Dove Chen gets some last minute snacks from coach Sam Low before appearing on stage at the WBC 2017. Photo Credit: Sam Low
Sam Low accompanied Dove Chen, Meadow Fresh New Zealand Barista Champion 2017 to Seoul, South Korea in November as part of his coaching team. Sam’s fantastic social media updates on their adventures at the markets, cafes and meeting other coffee legends made us feel like we were part of the crew too! Sam talks about his trip and journey to becoming a coach.
How do you feel after returning from Seoul?
Post competition, life goes on as if nothing had happened! Then all the high-intensity feelings, commitment and sacrifice I saw from preparations towards the competition comes flooding back.
I have this burning desire to go back and compete again for self-redemption. The “I’m thinking about competing again” and “I will coach again” conversations with fellow industry professionals are flowing…
When did your journey with Dove begin?
I knew Dove from competing with him in the NZBC. He had been consistently improving his results over three years. In 2017, Dove came to visit me in Melbourne, where I was working at the time to ask if I could help him choose a coffee for the NZBC. I told him I was moving back to Auckland and if he wanted me to help I’ll be in reach. One thing led to another. Over the past nine months, we began weekly visits to Hamilton (a two-hour drive away) to build a routine and concept.
What are barista champion coaches?
Coaches are translators, by taking subjective ideas and translating them into WBC rules and regulation scoresheets. By the best of our ability, we are here to ensure that your ideas are understood by the judges who are trained to objectively score you while also allowing the audience to buy into your performance. After all, essentially coffee competitions are to find ambassadors for fellow coffee lovers who are generally sitting in the audience sipping on a fine cup of soft brew!
What made you decide to become a coach?
To be honest, I wanted to compete, but because I was moving back to Auckland from Melbourne and busy with other projects I wouldn’t have been able to make the time to prepare for it. I selfishly thought that by coaching someone I’m almost technically competing but without the intensive labour that is required. By imputing my ideas and sharing previous competition experiences to one person felt like I was back in the game… However, that was all wrong!
What did you discover about coaching methods?
On the first visit, we (mentor David Huang and I), analysed Doves draft concept and run-through for the NZBC. It wasn’t good. We didn’t understand what he was trying to do. We objectively scored his performance and said “If you want to win, this needs to make sense to you and me. At the moment you will be lucky with top three in New Zealand”.
By saying this to him, we weren’t trying to be mean and crush him as we didn’t believe this method would inspire him to work harder or create a better routine. This was the beginning of the realisation of how to understand how a competitor thinks. They will have been preparing a routine for months, but without someone coming in with an outside/objective point of view to remove the competitor’s subjectivity away from their work, no one will understand. I’ve been a victim to this and know exactly how it feels to have prepared something for a long time and fine tuning it to a point where it only makes sense to you but when an outside opinion comes along and criticizes your work you either shut them down or ignore their opinion. As a coach and a team you have selected, it’s no longer just another opinion, it becomes part of the team’s decision.
What did you learn?
I soon figured out that coaching is not giving your ideas and concept to your competitor and them being the “puppet” to your viewpoint. Instead, I began to understand that I had to approach this role as a “coach” as really just being there to ask why. The competitor themselves has to fully understand what ideas that want to convey to the audience. The best way to establish this was to ask why they doing every single action or why they are saying certain things. If you can’t convince yourself and your coach, you won’t be able to convince the audience, or most importantly, the judges.
What was the goal for the NZBC?
The main goal for the NZBC was to make the best damn espressos in the country at the time… and boy they were good, in fact, they were excellent! The scores of 5/6 for the pineapple fruit bomb espressos cemented Dove’s win.
What will you take away from the WBC experience?
I got to connect with other coffee lovers just like the competitors did, backstage and in the audience. This was the most important part of it all, having the opportunity to network and see other crazy dedicated coffee professionals. We didn’t place this year unfortunately and last year as a competitor I didn’t place also, however, we definitely felt like winners.
What would you say to someone looking to coach?
Having the opportunity to get together with the hundreds of equally crazy coffee people from around the world who love this industry so much that they would repeat the barista champion’s journey just for those five days in different host countries is worth it. Even if not to connect, then just to party! It’s always a great party.
Any last tips/advice/hacks
Remember that as a coach you are part of a team and it doesn’t mean your opinion trumps others
Ask “why” for everything that the competitor does, even the little things like the type of teaspoon they are using or music they choose to use.
For some great milk coaching tips, follow Sam here: https://www.instagram.com/meadowfreshforcafes/