Considered Coaching - When and How to Steer Athletes' Learning

In a previous post we have spoken about the art of coaching and the power of well-chosen words. Regardless of what discipline a practitioner is working in (physical preparation, sports injury, coaching) there will be an element of coaching the athlete to perform movement - for the purposes of training, injury rehabilitation, or for the sport itself. An understanding of how best to guide the process of acquiring a movement skill is typically something practitioners develop over time; certainly it is not extensively taught - if at all, depending on the discipline concerned. Clearly this is a major omission given that these factors will affect how well the athlete not only acquires movement skills in the first instance, but also how robust these skills will prove over time and under pressure.

Becoming aware of these considerations is a critical starting point. This understanding allows the practitioner to @@make the switch in mindset from 'instructing' to guiding or steering the athlete's own learning@@ process by employing different tools, both verbal and non-verbal.

Many practitioners will have heard mention of such terms as implicit learning, external versus internal cues, constraints-based coaching, and even dynamical systems theory. However, these concepts are shrouded in mystery (arguably that is the intention for some who claim expertise in the area) and are often incompletely understood. Here we will attempt to demystify these areas, offering an overview of the basic tenets of these ideas and explaining the terms employed using plain language.

More importantly we can put these ideas into context to give clarity on why these considerations might be important in the learning process (i.e. why should you care). In turn, we will explore how we might practically account for these aspects when coaching an athlete.

So let's begin with a (re)definition of the process by which movement skills are acquired. In essence, @@learning and ultimately mastering new movements can viewed as a (guided) search for movement solutions@@ for a particular task.

Practice... (is) a form of exploratory behaviour, a continually evolving search for task solutions
— Karl M. Newell and Paul V. McDonald

An important starting point is for the athlete to have a clear understanding of the task - i.e. what the parameters of the task are, and what outcome the practitioner wants them to achieve. Clearly a key aspect of coaching a movement is first defining the task, including any constraints involved, and what constitutes a successful outcome - and of course communicating this information in a way the athlete comprehends. Practically, this may involve demonstrating the movement, or in this information age perhaps employing visual media such as video showing another athlete performing the movement task successfully and with a degree of mastery.

Once the athlete is clear on the nature of the task, the next step in the learning process will be exploring what options or solutions are available to them in order to achieve the desired task outcome. Performing @@a movement task by definition involves the athlete interacting with their environment@@ in order to achieve a defined outcome. The constraints associated with both the athlete themselves and the environment in which they must operate will therefore together serve to define the parameters of the task and potential movement solutions that are available to them. 

Often the range of options or playbook available to the athlete will differ according their particular bodily constraints (e.g. height, limb length) and capabilities (strength qualities, mobility, global 'athleticism' etc). To some extent this is dynamic - @@athletes' capabilities can be developed and this will alter the potential movement solutions available@@ to them over time. 

Some parameters of the environment are constant and apply equally to all individuals. For instance, gravity and Newtonian laws of motion apply whoever you are. In ecological psychology parlance these consistent 'laws' that are common to all task environments as termed 'invariants'. Beyond this, exploring the task environment allows the individual to establish what interactions are possible, in the context of their own bodily constraints and capabilities, in order to come up with potential movement solutions.

It is important to understand that the way the athlete perceives the task environment or movement landscape is scaled to their own body and their own perceived capabilities. This is known as 'embodied cognition' of the task environment.

In turn, the task and the environment in which the task is performed are defined according to 'affordances' or action opportunities, in relation to the athlete's own bodily constraints and capabilities. These processes therefore define what the athlete perceives to be the options or movement strategies that are available to them.

As the athlete trials different movement strategies they will discard what worked less well, and ultimately settle on and continue to refine a select few movement solutions that proved most successful. In dynamical systems terms this is known as 'emergent behaviour'.

Practice (is) not repeating the solution of a motor problem time after time, but the process of solving this problem again and again by techniques changed and perfected from repetition to repetition
— N.A. Bernstein

So what is the role of the practitioner in all this? At first glance it seems logical to expedite the process by telling the athlete what the solution is and coaching them through it in great detail. In broad terms this would be characterised as 'explicit learning'. 

Unfortunately, whilst this might appear to save time, a considerable body of evidence suggests that the former approach whereby the athlete works through the movement task with a degree of autonomy to come up with the solution(s) themselves (i.e. implicit learning) is far more robust and less susceptible to breaking down under pressure. Thus there is an argument that 'over-coaching' by providing too much explicit instruction during the learning process may set the athlete up to fail or 'choke' when they ultimately come to perform the task under pressure such as in competition. 

Movement skills acquired, refined and mastered via exploration and discovery are also likely to be more adaptable. This is important as in the majority of sports the conditions faced in the performance environment does change to varying degrees between and even within competitions.

