This is a story about Greg and ‘the hammer’.
But before I get to that story lets start with the perfect model. The perfect model is a mental template of a movement pattern towards which we want all learners to aspire to. As teachers of PE this would be a key area of subject specific knowledge we would need to possess to help our pupils develop certain skills. In our minds we have a clear image of what a perfect forward drive in cricket looks like. Or a set shot in basketball. Or a forehand in tennis. We want to help our pupils to achieve that perfection.
Perfect models are very useful for skill acquisition in PE. The model sets the outcome we want all our pupils to work to and obtain. We know that if they can replicate that certain movement pattern, then they will be more competent in the environment in which they have to apply it. As a teacher we prescribe the movement we want from our pupils, breaking it down into small decontextualized manageable chunks, asking them to become more fluent through repetitive attempts and practice. We highlight a key part of the skill, perhaps what they need to do in the preparation stage. After a few attempts some form of feedback is provided in a number of possible ways. Perhaps we give them verbal feedback ourselves, pointing out what they are doing wrong and what they can move nearer to the perfect model. Perhaps we ask other pupils to do this as a peer coach, providing them with a sheet that highlights the key points of the perfect model, and then to give verbal feedback. Perhaps we might even be able to video their performance and compare and contrast to a perfect model via a split screen application. The feedback is usually focused around corrections so they can better produced the prescribe movement pattern and achieve perfection.
We continue to guide our pupils through a number of repetitive skill practices, that are isolated from the game environment. To begin with we try to reduce the complexity of the practices, so we don’t cognitively overload the pupil who is a novice. As they begin to become more fluent in their movement, we gradually increase the difficulty of the drills, whilst at all times providing feedback about what the perfect model looks like, and how they can make their movement more perfect.
The aim of this teaching style is through practice and repetition the pupil will hopefully achieve automaticity of the required movement pattern. This means that when placed in a environment where decision making is a part of being an effective performer, a greater amount of the individuals attention can be given to the cognitive process of deciding what to do rather than having to think about replicating the skill. Spending time on deliberate skill practice is an effective method of teaching and learning within PE, especially when used in conjunction with the perfect model and video feedback.
This brings me back to Greg. Greg really didn’t enjoy movement of any kind when he arrived at school. He had some pretty bad experiences of physical activity as a young child, and had developed a fixed mindset where he wasn’t going to enjoy PE or engage with it. That was until we introduce him to badminton, and he immediately fell in love with it, even though he struggled moving around the court and hitting the shuttle back over the net. Through lessons we built up his technical and physical competence and his confidence, partly through games and partly through skill acquisition via the perfect model method.
He made real progress in all areas and starting to attend after school club training. However there was an issue with his overhead clear and smash. Greg always put two hands on the grip when he played those shots. Starting with the head of the racket behind his back, he would then bring it rushing forward over his head, like he was splitting wood for fire. Whatever it looked liked, it was reasonably successful. His friends, who enjoyed playing Warhammer with him, lovingly christened the shot ‘the Hammer’. For two years, myself and a colleague who coached him badminton, tried to cure Greg of his errors and perfect his technique. We did this through isolated drill practices, with verbal feedback that highlighted what he was doing wrong and how he could improve. Then one week he didn’t turn up to training. Then he missed another week. I went and found him one break time to find out was wrong. He said he felt he was rubbish at badminton, because he couldn’t perform the perfect model of an overhead clear and smash. Greg no longer want to play badminton as he wasn’t perfect.
I spoke to my colleague and we made the decision there and then to no longer pursue perfection with Greg and his overhead smash and clear. In fact, we told him if he gave badminton another chance, we were going to make ‘the hammer’ even better. We showed him how to develop his flexibility and strength, especially in the core, to ensure his unique shot didn’t injure him. My colleague helped him develop a jump version, to generate more power and increase height for a better return angle. Greg got so adept at his hammer shot, he could even disguise it into a drop shot. He made his house badminton team and started playing doubles regularly with his father on Saturday mornings.
Using the perfect model for acquisition of skills is very useful. Through exposing children to periods of extended deliberate practice and repetition, you can reduce their deviations from a perfect preset pattern of movement so it become automatic. This is an important and useful method to have as part of a PE Teachers toolkit. On the flip side the perfect model assumes that the model is perfect for every child and for every adult, considering the individual physical differences between the pupils we teach is this always the case? Maybe we need to consider the individual and activity when deciding whether it is the most appropriate way forward. Nevertheless I wonder if I had continued to force Greg towards perfection whether he would have become a more accomplished player of badminton than he was? Or perhaps when teaching children in PE, perfection doesn’t necessarily need to be achieved, but enjoyment does.