Skill Training

Skills Based Training:

Skill training is relatively simple, as long as the motor patterns, stimulus etc. is relevant to the sport.

Skills conditioning essentially brings the skills of the relevant sporting movements or demands into the training environment. This can be as simple as introducing a ball for hand eye coordination exercises, passing while on a balance or wobble board. (indo boards are great fun).


In order to replicate skills, the movements must be practised, but here’s a few guidelines to getting it right:

Death by powerpoint: we’ve all been there, with the same unimaginative, unadaptable boring presentations where presenters just read the information on the screen. It’s another lecture or meeting that may as well have just been an email, they have the same level of interactivity.
In a sporting context, we’re talking about the good old fashioned drill, don’t get stuck in the dead zones of drill after drill without any purpose in sight.
Before the ensuing riot, coaches of old, put away your pitch forks and torches. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drills, they are great repeat exercises to reinforce skills of movement and control, but they need to progress and evolve, and above all, serve a developing purpose.
If you’ve been part of a sports team who break out the same “skill” drill every week, and you’ve been there for years, what more have you really learned after your first few months? You may be fantastic at doing that set drill, but can you apply it in game? can you pull off your move without thinking, while under pressure, and change it when the opposite team figures out your play? or is it a way of switching your brain off, disengaging, and simply passing the time, until the real training starts.

Once skills are established, they need to be brought into games, this is the difference between change of direction and the skill that is agility. Agility requires you to react, a stimulus to be present, and for you to not know the outcome beforehand. Sports are dynamic, ever changing, fluid activities that require tactical thinking and gameplay, the best place to learn this, is gameplay. Simple skills and fundamentals can be learned simply through playing, (and research has shown that simple skills in field sports are learned very well indeed during games).
Complex “set piece” plays need broken down, some skill aspects reinforced, and sure, this means repeat and deliberate practice on specific skill components.
Aspects of movement can be practised, individual weaknesses can be identified, and the fundamental movements of the set piece can be practised; However, once those skills are established, they’re better honed in dynamic and flowing scenarios that best match the pace, intensity and change of the competition environment, and give multiple avenues of exploration to see where and when it’s most effective, how it’s relevant, and how to adapt it to suit the circumstance, so replicate the game everywhere you can.

Practice at pace: skill development occurs initially very consciously, and then, as it becomes automatic can be practised quicker and more effectively. Introduce skills by practising the movements slowly and deliberately, explain where hands should be to pass a rugby ball, or in golf, how the grip and club face relate to how the ball will roll on landing in the various shots. Skills coaches will ensure that movements are practised effectively, and strength and conditioning coaches can replicate the demand of such movements in a way that stimulates development of the physical components to complement the skill. Motor unit recruitment and activation of MHCII fibres only occurs beyond the required threshold for activation due to force required (torque) so staying slow will ultimately mean playing slow. Progress skill development and pace in an appropriate manor, ensuring progression is maintained and stagnation or tedium is avoided. This will allow the effective usage of skills in a performance setting, not just a practice one.

Divide and conquer: put advanced athletes with intermediates, and intermediates with beginners etc. Coaches aren’t the only teachers on the training field. Players want to learn and develop their game, and can do so, not only by constantly striving to improve, and hanging from the coaches every word, but by teaching as well. They will figure out new ways of analysing movements when they have to explain it in ways that weren’t familiar to them when they first learned. It also means revisiting skills, figuring out new and different ways of performing them. An inevitable, and yet unfortunate conclusion that some teams have, is that good players make good coaches. This is unfortunately, seldom the case. Good coaches are good because they can teach to multitudes of different abilities, levels, and break down skills multiple different ways for different learners. Good athletes learn the way that works for them, and reinforce their own movements and biases, without these ever having to be challenged. It’s a very different skill set to teach, and great coaches seek to learn from the way they were taught, to analyse the benefits, and to then look beyond, to the way their players need taught now.

Communication is a two way street, and it doesn’t matter what the coach says, what’s important is what the athlete takes away.

Phrasing!!!: Let’s start with a thought experiment, follow the next instruction exactly as it’s written and be honest if you failed the task.

Don’t think of a black cat

It’s impossible for the brain to compute a negative action, without first figuring out what the action is, when asking you not to think about something, you need to think about it before you can figure out what not to do…. it’s exactly as complicated and difficult as it sounds. With beginners, you can avoid negatives quite easy, and even with experienced atheltes, giving them effective instructions is about two simple ways of looking at correction.

1.The coach has 2 filters, they see what the problem is, and rather than state the issue, they use filter #2 and state the solution.

2.Focus on the fix, phrase your correction in a way that gets the response you want, rather than reinforcing where the athlete when wrong.

