Thursday, 23 May 2024

Coaching the Human Animal


When it comes to coaching, teaching, or parenting, there is always room to improve. In my search to become a better coach, I stumbled upon a documentary that has become one of my favorites – not just for its entertainment value, but for the valuable lessons it teaches. In this article, we’ll explore the concepts of positive reinforcement, shaping, and the power of praise in coaching. Drawing inspiration from the animal training world, we’ll examine how these techniques can be applied to coaching humans and help us become more efficient and joyful teachers. So, let’s dive in and explore the fascinating world of coaching the human animal.

Coaching and Science

As a coach with a background in biology and a passion for volleyball, I’ve always been intrigued by the science behind teaching motor skills. While the research suggests that showing, rather than telling, is the most effective way to coach a motor skill, animal trainers manage to achieve incredible results without using these conventional methods. Whether training dolphins, seals, or even predators like lions and tigers, animal trainers rely on shaping and positive reinforcement to teach complex motor programs. This raises the question: can we apply similar methods when coaching humans?

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The Power of Positive Reinforcement

One key takeaway from studying animal trainers is the absence of punishment in their training methods. Instead, they rely on guidance, firmness when necessary, and abundant positive reinforcement. Unlike the threat or application of punishment, positive reinforcement creates a joyful learning experience for the animals. This concept is beautifully illustrated by the service dogs that assist blind and wheelchair-bound veterans. These remarkable animals demonstrate the power of praise and intermittent rewards, proving that punishment is not necessary for effective training.

Lessons from the Animal Kingdom

To better understand the teaching methods used by animal trainers, I delved into the world of horse training. Through my research, I discovered the works of Tom Dorrance and the documentary “Buck.” Buck Brannaman, known as a “horse-whisperer,” epitomizes leadership and sensitivity in teaching horses, demonstrating that punishment is not the path to effective coaching. By embracing positive reinforcement, he has revolutionized the way horses are trained and offers valuable lessons for human coaches.

Learning from the Experts

Throughout my journey as a coach, I have collected numerous one-liners that encapsulate key lessons learned. In “Buck,” I found several gems worth sharing:

  • “The biggest challenge of a horseman is to control their own emotions.”
  • “Allow a horse to make mistakes and learn from them, just like humans.”
  • “Fine horsemanship involves disciplining and encouraging, not just discouraging.”
  • “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not break.”
  • “Quit on a good note, like the last two minutes of a date.”
  • “Approach coaching with joy, not specializing, like letting dressage horses do cow roping.”
  • “Gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it.”
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As coaches and parents, it is crucial to reevaluate our methods and consider the lessons taught by expert animal trainers like Buck Brannaman. By embracing positive reinforcement, shaping, and the power of praise, we can create a more joyful and effective learning environment for our athletes. Let us strive to move away from punishment-based approaches and instead focus on guiding, encouraging, and empowering those we teach. Together, we can help grow the game and foster a love for sports that matches the principles of good teaching and the laws of learning.