Connected-brain coaching explained

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Because most sports coaching almost exclusively focuses on the left brain technical skills when *science says we need both sides of the brain to achieve our full potential... I created connected-brain coaching.

*Iain McGilchrist is one of the leading experts on how the brain works and I really recommend reading Iain’s work and visiting his website. His videos are particularly good.

Iain says say's that in the 60' and 70's it became popular to think that the left part of the brain does reason and the right part does imagination. It has since been found to be untrue. Both parts of our brain are involved in everything. For example, language is a skill of reason and imagination. We need both reason and imagination. To be technical and intuitive. Practical and empathic. To process detail and see the bigger picture.

We need both parts of the brain for everything. For example, to repeat a piece of music we need to know the individual notes and the order they are played, (left brain). But to experience the notes as music, to feel the music, the emotion, we need to experience the whole, (right brain). We need the left and right parts of our brain to repeatedly experience amazing music. Good engineers need both reason and imagination. So do artists. So do sports players. So do accountants. We all need to use both sides of our brain.

I have known about the left and right brain theory before and I didn’t like its rigidity. I knew my brain was more fluid than that. Iain has improved the theory by showing that both sides of the brain are involved in everything we do. None of us should be left-brain only or right brain only. We are all both. This is how I imagined my brain working. Fluidly flowing between the left and the right all the time for everything I see and do.

If I apply the science of the brain to sports coaching, it’s simplifies down to the left brain does the technical skills. The right brain reads a situation and finds ways to make meaningful connections to teammates.

We all need both sides of the brain for everything we do. This is backed up by many of the best of the best. For example, Michael Jordon once said “talent can win a game, it takes intelligence and teamwork to win a championship. To me, MJ meant that talent is the left brain. Intelligence and teamwork are the functions of the right brain. We know we need to use both sides of the brain to access our full potential. We know the left and the right brain need to be coached in a connected way.

Yet most sports coaching is technical left brain only. Only half our potential is coached.

If we only work on our left brain technical skills our only goal is to seriously practice to play correctly with as few mistakes as possible. Performance is so much more than just technical perfection. Even very technical sports are more than just technical. Sport is so much more than playing a game correctly.

Connect-brain coaches create agile teams that respond, flex, and renew quickly in a rapidly changing, turbulent, and uncertain world. Find potential nobody knew was there. Share moments of kind connection. Influence a situation in the moment it's happening.

Connecting the brain starts with being able to see using both sides of the brain

If we perceive the world through only one side of the brain we will only use one side of the brain. Connected-brain coaching starts by helping players to see using both sides of the brain.

Players are coached to create pause points, that can be less than a second or minutes or hours, that enable them to pull back from a situation they are in and see using ...

  • Intuition and empathy, to see the bigger picture of what is happening to individuals around us who are living in a changing, evolving, interconnected dynamic world that we can never fully understand or control. The right brain.

AND to see using ...

  • Technical, practical, detail of what is happening in a standardised, static, scripted, fixed, world that we can fully understand and control. The left brain.

Having seen clearly a connect-brain coach helps players to use both reason (left brain) and imagination (right brain) to make a micro-decision to act using the left brain or the right brain and then return to the middle of the brain to see clearly what happened and make another micro-decision.

One micro-decision leads to another. As one teammate makes a micro-decision, the nearest teammate, pauses, looks, and makes their own micro-decision. The next teammate does the same. Connected micro-decisions ripple across the team. Flow through the team. Teammates think on their feet to build their own unplanned sequences of bite-size actions. When something goes wrong for one teammate, other teammates pause, see, connect and make their own micro-decision that turns a moment of it going wrong to a moment of success.

Connected-brain coaches can use their ability to see using both sides of the brain to help the players see more clearly which will lead to players making better micro-decisions in a game. Players are also coached to use their left brain to grow their range of technical skills they can act upon and players are coached to use the right brain to better read the game and make more meaningful connections to teammates.

