A different perspective on skill acquisition – Jason Wallace.

Picture the following – you go down to your local sports club and there is an organised training session on. You watch from the side-line and observe players practice skills in static isolation, stand in lines waiting for their turn to run in between the ladders or solo the ball around the pole and back.

Next, the coach begins to shout instructions – ‘two hands on the hurley’, ‘point your toe down’, ‘tuck your chin into your chest’ – shouting at the top of their lungs telling their students what to do; otherwise known as explicit instruction (minus the shouting!). ‘That’s the way to do it, now try again’. This continues for a while with children running in lines suggested by the coach(es) and providing instructions on where to run and what to do. Finally, the players become bored and ask if they can play a game. The coach agrees, they have now learnt the skill intended and should be able to practice this in a game context. Game begins. New skills aren’t working for all. Time is up. See you next week.

I know from my own experience that getting volunteers to support within their local sports community can be very difficult and I would never discourage them from helping. But it may be time to start thinking differently at the way we approach the learning of new skills – and the development of skills already learnt. Considering the picture above, why do so many teachers and coaches want their students to practice skills in such an isolated and organised manner? Can’t we just relax and let them play? After all, the players aren’t robots. In fact, they are problem-solvers and decision makers. Why do coaches provide explicit and specific teaching points or cues in how to perform the skill to their students? Why is there an illogical reasoning whereby there is one way to perform a skill and if you can’t perform this movement in the exact, ‘perfect’ way that you won’t be able to perform the skill at all.

The illusion of the one perfect repeatable technique

Watch any sport you want and observe if the same ‘correct’ technique is used each time by every player – does Tony Kelly strike the ball identically to Diarmuid Byrnes, does David Clifford kick identically to Louise Ní Mhuircheartaigh, does Shane Lowry swing exactly like Leona Maguire? Compare any of the above athletes and ask yourself are they performing the skill in exactly the same way? You can modify anyone’s name to fit this sentence, but the answer will always be no – it will of course be very similar, there are specific movements that need to be there, that is physics. Invariant properties exist across all performer’s skills and movements, but it will never be the exact same. There is something different in the way they perform the movements. Who strikes it correctly then? If we persist to coach the ‘correct’ way to strike a sliotar, kick a ball or swing a golf club, are we taking away the players ability to have their own style and flair?

Is there another way than the traditional, fundamentals, repetition-dominated view of learning?

While this could easily be continued into another blog post, I will briefly suggest two alternative approaches which can be adopted in the hope you will consider and explore on your own in developing an understanding of the approaches.

Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) – a learner-centred approach to teaching games which is alternative to the traditional, isolated, technique-led approach. This method allows students to understand tactical concepts within games and subsequently make decisions. This approach challenges individuals to find their own solutions rather than telling them what to do.

Constraints-led approach – an approach which involves putting constraint(s) on either the environment, task and/or individual in the pursuit of a specific outcome. This approach again challenges individuals to find their own movement solutions. It also differs from TGfU in that this approach can be adopted within team settings or for individual sports such as golf, tennis, gymnastics, and boxing.

This may sound like a very hands-off teaching approach, but there are times when you as the teacher or coach need to step in. While I don’t advocate for putting players into the actual sport in its full level and speed, I do advocate the need to challenge the players at the right level in an environment which replicates the actual gameplay. After all, we learn to crawl and walk on our own, scaffolded by using the environment around us.

Final Thoughts

I will leave you with this excellent video created by Hockey Canada portraying a common theme that can be observed through so many youth sports across the world. While the main theme of this video emphasises putting ‘pressure’ on youths in sports, it also demonstrates how providing these constant explicit instructions sound, simply put, ridiculous! So, is it time to consider changing the way you approach teaching skill acquisition? Relax, let them play.

Jason Wallace is a Teaching Assistant in Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at the University of Limerick. Jason is a qualified physical education teacher and has numerous years of teaching and coaching various age groups across a variety of sports. Contact: jason.wallace@ul.ie, follow on twitter @jasonwallace95, or on LinkedIn

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