The Optimal Learning Theory
Many people can get turned off by research, and theories and all the language that comes with it. I understand this, and I can agree with the assertion that it can be inaccessible, but underneath it is a wealth of knowledge.
Now I don't expect people to wade through paper after the paper, that's what I am here for. However a few pieces of seminal research can be so helpful and powerful for us.
The thing about it is, research often reflects what we already do. But what it also does, in my experience, is kills some beliefs that might be holding us back, creates some new ideas and takes the edges off some of our approaches to leadership, learning, or coaching.
While there is some bullshit research out there (sports science is full of it), for the most part most researchers are hell bent on learning more and improving things for their area of study. Many though do not know how to communicate that well, and while academics may not like me saying this, there is a lot of snobbery and arrogance within the academic world, between themselves as much as to the outer world.
However some of the research, and indeed fueled by popular biographies and journalistic stories, sell us survivorship bias. We hear the story of the great champion that makes it and it kinda reverse engineers from there. But that's not really how it is in the real world for most people. For most of us, it's not about those who make it anyway - it's about the 99.9988% (actual number of kids who play in English Soccer academies that won't "make it") who want to enjoy a sport and stay active, or support at school, or to keep in a job.
When you are trying to improve something like coaching, well, you have to be able to connect with your audience. Now academics come back with the argument that "this is the language that best describes it". And while that might be technically true - you are losing the reader. So what's the point?
What I have recently seen is academics saying we need intermediaries to reach "regular people".
And here we are... this is our attempt at it.
That's a little ranty I know, but at the end of the day we are researching for the sake of research or for the development of....
That said, there is plenty of good stuff that's pretty accessible.
Our game is coaching, but there are a few theories and fields of study that are worth putting ourselves out for. In fairness they are pretty well presented and not overly jargon-y either.
One is called the Optimal Learning Theory. A theory, with a lot of years of research, that supports an environment for optimal learning; Specifically Motor Learning. Motor Learning underpins skill development which of course is going to be of interest to coaches and athletes in particular.
The researchers, Gabriele Wulf & Rebecca Lewthwaite, landed on 3 critical factors that underpin an optimal setting for Motor Learning - an external focus of attention, autonomy, and enhanced expectations.
What I personally love about this theory is it helped me reach almost in a triangle of effectiveness. It was research that significantly changed something I was doing that wasn't best practice. It adjusted something I was kind of doing but doubled down on thereafter to great success. This confirmed something to me I had been doing for years that I felt I was a bit of an outlier on.
External Focus of Attention
External focus of attention comes from one half of the "Attentional Focus" domain. The other one being an internal focus of attention.
As it says on the tin, this is about where we focus our attention while performing a Motor task.
An internal focus is when we focus using our body - "push your knees out as you descend in a squat" - grip your hurley tight when hitting the ball". It can also be when coaching acceleration an example might be to "push the ground away from you".
A very specific cue I would use in Gaelic games coaching is "tackle the ball" in Gaelic football or "ball to ground" in hurling. This change of focus has had a significant effect on defending and with teams I worked with. By using these terms we set the focus on the result and its external. This seems to have players self organise in a way to just concentrate on the ball. And the results are significant with the amount of frees given away decreasing anywhere we employed it.
Previously I had been obsessing over near handed tackles and had a more technical model, whereas this was a more holistic and skill adaptation model. What's weird about this is I was using an external focus of attention on shooting and especially free taking. Where I would myself and coach players to focus on something beyond the posts and every time we went to a new field or venue to find some focus beyond the posts - this was external focus of attention only I didn't know it.
A classic case of where knowledge can support both new learning and creativity.
Autonomy is something that comes up time and again as central to underpin motivation. That motivation then can enhance the ability or want to learn new things but also to commit, to engage and to practice.
In team sports there is a little misconception that this is only with youths or adults and you can involve them in team strategy. But autonomy is not complicated nor does it have an age bracket. With children in a sporting context it can be as simple as"do ye want to play dodge ball or bib tag today? (the answer is to play both by the way)
In a gym setting I work autonomy into my programming and training, but it's nested inside my principles of training and movement. While we will squat-push-hinge-pull every week, what type of squat for instance might become a choice of the athlete or client - a front squat or a back squat or a split squat.
As you get to know an athlete, student or employee more the level of autonomy can grow. We can ask them when they want feedback (people vary wildly with this), do they want a demo first or to have a cut off it themselves, we can ask them to make a template or even design training sessions as a group or small group, get their input into when they want to push on and see what more they can do and multiple other areas.
It's up to the coach or leader to figure out where they want their hand held and where they will lead something themselves.
Autonomy has been something I was somewhat giving to players and clients over the years. You begin to learn how useful it is and how it enhances a shared experience. There will be times where it is somewhat rejected, people will say "just tell me what to do and i'll do it". So do that. Sometimes that evolves, but of course there is a form of autonomy involved in that too, but sometimes it can be used and the occasional athlete will try to manipulate for their own benefit or to disrupt. This is just part of the game.
Enhancing expectations is again a powerful tool in building a team or group atmosphere, broadening the breath of learning and getting buy-in to a common purpose.
At a very practical level enhancing the expectations of a child and their ability to learn a skill. Explaining to them even in simple terms "in 6 weeks you won't even remember missing the pick up and you will be doing it all the time". This will give the child a vision of where they can go and that someone has the confidence in them to do it.
We need to be conscious of the history and experience of some of the people we coach and where previous support systems have been. It's quite possible, because we always hear this nonsense in sport, "you can't teach that". What many athletes hear is "I can't learn that, as I was not born with it". Now we can't "teach" skill or creativity, but we can create the atmosphere and build the environment to do so. This is particularly strong at adult level but I believe this comes down to lazy coaching and a lack of motivation to try and support development. While learning as an adult is slowed compared to as a child, it doesn't mean it cannot happen. So enhancing expectations really is closely linked to growth and fixed mindsets - a growth mindset can be developed or enhanced by a coach or leader who helps raise expectations.
Here is a quote from a famous paper on the subject
“In general, people who believe that (motor) abilities are relatively fixed (so-called entity theorists), tend to be more concerned with proving their ability, and they perceive errors or negative feedback as a threat to the self, because they reveal a limited capacity or lack of ability. In contrast, people who assume that abilities are changeable or malleable (so-called incremental theorists) tend to focus more on learning and improving their performance on a given task. They are less threatened by feedback indicating errors or poor performance, and they confront difficulties by increasing their effort.”
This could also be closely linked and lap over co-creation and autonomy. If we chat with an athlete on the side of a pitch we can;
- we get fit
- we build a strategy for our team
They are reasonable structures and relatively easy wins for any team. They will create mini-successes along the way, and should see an increase in performances. Then it's possible you can start aiming bigger. So enhanced expectations does not mean silly pie in the sky expectations.
Giving players, employees and students positive feedback as they make their way along the process is a critical underpinning of raising expectations as well. Also telling them they will perform well and if not immediately very soon is another very helpful part of the process.
That's it for this week, I hope you got a lot out of that.
