sure how you do that, but without it I don't think you will get long term involvement. Second we have to improve access. How can people participate if there are no facilities open to them? But along with facilities there needs to be better access to coaching. We're not talking high performance, just people who can help you get started. They need to be trained because coaching is actually a skill. Just because you can play it doesn't mean you can coach.

What might happen if local councils and local sports clubs got together to look at how they could deliver sport in the community. Councils have the land and the space, clubs have the players and volunteers that might be able to make it happen. Perhaps we need to encourage those who are already active to learn some of the coaching skills that can then be put to use outside the clubs and in the public spaces.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Journey to Level 2

It is almost exactly two years since I did my Level 1 tennis coaching course. If I decide to do my Level 3 in two more years, I'll be nearly 60 when I do it!! Anyway, let's get level 2 out the way first before even thinking about putting myself through yet another series of weekends and paperwork.

I must say, the level 2 course is more interesting than the level 1 course was, at least for me. Although I love the work I do with the small group of kids on a sunday morning, the level 1 course was heavily focussed on mini-tennis and games and not too much coaching. Understandable given the remit of a level 1 assistant.

The level 2 course dives almost straight in to technical stuff about stance (open, semi-open, closed), grip (Eastern, semi-Western, Western) and whole lot of other stuff. The brain gets a good work out just trying to remember them let alone actually being able to spot which grip a player is actually using. Then there's all the stuff about progressions and type of shot (apparently there are six), footwork , bodywork and racket work. A lot to think about.

Having said that, there were several things that I can't wait to try with my little group. One of the really helpful things was talking through the process of stripping back a shot to the basics. You forget as a player how difficult it is as a beginner to get in the right position to hit the shot correctly. Actually hitting the shot correctly is hard enough, let alone having to run after the thing!

We also had an interesting discussion about what you would change and what you would leave alone. Obviously if someone comes to you as a complete beginner then you would start them off in a conventional pattern for their strokes. But even when you do that people change as they develop. You might correct bad habits that are going to prevent them from improving, but you might not coach something out of them just to make their game prettier. Take for example someone who finds hitting forehands with both left and right hands and not hitting a backhand at all. You would say to them that they must develop a backhand because that's what "proper" tennis players do. I had one kid the other day who hit right-handed until he served when he turned round and served left-handed. He felt more comfortable tossing the ball with his right hand. Because it was only the second time he'd been on the court I did get his to try right-handed, but if he continued to struggle and if he could actually serve okay left-handed, they why would I coach his not to do that. After all, he might just decide to give up tennis instead of pressing on and getting better.

Anyway, I've now got a whole pile of paperwork to do before our next weekend on the course and then more after that before our final assessment. Not my favourite part, but it has to be done.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Another training course!

So today I started my Level 2 tennis coaching course. I sometimes wonder about my sanity! Every time I embark on a new course I wonder why I do it. I hear myself saying I'm too old, it's too stressful, I don't like having to role play or pretend I'm a personality type that I'm not. I find being assessed incredibly stressful. Put me on a court with a group of beginners and no-one looking over my shoulder and I'm okay. Even Anne was impressed with the way I get the moving and hitting balls. But put me on a court with an assessor looking over my shoulder and I melt!

And yet I still do it. I've done more courses with practical assessments in the last three years than I ever done in my life! First Aid, coaching, Personal Training, and of course the Sports and Remedial Massage qualification.

Each time I have to gear myself up to get through it all. The paperwork looks daunting and the assignments seem to be the best way to empty my mind of anything useful in double quick time.

Hopefully, in a month's time, I will have finished this course and got my level 2. But then you start thinking about the next level or the next skill. I'm not sure I will go beyond level 2, but I may need to in order to do what I want to do in building community tennis programmes. At least I have the argument that I've not reached a higher enough rating to qualify for level 3, but there's a way round that called the play test, so I may have no excuse!

