I ended my last post signalling the next topic of assessing skill performance. To reiterate an earlier point, even professional scouts and coaches have a patchy record in assessing skills. Character? Maybe: we’ll come back to that. But let’s look in a longer than usual post at the physical aspects of skill and, in my last paragraph, the US college admissions scandal.
Much depends on what we’re talking about. Closed skills (golf swing, weightlifting clean and jerk, or a tennis serve). These skills are conducted in stable, predictable situations. Motor patterns are planned and practiced ahead of time. The challenge is always execution in the heat of competition. By contrast, open skills are executed in dynamic often unstable situations where circumstances are continuously changing.
So what’s the challenge? The effective closed skill coach will have a clear understanding of the movement patters involved. The mechanics will be understood and close attention will be paid to detail and simulation of competition routines in training will be an important feature of practice.
The effective open skill coach will want accumulated competent closed skills that the game comprises. The soccer player can kick in a wide range of styles and settings. The basketball shooter can execute off the dribble, off the pass, off the screen and so on. But this coach also needs athletes who can size up the situation, judge running lines, look one or two passes ahead etc.
So here’s the challenge. My distinctions seem straightforward. Early on in the athlete’s development, however, coaches must take account of what makes up “an action situation”. The athlete, the task and the test environment. We think about this as ‘action theory’. Some young players involved in sport generally at an early age are mature enough biologically and psychologically to perform the tests assessing physical ability and skill level and to attain a high level of achievement – for that age and social group. Others, however, will not have reached maturation levels that enable them to handle the test – skills in isolation and not succeed. But when placed in wider game situation with their friends, may be very capable.
So what to do? If you really want to ‘test’ – remember it’s the ‘adults in the room’ that cause the problem. First in the queue to see those results? Parents keen to find out whether their child has a chance of making the top team, the representative team or the sport scholarship.
So have I demonstrated what can be made certain in selection? I think not; and for the following main reasons. First, young athletes see sport as primarily fun. They’re young people! Second, biological maturation is more important than chronological age. And let me be clear: no evidence exists that suggests maximising strength and conditioning is contra-indicated for pre-pubertal athletes. Learning and refining motor skills should be the priority with strength training focused on learning to use the body efficiently. Building muscle mass for strength, intensive anaerobic and aerobic training should be delayed until puberty has passed.
Here’s simple table by physiologist Saltin (2007) to help coaches think about the emphasis of youth training on factors linked to sport performance at different biological stages
Prepuberty Puberty Post puberty
Motor skills *** ** *
Muscle strength n/a * ***
Anaerobic n/a * **
Aerobic capacity * * ***
***= major emphasis **= normal emphasis *= minor emphasis n/a=not applicable
But I have to finish with a paragraph from today’s Washington Post on the US college admissions scandal of getting children into top universities. At the end of their opinion piece, Caitlin Gibson and Ellen McCarthy report on the private admissions coaching industry and parents:
“…..Rebecca Dalton, a mother of two, was one of them. One of her sons plays volleyball, a sport that theoretically might give him a chance to be recruited by a college coach. But she can tell he’s not having fun, that it’s not really “playing” anymore. He says he feels burned out and wants to stop, to try something else instead. She worries that quitting is “a big risk,” she says.
“It’s all so incredibly intense and competitive,” she says. “You feel like you can’t trust anyone, you feel like you need to be participating in all these different areas and activities to keep your child on par.”
Digilio’s counsel — about letting her kids’ college process be about what they want, not about what she or a hypothetical admissions officer might want — came as a relief. Dalton feels more at peace about letting her son choose to quit his sport, resolved that his happiness is paramount.
She’s not sure other parents would let go so willingly.
“This is just so ingrained in everyone’s brain,” she says. “I don’t think these people know how to stop."
(Photo source: Bloomberg)