If you play tennis, ski, enjoy a round a golf, ride a motorbike or engage in other individual sports even at an amateur level, it is not unusual to approach a professional coach from time to time and ask them to cast a critical eye over your style and performance. It might be that you have had a break from the activity for a bit and want to make sure that you do not return with any bad habits. It might be that something is not quite right – your serve is unreliable, you often struggle at a particular bend on the bike track, you snow plough when really you shouldn’t. It may be that you have no particular worries, but you still want to be faster, more accurate, better. Asking a coach for their expert advice does not involve any shame or loss of face. That is what they are there for. That is their job. They are professionals because other people pay them to share their skills and experience. A professional coach can unpick your style and see where there are any sticky bits. This is no insult to the person who originally taught you, although since we are human there may sometimes be a tendency for a coach to suck their teeth and inwardly mutter, “I wonder what wally taught them to do that!”
Bell ringing does not seem to have a similar system. We are volunteers. Individuals help individuals because they want a decent band to ring with and because they care about ringing. However, regular MOTs are not routinely offered. I think this is a shame because 30 minutes with a more experienced ringer, not to teach theory or the next stage, but to examine forensically what is already in place and see if it can be improved on, could be very useful, especially after a break or a few years into one’s learning.
I am undergoing the coaching experience. I felt that I needed extra support as I returned to ringing after the enforced break and, luckily, I am blessed with a number of candidates who could fulfil the role. I decided that someone who had never seen me ring and had no personal investment in my ringing would be best. Perhaps they could see me through fresh eyes and not have any preconceptions as to what I “could” or “should” be able to do. I approached my “victim”, someone recently moved to the area with whom we have been regularly ringing online, and was delighted that he was enthusiastic rather than grudging in offering help. I borrowed the tower key and arranged to meet prior to practice for some private time
We went back to the very start, with me holding the tail end, not quite so tightly gripped as it had been in 2018 when I first learnt, and waggling my fingers in front of my nose to make sure that I was close enough to the rope. This made him laugh, but on the last few occasions that I had attempted to ring, I had ended up backed halfway out of the door in an effort to avoid the rope. As I hoped, re-building my stroke from scratch was therapeutic and within 20 minutes I was ringing comfortably. But something unexpected also happened.In going through the tiny stages required to learn to handle (compressed into 20 minutes rather than some hours) I realised that I am a serial over-puller. I would not have known this without my coaching session. At the first stage, where I executed the backstroke and my coach looked after the handstroke, it felt all wrong to me. I questioned him as to whether the pull was sufficient because, in my experience, the backstroke should rise more than it was actually doing.I do not bash the stay (someone would have noticed that by now), but I certainly feel a tightness at the top of the stroke that I was not getting. Instead, I was experiencing that unnerving feeling of weightlessness that you detect as you pull the bell just off the balance when the treble announces “look to”. The feeling that something very heavy might crash on your head, if you are not careful.I hate that feeling and clearly I have been avoiding it since I started ringing.I over-pull because it feels safer to meet the resistance at the top and it has become a habit. It was only by feeling what a good ringer felt at the top of their stroke that I was made aware of my error. There is no way that I would have experienced that sensation without sharing the rope. Once we moved on to me taking responsibility for both strokes I could try to break the habit and recreate the unfamiliar feeling of the bell rising a tiny fraction less enthusiastically, the feeling I had experienced with someone else’s superior pull. I can now see how much easier it will be to handle heavier bells and also hope that the familiar complaint “Mary, you are lingering” will be a thing of the past.
The point of all this is that coaching revealed something that I did not even know was a problem. Without submitting to the process of being an absolute beginner again, I would not have known that there was something quite subtle that I could improve on and that should help my ringing.
Coaching is not the same as teaching. Coaching is not the same as mentoring, although it could contain elements of both. Coaching is something in its own right. Coaching provides a space where individuals, who have already been taught something, can evaluate their technique with a more experienced critical friend and think about what else they want to achieve. Teachers introduce new ideas, whereas coaches help one to make adjustments and unlock what is already known. Teachers focus on learning and the speed and direction of change rests largely with them. Coaches help individuals refine and develop their skills following a personal agenda. They help people to help themselves. These are different roles and from my recent experience I believe that there could be a much larger role for coaching within ringing.
