Learning a new skill is hard. It becomes even harder as you get older. Skill learning is much easier at a young age as our brains are significantly more “plastic,” better able to make new connections and retain those connections longer. This creates added difficulty for coaches, as their athletes are almost always at least in their teens and often even older.
Sprinting is a highly technical skill. When I was 24, I changed coaches. My new coach demanded a much larger technical base than my previous two, and therefore wanted to make sweeping changes to my sprint technique.
Two years later, I made an ever bigger change. I transferred to bobsleigh. This transfer required me to make huge technical changes, as well as learning new skills.
Fortunately, some practices can make transitions such as these easier, both for athletes and coaches. I used some of those practices in the aforementioned situations, when I had to learn or re-learn a skill in a relatively short period of time.
I began by trying to form an understanding of the skill. I would practice the new movement pattern at my own pace. Getting the muscle-firing sequence correct is really important. With sprinting, this took the form of walking drills. I had to make sure I was putting my body parts in the right place by using the right muscles at the right time.
I find walking drills really useful because they allow the development of specific strength in a particular area. As an example, let’s say an athlete is having trouble maintaining ankle dorsiflexion during the maximum velocity stage. Focusing on this particular aspect during actual sprint training might be counter-productive, as it could take a lot of brainpower. Poor technique may also be due to fatigue, so trying to correct it during a fatigued state will be ineffective. Building up the strength capacity of a skill during low-speed movements such as walking is a great way to overcome this situation.
After mastering the basic movement patterns, I begin to layer in greater skill learning challenges—perhaps doing them at high speed, performing movements requiring more coordination, or chaining two drills together. This is aimed at further challenging the learner. These challenges are useful as they lead to greater stress within the brain, which adapts by forming new connections. The linear trend then continues, with the athlete attempting to use the new technical skills in real time, seeing if they can continue to put the skills they have practiced at low velocity in place. This in turn leads to still further coordination challenges.
As a real world example, transitioning to bobsleigh was a serious challenge for me. I was used to starting from a 4-point position in blocks, then accelerating to maximum velocity on a straight track. Now I had to learn how to start from a standing double-footed stance, execute a complex technical skill to overcome the bobsleigh’s inertia (“The hit”), undergo resisted acceleration as I was overcoming force from an external object, and get into that external object. Whilst running downhill. On ice. This tough new skill was further compounded by the need of getting into the bobsleigh at a specific time and a specific order, relative to my teammates doing the same thing (“The load”). Mistakes at any point could be very costly, so clearly learning the correct skills was incredibly important.
How did I do this? First off, I watched video of the world’s best bobsleighers performing this skill, to form a mental picture of the technique. I then practiced on the push track by myself, slowly building up my confidence regarding pushing the bobsleigh and getting into it. I did all of this at low speed at first, challenging myself each session to get quicker and quicker.
The next step was learning to push from the side of the bobsleigh so I could be a part of a four-man squad. I went back to basics, taking two steps with the bobsleigh, then getting in. Then four steps, then eight, then twelve, gradually going further as I grew more able and more confident. Then I increased the speed and learned how to push on both the left and right handles. After that, I learned how to push with another person. Then with two other people, and finally as a full squad.
All the time I was pushing myself further by layering in extra challenges. But I never neglected the basics. In every session I warmed up with single-man pushing, making sure I was mastering the basics. On 4-man push days, I would do a 2-man push with a partner beforehand, making sure my timing was right.
It is important for a coach to consider an individual’s preferred style of learning. Some people are visual learners, some are auditory, and some learn kinaesthetically. Certainly, I learn in a different way than my peers. I have found that to learn a skill properly, I need a mental image of someone doing the correct technique—a perfect model. I then compare myself to that model.
The problem I always faced was that it was hard to know how I was performing relative to that perfect model because I lacked the internal “feel” of the skill. Although I was carrying it out, I couldn’t picture myself doing it, so I couldn’t reference it to my perfect model.
Fortunately, I found a way round this obstacle: video review. I quickly discovered that videotaping sessions was incredibly helpful because it gave immediate feedback. I could make my attempt at the skill, then have a visual picture of how I performed the skill. I could use this visual feedback and compare it to how the movement felt, which allowed me to build up my kinaesthetic awareness of what the correctly executed skill should feel like.
My attempt to become much more of a front-side dominant athlete provides another real-world example. To achieve this goal, I had to run taller, limit my hip extension, and improve my hip flexion. The problem was that I had an ingrained movement pattern. It felt normal for me, but was not what my coach wanted.
The first step was watching film of me running “normally,” then comparing it to the technical model. I could see how I compared to that model, and see (and understand) what I was doing wrong. If needed, I could then try something else, and build up an internal feeling of this skill. After each running repetition, I could watch the video and see if it was correct or not.
If I had executed the correct technique, I would search for that internal feeling. If not, I’d look for a new feeling. Over a period of time, I erased my old habits, and my new technique became natural. This “natural” feeling is especially important in sprinting, because the action must be unconscious. If the technique doesn’t occur without conscious effort, then the athlete will either revert to their old technique under pressure, or make a conscious effort to carry out the correct technique. The outcome is the same in both cases: running slower.
Now, as a coach, I often use video review. I find it really helpful in pointing out flaws in technique. This is especially true with a high-speed camera, which can reveal errors that may not be visible to the naked eye. Many athletes aren’t even aware of the errors they are making, so the first step is understanding. Being able to watch themselves on video increases this understanding.
