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Want your players to be creative and develop skills? Say less!

One of the things that I hear a lot about in the world of kids sport is the need for children to experience more 'back yard' games. When people talk about this this they are harking back to the days where kids played street sports or messed around in the parks and developed skills without adult supervision.

It is that perfect cliche of the sports pundit, "when I were a lad...we used to use jumpers for goalposts..." etc etc. Paul Whitehouse captured the caricature perfectly when he created the character 'Ron Manager' in the excellent 'Fast Show' (they don't make comedy shows like this was better in my day etc, etc).

In 'The Talent Code', Daniel Coyle argues that this form of spontaneous play has been cited as being behind the success of the Brazilian Football team who's best players are said to cultivate their excellent ball control playing small sided, reduced space games in the 'Favelas', the shanty towns that make up the superbs of most Brazilian cities.

While this kind of character is created as a way of poking fun at the older generation that always think that things were better when they were growing up it appears that they may have a point in this case!

Scientists now suggest that this model of development is more effective from skill retention perspective. It seems the oldies may have been right all along!

Researchers have now suggested that skills can be better learned 'implicitly' using trial and error and a large number of repetitions allowing the player to develop novel and inventive solutions to game problems which means that they develop techniques that would not otherwise be taught.

This concept of 'Implicit Learning' or 'Experiential Leanring' has been defined by Seger (1994) as "learned complex information without complete verbalisable knowledge of what is learned"

Put in the language of normal people implicit learning is...'getting good at something without being told how' or 'learning by doing'.

The suggestion here is that coaches and parents should 'get out of the way' of players attempts to perform skills as the solutions that they might come up with could be far more effective or innovative than the existing techniques that we might teach them.

As sports continuously develop, the skills of today may not be relevent in the next 5 or 10 years and so teaching them what we consider to be the 'fundamentals' might be irrelevant or actually be counter productive.

So how do we apply this?

The Australian Sports Commission's 'Sports Coach' section on their website has some interesting thoughts on this subject and make a series of really useful suggestions which I will simplify below:

  • Explain the skill requirements by analogy or metaphor so that the need for explicit verbal information is minimised — for example, "instead of saying trap the ball with soft hands" you could say "let the stick kiss the ball".

  • Use task-related instructions — for example, when training tennis players to anticipate the return of serve, researchers found that players told to predict the speed of a serve improved their performance in predicting service direction more than players given specific instructional tips to facilitate the prediction of service direction

  • Get players to perform a secondary task while performing a primary skill — for example, requiring basketball players to listen to music on a walkman, and sing aloud while shooting free throws may take the focus off technical execution and allow implicit or subconscious processes to control the skill.

  • Design games using different scoring systems, boundaries or rules restrictions that require players to use particular strategies to win the game (a ‘game sense’-type approach). Allow them time to determine the most appropriate strategy/response rather than explicitly telling them the specific solution at the commencement of the activity.

A word of caution here...don't go throwing the baby out with the bath water!

Some researchers have cast doubt over whether the full range of learning is taking place in this model and have called for a skillful blending of the 2 approaches to ensure that learners are getting the best possible experience.

This is not a call to have coaches saying nothing during training sessions but it is a call for coaches to become highly skilled at using the right interventions at the right time to maximise the learning of the players.

There are a number of techniques that I would use here to ensure that learning is taking place which I will categorise in the next post.

Those people who are subscribed to my email list will get these techniques before everybody else so if you are the impatient/curious type please feel free to join the community and I will make sure you get the follow up sooner!

All the best

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