Last April (2015) I authored an article, “Principles and Axioms for Effective Coaching of Fitness and Conditioning.” This article is a second installment of coaching axioms regarding the teaching of skills and technique. The objective of this article is to share some of these basic principles for teaching motor skills, with the ulterior motive of making you think deeply about how you are coaching your particular sport. I consider the below axioms to be self-evident and, quite frankly, common sense. Furthermore, they follow well-researched and professionally accepted methods of teaching sports skills.
These axioms are all about getting the most out of your teaching and having your athletes learn their skills better, faster, and with greater retention. Like last year’s article, they are presented to you axiomatically so that you can see and relate to them in simple terms.
“The more times an athlete does a skill, the better he or she will be at it”
This axiom was first taught to me by one of my college physical education professors. Simply put, “The more you do it, the better you will be at it.” This is even true if one learns a skill with slightly incorrect technique. An athlete who incorrectly performs a skill such as shooting a basketball or hitting a golf ball will become adequately competent at this skill if he has practiced it thousands of times. You see this all the time at the middle and high school levels.
“The greater the quantity of repetitions in practice, the better the performance in competition”
This axiom, of course, is a corollary to the above. It is shared with the sole purpose of getting coaches to understand that your objective in planning and organizing your practices is to provide for the most possible repetitions of each skill or strategy during your practice period. It is the coach’s job to determine the best way to maximize repetitions in every phase of his or her practices.
“The more perfect the technique, the better the results”
Now we’re talking! As with almost all sports and motor skills, the more correctly an athlete performs the skill, the better he or she will be at the skill and the more productive will be the results. Here is where the real teaching and coaching meets the road. It is your job as the coach to know how to teach each of the skills and strategies needed for your sport.
Furthermore, you should know how to break a skill down into parts and then create the correct lead-up drills to use with your athletes so they will learn the correct technique required for the best results. Because coaches who majored in physical education learned how to properly teach motor skills, they have a distinct advantage over other coaches. Coaches who did not major in physical education should seek information about whole-part-whole teaching strategies.
Note: in the February 2015 article, one of the axioms was, “The stronger one is, the faster they will learn a motor skill and the better they will be at this skill.” Visit this article to see the value this axiom has to the above principles of teaching sports skills.
Let’s now talk about retention. Obviously, coaches want their athletes and teams to be able to perform the skill or strategy not just correctly in practice, but optimally in competition. This is not just for sports skills but also for the strategies required for success in the sport itself. How does a coach maximize retention of the things he or she has been teaching in practices? Almost all sports, and especially team sports, require a myriad of strategies-individual, group, and team.
“The greater the mental intensity at practice, the greater the retention in competition”
Let me first share with you that mental intensity refers to the level of focus or concentration your athletes have during your practices. The greater the level of focus, the greater will be the retention when you compete. As coaches, I am sure that you have heard the axiom, “The team with the fewest mistakes will win the game.” This is arguably one of the truest of all competitive athletic measures. It is especially true when athletes and teams are equally matched. How is this retention axiom a corollary to the skill and technique axioms I shared in my previous article? Simply put, if your athletes are not focused mentally while they are performing their repetitions of the skills and strategies in practice, the likelihood of performing them productively in competition is diminished significantly. Retention is compromised and the probability of mistakes in competition is much higher. Therefore, “The greater the focus in practice, the greater the retention in competitions and the fewer the mistakes.”
“The greater the mental intensity, the greater will be the physical intensity”
Related to mental intensity is physical intensity. Mental intensity begets physical intensity. By physical intensity, we are referring to the physical effort of your athletes. If the effort of the athletes is greater in each of their repetitions of skills and strategies in practice, the quality of the repetitions will be much better. It follows that the better the quality of repetitions in practice, the likelihood of quality execution in competitions is increased significantly.
So how does the coach create an environment within his or her practices that is conducive to high levels of focus? I will share with you two axioms over which all coaches have full control. Both of these refer to coach feedback during practices and drills.
“The greater the ratio of positive to negative feedback, the greater will be the focus and mental intensity of your athletes”
This is especially true for the young, middle to high school athlete. The more feedback young athletes get during a practice, the more they will tend to listen and be engaged. Simply put, giving young athletes feedback raises their level of engagement, of mental intensity and focus. If the feedback is positive and in front of their peers, it has a synergistic effect upon them.
“The greater the volume of informational feedback, the greater the retention and execution”
Informational feedback consists of words and signs that instruct, correct, or reassure the athlete of their techniques and strategies. This was a trademark trait of the great basketball coach John Wooden. Ground-breaking sports psychologists Ogilvie and Tutko did a comprehensive study of John Wooden while he was coaching his ten NCAA basketball championships. Their findings showed that Coach Wooden’s coaching style consisted of voluminous feedback and that some 80% of the feedback was informational in nature with the remaining 20% being positive reinforcement along with informational feedback. He was truly the model of a great teacher-coach.
There are additional axioms that are an extension of the above and have to do with the learning environment of your practices and workouts with your team and athletes. These will be presented in a third installment article in the spring.