So I better knuckle down and do my paperwork, sort out the appropriate answers and just get on with it. I've already learnt some useful things today, I just hope my brain is able to store and retrieve them over them next few weeks when I need them.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Court of my Own

Well okay, maybe having my own personal tennis court is a dream too far, but having a place I could call "home" when it comes to coaching would be nice. I've had one or two calls recently about coaching but I continue to face the issue of where to coach. The public courts on the village are okay, but without floodlights and with no booking system, it's all a bit hit and miss. What I'd really like is a couple of  courts to rent for a few hours a week so that I can book regular sessions with folk and not have to worry about getting there in time to secure the court.

What would be even better would be to find someone who is passionate about tennis and would like to build a facility locally that is run on a pay-to-play basis but with a club running there too. A place where I could be guaranteed access to a court, an indoor and outdoor option and built around artificial and real clay. There are so few clay or artificial clay courts around that I'm sure players from around the region would want to come and practice there.

So if you're sitting there with a large amount of spare cash and you were wondering what to do with it, maybe you'd like to invest! No? Well I guess it's back to the tarmac for me!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Conversation about a Grinder!

Well, I decided to take the plunge and buy myself a wet stone grinder. I've been looking at them wistfully for a few years and could neither afford or justify the top end systems that are out there. But a simple bench grinder, while cheap, is not necessarily a good option. It's really easy to get too much heat into the metal of a tool and therefore render it useless unless you can anneal it again.

So a wet grinding system seemed a good idea and today I ordered the one I like the loo of and the reviews I've read about it. The later being more important than the former for me, but not apparently for some.

How do I know this? I know because of a conversation I had with the supplier this afternoon. Here's the grinder I've ordered.

Looks nice doesn't it. It comes with some jigs for different tools and I think there are other jigs you can buy. But back to the conversation. The 'phone rings and a very polite rep on the other end explains to me that the colour has changed. It is the same machine but now comes in orange. Orange! Oh no, I'll have to change the whole colour scheme of my workshop. Or at least that's what I said to the rep.

"You'd be surprised," he said, "some people cancel their order when the find out.


Are you actually telling me that the colour of a grinder is the most important thing to consider when buying one. No, I couldn't believe it either. Needless to say I haven't cancelled my order and I'm looking forward to the arrival of my orange grinder. I suspect the colour won't affect the performance unless it turns out to be a banana. (If you've never seen Red Dwarf, you won't get the reference, but don't worry you can probably watch the box set online somewhere!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

May and Baker Tennis

Watching the tennis courts at May & Baker being brought back into use makes me realise that the idea I put forward for a tennis club/coaching programme might just actually become a reality! There used to be a club, so this is more a resuscitation than a brand new venture, but I'm guessing a lot has changed since the old club folded and it really would be a new start.

May and Baker, for those who don't know, was a pharmaceutical company in Dagenham, London. The site is quite extensive and they had a large Sports and Social Club attached to the working site. The company changed names and hands a few time and it's most recent incarnation has finally closed its doors. The Sports and Social Club was gifted to the the community, and there is a thriving rugby club, football, cricket (not called May and Baker) and social club. A local running club is based their too.

The tennis courts haven't been used for some years but the club managed to secure a grant to refurbish two of the three courts. The work was delayed by the poor weather in May but the surface is down and the fence is up. Marking out and painting still needs to be done and then the courts need time to settle before we can begin playing on them. Quite when that will be I don't know.

In a conversation with one of the committee members through my involvement with the rugby club, I offered to set out a few ideas about how the courts could be run for coaching and as a club. It wasn't all guesswork, on the other hand, trying to give a reasonable idea of what might be possible wasn't that easy.

Anyway, I set out my thoughts and handed them over. Whether I will be involved or not I have no idea, but it would be interesting to be in at the start of something like this. There is a mountain of work to do to set up a club and get officers in place and policies written. Especially true when really what you want to do is get out on the courts and get people playing tennis.

I hope that M&B Tennis will take off and we can offer a great tennis service and experience to the club and community. I never imagined that I might be involved in anything quite like this, but then I never imagined I'd be involved in setting up an After School Club in Newark, or on a steering group for a Children's Centre in Bedford or a Care Scheme in the village etc. I have no idea even where to start with tho latest adventure. I'm rather hoping that the local tennis association will be helpful! I'll also pick the brains of a few folk I've got to know over that last few years of being around tennis.

