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Coaching Methods

Brian Mackenzie examines the various ways an athlete can be taught a new skill.

As a coach, you will be required to facilitate the learning of new technical skills by your athletes. To achieve this, you will need to develop your knowledge of the learning process and the various coaching methods.

Whole Practice

Ideally, skill should be taught as a whole as the athlete can appreciate the complete movement and execution of a skill. The entire method of instruction can sometimes mean the athlete has to handle complex movements, e.g. the whole high jump technique.

Part Instruction

When a skill is complex, or there is considered to be an element of danger for the athlete, then it is more appropriate to break down the complex movement into its constituent parts. The parts can then be taught and then linked together to develop the final skill. When a part instruction is used, the athlete must be demonstrated the whole skill so that they can appreciate the end product and understand how the set of parts will develop the skill.

Whole - Part - Whole Instruction

Initially, the athlete attempts the whole skill, and the coach monitors to identify those parts of the skill that the athlete is not executing correctly. Part instruction can then be used to address the limitations, and then the athlete can repeat the whole skill with the coach monitoring for any further limitations.

No one method is suitable for all occasions, but studies have shown that:

  • simple skills (and perhaps simple is relative to each individual) benefit from the whole method
  • skills of intermediate difficulty benefit from the part method
  • closed skills are often taught with part instruction
  • difficult skills are best dealt with by oscillating between part and whole

An Eastern European Approach

Consideration must be given to the approach adopted by the former Eastern Bloc countries to technique training. The aim is to identify the basic version of a technique, one that is basic and essential to more advanced techniques. For example for the shot - the basic model would be the stand and throw, more advanced would be the step and throw, and finally followed by the rotation method.

This fundamental component is taught first and established as the basis for all further progressions. Deriving from the fundamental component are exercises that directly reinforce the required movement patterns. These exercises are known as first-degree derivatives. They contain no variations of movement that may confuse the learner.

Second-degree derivatives are exercises that only coincide in part with the fundamental component, and therefore could lead to confusion while learning is taking place. These should not be included in the program until the learning of the fundamental component has completely stabilised.

Types of Practice

There are four types of practice:

  • Variable - the skill is practiced in the range of situations that could be experienced - Open skills are best practiced in this way
  • Fixed - a specific movement is practiced repeatedly, known as a drill - Closed skills are best practiced in this way
  • Massed - a skill is practiced without a break until the skill is developed. Suitable when the skill is simple, motivation is high, the purpose is to practice a skill, and the athletes are experienced
  • Distributed - breaks are taken whilst developing the skill. Suitable when the skill is new or complex, fatigue could result in injury, motivation is low, and poor environmental conditions

Distributed practice is considered to be the most effective.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2004) Coaching Methods. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 9 / February), p. 1-2

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2004) Coaching Methods [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.