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
I think there is a growing acknowledgement that mental preparation is even more important than ever as people are over stretched with work, study and extraordinary expectations put on them by parents, teachers, coaches and often themselves. There are many people presenting at conferences etc (very good people with extensive qualifications and experience) and the awareness of your general wellness and health allied to a strong Mental Process for the sport you enjoy is critical. However there is very rarely too much actionable from them - people go, they say “that was interesting and makes sense, be nice if i had the time to implement….” And they hardly think about it again. In fact that might be an issue with all conferences. I am trying to bring some actionable ideas or processes that can support performance or help you improve a specific skill or even change a movement pattern. I am hoping there is something for players and coaches in here. Its long, but this is necessary, we have to set the scene and explain why these elements are important. Not just to success in scoring more or winning more matches - but actually to enjoying the game.
Many of us will have worked with several Sports Psychologists over the years and i have done a number of short term courses with them or in related areas. I will list at the end with links to their courses or contacts. Some of these courses in the Neuroscience field have heavily influenced my coaching and have helped double down for instance on both drill v. game training arguments (more heavy than ever to the side of isolated training having limited value) as discussed in Part 1. The how and why we make decisions, which is all coming together to this point. That is just one example. It comes back to a movement development or indeed skill development phrase i have stolen from somewhere “if you want to get better at football, play something else”. The answers are rarely within our own disciplines as the modern world goes further and further down the drain of reductionism.
COACHE NOTE: Take an interest in Rob Gray and the Perception-Action Podcast to this end or indeed read his chapter on “Sports Training Technology” , Achieving and Assessing Transfer” in the Skill Acquisition in Sport book by Hodges and Williams.
We have worked on these very areas with several players in recent years in particular and when there is a bit of buy-in and we go through the process thoroughly and deliberately the results are significant and i would say results on the pitch improve but also enjoyment of the game. As an example, one player when we got down into it hadn’t practiced kicking off their weak side because they were told to never shoot with their weak side by a coach 12-13 years ago!! That folks is a lesson in language and what we say to players and the constraints or fears we can put on them.
1 comment from u14 training had restricted a player from improving a weakness.
For over a decade!!!
What we create there is a sub conscious constraint. Its like a left winger, doing well but always playing on the left wing. They go to an academy and are played on right, and they struggle as the coaches never challenged them or afforded them the opportunity to improve somewhere else.
*Coaches Note - A great idea here is to ask players "how old is you right leg?" and "how old is your left leg" (Russell Earnshaw 2020). Automatically the kid, youth or even adult has a great barometer for development. They will intuitively know where they need to get too. They may even ask you to help them - so be prepared. That player, the player that asks for help, is gold. They are the players no matter what ability that will bring your team and club forward long term.
It is incredible how deep and far away from the present time an instruction or usually a negative reaction from a coach or a parent has on players. If we can all educate ourselves even the smallest bit in these areas we can increase our abilities significantly.
So here is action any player can take. Sit down and try and think of one weakness you have, technically or otherwise. When you find that one issue, and leave it at one, ask yourself
“Why is it a weakness?”
“Why have i not practiced this?”
Usually within 5 Why’s you will come up with the answer. This is a very similar approach i take to change, with say a general population client who comes in and wants to “lose a few pounds”. After asking a few “Why’s?” we tend to get down to the nitty gritty. When you get there you find what is intrinsically motivating someone. When you find that it makes it better and easier a process of change for both coach and person trying to change. As that will be the referral point from which we can pivot in difficult times or if motivation drops.
Its quite similar with this process - “why do i not kick off my left when its within 30 metres and its the obvious shot and opportunity to score is high?”
If you really burrow down into this once, find a reason for that it may just be the release you need to improve, the drive to practice.
Now you have to ask yourself
“how do i improve kicking with my left side?”
“What can i do myself?”
“What do i need help with”?
“Who can help me?
But players will possibly have had negative experiences;
A common example;
One of the most common and frustrating things to hear is “give it to the shooters” or “make sure we get our shooters on the ball”. Why can’t we get everyone shooting? By telling some members of a team they are shooters we are automatically telling the rest of them they cannot shoot. So tease that out a bit in a real scenario.
2 minutes into injury time
You 3 best forwards have been playing very well but the opposition have finally put the shackles on them, they have figured out their movement patterns, their strong side and if still have trouble are double marking.
Ball breaks forward from a turnover and an over lapping corner back finds himself all alone 30 M from goal with a chance to win the game
What do you want him to hear?
“Ah Johnny don’t effing shoot”
“Thats it Johnny, we trust you to take this on, and whatever the result the result, we will win the kickout anyway.
Alot of people get this, they may even say it. But they do not practice it.
For coaches along similar lines - what can we do to facilitate this with players? Could we have a breakout meeting and get players talking about this?
