In the last few years I have taken coaching courses in Athletics and Cricket. Course content seemed to be directed by current research and thinking about motor skills learning, which I have tried to find out more about and implement into my own teaching and coaching.
Attentional Focus (in Athletics)
An indvidual’s focus of attention plays a role in how well motor skills are performed and learnt. This is an area that Gabrielle Wulf has studied in detail over the last decade and her research seems to suggest that feedback that focuses the performer on external cues is more beneficial than internal cues. She has found that having the performer focus on external cues not only allows a higher level of performance to be achieved more rapidly, but there is a greater chance of that skill being retained. Further more she has found external cues generalise the skills which can help novice learners, whilst expert performers can have benefits from internal cues. This approach then would have befits to students learning new sports skills for the first time, especially in athletics. The idea with external focus is to set up a goal, which means focus goes to the outcome of the movement or outside of the body, rather than the movement itself. Trying to control movements might actually interfere with the automatic controls of the learner. This small change in teacher/coach feedback can have considerable impact on learning motor skills.
As an example, when teaching the shot putt to students the first time we need to ensure that our verbal instruction directs the learners attention to the effects of their movement, rather than the details of their own actions:
When putting the shot, start with a bent arm and finish with a straight arm to when putting the shot, focus on getting the shot above the tree line.
Transfer your weight from your back foot to your front foot to try to drive your back shoe through the ground or drive from low to high.
Get you chin, knee and toe in a straight vertical line to get into a low starting position to find a low comfortable starting position which gets your shot closer to the ground.
The main difficulty I have at times is to find appropriate and specific external verbal cues to give, especially as I have spent years learning the correct technical points that are mainly internal. It may require you to manipulate your environment. We now have our shot putt area set up with throwing lines, cones and poles of different colours and facing a line of trees to help give our pupils more external cues. Also try to be consistent in your approach within the department. If you find good external cues that work, share them and put them into your schemes of work or work sheets if you use them. This isn’t to say that internal cues aren’t helpful, but my understanding is that they become more beneficial for a more experienced performer. In fact Wulf’s researched showed that there was little or no difference in retention of a skill between internal focused feedback and no feedback given whatsoever.
Variable practice (in Cricket)
The ECB currently places practices for Cricket on a continuum with three main categories; fixed, variable and Cricket Games Based Learning. Fixed practices have been my stock trade in both teaching and coaching cricket for many years. A fixed practice is one that requires a pupil or athlete to perform the same skill or movement repeatedly. An example of this is front foot driving a ball off a tee when practising batting in cricket.
Whilst fixed practices allow many repetitions to occur, can help improve confidence and be suitable for introducing new skills, it has potentially limited transfer of those skills into an open game environment. What we see as teachers and coaches in a fixed practice environment is improved performance of the skill, but not necessarily learning and retention of that skill. Research suggests that variable practice allows for greater retention of the skill to occur. For example, in a test 8-year-old subjects toss beanbags to targets 2 ft and 4 ft away (variable group) or only to a target 3 ft away (constant group). On a subsequent test using the 3-ft target—the distance practiced by the constant group, but never practiced by the variable group—the variable group performed with greater accuracy than the constant group. This result suggests that learning how to modulate the relationships among the target distances was more important for a test at any one target than specific experience, even at the particular target distance used at test. There are many other pieces of research that back this up and it seems to have a particular strong effect on children.
Therefore variable practice is one which requires the student to perform the skill or movement differently from one attempt to the next (there is no repetition). An example of this would be a practice that requires the student to drive both on the front or the back foot. This can easily be set up with a feeder varying the delivery of the ball, and a scoring area where you would like the ball to end up. Place in a WK and fielder and allow the batsman a number of attempts before swapping the positions around.
The ECB argue that the further towards CGBL the teacher or coach can get with every practice the more complete the learning will be for the player and ultimately create better, more adaptable and self reliant players. It is also a holistic view of the skills within the sport, and one where learning it is more enjoyable for students.
Take home points:
- Consider that practice is generally considered to be the single most important factor responsible for permanent improvement in the ability to perform a motor skill. The right feedback can enhance practice and therefore learning.
- Consider the skill level of students in that particular activity and plan practices and feedback appropriately. If you are unsure start with either a variable or game related practice. This will give you the information you need for future lessons or sessions.
- Consider the success of your students performance during the practice. Beware this can be misleading. Design practices to maximise learning and competition performance.
- Consider advantages of external versus internal cues. Constantly giving internal cues may interfere with automatic motor control processes that would normally regulate the required movement.
- Consider that attentional focus on the body is no better in some cases than no instruction at all when it comes to long term retention (learning).
- Consider the advantages of variable versus fixed practice conditions. The goal in this is to create conditions which encourage and facilitate the development and execution of skill within a more comprehensive and variable set of experiences.
Attentional Focus and Variable Practice isn’t just for summer sports, they can be used in all activities. Think about how you might bring them into your teaching/coaching.