Many ringers leave the exercise after about 5 years. There are myriad reasons for this, but I am guessing that for some, at least, they have reached a stage where they are stuck. Perhaps a supportive coaching session might help them identify any niggles that are hindering progress and provide a space to think about what they need to do to improve. Given the time and effort that has been invested in getting them thus far, it is worth a try. Similarly, lapsed ringers may be thinking about returning to ringing. They do not necessarily need a teacher and might even be insulted at the suggestion, but the offer of a trained coach to help them re-establish themselves might swing the balance in favour of the choice to return or otherwise.
We cannot assume that everyone can coach, any more than we can assume that everyone has the skill set to teach. ART has done a great job in training teachers and providing a forum for them to support each other. Perhaps we also need to think about an ARC (Association of Ringing Coaches) to supplement and further ART’s work and to maximise the retention of valuable ringers.
Coaching is an activity often linked with competitive sport: a way of aiding the competitor to improve. It is different from but related to both teaching and mentoring. A teacher has knowledge and/or skills which are shared with the student, who can then apply this knowledge or skill. A mentor is more concerned with the bigger picture: how can I best develop the performance in the long term by guiding a competitor through a range of experiences, ensuring they meet the “right” people. Both of these roles we see often in ringing. We were all taught to ring by someone, and we may have been taught how to conduct, ring handbells or surprise major by another, more experienced ringer. We have all been advised about the best practice to attend to promote our experience and been introduced to people who will help us to further our ringing. But coaching, does it really happen?
As a teacher in a secondary school, I was frequently involved in coaching relationships with colleagues. I was also coached by other teachers. The relationship was not top down: I did not always coach less experienced teachers and, indeed, my most productive and enjoyable coaching relationship was when I was coach to the school’s Headteacher. Even when the formal coaching experience ended, we would frequently meet and discuss our practice. It is possible, therefore, for a less experienced ringer to coach a more experienced ringer (but, I think quite difficult).
Coaches look forensically at the performance of the person they are coaching: this helps to identify areas in which the person could improve their performance. But they are not teaching: a coach will start a conversation which leads the coached person to reflect on their performance and identify for themselves where the improvement needs to be made. This can be done through questioning (“Do you feel frightened when the sally comes down?”) or by making simple statements (“You seem to have difficulty catching the sally” “The first backstroke seemed to take you by surprise”). Such an approach allows the coached person to think about their performance and to be the driver behind their own development. This is far more powerful an engine of change than someone saying “Don’t step back when you pull the backstroke.” It is not the coach’s job to have all the answers (even if they do!)
Mary, in her article, mentions that by being coached she realised just how hard she was pulling. I had noticed this, but we had not talked about the strength of her pull until she mentioned it. This self-discovery was far more powerful than if I had told her to pull less.
As a note for teachers of ringing, your learner going elsewhere for a coach is no criticism of you. All top sportsmen go to different people for coaching at various stages of their career. It is not a case of the teacher being corrected by an “expert”, more that having a fresh pair of eyes looking at your ringing is a good thing. And this coaching process should be on-going, a long-term 1:1 relationship with the full knowledge that the person being coached will outgrow the need for that particular coach. Both parties need to be watchful that the relationship stays productive and does not become stale.
A coach can also be a critical friend. This is not always an easy role for the person who has taught someone to ring. After all, we have all heard of the teacher who has told their student the same thing a million times… and the student who claims they have been told the same thing a million times. Getting the same information from your coach reinforces what the teacher has done rather than challenge it. A critical friend should have the confidence to tell the person they support the bad news. At a practice a few weeks ago, ringing with someone for the first time, I suggested they should be a little quicker coming down from the back. As quick as anything, the ringer said that that was exactly what the tower captain had said (a million times): QED.
Is there a role for coaching in ringing? If we are to address the issue of ringers, in whom we have invested a considerable amount of time, and Mary refers in her article to ringers who drop out after five years, then yes. Helping ringers through any stage that can lead to dropping out – Wilf Morton used to speak about the Plain Hunt to touches of Plain Bob Doubles gap – is necessary for the future of ringing. Coaching can be one answer to this.
Mary Jones, Norfolk (coachee)
David Carter, Norfolk (coach)