Here is a seminal paper on the subject for those of you interested. Next week we will move on to other areas of learning that can support our coaching, teaching and leadership.
Desirable Learning Conditions for Development & Creativity
One of the most important factors with learning is the conditions of learning, or more specifically the learning environment.
I remember watching a sports star talking about being in a learning environment in an interview. My eyes were telling me this seemed off, the exact same issues seemed to be occurring for a few years. I felt he was rehashing a phrase that didn't have a lot of substance.
Not long after, when losing a big game I noticed one of the management team essentially saying "we worked on it, the players didn't carry it out". Alarm bells always ring with this. Blaming the players would not indicate a learning environment, not my understanding of it at least. Another member of management later bemoaned "all the mistakes we made".
In time I would find the Manager didn't do video reviews, didn't feel the need. So, a lack of reflective practice.
This definitely was not a learning environment. You could say it was the opposite. No reflection, a culture of blame, over-emphasis on mistakes, not seeing mistakes as learning tools, and more.
You can tell me its a swan, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...its a fucking duck.
People listen, and even if it's not that obvious or we are not totally tuned in we can feel something is off. We may not totally understand what the Manager or Performance Coach is talking about when saying "learning environment," but when it's clearly not and we are not learning, then anyone is going to cop that, and it does affect motivation.
Deep down you feel short sold. You may even subconsciously merge into "this guy is a bluffer" mentality. No matter how fair that is. Once you are there with a team or in a workplace it's all over. It may not be that incredibly obvious, but it is.
I worked in an Aussie Rules club once, it was just below Elite, semi Pro/Pro kinda level. We made a belter of a start. Pre Season was great, won 5/6 of the opening games and play offs were becoming a possibility for the 1st time in 25 years.
The alickadoos were getting shifty. As the strength coach I was getting these strange, clearly very wealthy, men coming up slapping me on the back (literally) saying how great a job I was doing. As it was a decent level there was media cover, so I would read the odd article or watch tv interviews around our games.
Took no notice of much of it for a while, the usual boring stuff we all get these days. Then we lost a game, something about the Head Coaches' Interview threw me...I couldn't re-watch at the time, but it alerted me. The next loss at Game 7 was a poor loss, but I was looking out for reaction. And it hit me. He changed from "We" to "the boys" depending on whether we won or lost.
We won (Me, the great coach in charge). They lost (The players didn't listen to me, the great coach).
No learning there. No humility there. No Reflection there. No team there.
Although there was learning for me. Watch your language around such things when talking to or about players. If I copped that surely out of a squad of 50 players, others did too. In the following weeks he would lay it on the fitness and medical team - "not fit enough", "should have been allowed to play" and so on. Leadership is not easy, it takes practice. But it also takes humility.
As a very smart sounding Greek man once said "power doesn't corrupt, it reveals".
What has this got to do with Learning?
A lot - A psychologically safe place might be a newish term. Some may even see it as "some new bull shit makey uppy term". That can sometimes be my reaction also to a term like this when I hear it at first. But this one has real value, in work, school, and in sport.
It's been around since the early 2000's when a Occupational Psychologist called Amy Edmonson coined the phrase and described it as this "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes". It is seen as one of the big reasons for the success of Google's workplace atmosphere and development.
Do you feel like that at work or at training? Do you act like this, without the fancy term, as it is as a leader? Because there is so much value in this approach for everyone.
The learners, the people we want to help get better, learn better and will be more creative when they feel they are allowed to explore and mistakes are allowed.
Let's say you meet an athlete or an employee or student that might be a little shy, comes from a more autocratic background, or is low in confidence. Then we can have our psychologically safe place but we also may need another underpinning supportive approach. We may need to frame and outline the plan first. The player might be looking for guidance, but one clever way to bring them from that place to a more creative and autonomous position is to co-create.
Build the plan in tandem with them. It might be very simple things like having 80% of the program or job planned, but just getting their input on a few simple aspects. This will be a starting point to start building trust and afford them the opportunity to build confidence.
Co-creation can start off slow. When I work with coaches and clubs to support them with S&C or game design, I take a co-creation approach. This is slow and cumbersome at the start. Many expect me to give them games or solutions. However, if I give them everything they want to just slot into their training sessions there will be limited learning and I am of limited value.
While there is a struggle at the start, the struggle is always worth it. But I try to co-create. I will use what the coaches already have, the games they use or have stolen from somewhere and tack these to the objectives they want from their sessions and we will create together. This is undoubtedly a better long term approach.
As we discussed last week, learning happens best when layered onto something we already know. So if the coaches have been using a game, they will have observed the reactions to this by their players. I can then layer on constraints, progressions, and regressions to help them broaden their design knowledge.
This is laying the foundation for a psychologically safe place, and when we reach that, creativity and confidence grows.
So that's it for this week, next week we will discuss the Optimal Learning Theory. A really nice piece of work that will in particular help sports coaches allow for deeper learning with their players.
Have a great week.
Good is better than perfect
The value we put on the benefit of the learning will have a massive influence on what exactly we learn and retain. If you buy a guitar, the probability of making an effort to learn some tunes increases. If you see a module in college as really interesting, you will make an effort to learn and it will be easier to retain.
Modern Box Ticking, False "Learning" - When education fails
One of the problems I feel with the typical approach and feel of learning is there is now so much box ticking and so much "learning" and "testing" in the world. It's seen as necessary that we are so sick of "learning" as it's so hard we jack it in as soon as we finish that Masters. It's seen as a means to an end. This is a tragic waste of interest and ability.
Another major issue with learning across many areas is the search for perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good.
The Leaving Cert in Ireland has become one of the most bizarre, illogical and damaging pursuits and exams not only in Ireland - but anywhere. Very few countries come anywhere close to the ridiculousness of our Final State exams. You cannot get into multiple 3rd level courses like Medicine now without 6 A1's or even more for some specific subjects.
What this has led to is a systematic approach to getting through it, very little actual learning and a heap of unnecessary stress.
If you want to do well at your leaving cert, forget about learning anything much. In other countries at least, there are openings for people who may be suited to a subject to make a side door or backdoor entry to the field. They just need to show competency in related subjects, and not just state exams.
This box ticking approach hurts Ireland as a country as we get so many "Professionals" who are not that particularly passionate about their job and are in it for money and/or status.
Unfortunately this type of thinking infiltrates our arts & sports pursuits as well, turning many, children in particular, off. Something that's fun is more easily learned, and stuck at.
Desirable Difficulties returned
In the last article we spoke about desirable difficulties and some unusual difficulties. Some that seem like an annoyance at one level can actually be of benefit, a positive interference so to say. For instance, when text on a page is in a font that's blurry or we are not familiar with and we have to look a little harder, we retain the information in the text better. How about that for interference!!
Another clever learning trick that some teachers have been at for years is to jump around the chapters and not deliver the curriculum in the chapter by chapter way. This approach has also been shown to help academic retainment. It won't make your Netflix binging more enjoyable though, so do that in a linear fashion!
In sport we now have coach education which is a linear - learn this technique first and then we will let you play the game - kind of approach. Any bit of depth of thought here, though, makes us realise kids don't pick up sports in a linear fashion. And then there is the interference of other sport and home life.
Each individual is learning in a different way because of all their own environmental differences - like having siblings. Maybe they play Frisbee in the big park they live beside, so overhead catching may come easier from them compared to the kid who lives rurally and has less interactions and practices alone with a lot of striking.
These are all learning interferences so as coaches we need to go in with an open mind and observe before we jump in because we don't know what's needed yet.
Generative learning is another interesting, but in ways familiar to us, form of learning. Essentially, this is us putting some new material with a bunch of old stuff we already know. That linking process helps create signposts for ourselves for the future. Slowly but surely, the more we are around the new information, in the journey so to say, the less we need those signposts.
That might be one reason analogies and cuing can be so helpful in motor skills. Generative learning helps us learn with understanding. If we can associate it to something we already know then it puts us at ease and we will open our brains to taking more on, and in a smoother way.
Another element of generative learning is finding incorrect answers to solutions. Basically trial and error. Sticking to the task and having the determination to find an answer helps greatly. This makes sense to us as we can all agree nothing worth learning comes easy, if it's easy we would already have it, and so would everyone else. But unsuccessful attempts at finding answers leads to a deeper embedding of the right result when we finally get there.
Practice doesn't make perfect, practice makes good learning .
While we will go into a bit deeper in later weeks, the practice of reflection is a powerful tool. Reflecting on a new chapter in a book, on a lecture you did at college, on your performance at Hockey training - they all help deeper our appreciation of the recent activity and allow for deeper learning. in some cases. Especially with new stuff. But reflection and generative learning have important connections and work well together.
Somewhat related to our faulty education systems, allied to an actual attempt at "errorless learning" from the 60's. The idea of errorless learning is a very narrow and dangerous approach. One thing it is based on is taking very small bites of a subject, reading/practicing them, and then testing them straight away.
It would be like taking 7 days of driving lessons twice a day, with assessments as you go, doing the State test on Day 8, passing, and then thinking you were ready for the road.
There is this purveying belief that if we allow learners make mistakes, it's the mistakes that they will retain. This has led to people attempting perfect practice in sports. Even writing this, and you need no research for this, it sounds insane. And it is. But it's real and it exists.
If we give supportive feedback, and allow further exploration, the learner will not only finding better solutions, the learning will be deeper.
Again, research around this tells us that asking someone to solve something without any possible solution-giving first, leads to better learning and retention. Much like my well worn approach to coaching children sports now - let the game be the teacher, and we can support from afar then.
Also another important aspect of all this is, is framing. If we can frame for the learners that the difficulty is part of the fun and process, then not only will the learning of that task be deeper - we are supporting a learning for life and embracing difficulties as a human.
A social example we may all understand - Have you ever winced and bit your tongue when a new mother repeatedly goes over and helps a toddler with absolutely everything? In that case she is reducing that child's ability to learn for themselves and take on challenges possibly for LIFE.
Think about that for a second, and the potential impact of helicopter parenting for instance.
So this stuff is real, it's important and it will help us every day.
So that's it for this week, next week's topic will be "Optimal Learning Conditions."
Have a great week.
Difficult is good
Struggle is the mother of learning. And not in the "I'm never drinking again" moment of hangover pain kind of struggle and learning - cos we know that doesn't work. More in the struggle to understand a subject that we are intrinsically motivated to learn - be it for the information itself or as a means to an end. The means to an end one is far, far harder, but still works.
Rather counterintuitively walking away and leaving the struggle after some effort is a good idea. Intuitively I think we get this. A writer needs a walk after an hour of writing. We all understand the 'clear the head' mentality, yet so often we don't do it. Walking away and spacing your information gouging attempts allows you to digest what you have been eating up from the books or internet or classroom.
We see this in coaching for instance when using deliberate practice methods. If we really want to excel or even learn a skill in sport we need to put a lot of focus into it. Deliberate practice has to be focused, intense and has to have difficulty. Then it pays to walk away for a period of time (as in a couple of days) and go back to it, or add a slight variation. We will talk about it down the road, but that need then for retrieval is absolutely critical to the learning process.
In real life I have applied this to reading. After finally deciding to stop buying books and start reading them all I came up with a bit of a system. Up to 4 books on the go at any one time. One in the car, one in the laptop bag, one by the bed, and one at work. But I would stick to one chapter at a time, as in finish a chapter of whichever book, before moving to another.
For most books, but not something like a biography, I will take notes as I go. At the end of the chapter I write down what I can remember of the chapter, then go back to the notes and see how well I remembered. It is slower, and it does stretch the brain at times when I have stopped for 3 days due to work or life and I return half way through a chapter - but it works.
I have adopted similar approaches to coaching, and have seen an accelerated learning of things like principles of play, strategy, new skills. I don't assess the players in the same way, it's far more casual, but I am using those methods.
That is retrieval practice. And the harder the retrieval, the harder you have to think about it, the better the consolidation.
In our rush to satisfy the demands of the ever-so-wonderful Instagram and life healers on Twitter tell us “10 pages a day”, “a book a week” kinda nonsense. Is anybody actually reading all the books? And what’s being retained? Learning science would suggest not as much as we might think.
New learning is shaky. Different theories have slightly different takes on it but basically we need some form of consolidation. In sport skill development we talk about motor learning versus performance and interestingly there are some references worth noting here, too, in relation to exam study:
Studying for exams is similar in that if we cram for exams we can scrape through our assessments based on cramming, but we won't retain much or any of the crammed material. Where as if we steadily studied all along using spaced, interwoven, and retrieval practices (could be small tests) then we will much more readily retain the material.
But we also learn deeper when we attach our learning to other knowledge we have picked up in the past. That is going to give even more rootage to our learning.
Its weird, but forgetting is good, as long as we reach back again for the learning before its too late. But sometimes forgetting is part of learning something new. Like if we try to learn French late in life we may have to try and forget the Irish we learned back as a kid as there may be interference. A more probable example we will all encounter is changing from an iPhone to Android or visa versa. It's so hard, for a while, to work the iPhone because we have become so accustomed to the patterns of usage on the Android.
But if we want to master any field or excel on a subject, getting deeper with associative subjects will help our greater understanding. Like if we learn about human behaviour from the perspective of a neuroscientist, our grandad, a master coach, our school teacher, and from economic psychology - its the crossover of important and consistent information that we will retain, and be able to verify, on the subject of human behaviour. This is broadly the idea of conceptual learning. We get broad concepts of a subject from various angles.
The interweaving of all the different types of information kinda bring us to a deeper place. My experience of this would be, say, matching S&C with previous coaching field sport experience. I was quickly able to see some of the things in the text book didn't match with reality so I was able to interweave my experience with this new information.
Then I started layering skill acquisition and that started tearing off some of the old coaching practices that neither my anecdotal, trial and error coaching experience along with Sports Science had not taught me. Skill Acquisition introduced me to deeper knowledge and reading around pedagogy and learning science. In recent years I've been putting a frame on things (and actually ironically) with more information - simplifying things. That’s interleaving on a long term basis.
