The Why, What, and How of Coaching Movement: Part 3

The current post is the culmination of a three-part series on coaching athletic movement. In the opening part of the series, we delved into the ‘why’, and sought to elucidate what roles we have to play in this space. With part two we got into the ‘what’, and proposed that the lenses of mechanical effectiveness and efficiency might unite our aims in both performance and injury realms. With this final instalment, we get into the ‘how’, and provide some practical guidance on how we might deliver what we outlined in part two, and ultimately fulfill the roles we identified in part one.

FIRST LET’S BE CLEAR…

Intention is a powerful tool when learning and practising a skill or a different way of doing things. However in order to be intentional the athlete needs to be clear both on the task and what is considered a successful performance.

Thus the primary purpose of instruction from the outset is providing clarity on the task to be performed. If we want our athletes to be successful they must be clear on what specifically they are trying to do.

When instructing the athlete on the task we should also provide salient information or ‘task-relevant’ information. Finally, the athlete needs to be very clear on what constitutes a successful outcome.

In essence, we want it to be clear and explicit what we want the athlete to do, the essential physics involved, and what specific objectives they are striving to achieve in doing so.

There is also a need to verify what message has been received. Inevitably there is always some distortion, and some discrepancy between what we have said and what has been heard by the athlete. We need to establish what has been heard, and which part of the information provided they have latched onto.

Verifying message received should be an integral part of our coaching process. Hereby we can establish what exactly the athlete has understood from what they have been told; and then monitor and manage the distortion as we go along.

IN OTHER WORDS...

There are a host of different ways to impart the information that the athlete requires in order to learn and perform. It follows that we should be ready to explain or describe things in a variety of different ways, and employ a range of modes and media to communicate this information.

Many of these modes for imparting the necessary information are non-verbal. For instance, demonstration allows the athlete to model their movement behaviour from what the coach shows them. We can similarly employ training partners to model the action, or use video of a skilled performer who demonstrates the particular technical quality. As coaches we can even employ simple hand gestures without any words necessarily being involved.

Beyond this conceptual understanding, @@what we are seeking is for the athlete to attain a sensory blueprint, and ‘embodied understanding’ of the particular athletic movement skill@@. Ultimately this can only be developed by engaging in the task and thereby gaining an appreciation of how it feels to successfully execute the movement. It is this sensory experience that we are striving to provide for the athlete in the first instance, and then strengthen and fine-tune this internalised template with practice.

CONSISTENCY AND VARIETY…

@@Within our practice environment is a need to satisfy the diverging needs for both consistency and variability@@.

The challenge point hypothesis suggests that the effect of and need for variability is related to the nominal or functional difficulty of the task for the learner. There are some important implications here. Specifically, if the degree of variation employed in practice overwhelms the learner’s capacities they are not able to engage in any learning or make sense of the information available within the constantly shifting learning environment.

From this viewpoint during the early stages particularly there will be a need to keep practice consistent enough to ensure that the athlete is able to come to grips with the movement task. Essentially we need some opportunity to explore the task under stable conditions in order to gain a real appreciation of what the task entails and get a firm grasp on what we are trying to do in order to start to problem solve.

The necessity for frequent exposure to consistent practice also has a neurophysiological basis. Critical elements include the new neuronal connections made during the initial acquisition of motor skills, and the ‘experience-dependent’ neuroplastic changes which grow and strengthen these neuronal networks. These processes that underpin motor learning, and the subsequent consolidation and retention of these motor patterns, require both frequent exposure and an element of repetition.

Likewise, it is entirely possible to explore different control and coordination solutions when repeatedly tackling the same task under stable conditions. This simply requires that we do not restrict the athlete from exploring different movement solutions in the way that we present the task and provide instruction.

Equally, there is merit to providing sufficient variability in task constraints imposed in practice so that athletes are afforded the opportunity to solve the movement task under a range of conditions, and tackle variations of the movement task.

Imposing different constraints during practice appears a good way to prompt athletes come up with different ways to solve the task. This will favour development of flexibility in problem-solving and adaptability when the athlete is faced with performing under different conditions and constraints.

APPROPRIATE VARIATION…

Changing the constraints of the task, or how we stipulate the task should be executed, allows us to manipulate the challenge placed on the athlete. Hereby we can help direct the stimulus not only with respect to executing the movement, but also in relation to the problem-solving process.

Practically, variation can be introduced at either the level of the task (i.e. changing task parameters), or how the task is executed (the rules of the game). With respect to task execution, there is a ‘manifold’ of combinations of permutations of movement variables that produce a successful outcome.