The next step is for the athlete to build a new kinaesthetic model of where their body parts are in space and time, and again video allows this to happen. As the video feedback occurs very quickly after the skill attempt, this review happens while the feeling is still fresh in the athlete’s brain, allowing for much more actionable feedback.
In bobsleigh competitions, we would use video review between runs to make sure we were loading at the correct places and not making any mistakes. If we were we could make small changes. When I was a member of my national squad, we used video review between heats and finals to ensure that the changeovers were happening at the right place, and make small changes to optimize our performance.
Overall, then, video review can be incredibly useful, at all levels of the performance ladder. It’s also very cheap and accessible. I do most of my video review using a free app (Ubersense) on my iPad. You can use other apps (either free or low-cost), on a variety of devices. I can send my recorded video to the athletes I coach, allowing them to watch and review on their own time. This enables them to build up a video bank of successful and unsuccessful skill attempts, and compare and contrast them.
Video review is a good way for athletes to increase their understanding of a skill. In group-based video review sessions, the athletes can analyze and critique their peers’ techniques, offering helpful tips on how they overcame similar problems. This groupthink allows individual athletes to hack their own problems, increasing ownership of their training. It also works well as a team-building exercise, providing that the athletes are mature enough to handle the feedback.
Finally, it allows athletes to become their own coach. With athletes I have worked with on numerous occasions, I will ask them what they think of the video. What are they seeing? What went well? How did the feeling match up to what they are seeing? All these questions further improve the athlete’s understanding of the specific skill, and sprinting in general, leading to better-prepared sprinters.
This is also an example of using delayed feedback. One potential drawback with immediate feedback like video review is that the athlete may come to rely on its presence. However, when you turn the interaction around and ask athletes to critique themselves, the feedback is often more thought-driven and effective—as long as they have the technical knowledge to self-analyze.
I recently read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, an exceptional book by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel. The book focuses on educational science and common mistakes made within the learning process. It focuses mostly on school-based education, but there are definite lessons that can be applied to sports.
One is that reflection is a form of practice. After training, reviewing your performance through video allows you to build your technical model, as well as revisiting the kinaesthetic feeling. This strengthens the connections within your brain and leads to more effective learning.
Other ideas put forward in the book echo what I have picked up throughout my career. The authors posit that repeated skill retrieval embeds knowledge and skills so that they become reflexive. Going back to my bobsleigh example, I was always going back to basics in warmup. This constant retrieval was incredibly helpful, as it made the whole process run smoothly. As I continued to carry out the skill, it became automatic. Running downhill beside a bobsleigh no longer took mental capacity. Instead, I could watch my teammates and be aware of their loading pattern.
Once I had practiced the loading pattern sufficiently, it became automatic and reflexive, allowing the whole movement to be smoother and quicker. The resulting free mental capacity becomes very important when dealing with mistakes within a competition. For example, if your teammate has left early in a sprint relay because the running side of the skill is automatic, your brain can focus on how best to overcome this problem. The more experience you have in this area, the easier overcoming a problem becomes.
Timing of feedback is also really important when it comes to skill learning. A mistake coaches make quite often is over-feedback, which can confuse the athlete. When teaching an athlete a new drill or exercise, I limit the feedback I give in the first few sessions. I need them to figure out the basics for themselves, and construct their own kinaesthetic feeling. If they are making large technical errors or putting themselves or their peers in danger, then obviously I would step in. However, allowing time for the athletes to figure it out for themselves can be really helpful.
Another important aspect is variable practice. In a closed skill like sprinting, mixing up the environment isn’t that useful. However, for skills requiring teamwork or occurring in a multitude of environments, practicing across these variables can improve the skill-learning process.
For example, practicing changeovers with a large number of different people within a relay team allows athletes to build up a larger library of situations and outcomes within their brain. Similarly, in bobsleigh the coaching staff would often mix up the teams in push training so we wouldn’t get too comfortable with just one combination. This further improved our problem-solving capacity should a mistake happen in competition.
Going back to my earlier example of learning how to push on the side handles of the bobsleigh, I made a huge effort to practice on each side. This improved my learning as it made me practice the skill in different positions, further challenging my brain and nervous system to make new connections. It also improved the quality of practice by keeping things fresh. Too much repetition of the same things can get boring after a while, even in highly motivated athletes.
The way feedback is given is also a really important part of developing an athlete. As coaches, it is important for us to teach athletes that learning is a struggle and that mistakes occur. The key is learning from these mistakes. This enables athletes to develop the desire to attempt new challenges, as opposed to fearing failure. Fear of failure stifles performance, and generally leads to poor outcomes such as increased stress. Ensuring that athletes don’t fear failure is therefore important. How we frame our feedback can have a big impact on the way in which athletes view the process as a whole.
To conclude, skill learning is a process that can be affected by a number of variables. Although everyone is different, and should be treated according to their strengths, a number of approaches help coaches improve the skill-learning process.
Video review is a useful tool, which, if used in a targeted manner at the right times, enables athletes to build a mental model of the correct skill, thereby enhancing the skill-learning process. Video review apps and devices are becoming increasingly more affordable (and many are free!), so the time has come for coaches to experiment and see what works for their athletes and for themselves.
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