There are many ways for athletes to wind down after games. This article suggests they write in Team Notebooks, which allows introspection of their play and a dynamic learning tool.
By Dr. Richard Kent
Richard Kent, PhD, has spent over 30 years coaching soccer and skiing at various competitive levels and is an Associate Professor at the University of Maine as well as Director of the Maine Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project. Rich has recently authored Writing on the Bus: Using Athletic Team Notebooks and Journals to Advance Learning and Performance in Sports. He may be reached at: email@example.com or via the book's Web site: www.writingathletes.com.
After a soccer match, the Gonzaga University women's team moves through its post-game routine. The players stretch, hydrate, fuel up ... and write.
Head Coach Amy Edwards has her athletes keep Team Notebooks, a combination workbook and reflective journal. Through their writing, the athletes critique the team's play and their own as a way to prepare for the next match and think more objectively about games. The Notebooks also keep the coaching staff informed of what players are thinking.
As a coach, I have used various writing activities with my high school and college teams since the early 1980s. Writing has helped my athletes learn many lessons while thinking more deeply about their training, competitions, and sports. Over the past six years, I have studied the use of Team Notebooks on a wide variety of teams across the nation. This article showcases some of what I have discovered.
Edwards started using Team Notebooks in 2008 while working as Associate Head Women's Soccer Coach at the University of Missouri and saw the squad capture the Big 12 Championship. "Our players had never been so in tune with each other and themselves," she says. "With Team Notebooks, the players took ownership of their team and destiny. We had the most successful season in program history."
Adding Team Notebooks to an athletic program won't make up for out of shape athletes or ill-designed training sessions. However, coaches have found that writing provides many benefits, from helping athletes work toward their goals to linking to their school's academic mission. During interviews, coaches and athletes also spoke about how Team Notebooks added variety to practice sessions and frontloaded team discussions.
For me as a coach, the athletes' writing provides yet another way to enhance communication. Reading entries from my players' Team Notebooks or Journals keeps me more in tune with their needs.
At Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake (N.Y.) High School, Head Girls' Soccer Coach Brian Bold especially likes how Notebooks allow him to better understand and react to his athletes. "Writing provides another avenue for strengthening the player-coach relationship," he says.
Other coaches cite that writing improves their athletes' learning. "My players were able to look at the game from a coach's point of view and learn how to deal with situations that the other team presented," says Anthony Neeson, Head Girls' Soccer Coach at St. Michael the Archangel High School in Baton Rouge, La.
Ski racing coaches Darrell Gray and Jake Fisher of Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vt., assigned writing activities to their athletes during a training camp in Chile. I later asked the boys on the ski team if writing could make someone a faster racer or a better athlete.
"Writing makes you learn about yourself," explained Chris McKenna. "Knowing yourself physically and mentally as an athlete is very important. Writing made me think about what I was doing well and what I needed to work on. This made my training and motivation much better."
"Writing helps athletes analyze their play, thought processes, and feelings," says Nicole Moore, Assistant Women's Lacrosse Coach at the University of Vermont. "It brings more meaning to what they are experiencing. Writing is a reminder of what we all are playing for and working towards."
In Writing to Learn, William Zinsser explains the value of writing as a learning tool: "Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know--and what we don't know--about whatever we're trying to learn."
Writing as a learning activity also connects athletics to academics. In the academic arena, high school and college faculties emphasize the importance of writing across the curriculum and across disciplines. Schools like Burke Mountain Academy work to integrate writing in all facets of a student-athlete's life, from the classroom to the ski slopes. Coaches who adopt writing as a learning activity on their teams may find faculty members and school administrators cheering them on. In fact, at some schools, coaches and teachers have joined forces through classroom assignments, such as using sport journals in English class.
Because our teams are comprised of student-athletes with different learning styles, writing can play a unique role. For those who are more tuned into writing and reading, Team Notebooks offer a welcoming way to learn beyond the more traditional coaching methods. And even for student-athletes who shy away from the written word, I've found that writing in the Notebooks builds academic confidence as they write about a subject they know well.
Sport psychologists use writing activities to help athletes sharpen mental approaches, curb performance anxiety, and eliminate negative thoughts. In Creative Journal Writing: The Art and Heart of Reflection, author Stephanie Dowrick explains that writing and journaling can reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-awareness, sharpen mental skills, promote genuine psychological insight, advance creative inspiration and insight, and strengthen coping abilities. Team Notebooks may offer the same benefit for athletes.
Meg Hostage, an NCAA All-American in diving at Stanford University, found that writing kept her focused. "Writing worked to keep me accountable for what I wanted to achieve, and in a way helped me to reach my goals," she says. "Putting it all in writing reminded me what I was working toward every time I opened the journal to make a new entry."
ORGANIZING THE BOOKS
The basic Team Notebook can be adapted for different sports and to align with program needs. Coaches determine what and how often athletes will write, and that can change from week to week or season to season. If the concept of using a full-blown Team Notebook is overwhelming, coaches may decide to use sections of the notebooks as stand-alone activities.
