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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Giving children a chance to be successful sport participants for life – Part 3

The two earlier posts in this three-part series discuss some of the scientific principles of teaching and learning that should underpin good practice coaching. But while these principles are relatively straightforward, the devil is in the detail. One principle I described was the need for learners to have enough attempts for learning to take place. But there’s more to it.

Part three looks more closely at what we know about learning. Skill learning can be thought about in two ways.

Explicit motor learning – which generates verbal knowledge of movement performance (e.g. facts and rules), involves cognitive stages within the learning process and is dependent on working memory involvement. We use this a lot and the athletes tell us either that we talk too much or (more commonly) nod wisely and say ‘I got that coach’. However, clear instructions must be provided and should either include 'the goal of the task', 'the steps or rules that need to be followed', or a combination of both.

Implicit learning ‑ which progresses with no or minimal increase in verbal knowledge of movement performance and without awareness. In other words, players accumulate knowledge passively and without conscious analytic strategies. Here, instructions should be minimised and the athlete focuses on how the activity ‘feels’. This is my preferred approach as a weightlifting coach. A technical sport that depends on the ‘feel’ of the lift under extreme pressure.

Interestingly, implicit learners display significant performance improvement in through practice, but often they have difficulty verbally reporting the underlying structure of the task or their words don’t match the higher quality of their performance.

Coaches select from many learning strategies. Most, however, are not necessarily aware of what those strategies are and what might be most effective for the situation. So I’ve summarised seven of the most recognisable.

  • Discovery learning – the coach sets up problem-solving situations where the learner draws on his or her own past experience and existing knowledge and ‘discovers’ a new solution.

  • Analogy learning, for instance make a ‘goose head’ with the hand to follow-through the basketball shot or hit a table tennis backhand drive as though you are throwing a frisbee. And we all remember Mr Miyagi’s “wax on wax off” analogy in the Karate Kid movie!

  • Errorless learning is achieved by immediate prompts or cues following the instruction – useful in rehabilitation. We’ve all used it some stage, starting with an easy version of the skill and gradually making it harder. It’s not really errorless, but we minimise the chance of mistakes.

  • Observational learning, is achieved by watching what others do. Children learn all sorts of social skills this way, they observe consequences for certain actions. We often use modelling as a tool to teach. But don’t underestimate how much players learn by watching – they create a mental picture of the skilled movement, they learn through demonstrations and they can copy from a role model.

  • Dual task learning is used a lot in injury rehabilitation (and stroke rehabilitation in hospital) but can be used in early learning complex tasks. It comprises having to two things at the same time. At its simplest, walking and talking at the same time. In sport, dribbling a basketball and looking for an open player. A primary task and a secondary task.

  • Trial and error learning which involves testing different ways of achieving a goal until one works. Tennis learners adjust their hand grip until they find one that feels comfortable. Cricket players develop strategies by trial and error for scoring that balance risk and reward – see how test players have adapted to the one-day and T20 games (often with minimal coach input!).

  • Movement imagery – described most simply as mentally repeating physical actions. This is one of the most widely researched topics in sport psychology. It builds on our knowledge that anticipation of an event or skill execution generates a physiological response. For example, physiologists have shown that heart rate and rate of breathing, factors that anticipate muscular activity, increase during imagery practice.

The coaching message is to analyse your own coaching style against the seven (there are more that I’ll cover in future posts on advanced coaching). THEN…. Assess what learning approach might be a best fit for your athlete(s). At that point, the main challenge is whether you have the insight to recognise that you might need to change the way you have done things for a long time.

We know that, in general, adults who practice sport skills in reduced feedback conditions perform with greater accuracy and consistency compared with those who practice with feedback provided during every practice trial. My view is that young athletes and adults receive far too much feedback too quickly. The classic ‘overcoaching’ phenomenon.

Evidence has always helped improve my coaching. For instance when I ask coaches which form of learning they use or prefer to set up, I mostly receive the standard ‘get out of jail’ phrase “Well it depends…..” And they are right. It depends on the learner's abilities, the type of task to be learned and at what stage of motor learning the athlete is at. But is that what the coaches mean by ‘it depends’? One approach is to think about explicit and implicit learning as ends of a continuum. Locate your athlete on the continuum and adapt your coaching.

Two large studies looked at golf teaching. Both studies found that beginners who learned a putting task with explicit rules, `choked’ under psychological stress, whereas those who learned the task implicitly did not. This sounds useful for sports coaches. We should favour teaching methods that bring about longer-lasting skill and strong responses under time pressure. Furthermore, skills learned implicitly seem more reliable ‘on call’ when needed. This should make implicit learning more appealing in modern sporting arenas, since motor skills are often performed in high anxiety situations. However, teaching motor skills implicitly is not easy.

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