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.