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)
Now Carol Dweck has a book and multiple papers on this and you should consider the book. But for the purpose of this blog we will use Trevor's watered down video and points of interest.
And you may be thinking - “Kevin, you said skills, we’d be improving our skills in lockdown, where are they?”
Well we are - by even watching that video you are improving your skills. The idea that there is so many skills you can still try and can improve in any walk of life has just been suggested. It may not have sunk in yet but the seed is planted.
But what i am really setting out here is the process that will sustain us when things get hard or we hit a blockage in our development. This is as sure as night follows day that we will hit those blockages. What important is not some motivational quote or target of number of shots hit in a drill, what will help us is that we accept losses, misses, mistakes. And its not just saying “you have to bounce back”, the best athletes and businessmen and Nurses and Engineers who bounce back from negative experiences have a process to bounce back. They may not know it, they may not have ever studied it or thought it out but they developed it. And if you haven’t yet, rest assured you can.
And when athletes find this the results can be amazing, and quick. Not always quick, but they can be. Because with many its this eureka moment “jesus, i can do this” and “this process makes me feel good”.
So many players are going around the place with the handbreak pulled, i believe 2 things underpin this - a lack of support and/or appreciation for the mental side of the game, or are poorly conditioned/over trained.
Release those handbreaks and you will see a different person.
So what do i really take from this, what matters to have a good growth mindset?
And remember, you can move from fixed to growth. And also remember we have days where we are a bit of this and a bit of that. And this can happen with anyone at pretty much any age, in fact the earlier the better generally. Now this is not sitting a 6 year old down and writing up specific goals for them. Obviously at different ages the approach differs, it may be soft encouragement or positive reinforcement at that age
“I really liked how after you missed the shot for goal the first time you went back and made the great effort to go for it again….and look, you got it.”
With a childs brain being so much more plastic at that age and less negativity, experiences and external judgement it can have a huge effect.
However with a 27 year old it will be slower. We may have to dial it back a bit, a negative experience may be a blockage in the road. So it may be 1 step back to take 2 forward, a bit like our fear of shooting with our left leg for 12 years from the last post(link Blog 2). We are not clinicians nor working in a clinician setting here, but we can think and we can talk. We can listen as coaches especially.
So with this in mind we can go back the physical or technical movement we want to improve.
So you are the player(s) themselves or you are working on kicking off the weak leg in Gaelic Football.
What happens presently?
And be truthful - what actually happens presently in trying to develop a weakness?
My experience varies from
“Go home and practice by kicking it off a wall”
Or maybe some isolated practice at training.
It can even start to look good, competent, smooth.
Then me, you, the child or whoever is thrown into a game
And the coach stands on the sideline mumbling “FFS, we worked on this………”
But you didn’t. Its like putting a slice of bread in a toaster and wondering why a toasted special didn’t pop out after 90 seconds.
There is more to it than that.
And thats fine to a point, we are not totally anti-isolation training. And we all stood on sidelines figuring out and muttering “WTF”. Remember if the child's learning is non-linear, then ours is too as coaches. If you don’t have a skill and it is very low level, for multiple physical and psychological reasons isloated training could be a starting point. A feeling of competentce may be a conduit for someone to move on to more challenging tasks. It was for many, hitting the ball off a wall. However its not what brings us to the next level.
But it must be noted, the journey to skill learning as opposed to performance (Motor Learning v. Motor Performance) (Winkleman 2020) is important. Being able to reproduce in a drill unopposed may be a starting point, thats the performance of a component of the Motor skill (kicking off the weak side against a wall). But to make it Motor learning (as in it stays omnipresent as an executable skill like kicking consistently off the weak side in a game) there is a pathway.
“motor performance, which refers to short-term shifts in motor behavior that can be observed and measured during or immediately after a practice session, while motor learning, which reflects relatively permanent changes in motor behavior that underpin long-term retention of motor skills - Winkelman, Nicklaas C.. The Language of Coaching (p. 12). “
Now i have seen Eddie Jones and others talk about their process with coaching. A process on the field something like this;
But when it gets there, and even between the stages what really will enhance your coaching and the real long term ability of the learner - is we talk about the learning process. The more we learn about the learning process and get comfortable with the non-linear, back and forward, up and down nature of it the better. Learning is a science in itself, but the experience of it develops us all. However a coach in particular can create a lifelong learner in an athlete by helping them recognise that learner process. So that on-going the athlete/learner will know and understand that the journey of skill acquisition is a bumpy but rewarding one. This is you being a sports psychologist - you may not have the accreditation or the ability to ask people for money to do it as a career (there is a bit more to it LOL), but you will be opening the door for the development of a stronger mindset and set of resilience skills in that athlete. All you have to do is think about people in your own life who opened doors for you, showed you a path, allowed you to learn. It's only in adulthood we really see what some people did.
