Socrates vs Maximus Decimus Meridius – a matter of coaching style

Gidday to all gameplan Rugby readers. As you read this, I hope that all your pre-season dreams for your team are becoming reality, that all your patterns of play are reaping rich rewards and that your team is scoring try after scintillating try and defending their territory like the Maori battalion.

I would like to begin apologizing deeply to a bloke Shakespeare (who played occasionally at second five for Stratford-upon-Avon and wrote a bit) by paraphrasing Hamlet’s soliloquy. To tell or to question – that is the real question. Whether ‘tis nobler for the coach to tell the player what to do or to take arms against a sea of doubters and question to establish self-awareness and self-discovery. You’re probably thinking by now that I’ve been on the hard stuff again, but in this article I want you to think about coaching style, think about what you are trying to achieve with your players and to reflect upon your own way of coaching.

If you’re thinking that the Maximus Decimus Meridius referred to above rings a few bells, that’s because you’ve seen him in all his glory on the big screen, the Roman general, heroically played by Russell Crowe, who does the right thing, kills the bad guy and dies a hero. The reason that I’ve included him here to line up opposite Socrates is that he was a general and he, like most traditional military men (although they tell me things are changing in the military these days), told their men what to do, when to do it, how often to do it and how to do it. If soldiers asked questions of their superiors, it was when to jump and how high. Soldiers didn’t question the ranks above, they just did what they were told – and they normally weren’t short of orders.
Socrates (ca. 470-399 B. C.) was an early Greek philosopher/teacher and developed what has become known as the Socratic approach to teaching, based on the practice of disciplined, rigorously thoughtful dialogue and questioning. You’ll see by the date he lived, this is not the Brazilian mid-fielder, although you can be pretty sure that the gifted soccer player was named after the great Questioner. In Socrates original approach, the instructor professed ignorance of the topic under discussion in order to elicit engaged dialogue with students. Socrates was convinced that disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine ideas logically, to understand them more deeply and to be able to determine the validity of those ideas.

Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out answers from his pupils rather than telling them the answers. Socrates left no writing behind him and all that we know of him has been provided by his most famous pupils Plato and Aristotle (it’s not a bad legacy as a teacher to have a couple of pupils such as these!). It was actually Plato wrote up most of what we know of the wisdom of Socrates. Talking of teachers, it is interesting to note at this point that the word educate – and hence education - comes from the Latin ex duco, meaning to 'lead out' or “draw out”. If you look at the Latin base of educate, there is little about telling and a lot about drawing knowledge out of the student. The best way to do that is by the effective use of questions. I mention Socrates, not just because he is a fascinating man, but because he appears to have been the first to use questioning in a rigorous and systematic way. I, for one, am sad that his legacy has not been followed more closely especially in sport coaching.

Here are the six types of questions that Socrates asked his pupils.

Conceptual clarification questions

Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about and to prove the concepts behind their argument. Basic 'tell me more' questions that get them to go deeper.

• Why are you saying that?
• What exactly does this mean?
• How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
• What is the nature of ...?
• What do we already know about this?

Probing assumptions

Probing of assumptions makes them think about the unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument.

• What else could we assume from that?
• You seem to be assuming ... ?
• How did you choose those assumptions?
• Please explain why/how ... ?
• How can you verify or disprove that?
• What would happen if ... ?
• Do you agree or disagree with ... ?

Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

When people give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use poorly understood or mythical supports for their arguments.

• Why is that happening?
• How do you know this?
• Show me ... ?
• Can you give me an example of that?
• What do you think causes ... ?
• What is the nature of this?
• Why is ... happening?
• Why do you think this……….?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

Most arguments are given from a particular position. These types of questions challenge the position and bring to the player’s attention that there may be other, equally valid, viewpoints.

• What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
• Another way of looking at this is ..., what do you think?
• Why it is ... necessary?
• Who benefits from this?
• What is the difference between... and...?
• Why is it better than ...?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?
• How could you look another way at this?

Probe implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?

• Then what would happen?
• What are the consequences of that assumption?
• How could ... be used to ... ?
• What are the implications of ... ?
• How does ... fit with what we learned before?
• Why is ... important?
• What is the best ... ? Why?

Questions about the question

And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court. Etc.

• What was the point of asking that question?
• Why do you think I asked this question?
• What does that question illustrate?
If you’ve read my stuff before, you will know that I am an ardent advocate of non-directive coaching approaches. I am convinced that implicit learning (where players figure things out for themselves, guided by their coach) is hugely more powerful that explicit learning by didactic (telling, instructing) coaching. Have a think about Socrates’ approach and have a think how you could apply it to your own coaching. Let’s now imagine Maximus and Socrates as rugby coaches.