There might be some relation here to motor learning and tactical intelligence that occurs in athletes who play multiple sports, some ideally on a casual basis. Some players have even reported believing they figured out tactics playing FIFA for soccer. While years ago this may have been scoffed at, there might be something in that. The interruption of casual basketball, or even competitive basketball could have an influence on someone becoming a better hurler. Or even the struggle of trying to beat your older sister in 1-on-1 soccer in the back garden could help with the technical, motor skill and tactical ability to side step someone playing Gaelic football years later.
It's also brought me to books about wayfinding and how the people of the arctic found their way around, and the origins of Islam and how that emerged - but that's for another day ;)
So from this there might be a pause for us if we are studying a subject or trying a new thing, how can we relate it to what we already know?
What might we have to un-learn?
What other subject could I casually read about in tandem that won't feel too much like work or studying?
If you are a coach starting out, how does my job mirror coaching? How would I behave in the office and what might make me behave differently on the pitch? What have I read about leadership that I use in the corporate world that can help me coach?
That’s it for this week, in next week we will broaden the desirable difficulties chat to priming your mind for learning, using other strategies for creating desirable difficulties that may help coaches, discuss a generative difficulties, the myth of errorless learning, and finally undesirable difficulties.
Have a great week.
So what psycho-babble can we use to help us with that?
Recently Stuart Lancaster spoke about monitoring the psychological or cognitive aspects of the practices we design. Where we speak of every game or drill in training having a psychological aspect. This is a crucial consideration. I go as far as weighing the various games I commonly use. Are they tactically, technically and psychologically challenging. I pretty much know the physical consequences, the research is there, my experience is also there. But for instance heavily psychologically challenging games at the end of a training 2 days after a hammering or 2 days before a big game may not be the wisest way to go.
Mental Skills we can work on, that will support improved performance and skill execution. Self Talk as a subject is facinating, way too deep to get into the extensive science here for a real deep dive but we will do some basics around it that may help the coach or athlete. The research in this area is improving all the time and while some people want definitive mathematical equations giving exact answers, or else they won't trust it, neuroscience and Neurobiology are 2 areas that are accelerating areas around human behavior of which subjects like self talk, imagery and resilience are being given more and more value, especially in the polarised, social media driven world we live in.
But our inner dialogue really is unbelievably powerful and dicates how we see the world. Outside of our control though is that this dialogue was heavily influenced by others for many years. So changing to good positive and effective self talk is not easy, so coaches and players, be patient here. It takes time. If someone has being talking to themselves negatively for 15 years we cannot expect to make a change in one conversation, and telling them to change and they have to change is certainly not going to work.
What is it?
Self talk is omnipresent in everyday life, not just sport. It is basically our internal chat with ourselves.
There are a few different variants of Self Talk , but we are not going to delve too far into that here, i would suggest reading The Handbook of Applied Sports Psychology Chapter 53 if interested in a real deep dive.
In lay mans terms
Self-Talk is what i say to myself and it is how i evaluate myself, my goals and my performances………….
Self-Image which forms my identity, my attitude and opinion of myself then…..
My Performance and how i act and perform based on my present self-image….
……..That stimulates behaviors and performance
So in the last post we talked quite alot about mental preparation, identifying what exactly you want to work on and why?
We spoke to enjoying the game more and the pursuit of improvement being the enjoyment and not hanging everything on medals and cups.
We talked about coaches and players working together on the process of improvement and coaches creating a safe environment mentally for this to happen. A place where mistakes are ok and enjoyed, but where effort and bouncebackability is revered. We gave some examples of where loose language or lack of encouragement froze a player into avoiding improvement (based on feedback this is a common memory for many).
So now we have set some scene and discussed some reasonably common examples, and hopefully you and/or you players have discussed something that can be worked on we will return to the original mission for a second, what we want and can work on for now;
That Mindset has actually been researched extensively and has a name “Growth Mindset”
Have a look at this video for a brilliant explanation from Trevor Ragan (of The Learner Lab Podcast)
Part of the motivation for these blogs has been driven by the Covid19 issues and the amount of time we have and the training on fields and gyms we have lost. But this time allows us to build in other areas often disregarded.
But it is also driven by the desire to show people thats skills for sport and indeed life are such a broad spectrum. IN sport we get extremely bogged down in skills, to a torturous extreme in the UK & Ireland around the various field and court sports and many coaches and most of the public see skills as a dummy solo in football or a step over in soccer or one off moments that thrill a crowd. Those exhibitions of high level technique and solution finding in high pressure stakes are important, they thrill us and they bring the crowds in, they excite young kids to grow to love sports and activity. But they are a tiny part of the overall picture.
There are technical, tactical, movement, mental skills as well. I hope to touch on all of these in some way in this series. They all can be developed. Physical capacity is the low hanging fruit, the basic physical conditioning and strength work we do. It doesn't make it any less important, but its the easiest to work on. Its important for our health, mental and physical and if not conditioned well for the game pretty much everything else becomes irrelevant as we will not be able to stay up.
For a start we will look at the Mental skills we can work on, because in ways they underpin or can be used as a tool - especially in this situation - to improve the other skills. We can build resilience (Sarkar, 2018) to come back from mistakes, but also to continually work on a new skill or development of a learned skill (Moran & O' Shea, 2020) or to develop positive self talk which can lead to increased focus and performance (Roberts & Kristiansen, 2012) . There is information, anecdotes and tasks in this for coaches as well as players and i hope both take something and there is also element coaches and players can work on together.
But Imagine (pun intended) hitting more free throws, making more hooks and blocks, developing your weaker side to such a point that you can kick off both feet with equal confidence? Well actually focused imaging can help, as can many other techniques.
I am not a Sports Psychologist, however i do take a deep interest in the mindset part of the game and reading and talking to those in Sports Psychology, Skill Acquisition, Resilience Research, Coach Education areas of expertise. It is really obvious that the Psycho-Social element of the games are THEE most important factors. Having coached 26 years in multiple sports across 3 continents much of what they are telling me and i am reading through research tallies with my experiences, my education and also notably with the coaches i find influenced me or others around me most. Often these coaches were not necessarily educated in the realm of Coaching science or indeed formally educated at all, but they had it. Some may call it emotional intelligence, others would call it motivational skills. Whatever it was they had it. Its not so much that people who specialise in these areas are better than any type of coach, its that they have dedicated their time and maybe careers to diving deep down into the various areas we are discussing.
Very often i have heard from people in the areas of Mindset, psychology, resilience, is “we are all psychologists”. And this plays to the experiences we have all had where we met coaches or teachers or leaders who just had that ability to get performance from all of us, no matter what the background or skill level. But with modern life Pop Psychology, raising youth anxiety levels mixed with still a nice bit of “ra ra ra, this is the way we did it in our day” we may need to dig a little deeper and expand or breath of coaching and playing a little more to challenge and enjoy the games and activities that little bit more.