“In this isolated phase though we can support the players with cues, words and phrases that can support the skill acquisition phase (Winkleman 2020)”
What we need is to bring it to a retention phase.
“Ultimate assessment of motor learning requires a retention phase, which takes place at some point in the future, is within a relevant context, and is void of any coaching influence. - Winkelman, Nicklaas C.. The Language of Coaching (p. 12).
Coaches Note: You may notice the unashamedly repeated referencing of Nick Winkleman's book “The Language of Coaching”. That's because it is brilliant. Readable for anyone, great anecdotes and analogies to support the science, research and Nicks vast experience working at all levels. Its a must get for the future coach. Coaching is changing rapidly and this book will help in that transportation.
That said we do not need to do this exact process with every skill for evermore - and this is the no.1 waste of precious time i see in sports these days.
Coaches Note: For Non-Rugby Coaches. Something I have observed is the referencing of the All Blacks and their repeated use of unopposed "skills" training. A lot of the videos of this are taken from warm ups or even Pre-session, so out of context. Also rugby as a sport, although it is changing to more of a dynamic systems led session approach, is a game that lends itself to pattern play. Running unopposed patterns I'm rugby makes a lot of sense. What I would compare it to though is a Kick-out in Gaelic Football. A Keeper might do some target practice on his own, he may then bring in someone to make runs for him but ultimately it is a long way away from when you have an opposition working on a full 9 man + press. Basically the gap between the rugby example and match play is smaller than my Gaelic football example. The other thing to always remember a out the All Blacks, and I compare this favorably with Killkenny Hurling or Kerry Football too - the players who come through come through because of their immense mental and physical robustness, it's the culture, not the coaching. Of course that's not saying there isn't thousands of top coaches between them, it's just a consideration when assessing the elite teams. I would suggest seeking out Stuart Lancaster talking on this, he uses isolated technical drills in the gym between sets and is video recording the movements, this is an ideal environment for isolated drills. Not taking away valuable time on the pitch.
Jones is not saying that passing a ball needs to be put through that system every time, at least thats not my interpretation. What he and others are referring to is NEW skills. Or new patterns of play, tactics, plays or movements.
Continuously going back to no.1 in competent players is wasting everyone's
time at best or satisfying the coaches ego at the other end. Because it looks good at training and makes the coach feel he is coaching well.
We were all there. We think we have the best session ever planned and bang, it falls apart on the night. Or we even think the session has gone well and players look sharp but the following weekend they are blown off coarse by another team
Yes if you are trying a new puckout strategy it makes sense to do a walk through. Or you could run it, then walk through, run it, refine it. That way you are actually doing a live needs analysis. Its possible with an experienced or high level team it may not be needed or they only need one walk through. Depends on the needs and experience of your team or indeed how complex the movement and intra movements are. Basically its contextual so cut your cloth.
We need to be able to jump around back and forth from that 6 step process. Maybe we want to add a layer to the skill thats already embedded, well then we may start at the start briefly again. But the danger always is that believing if it looks good in a drill its working. All that means is you have your green flag to challenge further.
But think of it this way.
Every day you drive your car. Do you sit and do your learners permit again?
Thats what we are making young and adult athletes do by repeating the same movements in isolation over and over. Humans, by our very nature, want progression. We are built to improve, to search for better. Only our environments put up blocks for that (social inequality, lack of parental support, the coach who tells you not to try something etc). It is up to us as coaches to develop that and create an environment where we can improve and challenge ourselves.
And you will get opposition, from players and other coaches. This is the way we always did it. Now the easy answer to that with an unsuccessful team is - “how has that gone for ya?”. But how do you do this with a winning or highly competitive team? Trust, evidence and enjoyment.
I survey all the athletes and teams i work with a couple of times a year, see what they like, what they don’t etc. Its astonishing how much “more drills before games for our touch”, “more stretching”, “more skills training” comes back. It doesn’t matter how much a team has improved that will come back. At one level it tells me which areas need more education, another area is i need to show results (less stretching but we have far less injuries usually ends that discussion) or i may need to go as far as explaining Perception-Action Coupling and creating a video detailing the needs, or lack of evidence for certain methods. The point is everybody gets so stitched into the fabric of the training we did in the past. When i look at the difference in strength work i do now with athletes compared to 6 years ago its stark. Unless they specifically have a massive deficit of course where we will attack that area specifically.
