The three phases of skill development
Brian Grasso explores the art and science of coaching young athletes
Developing a young athlete is not based solely on a given conditioning coach's understanding of scientifically valid measures of motor stimulus, strength training or flexibility exercises. In fact, it could be argued that given all of the critical information contained in a textbook on exercise selection, methodology and sensitive period development, that successful coaches will be the ones who can teach and relay information to young athletes well, more so than the coach who merely reads and digests the scientific information offered via clinical research. The science of developing an athlete is centred in the particular technical information associated with paediatric exercise science whereas the art of developing a young athlete is based on a coach's' ability to teach.
There are several styles of coaching that do not serve to aid in a young athlete developing skill yet are none-the-less common amongst North American coaches and trainers. An example of this would be the 'Command Coach'. Command coaches presume that the young athlete is a submissive receiver of instruction. The instructions are given, and information offered moves in one direction only; from the coach to the athlete. Coaches who display this habit believe that coaching success is based on how well the athlete can reproduce the skills as taught or demonstrated by the coach.
There are also various misappropriations relating to how young athletes actually learn -
Unfortunately, optimal learning does not occur in any of these ways. These aforementioned theories fail on several levels:
Recently, researchers have underscored the significance of both perception and decision-making as it relates to information processing and skill development. The focus has been on "how individuals learn to interpret information in the environment and use this to make effective decisions about movement execution". There appear to be three chronological phases in performance or execution - (a) Perceiving (b) Deciding (c) Acting.
The Perceiving Phase
During this phase, an athlete is attempting to establish what is happening and distinguish what information is applicable or valid. For example, a basketball player just received the ball and must now decipher a series of factors including the position of both teammates and opponents on the court, the players own position as it relates to the rest of the players as well as the basket and the stage of the game in relation to the score. Proficient players are able to sort through the key information quickly and separate it from another stimulus.
The Deciding Phase
This phase involves the athlete deducing the most appropriate path of action to take. In the case of our basketball player, this would include the decision to pass, dribble or shoot and which pass, dribble or shooting action would be the most suitable given the situation. Clearly, proficient athletes are more effective and decisive decision-makers.
The Acting Phase
Neural signals are sent which enlist muscles to carry out the desired task with suitable timing and adroitness. Although this execution phase is clearly important to sporting success, it must be understood that it alone is not responsible for on-field accomplishment. The two preceding phases serve to set up this final stage; a fact that is often ignored by coaches and trainers who maintain misappropriated beliefs regarding how athletes learn. These three phases are co-dependent and take place in a rapid sequential manner.
A great deal of teaching and coaching within youth sports currently focuses on developing techniques and skills within practice time or structured lessons. This custom very often leaves little time to actually play the game - during which the application of technical lessons becomes a vehicle through which young athletes will most optimally learn.
A solution to this was developed from the research of Rod Thorpe and David Bunker at Loughborough University, which sought to create "an alternative approach to games teaching and coaching that assisted players to learn the tactics and strategies of gameplay in tandem with technique development". The crux of their system is based on incorporating modified games into the practice times of young athletes. Within their approach, "games are modified to suit the developmental level of the player. "Modifications can be made to rules, playing area and equipment". These modifications are based on items such as physical maturity, cognitive capacity and experience. As a young athlete gains proficiency, this 'game form' of instruction changes in order to challenge the players' tactical awareness, decision-making ability and technique implementation capacity.
Technical skills are taught and eventually perfected within the margins of modified sports play rather than via drills and lessons. This methodology allows the young athlete to learn appropriate sporting skills while incorporating the critical perceiving and deciding phases of functional learning as outlined above. Individual sports can be broken down into sub-groups and categorized by their key characteristics.
Many sports, for example, share common qualities even though they have no relation - Football, Soccer, Hockey, Basketball:
Tennis, Volleyball, Badminton:
Baseball, Softball, Cricket:
Coaches could create and employ modified alternatives to their respective sports with the main characteristics associated with the technical and tactical aspects of the game kept in mind. This is a much different methodology than merely progressing athletes through various drills during practice time but has been shown to be more effective at developing the cognitive and physical relationship that exists in developing sporting proficiency.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development. Brian can be contacted through his website at www.DevelopingAthletics.com
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: