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Guest Blog: Reflection Using Photos

A friend of mine likes to ‘take the mickey’ out of my PhD research. ‘You can’t call that research’, he tells me; ‘it’s just a notebook about “what I did down the club today”’. I try to ignore him, because the fact remains that reflective practice, by which I mean critical reflective practice, is bloody hard work. It’s hard for lots of reasons: it takes a lot of time; it can be emotionally challenging; and for it to be useful you have to do something about it, including sometimes changing behaviours and practices that you, or the people around you, hold dear and/or have proved highly effective in the past.

Another challenge is finding a way of engaging in reflective practice that works for you as an individual; appeals to your preferred learning styles; and fits in with your coaching plans and activities, your work-life balance, and the day-to-demands on your time and resources. Personally, I find reflective writing the most satisfying and effective way of thinking about what I do, both in my role as a coach and as a manager in a publishing company. That said, I’ve had to learn an approach to writing that is markedly different from the one I was taught at school. There, I was instructed to plan what I was going to write paragraph by paragraph with a beginning, a middle and end. I still write that way when I’m writing formally, but when I’m writing reflectively I start with a blank sheet of paper and just type. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, what I end up with surprises me. I learn, through the process of writing, things I didn’t expect or sometimes it’s more like bringing to the surface something I didn’t know I knew.

That’s fine for people like me who prefer to write and who can find the time and discipline to do so. The fact is though, that despite my alleged preference for reflective writing, I don’t always practice what I preach. As I said, it’s hard work and after a training session there are usually other demands on my time. For others, writing is not something they can engage with to the same extent. They might not find the process enjoyable or they might find it difficult to get started. But there is more than one way to reflect and it’s important to find an approach to critical reflection that works for you.

Soon after I became aware of reflective practice I was confronted with a couple of images of myself coaching the under-12 rugby union team at my local club. In one of them I was shouting from the sidelines at a tournament we had taken part in a few years previously. There’s an angry expression on my face and it looks pretty aggressive. The photograph took me back to that day and an incident in which I shouted at that group of children. I felt ashamed when I recalled what I said and how I said it. I still do. 

JP shouting

The Masters’ degree I was taking at the time caused me to question a number of things I had taken for granted about coaching or certainly think more deeply about them. One of those things was the difference between the values and behaviours I told myself I adhered to and some of the behaviours I actually exhibited in my practice. Some of the values I claimed to hold important were things like being focused on the needs of the players, justice, and equity. I claimed that I wanted the players to feel respected and valued, that their opinions and inputs to training and game plans were as important as mine. If I really felt that, why was I shouting angrily at a bunch of 12-year-olds? I decided that I better start being more mindful of what I was doing and saying and rather than just paying lip-service to these espoused values, I needed to work a lot harder at actually living them.

Towards the end of that season we were in a play-off game for a place in the first tier league. If we won, we’d be in the first division; if we lost we’d be playing down in division 2. I didn’t know which was best for us, but the players did. They wanted to win.  One of the dad’s took some photos of the pre-match warm up. There are a couple of me laughing with the players, talking calmly and quietly, and there’s one of me looking on from behind the goalposts, yards away from anyone just letting the lads get on with things the way they saw fit.

Both photographs bring forth emotions. The ‘shouty’ one brings shame. The calm, happy one brings a feeling of pride that I managed to bring some semblance of my more rational and caring self to a game that, at that stage in my coaching ‘career’, was probably the most important one to date.

The photographs seem key to that journey. The sense of shame I felt led to the firm decision on my part to be ‘better’, to be more mindful of what I said and did, and how the values I espoused needed to guide my coaching practice more consistently. I’m not sure if that sense of shame would have been so easy to recall, and consequently use, if I hadn’t got the photographic evidence to remind me of the incident itself. Even now, writing this 8 years later, that photograph makes me squirm. 

JP 2

I’ve used photographs with other coaches too. At one game I showed a coach of photo of him just after his team had conceded a soft try. We had worked on a number of things in his practice and he had decided to be less verbally critical of his players when they made mistakes but his body couldn’t shut up quite so effectively. He was horrified when he saw that photograph: ‘What does that say to them when I do that with my shoulders and head. My whole posture just says “shit!”.’ Despite his best efforts at controlling what he said and when he said it, he was still transmitting his disappointment to his players through his body language.

I’ve also used photographs with players. Perhaps not at the metacognitive level but quick ‘before- and-after’ photographs of a player’s body position at a ruck can help them understand what a good position ‘feels’ like by seeing what it looks like from another’s point of view.

I think that’s what photographs can do when engaging in reflective practice. They can put you in touch with things like emotions that can otherwise dissipate over time and they can help you see how others see you.

With digital cameras in every smartphone they are easy to take and share (making sure you get the correct permissions of course). You can use them for reflecting in-action (as in the ruck practice), for reflecting on-action (as in the body language of the coach) or for reflecting for-action (as I did when I realised I needed to change my practice).

Photographs, like writing, or like coaching and mentoring can provide us with the ‘reflective surface’ that we need in order to see ourselves. Without a surface that reflects our self or our practice there’s nothing to see but that surface doesn’t have to be a sheet of paper, a computer screen, or another person. It can be a picture of yourself that helps you get back into that moment, reconnects you with your thoughts at that moment in time, or helps you see yourself from a different perspective and ultimately, helps you think about doing something differently.

John Peel
Club Coach Coordinator, Wallingford RFC
PhD candidate at the Cardiff School of Sport, Cardiff Metropolitan University