Even for 'closed skill' (predetermined, self-paced) tasks, changes in environmental conditions will clearly affect the interaction between athlete and environment, which in turn changes the constraints of the task, albeit perhaps only subtly. For sports involving complex movement tasks executed in highly dynamic environments, movement solutions and strategies must be highly adaptable as the movement puzzle to be solved and associated constraints involved are constantly changing. 

Finally, in the case of high-speed movements and ballistic actions (jumping, sprinting etc) there is similarly a need to avoid 'overthinking', and to minimise cognitive 'noise' that can interfere with and disrupt rapid movement execution. Once again, this would suggest that explicit instruction should be used sparingly, particularly once the athlete has mastered the fundamentals of the movement.

So, does this make coaching redundant? Should the practitioner just sit back and let the athlete work it out for themselves, without any guidance or feedback? Well, no. @@Even 'exploratory' or 'discovery-based' learning needs to be guided@@ - to avoid having to work through the innumerable possible 'wrong' movement solutions before finally arriving at what works. 

Being pragmatic, 'explicit' coaching should be provided sparingly during learning, rather than not at all. As we will discuss, there are also various tools or 'tricks' that allow coaching information to be provided in a way that avoids the potential negative consequences associated with explicit learning. 

Even if explicit instruction is withheld entirely, it is possible to 'channel' the learning process and steer the athlete towards more optimal movements solutions via different methods.

One of the most simple ways of steering motor learning without providing explicit instruction involves the use of questioning. This approach clearly engages the athlete in the process of working out the movement puzzle. Well chosen questions can also direct the athlete's attention to sources of information in the practice environment. Similarly questioning can direct the athlete to critical elements of the task in order to guide them towards certain movement solutions.

Another 'indirect' approach that stimulates and steers implicit learning is to employ additional constraints in the 'perceptual-motor workspace' during practice. This approach is termed 'constraints-based coaching'. When implemented correctly this can serve to steer the athlete away from common movement errors, and towards more desirable movement behaviours or solutions.

This may involve the use of actual physical constraints or obstacles during practice, for example running over low hurdles can prompt the athlete to spontaneously adopt favourable movement patterns.

Alternatively, 'imaginary' rules or 'projected constraints' can be imposed in the practice environment to steer movement behaviour in a similar fashion. For instance, the coach might implement additional conditions that must be satisfied during practice trials, such as achieving certain positions or 'shapes' during task execution.

Using task 'key performance indicators' (KPI's) in this way is analogous to the concept of 'attractors' in dynamical systems theory. The KPI's or attractors selected are essentially common themes or elements observed among performers who exhibit mastery of the particular movement.

Alternatively, the 'projected constraints' employed might be in the form of 'instructional metaphors' or other 'augmented information' provided by the coach. In this way the input from the coach can alter how the athlete perceives the task or the context of the practice environment. The more abstract nature of this form of coaching input serves to enrich rather than detracting from the athlete's motor learning process.

The merits of analogy-based coaching have been acknowledged for some time, and for many analogies are considered the holy grail when selecting coaching cues. Notably, Nick Winkelman, who recently completed his PhD in the area of cueing and skill acquisition, is a well known proponent of this approach.

The intention with this form of coaching instruction is to plant an idea: the athlete is prompted to visualise the task, the environment, or themselves in a different way - for instance, 'picture your legs as pistons', 'imagine your spine as a chain'. The athlete therefore plays an active part; essentially painting their own mental picture, which re-frames how they perceive the movement task. 

Coaching cues may be internally focussed - i.e. on the athlete's own body, as in the previous examples. Alternatively, external cues can be employed that are 'grounded' in the environment and direct the athlete's attention beyond their own body. Notable authorities in the field point to the apparent superiority of external cues based on a number of findings in the research literature. Once again, this has been a focus of Nick Winkelman's work and recent publications.

Alternatively internal and external cueing can be employed in combination. One such example when coaching sprint acceleration is conceptualising the shin/foot as a pick axe that breaks through the surface of the track to drive a wedge with each step. This is an example of 'grounding' an internal cue in the task environment. Hence the athlete's locus of attention is still directed externally to some degree.

Until now we have discussed what to say and how to say it when providing input to steer motor learning. The final consideration when coaching a particular movement relates to the timing of coaching input provided, or rather when to withhold any input.

@@Judging when to say either nothing at all, or else very little represents an advanced coaching skill@@ that is generally a hallmark of the experienced coach. In order for autonomous learning to occur clearly the athlete must be afforded the opportunity to try their own solution or correct their own previous attempt in the first instance without any intervention or correction from the coach. The only input from the coach might therefore be to ask the athlete what they thought happened and challenge them to fix it with the next attempt.

These considerations becomes more prevalent as learning advances and the athlete develops a more refined understanding and mastery of the movement challenge. Essentially the practitioner must favour the more experienced or advanced performer with a greater level of autonomy to fix their mistakes.

So there it is, a whirlwind journey through motor learning to understand when and how to steer athletes' movement learning - and when to say nothing at all...

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