We can't measure the quality of micro-decisions

If we use our left brain to measure the quality of micro-decisions we stop using both sides of the brains. It becomes left brain only. When using both sides of the brain all micro-decisions lead to more micro-decisions. If a micro-decision doesn't work, it might create an opportunity for us or someone else to make other micro-decisions to do something amazing. Was the first micro-decision wrong? It's impossible to say. Each situation is unique to ourselves and the people we are sharing a moment with. So what works for one person in one moment might not work for another. It might not work for us again. There is no fixed way to assess the quality of a micro-decision without making it left brain only. Then we are not using both sides of the brain and we are only measuring half the potential.

We can use our left brain to observe if someone is seeing the world through only one side of the brain which is likely to mean they are not using both sides of the brain

Having coached hundreds of people this way, here are three common ways to observe someone who is using only one side of the brain. To make it easier to see I have exaggerated them a bit.

  • If we only use the left brain to see the world ...

Without the right brain, the left brain can believe performance is only executing the detail perfectly. Winners make the least number of mistakes. The left brain will lift performance by isolating itself to better focus on executing the details without error. If the number of mistakes doesn't drop the left brain will isolate itself more. When others make mistakes the left brain will be compelled to correct them. If these people reject the left brain corrections the left brain will disconnected from them. As the pressure to be perfect increases the left brain will isolate itself more. When the left brain becomes stressed, anxious, angry when they fail to be perfect and isolates itself more. The left brain can escape the pressure and isolation by playing sports with a connected-brain coach who shows the left brain how to see the world using both sides of the brain.

  • If we only use the right brain to see the world around us

The right brain can imagine that a competitor is trying to bully the right brain in a deliberate attempt to make the right brain feel inferior. It is possible for the right brain to think that because the right brain is thinking it is rubbish at sport it must be true that everyone else is thinking the same way. The right brain doesn't have access to the left brain to reason that the right brain doesn’t know for certain what everyone is thinking about it. And even if the right brain is correct in how they imagine others are thinking it’s people's actions that matter. The right brain can escape these often intense emotions playing sports with a connected-brain coach who shows the right brain how to see the world using both sides of the brain.

  • If we swing from using the right brain to see the world around us to using the left brain to see the world around us and to the right brain to left brain without pausing... We are exhausted!

The right brain drives the left brain to join a game. Once that action is taken we should go back to the middle of the brain to use both sides of the brain to see clearly what happened and then make another micro-decision. But we don’t. We can stay in the left brain and see only what we need to do correctly. When these attempts don't work, we can swing back into the right brain without pausing to think. We can jump straight into fearing we are not good enough and others are out to get us. We calm down and go back to our left brain to correct what we did wrong. Until it doesn't work and we swing back to the right brain blaming ourselves and others. This creates massive swings between the right brain only where we see everyone is out to get us and the left brain only where we see ourselves as worthless because we make too many mistakes. It is exhausting. We can stop exhausting ourselves by playing sports with a connected-brain coach who shows us how between each switch of the brain we can pause, relax, breathe, see clearly then make another switch. We can then make many more smaller switches and be exhilarated not exhausted.

The answer is always we need to use both sides of the brain. It's what the science says.

Yes, I know this sounds like therapy. But it's not talking therapy. Players don't need to talk about their problems. We play sports to connect the brain. Once our brain is connected we all get better at using our full potential to find happiness in today's turbulent 21st century. We have life skills for the 21st century.

Our "be kind rule" encourages everyone to see using both sides of the brain

The “Be kind" rule means something going wrong for one person is an opportunity for another to use both sides of their brain to make it work. It means things going wrong and all our various inabilities are opportunities for us all to use both sides of our brain to make it work. Being a little less perfect gives others the opportunity to use both sides of their brain to make it work. It means everyone is welcome. Everyone is kind to themselves and others.

Connect-brain coaches create agile teams that respond, flex, and renew quickly in a rapidly changing, turbulent, and uncertain world. A team full of people finding potential they never knew they had.

About Jon Thorne

I tend to do things that I am not sure will work and regularly pause to make sense of what patterns and flows are emerging. Lockdown gave me a big pause point. An opportunity to stop and make sense of how my 56 years led me to a different way to coach sports. This blog is a summary of that sense-making.

I struggled until I came across Iain McGilchrist‘s work on the divided brain. Iain has a great website with lots of in-depth research, talks, and writing. I very much recommend Iain, his books, videos and website.