My next step is to complete my next level of coaching certification, which I'm doing in August/September. Hopefully that will give me some more ideas about coaching models and more technical information to help correct stroke errors and teach good habits. I don't see myself as going much beyond helping people get started and improving to become good recreational players. That's my goal-to get people playing and enjoying tennis. If they want to push further then I know enough coaches to refer them on to who have more experience and more skills than I have.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Workshop project (4)

So, I'm still building the workstation, which is nearly finished and certainly useable. I actually used the sliding mitre saw to cut the front, back and sides of the drawers I've made.

These are really simple to make. The front and back have rebates for the sides and all four pieces have a rebate for the base. The drawer is assembled with glue and 30mm brads. One of the drawers now has a couple of slots in it so that the two circular saws I have can sit in the tray. The slots are for the blades and guards that protrude from the bottom of the saw. When I mount the drawer runners I'll need to make allowance for both the bits that stick through the bottom of the tray and the height of the tools above the height of the drawer.

I've already fitted one drawer to the cabinet on simple wooden runners, but I trying to work out a better system that allows the drawer to open further to make access easier. I've seen some full extension drawer runners but I need to get some and see how they fit. I may have to rebate the base of the drawer to make room between the cabinet sides and the drawers. It all depends on how wide the runners are.

The sliding top that the mitre saw is fixed to works really well. I installed a simple stop so that it comes forward far enough for the slide to operate fully but it can't slide all the way and drop onto your feet! I also decided to rip down the worktop that was left and use that to bring the outer sections forward. Because I hadn't thought of this sooner I'd already notched the piece that fits around the gas pipe. I'll just have to live with that.

There's still plenty of storage options to exploit, and I might change a few things around. I'm making most of it up as I go!

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Just a series of stills of a serve in motion

The title says it all! We were at Wimbledon yesterday and I was standing by court 11 watching the mixed doubles when I took a quick burst of pictures on my phone of Robert Lindstedt serving.

It's really interesting, to someone who plays tennis like me, to see how the racket head drops and then snaps through the contact point out in front, and how his body weight is moving forward. Some people think the jump is intentional, but hopefully you can see from the pictures that he doesn't jump, it's his upward drive and the action of his racket arm that literally throws him into the air as he goes up and into the ball.

The other thing that was noticeable yesterday was that the players who didn't bend their knees on their ground strokes really do come unstuck on the grass. It was really obvious in the Kygrios/Gasquet match we watched. Kygrios missed a number of shots mainly because he tried to hit a low bouncing ball without bending his knees.

So, the tennis was great, the day was great and I had a great time watching and thinking. I also met up with Ali, a friend of mine with whom I did my coaching qualification. Very encouraging because he's done his level 2 and it didn't sound that hard!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Workshop Project (3)

Just been sorting out the bench top for the workstation and had to post a quick picture of the mitre saw in place!

It's not secured yet of course, but you get the idea. The mitre saw slides forward to what will become a preset position. I've added runners on either side that stop the top tipping as it slides forward, but the weight distribution looks okay.

I was thinking of using a couple of cabinet door bolts to locate the slide in the correct position. The saw is so heavy it's not going to accidentally slide itself forward.

I need to decide if I'm going to rip down the last piece of worktop into 10cm widths to bring the bench top sides forward to give a larger area of support for wood in the mitre saw. I might just pack the back with off cuts of the panel material. The beech top is tough stuff to cut, so a bit of ply or wardrobe panel might be a lot easier to fit!

Once I've made that decision and secured the tops, I can set about squaring up the saw and levelling it to the bench top. After that it's making trays and drawers. Oh, and there's the little matter of tidying up too!

Workshop Project (2)

I've done a little more to the workstation I'm building in the garage. Today I went to B&Q to pick up a solid beech worktop. Putting a section in place gives a whole new perspective on what the finished station will look like!

