Sports skill instructing and learning

040916 Sports skill instructing and learning

By Danny M. O’Dell M.A., CSCS*D

One of the fallacies of the current emphasis on sports training is focusing on specialization in one sport at too young of an age. These children lack the minimum requirements to skillfully be competitive and participate in other sports due to a lack of overall body coordination, strength, agility and most of all they don’t have a strong basis of movement patterns.

In our society, we teach our children how to read, speak, and write but we fail in the areas of skill development. Teaching technique and the physical learning of a new skill requires as much diligence on the part of the coach as does the academic instruction in the classroom. Neither comes naturally without outside guidance.

We all know there are physically gifted kids, nonetheless there are no short cuts to learning the basic skills of running, throwing, hitting, and jumping even for them. Certainly the higher the child’s level of physical attributes, the faster this learning takes place. One of the most significant characteristics of the fast learner is the amount of strength they possess. The stronger they are the faster and more effective will be the learning curve.

Motor skill learning is a complicated physiological process. This evolution begins with an observation of the skill. The first demonstration you make has to be technically perfect. There can be no flaws in this initial presentation. Your audience will absorb a great deal from this and their mind will start developing the movement steps. If you can’t do it right then find someone who can.

As the skill is being demonstrated, give accurate verbal instructions. The more detailed these are the more valuable they will be to your athletes. Bear in mind that verbal instructions are not entirely suited for the very young. They learn more from seeing it being performed than in hearing about how it’s done. Save the verbal details for the older students or the skilled athletes in your group.

During the demonstration, your athletes, if they are concentrating on the action, are unconsciously experiencing physiological changes within their body. These changes are the result of nerve impulses sent from the brain to the involved muscles in the sequence of movement.

There is a lack of noticeable physical movement resulting from these inconspicuous signals. However, the brain is beginning the task of rearranging and ordering these nerve impulses into a movement pattern that can be physically repeated later on when it is called upon to do so.

The first time the athlete tries the movement it will not be perfect, more than likely, it will be a gross approximation of what the refined motion will look like once it’s mastered. You, as the coach, will see the pattern of movement start to develop. From here, it will require more coaching to get it to the point of acceptance. Now is the time when you must carefully, in detail, describe the actions you want your athlete to take to correct any mistakes in their performance of the skill. You must once again demonstrate the correct technique and skill patterns you are instructing so they can see and absorb the information you are teaching them.

Oftentimes it is better and faster to teach complex movements in smaller bits than it is to teach the entire pattern all at once. By learning in small pieces, the athlete gets a chance to succeed which provides more of an incentive to keep working on the skill. The more complicated the movement becomes the more parts and repetitions will be needed to develop the engram (the memory trace).

Correctly repeating the skill many times over helps to develop the proprioceptive pathways between the brain, the joints, and muscles with the minute details of the activity. When you give the corrective verbal and physical cues, their brain modifies the impulses sent to the muscles enabling the corrections to take place the next time the movement is repeated.

Once these pathways are firmly established, the brain begins to disengage from the process and the movement becomes more of a reflex, i.e. the engram has now been set in place. After this memory trace is encoded in the neural tissue, the trigger to respond is reflexive to a stimulus, i.e. a sports situation.

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