off-season series no. 4

the quiet revolution: sports-related skills acquisition

In this, the fourth in our off season series, we explore how best to learn and master sports related skills, in light of the consistent but revolutionary sports science research findings.

In 1991 Gavin Hastings had a penalty kick in front of the posts against England in the Rugby World Cup semi-final to take the lead. Inexplicably he missed. In football, the list of England’s penalty shoot-out failures is infamous: Italia ’90, England ’96, France ’98, Portugal ’04, Germany ’06 and Poland and Ukraine ’12. Greg Norman famously choked in the final round of the Masters allowing Nick Faldo to win. Jana Novotna in the women’s final at Wimbledon. Roberto Duran against Sugar Ray Leonard in boxing. The list goes on.

Classically, 'choking' has been explained by failures in the psychological preparedness of the athlete under pressure. This, research supports, interrupts the ability to perform the same skill that the athlete performs easily in practice, when not under the same level of pressure. As a result, many professional athletes use sports psychologists to prepare them for the pressures of competitive action. This treats the symptoms but not the cause, however. And research also shows that there is a direct correlation between how such skills are learnt and how well they can be performed under pressure: this is where skill acquisition theory comes in.

There has been a quiet revolution going on in the sports science community, gradually building momentum over the last couple of decades and now backed by a substantial body of research findings. A whole new sports science discipline is the result, focussed on how we should teach and learn sports specific skills, whether as a child, a teen, or an adult. Research findings consistently demonstrate that the more ‘naturally’ we learn sports skills the better they are consistently performed. If we can learn by trial and error, replicating the entire skill as closely as possible to how it will be performed in competition it will become second nature and we will not overthink it. This may all seem obvious to the observer, after all we probably learnt to ride a bike by trial and error, but it is amazing how it flies in the face of how many sports have been and are still coached.

Over much of the last century, coaches have sought to simplify the learning process by breaking down skills into their constituent parts. Sprint training, for example, is broken down into phases (start, push off, acceleration, maintenance) and segmental movements (lower limb, core, upper body, arms) with each element targeted individually in training. Training rugby kickers has again been focussed on the approach, back-lift, point of contact position and follow through. And, until recently the golf stroke has been slow motion analysed ad nauseam. Research findings initially supported this approach as it appears to be a quicker method learning (‘acquiring’) such sports specific skills. Such was the body of evidence that it became perceived wisdom for over 80 years. However, eventually researchers challenged these findings, theorising that although the skills were acquired more quickly they were not ‘retained’ i.e. the skills would, after a period of time, break down and be poorly performed. Numerous research studies have supported this theory: skills are acquired more effectively over the longer term when learnt as naturally as possible, even though the initial learning phase may take somewhat longer. They are also learnt more robustly, so are less susceptible to pressure.

Skill acquisition theory, now widely supported in research studies, has not led to the changes in coaching one would expect. Professional coaches are supposed to get quick results: telling their clients that they will learn something more slowly than if they employ a traditional coach may not be good for business. Elite teams need quick results and would prefer to paper over any cracks with sports psychologists than attempt to retrain their players or adapt their academy methodologies. And the relevance of skill acquisition theory is even still questioned in certain sports which are deemed less skills reliant and more biomechanically or physiologically driven (e.g. rowing or swimming). But slowly, certain sports and certain national federations are adapting. For example, a crop of golfers are coming through to the professional game now with very different swing techniques, less coached in the old, automaton swing styles of David Leadbetter and more in the ‘grip it and rip it’ mentality. And, in Australia, the national federation has employed several skills acquisition specialists to review how all sports are taught and implement learning trials across their programmes.

Many involved in endurance related sports would still question the relevance of skill acquisition theory at all as they consider performance to be much more related to biomechanical and physiological factors rather than the performance of skills. But this misses the point. The more naturally you perform a given activity the more you will effectively compensate for your own physiology and biomechanics so that it works for you. Whilst analysing such parameters and enhancing them through targeted training will, undoubtedly, improve performance, the excellent coach will go further and help athletes make these improvements during sessions which are designed to replicate real world scenarios as closely as possible. When this cannot be done, such learning should be something which is as transferable from the pool, gym or turbo setting to the real world scenario.

A good example of skill acquisition theory put into practice in endurance sports comes from the world of cycling. Wattbike cycling trainers have a display which purports to improve cycling technique, encouraging users to create an elliptical shape on a video screen, rather than a peanut style shape. This visual feedback encourages the smoother application of force throughout the different phases of the pedalling stroke, minimising dead points and utilising differing muscle groups more actively, thereby improving efficiency. Research into this training methodology demonstrates its effectiveness in improving technique on the Wattbike and that such learning is retained as long as the visual display is available. However, there is very little research into whether the same benefits are transferred and retained on the road, where the visual display is obviously not available. The research that is available suggests that it is much more effective longer term to reduce reliance on the Wattbike’s visual display and, instead, use ‘analogy style’ cues to improve your cycling technique. ‘Wiping mud off your shoe’ and ‘skate your foot forward’ are mental queues that are effective in the gym but also transferable to the road.

A more controversial example relates to swimming, where an emphasis on technique dominates the sport. There are also, very firm proponents of certain techniques and certain training methodologies over others. Whilst this is not the place to discuss whether there should be a pause at the end of the catch phase or not, or whether all swimmers should trickle breathe and not explosively breathe, the ongoing social media debate between Swim Smooth and Total Immersion is indicative of a wider problem. Whilst computer simulations could probably design an ideal front crawl swim stroke, human beings could not replicate it precisely. The best swim coaches therefore look at what works best for their swimmers, working with their biomechanics and physiology and not trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The same is true in running gait analysis, where the good coaches work with an athlete’s natural gait to enhance and improve, not deconstruct and rebuild.

If skill acquisition research teaches us anything it is that good coaching and good coaches facilitate discovery based learning whether that be in young kids, developing teenagers or more mature adults. Developing sessions which improve the athlete in relevant, replicable scenarios is the real skill of the good coach. It is not identifying departures from the ‘ideal’ but how to improve each athlete by analysing their biomechanics and physiology, designing sessions which build upon strengths and mitigate weaknesses and making such improvements replicable in real world scenarios. Doing so, individualises each athlete and allows them to perform to their optimum. Think about it the next time you go to a coaching session at your club. Or, perhaps more importantly, when your kids are taking up new sports or being coached in ones in which they already excel. And remember the most important lesson of all: no-one coached them to crawl, to walk, to run, to cycle, to kick a ball … they acquired these skills through trial and error - discovery based learning.

take homes
  • Research findings now overwhelmingly suggest that detailed, technical coaching methodologies need to be radically updated.
  • Learn new sports-related skills by feel not by formula.
  • You may master a skill more slowly but, once mastered it will be second nature and less likely to break down in competition
  • This is relevant to your own endurance adventures but even more relevant to development athletes and children.
  • If you are a coach, make your sessions more natural - discovery based learning is usually more fun but requires greater invention.

The quiet revolution is upon us, for more information contact us through our home page.

learn by feel not formula

off-season series no. 4