Lets put this in a practical sense, in cricket, or rugby, there’s a ball that’s been hit high into the air, and is now hurtling towards the player, sun’s in their eyes, they’re nervous, and the inevitable happens, and they drop it.
The coach shouts “don’t drop the ball” as it’s about to reach the player…. but how has that helped? have they addressed the fundamental reasons the player failed at the skill of catching? given any productive feedback on how to place hands, feet, how to position the body to catch the ball more effectively?
It may seem like a simple task, of just catching a ball, but it may be something the player is very unfamiliar with. Telling them not to drop the ball is no different than asking them to not think of a black cat. There’s nothing in the instruction that helps solve the current problem.
The same applies to training exercise like snatches and cleans – “don’t swing the bar”, “don’t lift your hips early” etc. there’s a million and one sporting examples of this same command in different disguises, and at the end of the day, they’re all absolutely useless. They give no corrective or positive actions towards correcting the fault, the coach is just a spectator at this point, finding faults and calling them out. Nice work if you can get it, but it won’t make anyone a better or more skilled athlete in their chosen sport.

When we focus on the fix, we look for solutions to skill based components;
In the example of catching the ball for instance, we can teach players to

-Keep eyes on the ball
-Time their run on to the ball or the bounce.
-tuck in the elbows when we catch (the bread basket) so it can’t slip through our hands
-Catch the ball sideways, so if it is dropped it will go backwards and prevent a knock on (a rule infringement in rugby)

-Work out where the ball will be, rather than where it is
-communicate with players around you
-overlap the first three fingers and touch thumbs to make a cradle/cup
-pull the ball to one shoulder as you catch

Training Room:
-Keep the bar close
-lead with the chest from the floor
-Keep the chest up and drive with the legs

In all these examples, we’re giving short, accurate and positive instruction on what “to do” rather than what “not to do”, and in doing so we’re not reinforcing the idea of the error (black cat).

If we want to get rid of the negative, call out a correction, focus on the fix, think of a purple kangaroo, and ask yourself, where did the cat go?

More advanced athletes with established skills can certainly self correct, and they should, but we can simply phrase the error as a statement, “saw you did x.. there… what could we do instead?”

As athletes develop in ability and skill, we can move away from directly lead correction, to questioning. This will allow athletes to figure movements out for themselves, and make corrections more effectively, as it gives them context for performance and competition. We can balance the desire for positive outcome, with questioning. We’ll remember some of what we are told, but a lot more of what we figure out for ourselves.

Sleep and Recovery: Practised skill is reinforced during sleep, synaptic development occurs (neurogenesis), and consolidation of memory and skill is reinforced, forming synaptic links associated with multiple muscle movements, and the harmonisation of muscle activation towards a specific action. As a result, deliberate practice is evaluated, and the movements that were effective and productive are reinforced. This is one reason, coaching, technical skill and deliberate practice is important. If you practice your mistakes, you’re reinforcing the neurosynaptic pathways associated with them, and making them harder to untrain.

It’s just a phase: skill acquisition occurs in three key parts:

1.The Cognative Phase: When a learner is new to a specific task, the primary thought process starts with, “What needs to be done?” This requires significant levels of concentration and cognitive activity. This level of concentration on unfamiliar tasks allows the learner to evaluate and learn appropriate tactics, techniques and strategies to reach their desired outcome. Deliberate practice ensures that effective skills are developed and ineffective ones are eliminated.

2.Associative Phase: the learner now has a fundamental understanding of the effective ways to achieve their task, and they will make more subtle adjustments to hone their skills. This is where gross motor skill (large and less coordinated efforts) move to fine motor skills, such as a child picking up an object, to learning to write. Depending on the difficulty of the skill, this can be a few months of dedicated learning, to years of dedicated practice. With practice skills begin to look more fluid, effortless and dynamic. This is where the individual can ascertain how to best utilise variations of the skill such as ball control, how far to kick, dummy moves that mimic skills etc.

3.The autonomous phase: this phase is developed over years in all but the most basic of skills. Autonomy of the skill occurs as the athlete can perform the skills without dedicating significant cognitive effort into their effort. Skills are fluid, dynamic and accurate, and the athlete or player may even be focused on other aspects rather than the movement itself to make it more effective, such as where other players are in relation to themselves to make a pass, a race driver looking to the next corner while in the apex of a turn etc. The ability to dribble a ball while looking for other players to pass or to find space in which to accelerate is a good example of this autonomous state. The dribbling happens without significant thought, and the reactive factors are now in the players field of vision and concentration. This is one example of how agility improves with practice, as the execution of the skill requires less cognitive resources, and the reaction to opposition players can be given greater attention.

Compare the above notes to the previous video, comparing the forced and laborious warm up of the other players in the background, with the fluid and dynamic movements of Maradona. Which is a more effective, game centred, athelte developing warm up?

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