The 3m long solid wood top was £87, which I thought was a bargain! I got it cut in-store into three 1m sections that I can then cut to their finished size, although the one in the picture looks ok as it is.

Just at the right edge of the picture you can see the lower section for the mitre saw. I'm still toying with the idea of allowing this to slide in and out to allow for the slide to work and yet be stored away without it sticking out too far. The white pipe you can see it for dust extraction. I have a nice Karcher vacuum cleaner that will attach to the end of the pipe underneath and then I'll find a flexible hose to go from the top of the pipe to the saw.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Value for money in education. A few thoughts from an eternal student!

I was reading the article on the BBC website about tuition fees and student responses to the question of value for money. It got me thinking, at least for a short time, about how you might actually measure value for money for a degree and whether students are actually best placed to make a judgement on the issue. That might sound a bit patronising, it isn't intended to be.

Years ago I read Jim Collin's book Good to Great, and the monograph that followed that focussed on non-profit organisations. I heard him speak a couple of times and was struck by by a number of things he said. From what I recall I think he would remind us that if we're going to measure value for money with respect to something that is non-profit then we will need to think very carefully about the measures we use. You can't equate a degree course with a new car or a holiday. Value for money in education is much more complex that a simple matter of money in and money out. Education is not a business, don't let anyone suggest otherwise.

That doesn't mean that good practice has no place in education, but I worry that some degree courses could disappear simply because there's little chance that they will lead to high paid job at the end. Anyway, back to the measures.

Interestingly students who studies humanities rated their courses lower in general that those who did engineering and science. I wonder why. Could it be that fresh from school or college, where they would have experienced very similar contact time with tutors across all subjects, they now face very different levels of contact depending on the type of subject they are studying. I have done a science degree, a humanities degree and a masters degree. I've also squeezed in a professional BTech programme and a few diplomas along the way.

My first degree was in science and a long time ago! We had practicals, maybe as much as 18 hours a week, and around 11 hours of lectures and 2 hours of tutorials. That comes to around 30/32 hours contact time. I can't remember the schedule for my second degree in theology, but the contact time was less, maybe around 12/15 hours. By the time I did my masters it was down to three seminars a week, each one about 1.25 hours long, and these were mostly student lead. Of course there were opportunities to talk with tutors and discuss essays and dissertations, but I'm just thinking about scheduled contact time.

My point is simple, contact time varies from subject to subject and with level of qualification too. If you only use contact hours as a measure then a degree in English might seem less good value that a degree in Chemistry but that is almost certainly not the case. That would sit neatly with the general distribution of the analysis in the article (44% good value for humanities compared to 66% for science and engineering).

Then there's the issue of student expectations. How well prepared for individual study are they when they reach university or college? Perhaps, as part of the survey, they should be asked how much time they spent in the library on average a week and how much personal study time did they set aside? When I went to university in the 70's I read a short book about studying. I don't recall either the title or the author but I do remember one principle. The book suggested that you worked on a simple 40 hour week. Subtracting the number of direct contact hours, lectures, seminars, practical etc, that gave you the average amount of personal study time you would need to complete the course to a reasonable level. It quickly becomes obvious that a practical heavy subject therefore requires less personal study time than a subject that has only lectures and seminars. If you need to read books and articles, that by its nature is not a contact activity. When I did my MA I was reading the equivalent of a 250 page book a day, 5 days a week for almost a year. I wrote in excess of 50,000 words. It simply doesn't compare with the science I studied first time around.

So, perhaps there is a much better way to measure value for money by asking better questions to get to the heart of how well a course met or changed a student's expectations of the experience in higher education. Where is the measure of value added to a student's life? What have they learnt that has changed their view of the world and the contribution they could make? Or is all to be reduced to some economic assessment of future earnings? When you're looking for value in education, remember that education has an innate value that is hard to measure and isn't about earning potential.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Workshop project

Having posted something about my legendary panel cutting jig. Well it's a legend in my house! Anyway, the reason for making the jig was to cut some panels for a workstation and I've been assembling the said station. Having cut the panels to size I then notched the four corners of each panel to take the rails that would hold the thing together. The rails were ripped from more scrap wardrobe panels. It would have ben nice to have been able to make them the full length of the unit, but I didn't have anything that long, so I just cut a series of rails that I could join together as necessary.

