Learning skills for sport

What is the best way to learn a new skill or refine an existing skill in a Sporting Environment? Learning and developing skills is crucial to sports development. Every sporting environment requires an athlete to overcome various constraints to still be able to perform the task that is needed of them. There are a few things that can vary the task performance such as changes in the athlete, changes in the task requirement and the environment that the task has to be performed in. This is called the Dynamical Systems Theory (DST).

As a coach, I am looking to get the very best performance out of the athlete, no matter what constraints (Limitations or restrictions) are placed in front of them. So, when I am teaching an athlete a new skill I must be aware that these constraints can change, and therefore can affect the performance.

So how do I prepare for these constraints? How do I teach new skills or refine pre-existing skills? Firstly, I must be prepared to accept that you cannot control the uncontrollable. For example, I cannot control the weather on a given day, nor can I control a camera flash going off in front of my Athlete who is about to perform a Snatch on the platform. These uncontrollable environmental constraints are simply part of sport and an athlete must be able to get over them. Secondly, I need an athlete to be as variable as possible.

Of course, the Skill needs to be taught first. If the athlete has never thrown a Javelin before, the coach will need to teach how to throw a javelin in a controlled environment first. However, as soon as that Skill has been developed to a point that it is technically acceptable, a coach needs to devise different coaching methods to develop that skill further rather than just constantly throwing a javelin in the same way over and over again.

Variability is crucial for successful sports performance. To overcome ever-changing constraints, the athlete needs to be able to complete a given task in a number of ways. Teaching one way to complete a task is a mistake, and coaching need to be careful not to fall into the trap of just drilling one way of doing things. For example, with a basketball player shooting a ball into a hoop – just repeatedly having the basketball player shooting into the hoop from one position, or several positions over and over again will not prepare that athlete for a real-life game as within a real life game the environment will not allow that athlete to just calmly shoot that ball into the hoop. Instead, the coach would need to put in relevant constraints in training to represent a realistic environment in which the athlete can develop in.

Rowan developing her Snatch. We are using the black line in front of her to ensure she does not jump forward as she extends

Even in sports such as Weightlifting, Variability is crucial. Arguably there aren’t as many varying environmental or task constraints in the sport of Weightlifting, after all it’s the same bar and same two movements. But keep in mind that not every lift will go as swimmingly as they do in training. The athlete will need to adapt to a new crowd and judges, and not only that, be able to adjust their lift accordingly if the lift isn’t performed as technically well, like the ability to step forward if the Snatch or Jerk is pushed forward for example.

So, to teach variability, your training ought to be variable. You must give challenges to your athlete in training that they must get over themselves. For example, if your athlete catches a Snatch with their feet too wide, telling them not to drive their feet out may work, but it may be better to put an environmental constraint to teach them to stop driving their feet too wide. This could be done by drawing a line either side of their feet, and telling them not to go over the line. It is surprising how well this coaching works.

This sort of coaching will teach the Athlete to make their own subconscious actions to overcome the constraints you’re putting in front of them – and sports skills are performed subconsciously.

It must be said that coaching, though making the athlete for variable, must remain measurable. This can be achieved by testing the athlete in tests relevant to the athlete and their needs.

If you have any questions regarding this topic then please get in touch.


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