Regardless of the structure chosen, the key is that the pages of Team Notebooks serve as a place for athletes to reflect, analyze, and note-take. Whether coaches use three-ring binders like I did or move to online forms, the prompts on the various pages should create opportunities for athletes to set goals and work through challenges.
The following provides a look at some of the sections of Team Notebooks as well as an example of how to organize one:
Coach's Informational Letter: It's a good idea for the Notebook to begin with an opening letter by the coach. Coaches might write briefly about the program's history or the goals for the season and include team rules and contact information.
The letter should include thoughts on why the coach feels Team Notebooks are important, as well as directions for their use. For example, the coach may state: "The Competition Analysis section is due immediately after a game unless you make arrangements with the coach," or "If your writing is illegible, I'll ask you to write the page again."
Preseason Thoughts: At the beginning of an athletic season, many coaches ask players to formulate personal and team goals. It's not uncommon for such writing to end up being overly generalized. Including a page for preseason thoughts, with specific prompts, can make this exercise more meaningful. Here are some prompts that can be utilized:
• My strengths last year as a player
• My weaknesses last year as a player
• My preparation for this season has been the following
• My goals for this season include the following
• Last year our team strengths included
• Last year our team weaknesses included
• I am taking the following classes this fall
• Other thoughts.
The prompts on this page create opportunities for athletes to look back and think forward, and thereby make specific connections to their performances. (See "Preseason" below.) Writing Preseason Thoughts takes an athlete roughly 10 to 15 minutes. Depending on the number of athletes on the team, a coach will read and perhaps take notes on the collection of pages in 15 to 30 minutes.
Using Preseason Thoughts generates deeper conversations, provides players with a forum for goal setting, and keeps the coaching staff informed. For athletes who have fully involved themselves in off-season training and arrive at preseason fit and determined, writing Preseason Thoughts can build confidence and be motivational when shared with the coaching staff. For athletes who have only marginally prepared, writing Preseason Thoughts can be an empty experience that leads to a reality check. This may impact an athlete in the long term by serving as an incentive.
Competition Analysis I: This page of the Team Notebook is completed after every game, and builds on the preseason writing. It guides athletes in reflecting on their individual game performances as well as those of their teammates and opponents. The prompts steer players away from reducing a game result to one-dimensional accounts like, "the referees had it in for us." The page helps players gain perspective and moves them, in large and small ways, toward thinking as coaches.
The one-page reflection takes most players three to five minutes to complete. Depending on the number of athletes, coaches will read and perhaps take notes on the collection in 10 to 20 minutes.
An example of a Competition Analysis I can be seen in the sidebar titled "In-Season" below. The player's analysis as the last-line defender in soccer begins with a discussion of his ability to maintain compactness in defense. His writing about communication ("Right amount of talk--I didn't talk too much like at Lisbon") shows that he has applied his learning from one match to another. He also recognizes the difference he makes in the play of less confident teammates. When reading an entry like this one, a coach will see that a player recognizes his greater role on the soccer field.
Competition Analysis II: The prompts on this page assist athletes in writing about a game or competition that a team watches together. The two-page observation takes athletes approximately 10 minutes to complete and may be used as a discussion guide. Coaches may read and perhaps take notes on the collection in 10 to 20 minutes.
Some coaches do this exercise once a week while others do it once a season. The prompts on the analysis sheet ask players to identify the two teams' alignments, strengths, weaknesses, halftime adjustments, and whatever else the coach wants the team to think about. The final prompt demands that players think like a coach about teams' strengths and weaknesses (e.g., athleticism, speed, coaching, motivation/heart) and asks, "What adjustments might you have made to either team if you were that team's coach?"
Postseason Thoughts: On this page players are asked to think about the past season while making plans for the future. As with Preseason Thoughts, an athlete may take 15 to 20 minutes to write and a coach may read and perhaps take notes on the collection in 15 to 30 minutes. The prompts on Postseason Thoughts are similar to Preseason Thoughts.
Athletes' Notes: These pages are for keeping notes, sketching plays, and storing information like handouts from the coach. The pages may be blank pieces of paper or the coach (or players) may create different page styles.
It's not uncommon for coaches to create their own program-specific notebook pages. At Temple University, the women's lacrosse staff created a page for athletes to use following an injury, which helped keep athletic trainers and coaches informed of athletes' rehab plans and progress. At Gonzaga, Edwards created Pre/Post Game Sheets to help her team with the challenge of recovery when playing Friday/Sunday matches, which is typical in her team's conference. The prompts help athletes plan and reflect on the Friday/Sunday matches with respect to physical and mental preparedness.
Some coaches expand the concept of the Team Notebook to an Athlete's Journal, which can help athletes delve deeper into their motivations and stumbling blocks. This can work particularly well for more individual sports like distance running, cycling, and diving. Tennis great Serena Williams is well-known for keeping this type of journal. Here are some examples of prompts to use for these athletes in Preseason Goals and Notes:
• What do you dislike about yourself as an athlete and why?
• Think back to a time when an athlete or team you admired failed in an event that the athlete or team was favored to win. Describe your feelings.
• What is your favorite place to compete and why?
