This article by Ed Smith contains a number of gems for coaches. At the same time he provides us with windows into the theory behind skill learning and the implications for a more-hands-off coaching approach advocated by a constraint-led approach.
Using quotes taken from the article, I discuss some of the key concepts highlighted by Ed Smith.
Repetition without Repetition
Although coaches talk about developing a ‘repetitive action’, actually repeating exactly the same movement over and over is impossible to achieve. This was shown in the landmark work of Bernstein who is one of the grandfathers of modern thinking about skill acquisition. As you can see in the picture below, even a task as repetitive as hitting a metal sheet with a chisel is achieved via many different swing paths. Repeating a task without being able to repeat the exact movements was described by Bernstein as Repetition without Repetition. It is crucial that coaches understand this concept when working with players; no two shot or ball deliveries are ever the same. In fact, the expert performer shows more variability than the less skilled. This variability is said to be functional and leads to great skill adaptability.
Rhythm and Trust
Smith cites golfer James Baird who espoused this wisdom a century ago;
“The dispatching of the ball from the tee by the driver in the downward swing is merely an incident of the whole business.”
Consider then cricket batting, if the player is encouraged to hit the ball with a full, uninhibited swing, the key to success is to simply time the swing of the bat with the arrival of the ball. As part of my coaching I believe that the foundation for batting is developing a full bat swing (ala Bradman). Developing an uninhibited swing results in batters who can trust themselves to hit through the ball and not try to ‘control’ the path of the bat. Controlling bat swing leads to stilted and mechanistic movements, not the fluidity we associate with highly skilled players. Paradoxically, trying to control the bat often leads to more kinks in the swing. For example, the bottom hands chokes the bat and creates an in-to-out swing path that creates more problems. Once the batter is able to consistently hit the ball with a full backswing the coach can focus on developing control, by getting the player to vary the force they hit the ball by asking them to hit the ball to targets set at different distances. This approach is much more natural than starting with defence and then expecting to ‘build’ on it.
“The perfect technique is the technique that disappears: it is no longer in the way. We are not conscious of it at all. We track the ball, swing the bat in rhythm, and everything else organises itself intuitively.”
According to the principle of self-organisation under constraints, coaching must be more hands-off than it would be under a traditional approach. Providing learners with opportunities to discover solutions rather than ‘prescribing’ answers is a basic tenet of constraints coaching. This approach creates a learning environment that facilitates exploratory behaviour and self-discovery via natural subconscious learning of movements rather than using explicit instructions that would encourage players to analyse their own internal movement.
The key point then is that if we let it, the body will solve problems such as hitting a ball using subconscious control mechanisms. This means that coaching batting should simply be about providing opportunities for batter’s to learn to co-ordinate their movements to the flight of the ball. By setting broad outcome based goals (e.g., “hit the ball down the ground with a full bat swing” the player will learn naturally. Indeed, sometimes for the very young I have simply had them swing the bat back and forward across their body and I time my delivery so that the ball arrives at the right moment to facilitate good contact. After a few goes, and as they become more and more proficient they will then time their own swing to the ball’s flight.
Relax and let it Happen
In sport, some coaches have intuitively understood that performers have the ability to self-organise. For example, Gallwey (1979) rejected the idea of teaching by providing explicit instructions to performers and developed strategies that ‘quietened the mind’ allowing ‘the body’ to solve the problem by self-organisation. He suggested that making ‘judgments’ after every go can get in the way of good learning and recommends just ‘noting’ what happened and then repeating the task without ‘trying’ to correct it. There is good evidence that this approach works as it allows the body to self-organise and come up with effective solutions. Incidentally, music can help quieten the mind and many great batters and bowlers have used this trick to quieten their inner voices.
The Coach as Facilitator
“Coaches can help you to understand the process, perhaps even help you get there more quickly. But, at best, the coach can only support and enable a journey that the player must undertake on his own.”
Constraint-led coaching is very much an advocate of hands-off coaching, with the coach as guide or facilitator. Here is what Greg Chappell said on this subject in our book chapter in Lynne Kidman’s book on Athlete-Centred Coaching a few years ago:
“I mean the coach at the end of the day is a resource. I think in cricket coaching there’s an unrealistic expectation that a coach can come in and wave a magic wand and make somebody better. It can’t happen. It won’t happen and if you try and wave that magic wand it will usually turn to dust and, as I say, the individual will go backwards. It’s more of a mentoring role, it’s more of a resource provider that you can set up the structure of sessions that will lead towards certain outcomes and then it’s up to the individual to get out of it what they’re capable of getting out of it.”
The Need for Theory
“Because the important things are hard to coach, it is tempting to take refuge in the small, irrelevant things because they are easy. Too much bottom hand, getting squared up, playing too early, closing the face of the bat? All symptoms, but unlikely to be the ultimate cause. That is probably much simpler and yet harder to put right: the bat isn’t working as part of your body but in opposition to it.”
A failure to have a theoretical understanding of learning and the learning process can lead to coaching that “tinkers” at the edges. The key is to identify the core issue and then provide the environment to ‘guide’ discovery and allow batters to explore and discover the solution for themselves. In contrast, traditional coaching using explicit instructions and a focus on internal feedback is problematic because most basic movement patterns are under subconscious control. It is no surprise then that forcing learners to consciously think about what they are doing through providing explicit instructions and feedback will disrupt their performance and make it more difficult for them to automatise their skills (Beek, 2000).