These are the units in place ready to be fixed to the wall.

I've levelled them up, the floor is quite uneven so a few wedges and yet more bits of scrap wood. That meant I could screw the bottom rails into the scrap which has added a bit more stability to it all.

The right and left units are for some plastic storage bins. I can  fit two in each end and a shallow tray above them. I might have to make that unless my favourite Scandinavian furniture store has something appropriately sized. Actually I might make some drawers anyway.

The centre right section is where the mitre saw will sit. I'm thinking of making a slide-out unit for it so that it can be moved forward for use in sliding saw mode and pushed back when not in use.

The top is going to made from some solid wood worktop that I've seen in Ikea.

The power socket needs to be moved up the wall I think, but I will see if that's necessary once the top in in place and the saw in position.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Panel cutting jig

I haven't blogged about anything woodworky for ages, mainly because I haven't done any for ages! I recently completed a cupboard built to cover some pipes in the extension. It is made from recycled wardrobe parts from Ikea. We had a double wardrobe and a single wardrobe left over when we moved into the house. With no room for them in the bedrooms and the need to cover up the soil pipe and a drainpipe in the corner of the extension (don't ask why there's a drainpipe inside, it's an old extension!), recycling the unused furniture is better than throwing it away and buying new timber.

Anyway, with the cupboard built there was still a fair amount of wardrobe left so I've begun building a work station for my workshop out of what's left. I had originally thought of building it out of ply, but the wardrobe panels needed a home. The idea is to make something that will take the sliding mitre saw I've inherited and create space for storage. I've got an idea for making  a sliding top for the mitre saw so that it doesn't have to stick out too far when it's not in use and maybe some sliding trays/drawers for power tools and other bits and pieces.

The place to start was by cutting the upright panels that will divide the workstation into sections. To make the panels all the same length I've got my saw guide that I made ages ago. It's a simple jig that give an exact cut with my circular saw. But measuring and repositioning the saw guide six times to make the panels seemed liked a time consuming process so I decided a quick jig was in order.

Using some spare panel off-cuts and couple of pieces of chipboard that were the rear supports at the base of the old wardrobes I made a stop with a return down one edge of the jig. Another piece of scrap wood was used to support the guide on the other edge and the guide was clapped down with 2mm spaces to support the guide just above the surface of the panel to be cut. It was then just a matter of sliding the panel into the jig, making sure it was tight against the the stops and running the saw across to get a repeatable cut.

I should have put the edge stop on the far side of the cut rather than the near side, but I did have an edge on the far side and a couple of shims allowed me to secure the panel so that it didn't move. In the end it didn't move so it wasn't a problem.

Okay, so the jig takes a little time to make, but it's worth doing because all the panels come out exactly the same size. I've used the same principle before, but it's given me an idea for making a saw bench designed around a circular saw rather than buying a saw table. I've seen some videos of circular sews turned into table saws by bolting them to a piece of wood with the blade sticking up through the sheet and with no guard and sometimes no riving knife. Cables ties holding the power switch on and an extension cord used as a switch. All very scary. At least, if you're going to do that, buy a no-volt switch!

I might post some pictures of the workstation as it progresses, but I'm not sure when I'll get round to finishing it.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

"Step Ladder" falls!

So, Sepp Blatter has decided to step down as Fifa president. It's not been an unwelcome decision in many circles, but it was certainly a surprise. He had previously stated his opinion that he was the man to restore confidence in the organisation, but given that the fall out we are seeing reflects badly on his tenure, it was difficult for anyone except Mr B to see how he could possibly sustain that argument.

It would be wrong at this point to assume that Fifa is the only world governing body is sport that has elements of corruption in it. Doping scandals in cycling, match fixing in cricket, allegedly tampered water at the Rugby World Cup back in 1995. Not forgetting athletics as a whole and all it has faced over the years. Even as I edit this post the breakfast news is running a story about the Panorama programme about drug taking over decades in athletics. Corruption is not just about officials taking payments to vote in favour of one candidate or another.

