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How to Coach Motor Skills: Basic vs Complex


Coaching motor skills. Everyone does it.

There seems to be more and more emphasis in this world about you need a certain qualification in order to be qualified to do a certain job.

With coaching there are a lot of courses and workshops you can go on and attend to gain these qualifications whether though academic education or through governing bodies. But what are these actually teaching us as coaches?

I believe there are four ways to learn about something:

  • Talk to people about their experiences

  • Gaining your own experiences as a practitioner

  • Reflecting on your own experiences and discussing with peers or mentors

  • Reading and writing about subject

The more and more you break down a subject or a topic the more complex and detailed it gets (or does it). In coaching this can even be as granular about deciding what you will do, say or act to a specific person for a specific reason at a specific time that you have planned weeks in advance so that athlete or player gains the most out of you.

As complex as coaching may be and the hours of research (my self-included having carried out two papers BSc and MSc not published) that have gone in to the literature about how to talk how to act how to demonstrate how to reflect etc we forget that people have been coaching naturally for years.

It's is in human nature to help people and develop them. This is how we survived and continue to do so, even animals coach their young.

Let's take the example of walking. A ‘perceived’ automatic motor skill that requires very little thinking on our part as adults. We have been walking for years and years and it is so easy for us so much so we can walk in so many different ways. However, think back to when you couldn't walk. Imagine as a coach if you had one of your players and you tried to teach him/her how to walk.

Think now, how would you coach a 20 year old person to walk. Before you carry in reading try and coach it, or coach yourself.

What are u saying? Are you giving a lot of instruction e.g. lift your knee up? Do you say things like step forward? Fall forward? Remember a child may not know what is a step is. What are u doing, do you laugh? Are u getting frustrated with yourself as it's such a ‘simple’ task? Do you demonstrate by lifting you knee higher than normal? Do you set them challenges one yard, maybe three yards? It is in fact very hard to do. You are trying to teach a skill or movement to someone who has done this proficiently for years. Try it next time you have a session teach someone to walk, you will see what I mean.

Now think back if you are a parent or had experience raising young children. How do you teach them to walk? How do you act? What do you say? What's is your tone one voice like? What is your body language like? How much do you applaud failure? Do you set challenges? Do you use humour? Are you ever negative? What is the child’s insensitive or motivation to walk? Do you put their favorite toy on a raised level to get them to stand up or for them to move towards it?

If you think back to when you do/did this - this could be coaching in it’s a very simple and basic form, it doesn't require much thought on the coaches/parents part at all. What is your relationship with this child? Parent, brother Etc.? Is there a sense of trust and security in the relationship from the child that pushes them to take a risk and take that 1st step?

Prior to that you have supported them by holding their hands, you have demonstrated walking just by being around them.

When they take that 1st step it is inedible that they fail and fall, what is your reaction? It's probably a very positive proud laugh and maybe a funny face to distract the child from any pain they may have encountered when they fell. You get them a smile on their face and you try and get them to do it again. Once they can take a few steps, you keep increasing the challenge and move further back so they have to walk further. Your reaction when they succeed is the same as the failure, you laugh, your tone of voice is positive and there is a smile on both child/parent - athlete/coach.

Coaching youth or beginners I am amazed at how quickly they can pick up a skills as ‘complex’ as the spin pass.

Using the skin pass as an example. Why do we as coaches insist on teaching the 'basics' in this case it would be a ‘flat pass’. However, what are the ‘basics’ and who decides what they are. If you coach someone how to flat pass then they may get comfortable and automatic in this movement, that great job done. However, then try and coach them how to spin pass the movement is different and personally I think you are teaching a different skill and movement all together. Why not attempt to coach this 'novice' how to spin pass from the beginning? This ‘complex’ skill then becomes the 'basic'.

This is just like walking the way you were taught to walk and then someone telling you to walk a different way, a more efficient way. The muscle memory and the autonomy effects this and you don't like it, it becomes uncomfortable and you think why I wasn't taught to walk like this from the start.

Coach the beginners the perceived 'complex' skills and watch skill development grow. You will rarely give a child instructions when teaching them how to walk, so why as coaches do we insist in giving instruction to our players. If you look at Mosston and Ashworth’s teaching spectrum I believe that the further down the scale the coach is the more players skill development will increase (However it is important for a coach to understand when and where they should use each teaching style) doing this allows the athlete to become comfortable with the skill they are learning not being told what to do (the textbook way). Let them experiment and find their own way to complete the skill. They will pick it up from practice and observation and if they have issues wait for them to come to you for help or clarity or question. The players need to be ready, again it’s just like walking and you never force a child to walk when you know they can't - you wait until they are ready!

Yes there may be a 'text book' way of performing a skill, holding a golf club, throwing a three pointer but if there is something outside of the 'norm' why do we try and coach this out of players. Leave them be - if it works it works!

Let their actions do the walking and you as a coach do less talking.

Just remember it is vital to have a strong trusting relationship, lots of humor and a positive tone of voice, don’t be afraid to applaud mistakes and failure, give less instruction, and set realistic but testing goals and challenges, instill confidence in and constantly encourage.

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