The scenario is as follows: a No 10 (named Brutus) has thrown a wide, cut-out pass from a ruck in phase play. He has his fullback running a dummy cut on his inside, and one defender immediately in front of him. The opposition halfback is sweeping behind his backline to mop up any chip kick. Unseen by the No 10, the opposition No 12 has (not for the first time) rushed up out of the defensive line and this time intercepts the ball and scores 60 metres away under the posts. Some of you may be thinking that this is an instinctive decision, and the optimal way to improve this decision in future might be doing something about it rather than talking about it, but let’s leave that for the moment. Here’s how I think the two coaches (one Roman, one Greek) might have handled it.

Coach Maximus:

Brutus, that was clearly a poor option when you threw that long cut-out pass after the third phase. Their No 12 rushed up out of the defensive line and it was an easy intercept really. You had Hercules running a dummy cut on the inside and you’d have been better served giving it to him. He was up against two fatties and could have stepped them easily. You need to scan more quickly before the halfback gives you the ball and make better decisions. You should go away and practice it.

Coach Socrates:

Socrates: Bruty (he’s formed a good relationship with his player, so uses his nickname), when they turned the ball over and scored that try, what do you think went on there?

Brutus: Well, their No 12 rushed up and just plucked it out of the air. I shouldn’t have thrown the pass. I was gutted.

Socrates: Okay, what other options did you have?

Brutus: Well, I had Hercules running a cut on the inside?

Socrates: Any other options?

Brutus: I suppose a chip might have been the go, especially as they were rushing up and there was possibly space behind?

Socrates: Okay, which do you think would have been the best option and why?

Brutus: Their halfback was sweeping across in defence for the chip, so I reckon the inside ball to Herc would have been best, especially since he was running at two tight forwards and probably could have stepped them and found space.

Socrates: Great. So what do you think you need to do to make a better decision in future?

Brutus: Well, I knew Herc was running the cut, so I needed to scan earlier than I did and see their mid-field rushing up.

Socrates: When do you need to do that?

Brutus: I think I need to scan quickly when the half-back is reaching for the ball, and again quickly just before he lets it go before I focus on catching the ball. Also Cassius and Cicero outside me could have given me a heads- up on what was going on.

Socrates: Okay, we’ll have a chat to them about their communication. Let’s design a drill that can help to train that …

If you’re wondering why a Greek coach is coaching Romans, don’t even go there – maybe he’s coaching a Greco-Roman selection against the Huns or something! Have a think how the two different coaching approaches might have impacted on Brutus’s learning. Try to put yourself in his situation in and imagine how you would experience the two different coaching styles if you were the player. Clearly the Maximus approach is an instructional/prescriptive approach. Here the coach has all the answers and he tells the player what he has done, why he has done it wrong and what he needs to do to put it right. There was no attempt to find out what the player was thinking, why he took the option that he did and the nature of his reasoning. Sure, the coach knew exactly what the right option was and told the player what he should have done. Maximus was well-meaning and probably thought he did a good job of improving Brutus's decision-making. The problem is that he's taking pot luck as to whether Brutus understood what he said, was able to process the information and most importantly he has no idea whether his player will be able to remember the learning and put it into practice in the next game.

Now let's have a think about Socrates’ approach. He, on the other hand, has given no instruction whatsoever. He is merely asked questions and guided his player to think hard about what went on, why it happened and how he can improve. Every time Brutus is asked a question by coach Socrates, he has to access his long term memory, display self-awareness and self-analyse. Every time he answers a question, his coach gets vital information on how he’s thinking, how and how much he understands and is then able to frame his next question. In effect, Socrates is acting as a guide to player self-discovery. The learning gained from coach Maximus is explicit learning (instruction/information given by the coach), whereas Socrates is nurturing implicit learning. Research indicates that implicit learning is deeper, lasts longer and is able to be transferred to new situations more effectively than explicit learning. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t give players information if they just don’t get it despite your questioning. That’s fine. But I would encourage you to go back to a non-directive approach as soon as you can. Most of us habitually tend to tell rather than question, but if you are willing to work at it you can break that habit and change. Once your players get used to it, I’m sure they’ll thank you for it

I strongly encourage you to take a Socratic approach whenever and wherever possible. As I say, it’s an approach that may be different to what you are used to, but you will help to develop players who are thinkers, who understand themselves and the game more fully and who will increasingly develop self-reliance a quality surely all of us want to develop in our players. I call this coaching approach “Query Theory” – but as you can see it’s been around for a long time. Unfortunately Socrates ended up drinking hemlock and killed himself before his fellow Romans executed them. Rome then wasn’t quite ready for his approach. I am convinced that New Zealand rugby is ready for it – all you have to be is willing and able. Hopefully I have helped you a little with both. All the best for the rest of your season and to those of you coaching rep stuff – good luck. To all of you – keep up the good work.