Having said that, the list of charges being brought against Fifa officials is startling, but maybe not that surprising. Are we actually surprised that where there is a large amount of money sloshing around, there is widespread bribery and corruption. The whole debacle over the staging of the World Cup in Qatar probably raised more suspicions than any other international sporting decision. 

My favourite quote so far in this whole sorry mess that brought a smile to my face came from one of the UK's football leaders. Commenting on Sepp Blatter's term as president, they said:

"He's been a fantastic leader, but arguably one that probably stayed on a little too long. 
"Let's place credit where credit is due. He's been at the helm and taken world football to be what it is today."
And what would that be? In the eyes of many it is the most corrupt and broken organisation in the world. Not the best CV for it's leader. It's almost like suggesting that the leaders of the world's financial institutions did a great job taking us into the worst economic recession of the modern era since the Great Depression. Let's hope they meant something rather more positive than that when they said it!

As each day reveals more allegations and even confessions, it begs the question of where does world football go from here. I wonder too whether criminal prosecutions will precipitate a root and branch clean up or just drive the truth deeper underground. Perhaps there needs to be some degree of amnesty that would allow the truth to be disclosed and a new start made to overhaul the organisation. How you balance such an amnesty against prosecuting crime is something prosecutors and governing bodies will need to work out.

Oh, and by the way, it was Hugh Dennis who once suggested Sepp Blatter sounded like "Step Ladder". Just in case you were wondering about the title!!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Network down. Is life ending as we know it?

So one of our mobile communications networks suffered a few problems over the weekend and the network wasn't available to everyone for some part of a day. Calls for compensation and shouts of annoyance at the outrageous suggestion that turning one's mobile device off and on again might solve the problem were amongst the angst ridden cries of the mobile masses. Well at least some of them.

So how did we actually manage before we bought into the mobile culture? How did we get from one place to another, find an address, arrange to meet someone or communicate with out friends in the dark days before wireless communication became the norm? Well, we bought maps, asked for directions, prearranged times and made the effort to turn up on time.

Of course mobile 'phones are great. They enable us to stay in touch and check in with each other easily and helpfully. I went to visit a family recently about a funeral and when I arrived in the correct street discovered I didn't have the house number. My synchronised diaries across 'phone, Mac and iPad hadn't actually synchronised (turning my MacBook off and on fixes this problem every time!), and it was great to be able to call the Funeral directors and ask for the house number. So I'm not arguing against the mobile world.

On the other hand, life isn't going to fall into some sort of dark, scary abyss just because O2 or EE or Three isn't working for a while. Living without your 'phone isn't going to make all your friends and family forget who you are just because your Facebook status hasn't been updated in the last two hours.

We need some perspective. We need a more rational response. We need to turn our devices off and on again or just off, at least for a little while. If that doesn't fix things, then the problem might be a bit more serious. Perhaps the world has ended, perhaps the sky has fallen in. If that has happened, a lack of mobile reception might be the least of your worries!

Ooh, I've just heard my 'phone ping. A text message, must dash and check who's trying to get my attention!!

Thursday, May 21, 2015


No, it's not a typing error it's a new application I've recently come across on the internet. IFTTT is a simple way to make connections, perform actions, post notes, control lights, sense messages and a whole host of other things you never knew you wanted to be able to do!

You create recipes of logical IF's to perform a task (If This Then That). For example, I've created a Twitter account for South Ockendon Sports (@socksports) and I've created a recipe that posts a daily weather update at 7:00am to Twitter. I've also created a recipe that puts a status update on my LinkedIn account when I create a new blog post about therapy related stuff on my other blog In2Motion.

Each If starts with a trigger form a channel. You can choose from a wide range of channels but not everything you might want to do is available. Once you've got a trigger you simply work through the steps as you are prompted and build your recipe. I'd really like to be able to include more than one blog in the recipe, but I can't see a way to do that at the moment, and I'd like to be able to link my Polar Loop daily activity data to Twitter or Facebook. You can do some editing of the logic, but I can't see a way of doing either of these things yet.