We can illustrate this with the example of shooting a basketball into the hoop. Without changing the location of the player in relation to the hoop, the ball can end up in the hoop via a variety of trajectories or flight paths, so a variety of permutations of release angles and velocities can achieve a successful outcome. The athlete can also employ different release heights with a jump shot, which opens up further manifolds of angles and velocities to get the ball in the hoop.

It is also important to recognise that @@‘adaptive movement variability’ does not solely come from manipulating task constraints or practice conditions@@. When we closely observe even a closed skill, successive repetitions are not in fact identical. Variability is an inherent feature of movement skill practice even for a closed skill under stable conditions.

Bernstein used the phrase ‘repetition without repetition’ to describe this phenomenon. Sadly, in recent times this concept has been misrepresented and misunderstood so that it has been taken to mean that we should change the drill or the task constraints every repetition.

CONCEIVING THE SOLUTIONS…

For each athlete the potential solutions are shaped by the confluence of three aspects: the constraints of the task, the constraints of the environment the task is being undertaken, and the constraints of the performer (physical attributes, capacities, and capabilities).

There are two key things to note here. The first is that each individual brings a unique set of options or playbook for movement solutions. The second salient point is that the solutions we conceive are not only unique to our physical attributes and capabilities, but also how we see the world and its possibilities

What is appropriate is therefore entirely dependent on the individual. We would do a great disservice to restrict an outstanding athlete to a limited set of possibilities for how to ‘correctly’ perform a given movement simply based on our narrow frame of reference for what is possible based on normal mortals.

STEERING EXPLORATION…

We directly perceive our task environment or perceptual-motor workspace in terms of the opportunities it offers to act and interact with objects and features within the environment. In turn the possibilities with respect to the potential actions and interactions are shaped by our own characteristics and capabilities.

For instance, how we perceive objects and features of the environment around us is scaled to our height and reach. More specifically, we directly perceive these features and objects in relation to our subjective sense of our own bodily dimensions and capabilities.

Affordance points both ways, both to the environment and the observer
— J.J. Gibson (1979)

The various features and objects in our environment can also invite particular actions. For instance, when we see a ball, we are naturally drawn to kick it, or to pick it up, perhaps to bounce it, or to throw it.

Aside from permitting the athlete some opportunity to freely explore, there are various ways in which the coach can help steer exploration. For instance we can manipulate how we design the practice environment, or simply present the task to the athlete in a particular way. Either by practice design or via the instruction provided we can impose different constraints on how the task is performed. The latter may range from obstacles to negotiate to altering the rules of the game when performing the task.

Another way is to employ practice activities that demand, encourage and reward creative problem solving. Finally, use of well-directed questions can help shine a torch onto salient features of the task or environment, or to hint at potential solutions.

PAINTING MENTAL PICTURES…

As we spoke about in a previous section, one of our fundamental tasks as coaches is to enable the athlete to conceptualise the skilled movement so that they have a clear representation or picture in their mind of what they are trying to do. The same tools that aid learning to provide understanding can also help the athlete to conceptualise and thereby execute the action we want them to produce.

For instance, analogies can be employed by depicting the skill as an imaginary task. An illustrative example is coaching the basketball free-throw shot using the cue ‘imagine reaching into a jar on a shelf to grab a cookie’. Metaphors can also provide projected or imaginary constraints during practice that can help steer movement behaviour.

In essence we need to find what resonates for that particular individual. Once again we need to be prepared to come up with novel ways of depicting the action. We need to be creative and adaptable so that we can describe and prompt in a myriad of different ways, and come up with a host of different cues to achieve the ‘light bulb moment’ for that individual.

Well-chosen cues also serve to steer attention, guide intention, and direct the athlete’s efforts when they execute the movement.

@@Practitioners often fall into the trap of assuming that there exists a single ‘best cue’@@. Similarly, there is sometimes an attempt to seek consensus on an agreed upon ‘best way’ of coaching a particular exercise or movement drill, for the sake of consistency or standardisation. @@The reality is that there is no magical cue, and no best way to coach a movement@@.

@@Cues are like clothes: try it on for size; if it doesn’t fit, discard it and try something else@@
— Dan Pfaff

By extension, we need to be prepared for the fact that a cue that works or effects the desired change at one moment in time may not necessarily have same effect at a later date. Again, we must be ready to try something else.

FACILITATING PROBLEM-SOLVING…

In a previous post, we made the point that there are always two coaches (i.e. ourselves, and the ‘inner coach’ in the athlete’s own mind). We might actually argue that there are in fact three coaches, on the basis that the task environment also serves as a teacher.