We believe sport as having 4 primary goals – 1) Public Health; 2) Educative; 2) Elite Development Goal 4) cultural preservation
We are in a very unique circumstance now as coaches, athletes and those who takes their health and fitness seriously.
However there are numerous ways of staying or even getting fitter. In fact i see this as an opportunity to become more athletic as we can do a broader range of exercises and challenge our energy systems in a different way that's not always possible. That is physiological side.
However what about our skills?
Our Sports Skills and out Mental Skills?
No they won't improve by hitting a ball off the wall. Or in the case of Mental skills by doing nothing. We can work on both, somewhat simultaneously.
If you are from Ireland you will understand what Hurling is, or maybe you do and you are not from here. Its an immensely skillful and aggressive game played 15v15 on a grass field. It is exceptionally skillful, and science would suggest there is so much going on its the most skillful sport in the world. Read Ed Coughlan (a Skill Acquisition expert here in Cork) on this subject.
Look at this video below and then tell me that hitting a ball off a wall supports hurling.
Watch the whole 2 minutes
Skill acquisition is seen as the development of a functional performer-environment relationship (Araújo & Davids, 2011; Zelaznik, 2014). The learner does not exist independently of a learning and performance context. (Chow; Davids, Button, Renshaw 2016)
If you look at the goal TJ is surrounded by players, players that weren't there hitting a ball against a wall. What he did have though was the feel of where he was, the distance from goal, the little bit of space if he doubled back that he knew from this range if it got through the scrum of bodies the only way it would be saved was if it hit the keeper. I believe it was a % shot and one done in a contextual situation where the time of the game mattered ( a miss would be no big deal), the corner back slipped and the opposition were caught cold after HT break.
This is not something created alone.
So hitting a ball off a wall unopposed does not improve you as a hurler in our opinion and is supported by a fair chunk of research, unless you are a complete novice. (Skill Acquisition in Sport, Hodges & Williams, 2020)
I would suggest that for a competent hurler or footballer if they decided to not do anything closed skill practice at all for a 4-6 week period like in this lock-down but just stayed reasonably fit, 15 mins into a training session they would be up to speed to where anyone else would be who may have hit 1000's of ball off a wall.
In fact what it is most likely to do is enhance poor movement patterns or bad habits. If there is not a real deliberate element to the practice then it could actually be decreasing ability on a pitch. Hurling off a wall - repetitive nature of it could actually lead to over use injuries.
These ideas are not simply of theoretical value since too much repetitive practice of multi-articular actions, especially in early specialization pathways, could lead to increased risk of overuse injuries in developing athletes undergoing rapid growth and maturation (Davids et al., 2013).
And the amount of time you spend at it, or indeed any development, may not matter either.
The nature and design of the practice activities undertaken by each developing athlete are far more important than calculating the time spent practicing, which seems to vary greatly (Hambrick, Oswald, et al., 2014; Hambrick, Altmann, et al., 2014.)
The same stands for pretty much all team field and court sports with the exception of close drills such as free throw shooting in Basketball, Free Taking in Hurling or Gaelic Football, Goal Kicking in Rugby and Aussie Rules and so on. However even those tasks lose the environmental factors that will test performance and may add anxiety to performing a closed skill, for example in front of 60,000+ people in games you trained 20 years for.
Back to Hurling. There are 2 walls people use - Hurling Alleys in clubs (now closed) and the gable end of your house.
So what can hurling off a wall actually do to be of benefit;
What it does not do;
*Coach note - Players after a growth spurt may face new challenges with their "new body". A young boy can grow 5 inches in a summer or winter break. His new limb lengths may interfere with his coordination and movement skills - be patient and supportive. Equipment like shoes, Hurley, helmets, rackets etc all may need to change. For a small period he/she may not be the same player you saw a few months ago.
Developing skill is about having an efficient Motor System, see this description of Motor Control
"Motor control can be defined as the study of how an individual can execute designated motor skills through the neuromuscular control process in response to external environmental demands (Haywood & Getchell, 2009; Latash & Lestienne, 2006)"
A major issue with traditional approaches is that they tend to promote a rather mechanistic view of human behaviour, failing to consider the wide array of constraints which impinge on an individual’s learning and performance including psychological, social and physical factors, (Chow; Davids, Button, Renshaw 2016)
When i have had these discussions in the past people come back with "Joe Canning said so, Pat Horgan said so, TJ Reid said so". Well i believe they may be wrong and either being paid to say it (good for them) or it is a bias of some description. Look at the names, look at their exceptional athletic ability first, then look at their clubs - Portumna, The Glen and Ballyhale. 3 of the most successful clubs in history of hurling with some of the greatest characters to grow up listening to and aspire to. Look at their names, surrounded by siblings and parents who had notable success. Nature + Nurture, environmental factors trump all. The Psycho-Social elements at play here are at the top end of the scale. Now if Sean Og O' Halpin said it was effective for him, its most likely it was significantly more so arguably than the other 3 - he arrived in Ireland at 11/12, at the tail end of the important sports skill development range between 9-12. Again though his athleticism and his support structure, his club were exceptional, the school attended and the fact they were strong at the time were all factors in carrying him along. Self determination aside, an obvious factor in all these cases.
But athletically these 4 men are extremely strong and mobile. The underpinning physical trait of modern hurling. That's the first thing that's gives them an advantage.
It is often thrown at S&C Coaches or indeed field or skills coaches that share or encourage their methods that "S&C never put the ball over the ball" or "those games are grand but we need to practice the SKILLS of the game". By practicing the skills of the game, they mean unopposed drills usually. However we believe that physical development actually supports skill development and unlocks potential. It allows more opportunities to put the ball over the bar. Skill isn't much use to you if you cannot win your own ball, find space, beat your man and physically compete. But these are actually skills as well, in fact some of the most skillful movements performed now are actually in ruck situations which are highly physical exchanges in attempts to gain possession. The clever flick and intelligent positive positioning (as in be in a place to attack the other goal) are a brilliant element of the modern game often lost by commentators.
Genetic abilities, limb length, muscle fibre content and other inherited attributes have limits. We can all improve our athleticism and even the content and speed of our muscles, but unfortunately there are limitations. We have ceilings to our abilities. Having read some papers (see below) on the physical abilities of club and county players, speed, power and the ability to reproduce high speed runs and explosive outputs is the most obvious difference physically.
Basically choose your parents well, and then get them to move to an area with a great tradition of hurling, or football or whatever you want to be great at.
According to an ecological dynamics rationale of skill acquisition, it is the information–movement relationship that transfers between the task constraints of a faithfully simulated practice task and a competitive performance environment (Pinder et al., 2011a)
"This compelling rationale indicates that the information present in a performance environment needs to be represented in a practice environment designed to simulate constraints in specific individual and team sports " (Chow; Davids, Button, Renshaw 2016)
Or - in lay mans language - How we practice is how we will play!!!
That said, we all want to get better and we all want to reach the highest level of skill we can.
So how can we do that in a quarantine state of lock-down?
