Skill Acquisition – Designing better practices

The UK Coaching Curious’ Coaches Club discussion this week focused on the subject of Skill Acquisition and was led by Marianne Davies, Stuart Armstrong and Kendal McWade. The discussion covered the topic of skill development, the supporting environment and the role of the coach. The Community of Practice discussions were varied and provided a platform to continue the conversation around the theme, helping the coaches involved to make sense of the topic in their own environments.

Here is a commentary on some of key discussion points:

Great Detective Story

With possibly one of the best explanations for what effective coaching for skill acquisition is, UK Coaching Senior Coach Developer Marianne Davies explained, “Coaching is like a great detective story. As coaches you need to leave the right number of clues for the learners to make their own decisions based on what they see Infront of them”.

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Games with constraints

When you really consider what works in skill acquisition looking at constraints-based games makes sense. Using games where there are high levels of contextual interference (chaotic situations) and the constraints of the game are adapted to challenge athletes to play in a certain way then the opportunity to learn and develop new skills takes place. This provides an exiting opportunity for coaches to design their practices and structure their challenges, so individuals, units and teams are ‘constrained’ to play in a specific way.

The beauty of using games is that it gives a clear context to the athlete about where, when and why they would select a specific movement or skill, which ultimately helps them build a library of movements to call upon in pressure-based situations.

We are dealing with humans who need to think, feel and move to execute a skill – with enough practice skill becomes automatic, but not automated.

What games could you design that set movement and performance challenges? What clues might you leave to help the athletes think and move in a helpful way?

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Coaching for redundancy

What is your role as a coach when games are taking place? Surely if you are directive and commanding then you steal the learning opportunities from the athletes? Consider how you spend your time when practice is taking place? Are you observing, tweaking, setting challenges, creating affordances?

Perhaps think about your coaching behaviours and interventions as a sound deck. What behaviours do you need to turn up, and what need turning down to increase the opportunity for your athletes acquiring new skills?

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Expectations v Reality

Coaching with games and constraints might look a little different for athletes and the parents who bring them to and from coaching practice. Instead of a practice that might look controlled it could be chaotic, messy and unstructured.

Consider how you might bring the parents with you on the coaching journey and share your ideas and reasons behind using more constraints based coaching practices to support learning and development. Here are a few pointers:

·      Games with constraints help prepare the athletes for competition

·      The game gives the athlete context for making the right movement and decision at the right time

·      You might see more mistakes during chaotic games, but mistakes are crucial for learning

·      When you watch me coaching, I might not be as vocal as you might think. If I am quiet, I am watching and listening intently to what the athletes are doing in the practice, and ready to set new and exciting challenges

Learning a new language

As coaches there is a lot of language we use around the subject of skill acquisition that could become unhelpful and ‘jargonistic’. Here are some two starters for modifying the language you use as a coach:

Technique > Movement Solution

Guided Discovery > Guided Exploration

Can you think of any more that would be useful for coaches?

Game Changers

When we look at our sports you might be able to consider athletes finding movement solutions, which at the time felt new, unorthodox and creative. Perhaps Johan Cruyff performing the Cruyff turn for the first time, or Lasith Malinga bowling in a different way.

Imagine if coaches in their players pathway had corrected the movements or coached the creativity out of their games?

Consider your coaching and how much you allow for athletes finding their own movement solutions to the performance challenges you set as a coach.

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