In purely physical terms technical mastery- the skill of applying our body’s force potential- is a huge component of sporting performance. No debate. Without it we might be like a formula one car with a monkey behind the steering wheel- impressive potential, but ultimately doomed to failure.
When one considers the arguably more important perceptual, decision making and reactive elements of skill, the value of understanding skill development cannot be understated. Much to the disappointment of university aged me (who hated this topic), if you are a coach who does not understand motor learning, you are doing yourself and your athletes a disservice.
Tracks in the snow
Whilst the science of motor learning can be extremely deep and complex, in my experience it ultimately boils down to this:
“Repetition is the mother of skill”
Like forming tracks in the snow for a sled, every time a movement is performed in a certain way, the likelihood of the athlete repeating that skill in the same way increases. As the saying goes, “practice makes permanent”. This has several implications for coaches seeking to understand motor learning:
- The better we can guide how the “tracks” are formed in the snow, the better an athlete’s technique will be and the faster they will learn
- Bad habits are hard to break, so don’t form them in the first place
- We need to understand the factors that lead a particular path to be taken, a particular movement habit to be formed, and a particular skill or technique to be developed
Dynamical systems learning theory
The theory which I feel currently best explains how human movement is expressed and learned is a dynamical systems approach (best explained to me by Shawn Myszka). In this model interaction between the task, the environment and the athlete’s body spawns the execution of a motor skill. Manipulation of any of these elements will affect how the skill is performed. For example during a running task:
- Holding/not holding an implement like a rugby ball will influence the degree of arm swing or torso rotation (task)
- The terrain on which the athlete is running will influence the degree of ankle stiffness during the the stance phase (environment)
- Any number of bodily factors like mobility, injury status or fatigue will influence a variety of characteristics during running like hip extension during stance, hip and knee flexion during swing etc. (body)
Hard skill versus soft skill
Before we go any further let’s also distinguish between the different components of a skill, namely hard skill and soft skill. Diehard scientists will know these terms as “attractors” and “fluctuators” but personally I find them confusing and uninformative, so I’m sticking hard and soft- terms I have stolen from my friend Jeff Moyer of DC Sports Training.
Hard skill are those elements of the movement that never change no matter what. When you run, it is always triple extension in one leg, triple flexion in the other leg, with the primary objective being to propel the body forward. When you cut to evade an opposition player it is always triple extension of one limb, with a degree of lateral displacement, with the primary goal being to evade an opponent. When you kick a conversion the plant leg contracts isometrically to stabilise the body, the swing leg flexes at the hip to strike the ball, and the goal is to kick the ball over the bar between the posts. You get the idea.
Soft skill are those elements of the movement which change from repetition to repetition, according to changes in the aforementioned factors (task, environment, body). When the ground is wet and muddy we change how forcefully we push into the ground when sprinting. The positioning of the defender will greatly influence the angle of the cut when we sidestep. The distance of the kick, the strength of the wind, and the angle relative to the posts will all affect the positioning, timing and force of the attempt when kicking at goal.
Both hard skill and soft skill are necessary for basic human movement and elite sporting performance alike. Hard skill makes it easy to quickly recall general movement patterns, react and meet the demands of the environment without a lot of mental processing. Soft skill makes it possible to tailor movements so that we are adaptable to a rapidly changing environment no matter what.
Putting the pieces together
You may have guessed by now that a good coach trying to teach new skills (or correct/refine old ones) should be providing their athletes with as many practise opportunities as possible to cement the hard skill, then once this is established to explore the soft skill. Think about learning to ride a bike: first we learn the hard skill (push the legs alternately), then we remove the training wheels and set about learning the soft skill (don’t fall off!).
Sporting skill is no different. Whilst I am no expert in the science of motor learning, here is the approach I take when coaching skill with my athletes:
- Examine the movements you want to teach. What are the hard skill elements? What are the soft skill elements?
- Devise manipulations of the task, environment or the athlete’s body to force them into correct execution of the hard skill.
- Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make sure those tracks in the snow are the right ones, then make them deep!
- Repeat the process, but this time consider how the task, environment or body can be manipulated to learn soft skill. Now we are trying to force a change in the execution of the skill in a manner that is relevant to the sport/position/technique.
- Practice. Make sure the athlete has an answer for everything that is likely to happen.
A practical example
Let’s look at sprint running. We know that the hard skill elements basically boil down to: triple extension of stance leg, triple flexion of swing leg, maintaining erect posture throughout, and keep displacing the body forwards with each step.
To cement hard skill we can manipulate the task and environment by using drills like wickets (demonstrated by Graeme Morris’s Newtown athletes below). By tasking the athlete with not kicking or stepping on the micro hurdle, we prevent pushing out the back during the hip extension of stance phase and over striding during initial ground contact. Using a load like a plate or barbell and tasking the athlete with keeping them overhead during a running task forces the torso musculature to contract isometrically, promoting erect posture. Etc. etc.
Once hard skill has been cemented, we can again manipulate the task and/or environment to expose the athlete to changing learning environments and develop soft skill. This might entail running on different surfaces- track, grass, light mats etc. We may include carrying a ball or other sports implement to change the upper body component. We might even jump on the Frans Bosch band wagon and add an unstable load like a water bag to make the postural demands highly variable and unpredictable. Logic and cost:benefit are really your only limits here.
This process gets even more complicated and interesting when we add in things like perception of the environment, temporal and spatial considerations and decision making into mix. However in the interests of keeping this post relatively short I will save this for another day. In the meantime, happy motor learning.