Here are 3 we ways we suggest you can try;
The difference in levels from lower to middle range is general physical. You get a Junior team exceptionally fit you give yourself a great chance of success. However as you go up the grades the one standout trait above all is Mindset, awareness, focus, vision, scanning, anticipation and many more elements greatly controlled between the ears. We will try to help athletes and coaches just think about a small few of those elements in this series of blogs.
In part 2 we will start with our suggestions on Mindset discussing the areas of Self talk, Goal Setting, Focus & Mindfulness for sport, Imagery & Intensity, Routines & Motivation and offer some suggestions and solutions to help athletes improve in times of downtime or away from the pitch
I love the pressure. I just look forward to it. " Daly Thompson, Olympic decathlon gold medalist
A little extra reading on 2 studies found in Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction
Chow, Jia Yi; Davids, Keith; Button, Chris; Renshaw, Ian
1. Spring Board Diving Practice
This important idea was investigated in a study of traditional training practices in elite springboard diving. For example, Barris and colleagues (2014) studied preparation for take-off in an elite sample of Olympic-level springboard divers when diving into a pool and under the different task constraints of training in a dry-land facility comprising a foam pit. Elite divers tend to routinely practise in separate training environments (dry-land and pool), requiring differences in final performance outcomes, especially landing (feet first and head first, respectively). Divers seek to practise the same preparation phase, take-off and initial aerial rotation in both practice environments, although there is little empirical evidence to suggest that the tasks completed in the dry-land training environment are representative of those performed in the pool environment. The concept of conditioned coupling in ecological dynamics signifies that performance of different movement components would remain dependent on each other, and slight variations in task constraints could lead to different emergent coordination patterns (Davids et al., in press). In line with these theoretical predictions, it was expected that emergent self-organisation tendencies under the two distinct task constraints would lead to differences in preparation. Barris et al. (2014) observed similar global topological characteristics in all participants who used the same joint coordination patterns during dive take-offs completed in the dry-land and aquatic environments. However, as a group, participants showed statistically significant differences in performance at key events (second approach step, hurdle-step, hurdle jump height and board angles during the hurdle and at landing) during the preparation phase of dive take-offs completed in dry-land and aquatic training environments. For example, participants showed significantly less board angle depression at landing (from the hurdle jump) during take-offs completed in the dry-land area than during those completed in the pool.
2. Soccer Practice of Passing
These ideas on the relationship between carefully designing affordances in the constraints of practice tasks and the processes of transfer have also been confirmed in the context of team games. Travassos et al. (2012) examined practice task design in team sports, reporting data to show how enhancing representativeness of a practice simulation might increase opportunities for transfer in team games training. Travassos and colleagues (2012) studied futsal players during a ball-passing practice task and manipulated informational uncertainty (of passing direction) for practising players. Informational uncertainty during passing practice was increased under four distinct task constraints and compared with passing behaviours observed during a competitive match. They made the plausible assumption that greater similarity of behaviours observed during practice, compared with competitive performance, signalled the transfer of skill in passing. Intermediate-level football players were required to perform simple and complex passing drills (straight versus diagonal versus diagonal and lateral passing lanes with more than one ball in use). In their study, the terms ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ were differentiated by the amount of variability designed into the practice task simulations. The simple passing drill took place in a single predetermined lane (including less environmental variability), whereas the complex passing drill involved multiple passing opportunities which were emergent (pass direction emerged depending on whether the receiver had a ball or not and therefore included more environmental variability). Speed and accuracy of passing performance in practice tasks were compared with observations during competitive performance. Results showed the greatest similarities in passing speed and accuracy between performance in the multiple passing lane condition and actual competitive performance. There was too much regularity in ball speed and accuracy in the passing task constraints with fewer options, compared to the level observed in task constraints with more options (predetermined versus emergent conditions). These measures showed how transfer of learning was predicated on action fidelity between skill performance in practice and competitive performance. According to Travassos et al. (2012, p. 5), ‘increasing the number of emergent passing actions offered in a practice task design was more representative of competitive performance’. These data show how the informational constraints of practice tasks should be designed to represent the informational constraints of a competitive performance environment in team sports. Data revealed that, for the skilled performers, predetermining limited passing options did not lead to similar levels of speed and accuracy as did creating emergent, multiple passing options and competitive performance. The findings suggested how transfer between practice task constraints and the performance environment can be achieved in team sports training. In order to understand how to ensure transfer of informational constraints of a competitive performance environment in a practice task simulation, an important concept to understand is representative design.
- Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: An Introduction
Chow, Jia Yi; Davids, Keith; Button, Chris; Renshaw, Ian
- Skill Acquisition in Sport Research, Theory and Practice, Nicola J. Hodges and A. Mark Williams
- A Comparison of Anthropometric and Performance Profiles Between Elite and Sub-Elite Hurlers, (Keane 2019)
- An investigation into the variation that exists between the physical performance indicators of hurling players at different levels of participation
Murphy, Andrew https://ulir.ul.ie/bitstream/handle/10344/2832/Murphy_2012_investigation.pdf?sequence=5
- The positional technical and running performance of sub-elite Gaelic football , Mangan 2019 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/24733938.2019.1679872
And something to read before Part 2 to help us along those lines
- Effects of a cognitive specific imagery intervention on the soccer skill performance of young athletes: Age group comparisons Krista J. Munroe-Chandler https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38138264_Does_Mental_Practice_Work_Like_Physical_Practice_without_Information_Feedback
- Using cognitive general imagery to improve soccer strategies Krista J. Munroe-Chandler
We might be veering into the skills coaches territory here (they may get a bit antsy here but………. I believe we all should reside anyway, at least at club and sub-elite level) but all field and court sports are played from one end to the other. We defend the left hand side goal and attack the right hand side goal. After 30/35/40/45 minutes we switch over and go opposite ways. Seems simple right?
Then why is so much “conditioning games”, “games based approach” and “small sided games” played in 20x20/30x30/40x40 squares?
Bare with me while I explain.
Games played in squares are usually based around retaining possession. They can be very good for specific conditioning for some elements of the game and good to enhance tackling and other skills in whatever way you want to manipulate them. And I use these games. They are more than useful. They are particularly useful for deliberate practice and repeating certain skills and task sunder a repetition without repetition setting. But these skills need to be expanded out and transferred to more realistic scenarios as well. However what I have seen a lot of is an approach of “Conditioned Games” + MAS Running and hey presto we’re ready. And that might make you a very competitive team, it is unlikely to differentiate you from the other better sides.
Here is a very good simple small sided game that is about possession and using the extra man.
However if the only conditioned games you use are these then all you are doing is getting your players fit for the game in a 20x20/30x30 or whatever size area. Games like soccer have overlapping full backs, Gaelic football has players regularly running 80-120 meter to join in attacks. Then having to shoot. Having to recycle ball. Turn around on turnover. And so on.
Tackling is another area where we can over do the “squares “. Squares can be good for front on tackling and possession under pressure. But they rarely deal with near handed tackling in Gaelic Football for instance or trying to slow a player down who has been near top speed for 30 Meters. Near hand tackling is the most butchered skill in Gaelic Football and I have observed that in combination with poor conditioning literally costing teams championships. End to end scenarios and overloading attackers on defenders can work on many of these skills both technically and with a conditioning element in real game time. All sports have similar issues in athletes using the wrong side of the body. It can be trained.
