Plenty of practice and empty heads – Part 4: The coach as a secure base.

4…the coach as a secure base…


Coaching is an important and difficult task – and one made far more complex with the common misunderstanding that coaches teach the game.  Let’s be clear – the game teaches the game.  Athletes learn the game while coaches scan the environment for opportunities to provide perspectives, techniques and strategies to assist their athletes (and teams) in realizing their potential.


In light of this perspective, the growth and development of the athlete is more a process of exploration – and a bit like the hero’s journey.  Perhaps I watched too much Star Wars but when Luke began to learn the ways of the force, his coaches didn’t berate or over analyse. Like true Zen masters, Obi Wan and Yoda observed more than they instructed so that their advice was timely and precise. Less is more.


The best coach I had in my professional days was Phil Smyth and his philosophy was: try anything once and if it doesn’t come off, learn what you can from the failure.  Then try it a second time, and if it’s still not successful, observe it more closely and learn more from it.  Then try it one more time, and if it still doesn’t come off as you’d like, maybe park it for a while and save it for practice.


The advantage of this philosophy for someone trying to master their craft is that it not only accepts failure but sees it in its rightful place as teacher.  A wise coach embraces the notion that failure merely realizes one’s inadequacies and that the only way to overcome these inadequacies is to confront them. But if you think that this is all new age, hippy, Zen mumbo jumbo, then let me re-present it from a psych and biological perspective.


As infants we are vulnerable and helpless and so to survive, we automatically form an attachment with a primary caregiver (usually mum).  If mum consistently and appropriately responds to our needs (distress, hunger, etc.,) with a degree of emotional warmth and attunement, we learn that we have a dependable and secure base (known in psychology as a secure attachment).


With this secure base, we are freer to explore our environment and develop the competencies needed for greater independence because our brain is more likely to use its exploratory systems.  The neural circuitry adapted for exploration is the same as the one used in play and when this circuitry is engaged, the organism displays more approach types of behaviours (i.e. it’s more likely to perceive threat as a challenge).


I’ve skipped a fair chunk of detail but for those inclined, a Wikipedia wormhole of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and Jaak Panksepp should supplement the details nicely.


Back to sport.


Thematically speaking, I advocate for the role of the coach to act as a secure base because in many symbolic ways, they represent the primary caregiver for the athlete. As a secure base, they permit the athlete to explore their craft by accompanying them on the journey of mastery. Coaches are not the authors of an athletes’ success but their contributions to it are significant and inspiring.


When I watch the Tigers play, I see a group that is free to engage in the game playfully. Every potential action by an actor with a black and yellow jumper is approached as an opportunity to see where the next opportunity lies. It’s a positive feedback loop of opportunity to succeed and Damien Hardwick sits at the base of this game-style of approach, exploration, and freedom.


The really exciting thing for Friday night is that Nathan Buckley also sits beneath a team that embraces this same aspirational philosophy.


Go Pies.


Read Parts 1,2,3 HERE





About David Stiff

retrenched athlete, retired catholic, amateur philosopher and cynical optimist :)


  1. Interesting, thanks David.

    Probably not enough room on this page, but:
    You talk about the athlete growing and learning the game, but what about the coach?
    He/she must also keep developing, also?

  2. Hi Smokie

    Yes, there’s plenty more to write about on this issue.

    With regards to coaches, if they choose to coach with the aim of mastery, then they’re on exactly the same journey as their athletes. The big difference between coaches and athletes is the information they process.
    In terms of the secure base, coaches benefit from one too, and it comes from the board, governing body, CEO, or whomever is in charge above them. To my mind, the higher up the secure base sits in the hierarchy of any organisation, the more people will benefit – hence the value of sound and balanced people as leaders (such a pity there are so few).

    I can flesh this out further next week if you like…


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