Using Iain's work to make sense of my life

If I put my brain in neutral, I naturally drift to the right side of my brain where I relax in a feeling of connection. My right brain always looks for connection, meaning I am always motivated to connect to my left brain to make sense of what I feel. I see the big picture and seek the details. This is why even though I find it hard to use my left brain, hard to stay in my left brain for long periods of time ... I keep doing it. The right brain means I use both sides of my brain.

Part 1: My formal education

My education was a struggle between being seen as clever at understanding the big picture and poor at repeating the technical details often required to pass exams. My degree is an average grade based on a high mark for my dissertation and low marks for my exams. I am a good right brain thinker and have to work really hard at being a left brain thinker.

Part 2: My sporting career

During my 5 years playing sports at Leeds Beckett University (Carnegie campus), I was measured to have many international level attributes and one crucial one at national level. This meant that to succeed at international level I was going to have to be lucky. Great coaches, great training and no injuries. The one attribute not tested was my ability to read the patterns of play, which was very useful when I played basketball, rugby, and football. This is my right brain. Thinking that my ability to read the game was my best asset I prioritised team games. I often bumped into a coach who only wanted players to be good at executing technical skills. They only wanted to coach the left brain. I was often technically good enough to get in the team. I would read the game using my right brain and do something that often won the game. But because I failed to execute what the coach wanted I would be dropped. I moved to athletics where the competition was a simple question of being the fastest. I did ok, but I was not using my biggest gift. My ability to read a game.

Part 3: My working life

In my working life employers valued my ability to find patterns and flows in the bigger picture. My right brain was valued. I developed a career turning around struggling technology projects where communications had broken down between a network of teams full of people with different disciplines, different cultures, different reward systems, different employers. Some of the technical engineers were often some of the best in the world. The projects were often failing because everyone was using their left brain to make sure others got the blame when it went wrong. They all knew it would go wrong. I would use my right brain to make it easier for everyone to use both their left and their right brain. The engineers stopped trying to make sure others got the blame and instead started to see how they could flex what they do to better work with others. I helped them to make micro-decisions on their technical work so that it all fitted together. Many projects facing certain failure delivered in time.

Part 4: My home education

When my children entered the education system, it was easy for me to see a mechanistic and standardised system designed to get all children as many qualifications as possible. It was a massive engine of left brain thinking. When my children suffered, especially the eldest, who like me lives mainly in his right brain and then my youngest suffered from the consequences of being locked in his left brain, we took them out of school to home educate. We adopted a passion led learning approach where our children each choose what they learned and how. It quickly became clear that they were so used to following instructions they didn't know how to make their own micro-decisions. I gave up work and started to coach them in how to see the world clearly so that they could make good micro-decisions. We connected to the wider world. We explored. Discovered. We created. As they grew up they naturally added technical skills and more ways to help others to their rapidly improving ability to make their own micro-decisions. This expanded into running a youth club and many tall ship sailing adventures with 20 odd teenagers. Our children received an education that used both sides of their brain.

Part 5: My sports coaching

I have coached and been coached in many different sports including athletics, basketball, rugby, netball, and swimming. It has always been obvious to me that winning at the highest level is as much about the right brain of emotion, connection, imagination as it is the left brain to execute the technical detail ... but it is clearly not obvious to many of the technically trained coaches and players. When I found out about how the left brain can inhibit access to the right brain this blind spot made sense to me. I eventually found a technical coach who could see the value of coaching the right brain. We tried a format where they would coach the left brain and I would coach the right brain. It didn't work because I could not coach the right brain without also coaching the left brain. I can't be a left brain technical basketball nor can I be a technical netball coach. Nor can I be a psychologist who only coaches the right side of the brain. I can coach the left and right sides of the brain at the same time and in a connected way. I am a connected-brain coach. I now feel confident I can train other coaches to be connected-brain coaches.

What's next for me?

I believe that being able to use both sides of the brain is one of the most important life skills of the 21st century. Which is why I am the founder of LifeSkills21.Club

If there is one message I would like to leave you with ... it's don’t let the technical left brain limit potential to what is known. Use both sides of the brain. Connect the brain. Use all our potential

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