Specific games where a teams attack, defend and transition the length of the field are critical to both conditioning, developing patterns of play and skill acquisition. The end zone game is a useful game for fitness and training transition and turnover awareness and strategy.
End zone games we use regularly for Gaelic Football, Hurling, Camogie and Hockey is a good example of this. Like the diagram below there is a pitch with an end zone. The
objective is to carry ball into end zone or pass to a team mate in zone. Then after securing possession and the score the player and team turn and attack the opposite end zone.
They hold onto ball for as long as possible and score as many end zones as possible.
A game like this is great for working on awareness on turnovers. It Gaelic Games it promotes off the shoulder running.
To advance it you could put a time limit on reaching each zone and failure to do so in say 6 seconds means a turnover.
Further advancement would be to use the playing area both ways. Play long and play wide. So effectively there would be endzones on all 4 sides. The coach just calls “wide game” or “long game”. What this forces is players to defend in different ways, defending wide game is much harder and will force a different type of defending both in the tackle but also in working as a unit and communication will be critical. The turn around a will be faster. This is quite advanced and players should probably be relatively fresh starting this game. Do it too late in a session and quality will drop. Huge amount of thinking involved.
So a coach can call out;
End zone tag
Another very close relation of above with the variation of facing different players on different plays and those players having a certain amount of freshness.
This is a good version with large numbers
The Tag game is gamification - it gets the players moving and thinking in patterns that will enhance mindset, movement and conditioning relative to the sport. We see a huge amount of these types of games out there and again they have value. However there is another level.
Kick Out Chaos
Here is a more game specific game I created recently for a Gaelic Football team. The purpose was to create multiple game like questions for players to answers from kickouts and chaos around quick kickouts, the press (or not to press). This game will be on the move and communication and decision making will be on the fly, not set up in a very strategic way. A strategy from kickouts is not a bad thing, but all models are flawed and as Mike Tyson beautifully put it “everyone has a plan until they get a smack in the mouth”. While we can not prepare specifically if that smack in the mouth comes from an uppercut (harassing your goal keeper), a jab (ball punched 30 metres back in on the break) or is preceded by some feint (letting your poorest ball player have it for 20 metres). But this happening continually and end to end (suggested 21 to 21 here) forces the players to think on their feet, communicate, turn around, play wide from a short ball, run through the middle from a marked kickout and all the modern fundamentals of Gaelic Football. We know turnovers are critical, we know kickouts are critical and we know the game is played end to end. So we design accordingly.
But here is the real kicker
Too many small sided games could well be the reason we have not seen too much of a change in injuries and a rise in Movement issues, ACL’s and Hip impingements.
John Goodwin of Fulham FC Youth Academy has even gone as far as saying on the Pacey Performance Podcast that SSG’s are making kids “move horribly” and that the over emphasis on them means they have to biomechanically re-train them and advised to balance SSG’s with running mechanics. Running mechanics for me is technical work (A Skips, Boom-Booms, drop steps etc) allied to straight line running, curved running, COD (change of direction) running, sprinting, sprinting from various constraints and using LSGs as well.
This is where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The vast majority of coaches are doing it as a hobby. They do not have the time or contacts or research available people like us have. So i believe it is very important to improve and broaden the knowledge out there so coaches do not just follow the next fad as what we are starting to see with SSGs is overuse injuries due to more changes of direction, more instances of high sheer force and cutting angles. Very often the amounts of these movements actually outweigh the reality of the the same volume of these movements in the game itself. So despite thinking we are better preparing our people for the games we are over preparing them and putting them at risk to serious chronic injuries which can affect them greatly in later life and affect quality of life and even mortality. Generally a “train everything all the time” approach works best in my experience. This can be slower as a development model for a team, but the long term results both collectively and physically will be higher and more sustainable. This does not mean soft or easy training, it just means balanced training. At various times of the year you will load some portions more heavily.
Building the brain is a part of conditioning for sport. The better a decision maker an athlete becomes the less wastes of energy there will be. The less wastes of energy there is the fitter you are. Long Sided Games bring us closer to being more intelligent players.
Use Med Ball Circuits, Plyos and Bounding Using Med Balls, plyometrics and bounding to replace most gym work for a period of time, particularly in tapering phases can have a huge effect on your athletes. There is a limit on the returns in the gym alone for Field Sports athletes in any case and we also have to be aware of the overall fatigue costs. That’s not to say we ignore the gym completely it’s just we bring a different focus and help transfer our new found strength onto the field by making our tendons more robust and better able to transfer force, our exercise movements faster (thus closer to game speed), enhance the short-stretch cycle (explanation here) and generally get more athletic.
It’s based on scientific evidence that shows that a concentric (shortening) muscular contraction is much stronger if it immediately follows an eccentric (lengthening) contraction of the same muscle – like the bending of the knees immediately prior to jumping, which uses stretch reflexes in the quads, hams and calf muscles.
Many coaches (particularly American) will argue people have to have certain strength standards before they perform Jumps and Bounds and Plyometrics. While a coach has to be careful with load, volume and type of exercise this idea is a poorly thought hangover from Powerlifting and Weightlifting circles. The main argument against jumping and plyometrics was that if you are not really strong then you can not absorb the force when landing and this can lead to injury. Unfortunately injuries are a lot more complex than that. Kids have been jumping and landing for 1000’s of years without injury and i have known some animals in the gym to rupture ligaments from very small drops.
Consider this table of ground contact times below
Sample Ground Contact Times based on Activity
Activity Time (sec)
Source: AM J Sports Med. 1986 Nov-Dec; 14(6): 501-10.
Also you will see above that simple running is 200ms, this is considered quick enough ground contact times to be called plyometrics. We consider quick plyos to be <250ms and slow plyos to be >250ms.
So lets say we consider running to be anything over 17 kmph, most club Gaelic Footballers will do 800-1500 M of running over 17 kmph in any game (estimated based on elite results from here). Based on this plyometrics should not be a problem, or bounding or Jumps for that matter. However, it is still very wise to layer them up appropriately and help and consultation or program writing and instruction from an S&C Coach is desirable. Done well though and the results can be spectacular.
If you look at this image from Derek Hansen you will see that Maximum strength and explosive power are only part of the continuum of speed, acceleration, Deceleration, change of direction and Max Speed. Our bodies ability to explode and to spend as little time on the ground as possible is determined by many factors and can be trained and manipulated through many means. In a very simple explanation the gym exercises build force and power to push off the ground, the jumps, hops, skips and bounds increase the pace at which your do that.
When done in an organized and layered fashion exercise methods like Plyometrics can have a distinct effect on our injury resilience and the strength and quality of tendons and ligaments.
