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Curriculum PE Personal Reflection

Is the ‘perfect model’ always perfect? 

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.

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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.

By @ImSporticus

Lecturer in PE, Sport and Physical Activity. Helping others to flourish through movement.

8 replies on “Is the ‘perfect model’ always perfect? ”

Is there a need for exposing children to periods of extended deliberate practice and repetition in order to reduce their deviations from a perfect preset pattern of movement so it become automatic? Quote from Non-Linear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition: “Practitioners make the assumption that developing an optimal movement pattern will automatically lead to ideal performance outcomes but… this is a fallacy. In the end, in sports performance the only thing that really matters is outcome and this task goal should not be sacrificed for the imitation of a putative standard or expert model” Even at the most elite levels, movement solutions differ between individuals…

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Hi Loren. That is a wonderful comment, thank you for making it. The case Chow et al make for non-linear pedagogy based on a ecological dynamics approach to skill acquisition is for me a very strong one. It has challenged many of my held beliefs about how my pupils can learn new skills and the environment on which we can provide for them to learn in. That emergent behaviours can occur due to interactions of numerous components within the body, means that we as practitioners can teach in a way that is both effective and motivational for children. However I’m not quite willing to completely throw a traditional reproductive style of teaching out yet. I do think it has some places, especially for pupils who lack basic movement patterns, consistently produce dangerous movement patters or might need some extra support to develop. I am still relatively new in changing my methods, so any advice you have to continue would be much appreciated.

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To be honest, I am rather new to the idea of incorporating ecological psychology and dynamical systems theory into sport training. I run a volleyball club, and our sport is heavy into traditions when training. And traditions dictates that deliberate repetition is absolutely needed so the movement pattern becomes automatic. As I learn and explore more of non-linear pedagogy and game-sense or TGfU approaches, I am drawing the conclusion that this is not the best way to coach our sport, as it is not based in reality, but in a preconceived notion of hoped for results.
What I find facinating is that no two executions will ever be the same.. “We never reach for a cup of water in exactly the same way. The muscles and joints all work in slightly different ways every time we reach for a drink, even if the context is exactly the same.” [Chow et all]. If this is the case, then there is not a perfect execution of a movement pattern, but rather, maybe?, principles that apply each time, with the individual finding their own expression within those principles.
In our gym we have adopted the stance that rather than isolate a movement pattern or skill execution, we manipulate the constraints to simplify the decision making surrounding that execution. While I fully understand your point regarding dangerous movement patterns, etc, I think we can address that without eliminating the context. Removing the context of the action creates a different action I think. I beleive you linked an article in which the author said something to the effect of many people think that doing a movement without the context is not merely movement minus context.. It is a completely different response to completely different stimuli.
And as we look at ecological psychology and dynamical systems more, we can see that the movement is not separate from the environment.. It is a result of the environment. So if we remove the context, we do not create an opportunity to work on the movement minus the environment, we are working on a completely separate invitation, as Arujo puts it.
Again, I don’t think I have answers for you, but am enjoying exploring the story.

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It’s not the about movement, the model, or the technique. It’s about the principles behind each of these. This is why there are successful performers with varying techniques—-the technique, THEIR technique, is a unique combination of their own personal qualities and of the principles of efficiency (like transfer of segment velocity, dynamic balance, effortless action, etc.).

When I work with my athletes and students, we talk about these principles, focus on the FEEL of the movement, and watch video of “perfect models” that apply these principles the best. In effect, the goal is not to imitate their technique, but to apply the principles that lead to optimal efficiency…..which, of course, will be enacted differently from person to person and context to context.

Good post!!

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Hi Nate. Finally getting around to answering comments. Your point ‘the goal is not to imitate their technique, but to apply the principles that lead to optimal efficiency’ is sagacious. Whilst I would still use models to create mental representations for the child, using a deficit teaching process where errors are always highlighted and then reduced means we prevent students from exploring and discovering their own functional movement solutions to a performance problem. Variation isn’t an issue if the movement is safe and functional.

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