At the moment, jumping back up to what we commonly see in coaching today - isolated drills to playing some games to match scenario and wondering why it hasn’t stuck is often skipping and lack of analysing of the process in between. That's not to say you don’t play games or see how it evolving there, but that there are other parts of the process. The other real challenge here for any coach, particularly sub elite, is the vastly varying levels of ability. Very often, and retention and participation numbers bear this out repeatedly, a lot of players, because they need that learning process or biologically and psycho-socially may not be ready, get run roughshod over in the rush to box tick “skills”. And i have no problem whatsoever criticizing the GAA in this regard as one big known example where one loose term, perpetuated by several coach educators since “if they don’t have the skills by 12, they will never have them”, or a slightly more disconcerting statement “if they don’t have the skills by 12, forget about them”. So i realise this is in the coaching message. I also realise this is often by well meaning and often very skilled coaches in multiple other facets. And if its in GAA its elsewhere as well and i have certainly seen similar sentiments in Soccer, Aussie Rules and Baseball for instance.
So i think it is important for us as coaches to step back and think about what we heard or what was said. We all do it from time to time. We hear something, it kinda makes sense, its going to make my life easier - and we run with it.
So to move on. Think of the skill you have decided to work on, or for coaches think of the skill that is most important to build in your athletes to allow them to become more rounded players - and this is KEY - not to win games but to enjoy the game more. Now this is not me saying in an airy-fairy way winning isn’t important. Trying to win is important, trying to get better is critical and being competitive or having the belief you can win is actually most important to people and players. Players will come back in these circumstances.
So this might be - kicking off the weak side in Gaelic Football, striking in hurling, trapping the ball in soccer, laying up from your weaker side under pressure in basketball, a tennis back hand - whatever. You will know , its your sport and your experiences. Just remember - not too much time at stage 1, these skills are skills already developed on numerous levels within the player, on their stronger side. So this is not completely new, so there is still massive reservations about developing saying your left side in striking a sliothar in hurling off a wall hundreds of times. We must be willing to challenge at the various levels. I fear developing skill is often mixed up with brand new skills. That differential is important.
Quote “adaptation learning typically means a gradual shift in the execution of a particular motor skill which is often based on trial and error learning. Skill Acquisition in Sport
What cues and coaching style you use is yours, its up to you but one important thing to watch for is if performance reduces away from you and specific practice regularly (it may as part of the process) then you have an issue - the drill or game is not game representative enough, you have left out a step thats needed OR you are over coaching and they need you there to prompt and cue. We know this doesn’t work. This is acute motor performance, not motor learning, or the learning has not reached match level yet. (Soderstrom, 2015)
Coaches Note: Another key part here for us coaches. Shut up. For as long as possible. This can be hard, you are a coach with your heart in the right place, you want to help. But let them figure it out, and then help guide with the reflection & improvements needed after.
And then ask questions.
What does a good kick look like to you? - Maybe use a well known player, maybe have clips ready.
How does that feel?
Is there anything you’d like to improve?
What can i do to help?
And let that guide the coaching - you may not get an immediate response or a clear one. And thats cool, they are not comfortable yet for that. And it means you are definitely in the right phase of skill development.When we see a mistake how we process that is not only good for our athletes, its good for our health too!!!
So that's it for this Part, we jump straight into Self-Talk, which can support our practice that we discussed above.
References, Links & further reading:
Soderstrom, NC, and Bjork, RA. Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10:176-199, 2015.
Anderson, D. I., Rymal, A. M., & Ste-Marie, D. M. (2014). Modeling and feedback. In A. Papaioannou & D. Hackfort (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of sport and exercise psychology (pp. 272–288).
Wallace, Phillip, McKinlay, Brandon, Coletta, Nico, Vlaar, Janae (2016)
Effects of Motivational Self-Talk on Endurance and Cognitive Performance in the Heat, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
Blanchfield, Anthony & Hardy, James & de Morree, Helma & Staiano, Walter & Marcora, Samuele. (2013). Talking Yourself Out of Exhaustion: The Effects of Self-talk on Endurance Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise.
Tod, David & Hardy, James & Oliver, Emily. (2011). Effects of Self-Talk: A Systematic Review. Journal of sport & exercise psychology.
The Language of Coaching, Nick Winkleman (2020)
Pure Sport, Moran, Kremer & Kearney (2014)
Skill Acquisition in Sport, Hodges & Williams (2018)
The Athletic Skills Model, Rene Wormhoudt (2018)
Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology, Hanrahan & Andersen (2010)
Dan Abrahams/Stuart Lancaster Podcast