In terms of where you put them in the session;
Warm Up (with some easy jumps & Plyos, low level of included). It’s important to have some game based activities also, keeping the game as close to all out efforts will help with transferability (in my opinion and experience)
Sprints or Bounds - pick one after warm up. No longer than 15-20M at the start with Bounds. Use speed bounds as well (bounds with a run in) Athletes should have some strength training done and up to recently shown decent relative strength levels. Because when you bound you are putting multiples of your own Bodyweight into the ground forcefully, being stronger decreases the possibility of injuries.
Plyometrics - These should be done after the Sprints or Bounds. A simple 2 to 4 exercise circuit would work well. I like hops to start with on a 10:10/15:15/20:20 work:rest basis. It depends on the level and training age of your team. Build slowly with 1 set of 10:10 working up to maybe 4 sets over a number of sessions. Generally strength training comes before plyo’s in a session. Sprinting is plyometric so technically everyone has performed them. However repetitive vertical jumps have to be built up slowly as there is a lot of force going through your lower limbs when doing exercises like pogo hops, multiples of your own Bodyweight.
Plyometrics are often confused with jumps as well, going by sports science standards plyometric movements involve displacement of the body off the ground and ground contact time to be <200 milliseconds
Then technical, tactical, game play and running conditioning could take place.
A simple circuit I use a lot is;
If doing multiple sets take a 1-2 minute rest in between (longer for longer reps). This is a variation of a circuit I learned from American Sprint & Jump Coach Boo Schexnayder. While always wary of just copying and pasting any coaches methods I read and watched articles and videos Boo was involved in and his approach made a lot of sense both practically and scientifically. And he has had great success with his methods at all levels. Coaches who are successful at varying levels always need investigation. It’s shows a wide berth of coaching skills and knowledge. Many coaches get lucky with a talented bunch, and then get asked to coach more talented bunches for a while. And then get found out. Not guys like Boo who has a serious set of principles but has clearly evolved over time as well.
This study shows that with plyometrics and strength training muscular performance and longer speed running improves, this is probably through efficiency as opposed to the development of strength or power. (Mike Young 2018)
Med Ball use
Medicine Balls are around a long time and have been under utilised for just as long. An unfortunate association through boxing of having them dropped from a height on your stomach may be one reason for this. However in recent years that has changed. Exactly how Med Ball work transfers to athleticism is not really completely understood, but their use certainly seem to illicit better movement patterns. Med ball circuits have multiple values and they can be put anywhere. They can even be used as a low Lactate finisher. Because they are light and the movements are simple yet global they are not likely to be an injury hazard. Then can be added to tempo running as active rests, put in between technical drills or Small Sided Games to break up a session and add a “fitness” or Cardiac Output Effect (Aerobic Capacity Builder). Med Balls can be used prior to weights to help warm up as a primer or to simply move through general compound movements.
I also use Countermovement throws as warm ups for Olympic lifts and in particularly the Snatch and its variations as the movements are quite similar and it is a good way over activating the musculature involved in overhead and torso extension movements.
Standard throws we use are
You can get very fancy with advanced athletes and them drop catching, depth jumping to throwing, catching distally, hopping, one legged etc etc. However for the vast majority of athletes and particularly in team settings keep it really simple.
Med Balls often can be fun for relays. Nobody will throw the med ball far enough that when they chase it they will get anywhere near top speed. One of the benefits though is that we get players accelerating out of various positions late in training. Emphasizing technique and good movement late in sessions is always a good thing. But these can be used to infuse a bit of fun at end of a warm up as well.
Method for relay;
Other exercises to develop endurance and aerobic power endurance is full length of the field team throws. Groups of 3 work best and the team do a particular throw in a continuous manner up the field in rotation.
Med Balls do not need to be heavy, it is a very rare athlete really needs anything over 8KG. The point of them or to ballistically throw the ball as hard and as far as possible, and then often chase after it. 2-4KG Balls are plaenty for the absolute vast majority of amateur athletes.
If facilities allow Med Ball Exercises act well as contrast exercises with other more traditional strength exercises, so you could do some work before training in little tri-sets which will bring us a broad range of particular movements. Generally i look at these tri-sets in 2 parameters, vertical and horizontal. There are rotational and single limb work that can be done as well but this can be put in other areas of a program.
As an example on a Tuesday gym session you could do a stability-mobility warm up for 5 mins and then follow with this:
On a Thursday
As little of 2 sets of above can be very effective both in a development sense but also as a great primer to pitch work. Afterwards players could come in and complete 2 exercises of Push-Pull Upper body work for 5-8 minutes and hey presto you have 2 strength sessions done for the week as well and handed your players 1-2 nights off*
*If players are willing to do one extra night and you have built in the strength work into the main sessions then i would encourage 2 things;
Bounding is probably next level training after basic plyo’s, sprinting and jumps. In fact bounding really is a combo of all 3 when done well. The forces we apply into the ground rival or even exceed depth jumps, we are try to spend as little time on the ground as possible like plyo’s and sprinting and we are moving horizontally as close as we can get in a dynamic fashion without actually sprinting.
It is important to start with double limb bounding. The body hits the ground with about 3-4 times force of its own weight when we sprint. This can raise to well over double that with bounding. So while single leg bounding may not reach those levels they will still be significant and it won’t be 50% because it’s one limb, it will be significantly higher.
Also remember sprints, bounds and plyometrics ARE methods of strength training. So we can seriously reduce the lower body strength training and even leave it out completely sometimes. If you maintain weight lifting volume while increasing sprints, plyo’s and bounds you are asking for trouble, particularly in-season.
In recent social media posts I have been bemoaning the over use of weightlifting for amateur field sport athletes and it causing injury and also significantly impacting the “repeatability” of plays by some players whose body shape has changed significantly over recent years as well as clearly losing mobility which was impacting skill (a common example is going down to pick up ball in traditional Gaelic football movement). One way of pulling these players back close to the real athleticism they need for field sport would be to take away the gym complete for a few weeks and work on sprinting, plyo’s and bounding and just add in some basic upper body push and pull strength work and low level power work. Keep volume really low though, this is a case for the minimal dose needed approach.
But this is the case with newbies as well, just doing a small number of well executed plyo’s, jumps, bounds and sprints can have a remarkable effect on an athlete. Volume is not the key, especially at the start. However the results can be spectacular.
This study here suggests what many other studies and coaches have suggested for a long time that both plyometrics and weight training work hand in hand:
At certain times of the season if you have brought your group to a decent level and increased some volume you can use combo’s really effectively, either in or out of the gym.
You can do plyo combos, jump combos, bounding combos. Or you could mix them all up with each other and even some sprinting to use the potentiation effect.
Here is a sample circuit:
30-60 seconds between exercises, 2-4 minutes between sets. 1-2 sets is plenty for most amateur teams and it’s placement in the week is critical
This kind of resting is minimum but it can drive field coaches mad. Active rests between sets is probably the middle ground here with (very) light technical work.
There is a huge amount of information in this article. I suggest if you are not familiar with this type of conditioning with your teams (or you are an athlete), get a local S&C Coach to work with you for a while at least. If thats not in the budget then i suggest picking 1 thing and adding it to your sessions. Get it right, add some volume, then deload it. Thats where you will see the results.