Are we willing to do a little extra for one player. Coaches often worry about an avalanche of guys coming for help. That may happen, however if your structure is clear and you can give them clear tasks to go and work on and achievable goals then the ball is back in their court.
What does that look like?
Lets assume we have created an environmentally open and safe place to try things and make mistakes.
Week 1 - i want you to video yourself kicking off your strong side and video kicking off your “younger side”. Work on matching the 2 movement patterns in an isolated way (this can happen in isolation as we are now.
Now its most likely that adjustment could take longer than a week. But check in, not pressure, just check in. “Are you enjoying the practice we came up with to develop your younger leg?”
“Ya i think its improved”
Coach - “What would that look like in a training session?”
“Kicking a pass or a score with my weaker leg”
Coach - “Younger leg” (hopefully this brings some banter )
Coach - “Ok so, do you get enough opportunities in training to bring the great work you have done so far into practice?”
“I think so” (we all know of course we do, the opportunities are omnipresent in a game setting)
Coach “Great, how about we try and get 5 passes and 5 shots at goal in training before the week is out?”
“Cool, will do”
“Great, just spend 2 mins tonight visualising what that execution is going to look like. Imagine yourself kicking the pass or the score, be very deliberate about that visualisation. Remember there will be mistakes and missed passes, but we encourage you to keep testing your skills in this way. If you need any more help just ask, we are here to help”
Now we have created a clear path to improvement, with them central to the process themselves.
What we are hoping to achieve here is to show how these are skills, in tandem with more physical movement or technical skills that can be worked on pretty easily. Hopefully a process like this can keep us going in lockdown, but help us hit the ground running once back out on the pitch. The subjects i mention above are so deep to get into any of them even in summary would be a series of blogs alone, so for the professionals reading this from those areas, forgive the gaps. Its an osmosis of reading and experiences which may not fit every specialists exact view on this subject.
The one thing i would say, for skeptical coaches (every single one of us is skeptical of this area when we start, you are lying if you do not admit that), there are some small but immediate and often astounding results from some of these methods. The first thing you must do is leave your bias and playing experiences at the door.
Some of them you can take and leave as an athlete or coach. Some players or players you deal with will intuitively have some of these elements so pick and choose what may fit. But if they are young players or inexperienced in this are or indeed highly skeptical themselves, start at the start and do one at a time and be incredibly patient.
As an example, working with one high level athlete in recent years improving self talk to any kind of decent level took 3 months. The results, the output, the actual scoring rate in this case all improved. But it wasn’t overnight. The bad habits he had developed over 23 years and had not full eradicated by season end. So some elements hit home immediately, others take time.
In resilience research done by Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016 they suggest
Winning and losing growing up, training and winning and losing micro encounters organically make many resilient. But how can we be proactive? And thats the main idea we are trying to work on here because ultimately if as players and coaches we are honest, we want to be better, we want to be highly competitive and we want to win more games. So instead of waiting for the experiences to happen, we can in some way use our knowledge of the game and our experiences of the past to predict somewhat closely the future and have us that bit more prepared to be successful.
And this is not all floury psycho-babble (as described to me recently)
So to recap
Players - Find something you want to work on, ask yourself why, and keep asking till you get right down into the real reason. Then ask yourself how you are going to do that.
For Coaches - Reach out to the group, offer to help any player with one area they want to work on. Give them 4 areas
Psychological - Physical - Technical - Tactical
They can pick one from each area. Then they pick the most important one of those and thats your nugget. If they choose its more likely to improve. Be honest, if a subject troubles you, be honest with them. “I am not 100% how to help you with that, but i will find out” And go find out. Then everyone is learning.
Have added some resources and links to papers and books used in article below as well as a Confidence sheet as adapted from James Leath of Athlete Unleashed.
In the next part (3) we will look a little deeper into goal setting, imagery and positive self talk.
Added some papers and resources around that as well.
If anyone is interested in Coaching we have 3 Packages available here - standard group S&C Program, Personalised Programming or the bells & Whistles all in Performance Coaching. We have some Covid Lock-down Specials for people to dip in in and try Online Coaching.
“Challenge involves having high expectations of people, and helps to instill accountability and responsibility” Sandord 1967
Research & Resources
Research & Resources from this blog
Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis - Schmidt & Lee
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00394/full - Moran & O' Shea, 2020
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274509307_Goal_Setting_to_Enhance_Motivation_in_Sport - Roberts & Kristiansen, 2012
Introduction to Physical Education, Fitness, and Sport by Daryl Siedentop
Research & Resources related to upcoming blog Part 3
Does Mental Practice Work like Physical Practice without Information Feedback?
Using cognitive general imagery to improve soccer strategies
Dealing with Self Isolation - Brian Cain
Courses worth investing in
Cert in Neuroscience of Training - FC Barcelona
Model Thinking - University of Michigan