A familiar situation in strength and conditioning is the miscommunication of information either between coach and athlete, or different members of the coaching staff. A true example from my own career; a physiotherapist and I were discussing a player who had been rehabbing a minor calf injury. The physio assured me:
“He’s 100% ready. He’s good to go.”
So I took him at his word, and promptly went out and sprinted the athlete in question. One hamstring injury later, it turns out we may have different definitions for the term “ready”. Had we taken the time to clearly define the shared language that we use as practitioners, it might have been a different story. Suffice to say that this grey area of communication represents a significant drain on the efficiency and effectiveness of the training process.
A major area of confusion I have encountered is the nomenclature used to describe motor learning/skill development in activities like sprinting, agility and rugby practice itself. What one coach may call “skills training”, clearly exhibits the elements of competition and improvisation that I would associate with “practice”. What some athletes may think of as “a game/practice” is probably closer to a drill due to the constraints placed on the athletes the predictable nature of the activity.
In a effort to solve these issues, over the last couple of years I have tried to precisely define what constitutes a skill, a drill or a practice. Here is what I have come up with.
Skills training is the highly controlled learning and refinement of a discrete movement/action from the sport, either as a whole or broken into it’s parts. There is no major perceptual information that has to be processed e.g. the movements of opposition players, one’s own position on the field etc. There is little to no decision making or modification of the skill involved (because there is no perceptual information to inform/necessitate this). There is no development of complex tactics or strategy to achieve a successful outcome. Here, the athlete is just in the process of getting reps under their belt and building the motor pattern.
In the context of rugby based agility, performing shuffle drills against a band in a closed environment would be a good example of skills training. No environmental stimuli to process, no decisions to make, just get the movement right and repeat it until you can’t do it wrong.
Obviously, as coaches we cannot just be content with rote learning in a closed environment. As athletes add skills to their toolbox, they must learn the most effective ways to use these tools. They must be able to identify relevant from irrelevant information within their environment. Then they have to use this information to adapt the skill. The trial and error learning of what works and what doesn’t work has to be built up.
Some coaches may make the jump directly to full blown games to achieve this outcome, but beware: In uncontrolled games or practices, athletes will instinctively play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. As fatigue sets in, or the athlete becomes overloaded with information, errors are made and cemented- practice makes permanent. Instead, the smart money is on utilisation of drills to progress skills training.
To me, drills are semi controlled training situations that force the athlete to utilise the movement pattern desired by the coach. Drills are loose enough that the athlete can experiment with different ways to execute the movement, learn what environmental cues are relevant, and how they link to certain actions. However they should be constrained enough that the athlete cannot go “off script”, cement errors or become overloaded with information. In a word, drills demand that the athlete learn to apply what has previously been learned in skill training.
If we take the previous example of band shuffles (skill training) for development of agility, a drill progression of this pattern may be a 2v1 in a narrow channel (no more than 5m or so). Here’s why this drill would be a good option: the channel is narrow enough that the athlete cannot simply burn their opposition with speed, they have to try and cut/shuffle to create distance between the ball carrier and defender. The group size is small enough that there is a limited amount of perceptual information to attend to i.e. the position and movement of one defender and one supporting player. And due to the constrained nature of the task, we can be sure that the athlete is exposed to a high number of learning opportunities. In a normal practice with large group numbers, an athlete may only get to perform a skill a few times.
Again, we have to progress. Drills alone are not sufficient for optimal performance. The athlete cannot be content with performing individual actions or skills in isolation or contrived situations. Each player must learn his or her individual style, how to link together the various skills of the game, and develop the tactical awareness and strategy that only comes from playing in highly realistic conditions i.e. large playing areas, large numbers of players on either side, open learning environment. It is these features that characterise my definition of practice training- the performance of skills in sporting context.
Practices are essentially playing the sport or variations of the sport, with very little input or control from the coach. The onus is on the athlete to win, and do whatever is necessary to win; use whatever skill, performed in any manner, with any tactical scheme. If training has been progressed appropriately, my hope is that the athlete will do so using the tools learned in skills training and applied and honed with drills training.
Using a final example of rugby based agility, a practice training scenario may be a small sided game with the rule constraint of no kicking (to encourage passing and evasion) played in a wide but short playing area (to promote change of direction over top speed running). If the coach has done their job correctly, in this practice athletes should be exhibiting the same movement patterns that have previously been learned and applied in skills and drills training respectively.
Clear definitions = clear progression
By precisely defining each stage of the training process, it is my hope that there are no “gaps” where athletes may fall into, where they are progressed before they have earned the right to do so, or regressed unnecessarily. Likewise, with clearly defined shared language, coaches can collaborate more effectively. For example, with shared definitions of training terms, one coach can pick up with an athlete where another has left without missing a beat, and continue to progress the athlete’s training in a logical manner. Likewise, shared understanding between coaches and athletes allows for athletes to better take direction. For example, when a coach asks the group to finish up the session with 15 minutes of drills, there is far less likelihood of “surprises” if everyone is on the same page.
Though I have concentrated on the example of agility in this post, this philosophy can and should extend to every aspect of the training process e.g. accessory work versus strength work, power work versus reactive strength work. Clear definition is the first step to shared understanding….