What looks good about IFTTT is the way it reduces the number of websites you need to visit in order to update something. It might just be a toy for some, but for others it could be a really useful tool to streamline social media. Of course, if you have some of the more interesting tech around the home you can even control the heating and the lights. For example, you could use location data from your 'phone to turn on the heating when you're within 30 minutes of home, or to turn on the lights at dusk.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

EAB, ZO, Tan & Sock!

Ok, so did you instantly recognise these as types of tape used in sport? Over the course of a season you get through a lot of tape. At our level, where money is tight, every metre of tape matters in the budget. I've been very lucky that the team for whom I've been working for this last year have supported the cost of buying the tape we've used.

We've been quite frugal in our use of tape, but we've not skimped either. I was wondering the other day how much tape we'd actually used and I did a bit of maths. Overall we used around 1.8Km of tape. That would go the length of the pitch 18 times and it would cover an area of around 110 sqm.

I suspect that a Premiership club uses 4 or 5 times that amount of tape!

This year we introduced lifting blocks for the line-out jumpers. These are small foam blocks taped to the thigh just above the knee. They are single use normally because the tape sticks to the foam and you can't separate them without tearing lumps out of the blocks. They're only £1 a pair, but that would cost £25 per player each year on average. With at least three jumpers, £75 is a lot to spend on bits of foam! I discovered that if I covered the blocks in ZO (zinc oxide) tape before taping them to the players, then they've lasted the season saving us £65! At first I wrapped them in cling film, which worked well but needed doing every week. I tried sock tape (electrical tape) but I think that made the blocks too stiff, so ZO tape did the job.

I've really enjoyed my season and I'm looking forward to next season. Part of me wishes I could go back and study either sports therapy or physiotherapy in more detail. But time travel isn't an option and I'm not sure I have the energy to embark on yet another degree now! So I'll keep reading, going to CPD courses and do my best. I just hope there's a special offer on tape before the season seats and we can stock up!

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Great Final Day to the Premiership Season

So, the Aviva Premiership's final round of matches have been completed and now we know who will contest the play-offs. Exeter were this year's unlucky losers, missing out on points difference to Saracens in a dramatic final day's action.

Some will naturally question Northampton's selection of a "weakened" team as some have described it, and who can argue with that given the line up of players that were rested on Saturday. Some might even want to question the whole play-off system in light of it. It's very possible that a full strength Northampton would have pushed Leicester harder, even winning the game and so allowing Exeter into the play-offs at Leicester's expense.

In the end, when you take into account the international's and the impact they have on some of the sides, then not only do Northampton have the right to rest players as they did, but I don't think you'll hear too much complaining about the way things have turned out.

One of the great joys was that no side already knew what they needed to do except perhaps Leicester. They needed to win to get into the play-offs, nothing else would do. And you could argue that Bath and Northampton knew that win or lose they had already qualified. But who wants to lose?

There's no absolutely fair way to work these things out. Take the IPL's approach where they have some sort of tiered approach to the decide who is on the final. There's an eliminator where the 3rd and 4th place teams play and two qualifiers. In the first qualifier the top two teams play each other. The winner goes straight to the final, the loser plays the winner of the eliminator! Simply put, finishing first or second gives you two chances to reach the final.

In rugby terms, this year that would mean Northampton would play Bath for the right to go straight to the final, while the loser of that game would play the winner of the Leicester/Saracens game to decide the other finalist. Simple really! If such a system were adopted I'm sure there would be cries of unfairness for the team that had to play twice to reach the final. You can't really win with any of the formats.

Anyway, we'll be there at Twickenham enjoying our day whoever plays.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What do you air in public?