By extension, there are also three sources of feedback. It follows that we must allow the athlete to make use of all three. We need to be considered in the timing and extent of our feedback. We should also offer the athlete the opportunity to choose when and even how feedback is provided. Our input should essentially serve to guide trial and error process as they figure it out and trial different solutions. We can likewise help direct the process of refining solutions, providing a nudge when there is a need for a course correction, and being a resource to help the athlete fix things when the wheels come off.

To a large part, @@engaging in practice is about developing the athlete’s own ability to detect errors or deviations for themselves@@. Our role here is to help facilitate the reflection process and fill in the gaps as necessary. Similarly, we need to give them a chance to fix it themselves before we jump in.

Ultimately our aim is that the athlete becomes able to self-regulate their own movement. This includes not only modulation of action in real-time, and also the ongoing correction between successive attempts and associated fine-tuning that occurs over time. We must assist in developing these tools. It is also critical that we acknowledge that we are the biggest potential impediment to this development.

To that end, as coaches we need to recognise that over provision of feedback is maladaptive, in terms of both learning and retention. Excessive intervention and explicit correction during practice is a problem. For instance, providing a fixed solution restricts freedom to explore alternative solutions. We need to be mindful that wherever possible we must afford the athlete some opportunity to work through the problem in order to figure it out for themselves.

Excessive provision of information and instruction during learning and practice can also encourage an overtly conscious movement control strategy. The tendency for reinvestment of conscious control has potential negative implications for performance, particularly when there is something at stake, which is strongly related to the phenomenon of choking under pressure.

Thinking too much during execution paradoxically serves to throttle the movement, particularly when we are dealing with ballistic actions, which rely more on feed-forward control. This is similarly the case for complex movements, especially those executed at high velocity, whereby a lot of cognitive noise disrupts the flow of the movement. @@There is a time to think, when they are reflecting on prior attempts and planning the next one, and then there is a time to act@@.

GET THEM OUT OF THEIR HEAD…

Some individuals are more prone to internal focus of attention and locus of control, and it is demonstrated individuals with these traits show a greater propensity for choking. Greater propensity for conscious control and heightened awareness is similarly observed post injury. In both of these instances, there is a need to get the athlete out of their own head.

Having attained a level of mastery of the skill, executing well-practised ‘chunks’ of component movement skills does not require or benefit from conscious control. Clearly, we must address this in how we prepare the athlete; by the time they reach the competition environment it is too late to manage the crisis.

HOWEVER, this does not mean the athlete cannot exercise conscious awareness as they perform. Indeed this will be important in order to permit the athlete to reflect on the quality of their skill execution afterwards. Returning to the theme of autonomy not automatons, the important distinction is that what we are seeking is awareness rather than trying to consciously control how movement is generated in real-time.

@@As far as possible our aim is to speak directly to the body@@. We want the athlete to feel the movement. After each repetition, rather than providing input immediately, first ask ‘what did you feel’. We can similarly prompt the athlete to replay the execution of the prior repetition in their mind and then reflect on it in a systematic way. Our role as coach is to lend the athlete our eyes and provide an external viewpoint to verify and cross-reference their own perception. This can be augmented with visual feedback in the form of video replay as appropriate.

Over time this reflection and ongoing recalibration will enable the athlete to acquire a highly attuned feel or sensory awareness of the skill movement. As they successfully execute the movement skill this then provides an increasingly detailed sensory template for what successful execution feels like, which can serve as a frame of reference for subsequent practice.

Prompting the athlete to engage in ‘somatic reflection’ between repetitions should therefore become an integral part of practice. This discipline provides the opportunity to refine their movement solution and conceive new solutions. Similarly, we should encourage the athlete to take time to consciously rehearse the particular refinement or novel solution in preparation for the next attempt.

Equally, @@when the athlete arrives in the competition environment this is a time for acting rather than deliberating@@. In this arena execution of athletic movement skills should be largely spontaneous, without any necessity to think about the appropriate response in the heat of battle or consciously control how movement is generated. When performing on this stage, the athlete must be able divert their mental resources to attend to what is in front of them, particularly in an open skill environment.

TO WRAP UP…

So there it is: coaching athletic movement as an act in three parts. A central theme we opened with is that as practitioners across disciplines we find ourselves instructing athletes on how we want them to move, so it is important that we are clear on what roles we should fulfill, what the scope of our involvement should be, and what specifically our objectives are. In deciding when and how to intervene we need to ensure that what we are advocating respects the essential nature of the task, and that we are adhering to the fundamental physics that govern the movement, irrespective of whether our lens is performance or injury. Finally, as we deliver coaching and facilitate learning our overarching aim must be to promote and foster the role of the athlete during practice, so that they are ultimately able to self-regulate and self-correct without our input. In essence our end goal is to make ourselves redundant.

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