• Why can this statement hold true: "Some days, doing poorly is the most important result that could happen."
• What is a good opponent?
• What's a great memory that you have as a competitive athlete?
MAKING IT WORK
A lot of coaches I've met like the idea of Team Notebooks but feel overwhelmed at the prospect of having another thing to keep tabs on. My advice is to keep the process simple, at least to start. The Preseason Thoughts section may be a good first step. Athletes will write and the coach will read, and this exercise won't take more than 20 minutes for either to complete. Then, a coach might use the Competition Analysis I sheet for just a few games or matches. Or before a team discussion, the coach can ask athletes to write responses to a few questions to prime them.
A coach can also vary the amount of time he or she spends reviewing the writing. As a soccer coach, I photocopied the pages and kept them in a large three-ring binder. I liked comparing my athletes' responses from game to game. But other coaches simply read the notes quickly and hand the pages back.
Some coaches have told me they write back to players as a way to show concern, offer advice, and build relationships. While I have not done this, I do speak with athletes if I have concerns about an entry or if their writing indicates they are struggling.
Coaches should also be prepared to read athletes' honest opinions. There are times when players' frustrations come out in their writing. Perhaps they didn't play in a game or, in their eyes, played too little. As long as an athlete didn't call me a nitwit, I had to allow them to express themselves, reminding myself how this kind of writing has a wide range of benefits. In the end, the writing in a Team Notebook belongs to the athlete.
It is important to decide who will be reading the Team Notebooks and to communicate this to the athletes. In some cases, having assistant coaches read the athletes' thoughts can be helpful. But athletes should know this up front. For the most part, the athletes' writing is not secret or personal. Every once in a while, however, private writing surfaces, and those words deserve a level of confidentiality.
For some coaches, it may be more efficient to construct the Team Notebooks online. These days, our athletes are wired. An online form that allows privacy and convenience can keep Team Notebooks at your athletes' fingertips. I have no doubt that some athlete or coach will come up with "an app for that."
It's important that coaches set up a structure that works for them and their team in their particular setting. And finally, Edwards offers a great piece of advice. "Make sure you value the information you are collecting," she says. "If the players do not feel you value their words, then they will be very hesitant to put much effort into it."
In terms of communication, player development, and learning, writing has the potential to make a powerful difference in the world of athletics. One of my favorite times as a coach is the silence when athletes are writing in their Team Notebooks. Something is happening during those few minutes of reflection, and I know it is helping my players and our team.
The following are Preseason Thoughts by a sweeper on a high school soccer team.
• My strengths last year as a player:
Last year I felt confident in the air. I loved winning 50-50 balls. I've gained a lot of confidence on the pitch these past couple of years. I understand the game better--I can see how attacks are developing and I know what to say to my defenders. I bet if you asked the forwards from other teams they'd say I'm good at delaying. I love playing against great players. I used to get scared, now I get up for them.
• My weaknesses last year as a player:
My communication wasn't the best. Like you said, young players think about themselves and don't talk much--experienced players speak up. Thanks to the summer matches I already communicate better. My left foot was squirrelly ... not this year!
• My preparation for this season has been the following:
Winter soccer, summer matches, and camp. I coached community center summer soccer. I did the deal! I'm prepared. Bring it on.
• My goals for this season include the following:
Talk, composure, and leadership on and off the pitch.
• Last year our team strengths included:
Moving to space. Staying composed during physical matches. We liked each other!
• Last year our team weaknesses included:
What can I say, we were young. Not really a weakness but like you said our age defined our play. We didn't have the strength to finish a lot of our attacks. Not this year! Light it up!
• I am taking the following classes this fall:
Physics, Pre-Calculus, Writing Center English, U.S. History, Psychology.
• Other thoughts:
I'm psyched we have friendlies against Class A teams like Lewiston--playing up will help us. I know it's a pain, but everyone likes the spaghetti feeds at your house. The first 11 will help with clean up and everything. I guarantee we'll make it through the second round of the playoffs this year. We're ready.
The following is a Competition Analysis by the same athlete in "Preseason," a sweeper on a soccer team. The team has just won, 1-0, and upped its record to 4-0.
• My strengths as a player in today's match:
Maintained defense's compactness. Right amount of talk--I didn't talk too much like at Lisbon. I had a brilliant run through the midfield into the attacking third.
• My weaknesses as a player in today's match:
I could have been more supportive of Jason. When I encourage him he plays better.
• Team strengths in today's match:
We worked as a team--great support--positive comments ... Good halftime adjustments.
• Team weaknesses in today's match:
We could have been more inventive in attack during the 2nd half. We used Matt too much.
• Opponent's strengths: They never let down. #9 had warp speed. His runs opened space and chances on goal.
• Opponent's weaknesses:
Their midfielders and forwards did not mark us well in attack.
• The "difference" in today's match:
Our midfielders support of the forwards ... and, did I mention, a brilliant run by the sweeper?
• Team adjustment you suggest for the next match against this opponent: #9=FAST. Move Dusty? More variety in attack.
• Other comments about team strategy, attitude, preparation: We were prepared! The seniors had us ready to play. Un-DE-feated!
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