The recent UKIP airing of opinions about Nigel Farage and the decision to allow the publication of private letters from Prince Charles both make me wonder about our tendency to say in public what might be better said in private and the odd interest we have in private communication. Unguarded comments in the backs of cars have lost politicians the public vote and maybe it's reduced public debate to some sanitised exchange of broadly similar views that have all been checked by spin doctors and focus groups. Now I'm not suggesting some sort of free for all in the name of freedom of speech or something, but I'm just wondering what impact publication of such things has and what value there is in so doing.

Then there are the articles written in newspapers by the likes of Patrick O'Flynn. Open letters are one thing, but why would you put that in a newspaper? Why wouldn't you sit down in a room and talk it through, sharing your concerns in a constructive way rather than making a public issue of it? Surely there are better ways of airing these things than through column inches. Same goes for Kevin Pietersen and other autobiographers who seem to want to "put their side of the story" before anything else. There's a time to let it go.

Yesterday I was in the queue in my local convenience shop and I overheard the person in front saying some amazingly horrible things about another person. Their shooping partner did nothing to suggest that it was time to turn down  the volume and take a breath. Not overhearing was not an option given the volume at which things were being said. Not shouted, but loud enough to make sure anyone nearby got a clear picture of what she thought of her step-mother! The thing is, I didn't need to know these things. That she didn't like her is okay, telling the world is, in my opinion, not.

It's a difficult balance, but stopping, engaging brain, asking yourself if this really needs to become public knowledge, might stop a few bridges going up in flames.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Nearly time for the Aviva Premiership Final!

I know that not everyone is a rugby fan, or even a sports fan, and I know many a football fan probably wonders what the point is of a team finishing top of the Aviva Premiership if they can go on to lose the title in a play-off. Just ask Gloucester who finished top a number of times but failed to win the championship title. Even rugby enthusiasts wondered about the plan when the system was first introduced.

But when you realise that Rugby Union has an international tournament every year (The 6 Nations), and a series of high-profile international fixtures in the Autumn, you will understand why it turns out to be a good way of settling the outcome of the season's endeavours. Top teams can lose a lot of players to the international fixtures. The play-off system gives smaller clubs the opportunity to make headway in the league competition and we don't get the club or country debate that other sports seem to suffer from. It opens the whole thing up.

This year we're off to the final at Twickenham again at the end of May. It is a great day out and last year's final was certainly an exciting affair with the winning points scored with the final move of the match. It wasn't even that clear whether the decisive try had actually been scored and it took the TMO (third match official) a little while to sort it out.

Northampton won the title and are in with a good chance of retaining it this year having finished at the top for the first time as far as I recall. What makes it all exciting is that there are three team looking to get into the last two play-off places and all the games are important. Leicester, Exeter and Saracens are all in the mix.

Sarries are almost certain to beat London Welsh with a bonus point win. The promoted exiles haven't won a game and have only one losing bonus point all season. That would put Saracens in front of Exeter for fourth place even if they beat Sale unless they too get a bonus point win. But possibly the biggest game of all will be Leicester against Northampton. A Leicester win is a must if they want to be in the play-offs. If they lose then everything depends on the Exeter-Sale result. It is actually possible that Leicester, Saracens and Exeter could all finish with the same number of points!

The final round of matches take place this weekend and they all kick-off at the same time. A good old-fashioned final day of the season! No team will have the advantage of knowing the result of another match.

I wonder if the football premiership would look any different if it tried a new system. With 38 matches to play in a season compared to Rugby's 22 it's hard to imagine that there would be much appetite for such a play-off style deciding end to the season. Reducing the number of teams would cause an outcry no doubt and the very idea of introducing bonus points for scoring 3 or more goals or a losing bonus point for losing by only a one goal margin might seem ridiculous. But what if it meant a more meaningful international fixture list with more competitive international football to develop the national team without that club or country debate? Would fans buy into that? Probably not.

I could start rambling on about the use of technology and the the TMO and speculate how that could be used in football too. No one seems to worry about referrals slowing down a rugby game. The clock stops, the decision is reviewed, everyone gets on with the game. Imagine if the referee could ask a TMO to check for off-side or for a dive, review a possible handball or tackle before deciding on a yellow card. We can only wonder!