One of the great dilemmas the coach faces in a highly demanding context is distinguishing between the needs of match-by-match performance and those of a team’s general learning. Australian motor performance specialist Derek Panchuk, former NBA player, in an article titled “What a good learning environment looks like?” has tried to find a theoretical middle ground for these contingencies that arise both in the short term (performance) and in the long term (learning) and in whose equilibrium is a virtue.
According to Panchuk, the starting point is understanding. Good training is based on understanding how athletes learn. It can be the case of coaches who choose exercises for their sessions without any specific objective. However, he believes that you should never lose your way. A coach must make the necessary changes after each game but always keep a long-term plan. It is easy for the contingencies that the game marks in each game to divert the coach from that plan or objective. While it’s essential to be flexible, Panchuk details, staying consistent is more important. A good coach will appreciate that learning takes time and that what is seen in games is always a reflection of whether the player has learned or not.
The American pedagogue Nicholas C. Soderstrom makes a clear difference between achievement and learning. The basic example he gives to explain his theory is that of a classroom in which students learn to solve a math problem, the bell rings, and the next day, when they return to class, no one remembers hardly anything from the previous lesson. One can retain what is explained very well without learning anything. It is a paradox demonstrated by the research that has been conducted in this field for decades. Performance need not be a proxy indicator for learning, and may even be inversely related.
Repetition exercises, for example, may seem like a short-term solution, but they do not work to obtain a perspective view; they do not provide the tools to solve a problem on your own that may present itself in diverse ways. To learn, Soderstrom advocates Robert Björk’s concept of “desirable difficulty,” that is, the constant introduction of new challenges that evaluate and fix what has been learned. In this case, the coach must provide players with permanent and flexible tools.
How to be a more effective coach
Translated to the sports field, a nuance that can make the difference between a sterile learning and a permanent one is, in the coach’s comments, distinguishing the descriptive ones and explaining an error; from the prescriptive ones, explaining the error and how to solve it. According to the research Coaches’ Self-Awareness of Timing, Nature, and Intent of Verbal Instructions to Athletes, almost half of the coaches’ instructions are prescriptive. The reason is apparent: they work. However, Panchuk believes they can be even more effective. As the study Good-vs. Poor-trial feedback in motor learning: The role of self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation across levels of task difficulty shows, positive ratings of a well-performed action improve performance more than neutral or negative feedback. The group that received positive comments also showed higher scores in resolution and motivation.
Panchuk’s thesis is that this type of coach attitude serves to correct mistakes and obtain psychological benefits. In the research The Effect of Self-Regulated and Experimenter-Imposed Practice Schedules on Motor Learning for Tasks of Varying Difficulty we can find one of the possible explanations. 67% of learning people want to receive comments and feedback when they believe they have had a satisfactory performance. On the other hand, 73% do not want to be valued when they think they have had a deficient performance.
Panchuk believes someone who has done an action correctly wants a positive comment to find out what they must do to continue doing that exercise well. He proposes that the coach limits himself in their remarks and, for example, that they should not exceed ten negative corrections during a training session or only do so after having indicated the merits. Everything is based on establishing an affective relationship with the players.
Affection is significant for the player’s development, but generally, these ties in today’s sport tend to be superficial. They are based on monosyllables (“good,” “like this,” “no”, etc.) and do not go deeper. When the comments made to the player are always the same or include the same few words, they lose their meaning. We must try to avoid these repetitive and robotic formulas and enrich communication. It is essential to fill the void; silence is the most counterproductive thing between a player and their coach. Apart from the feedback on the actions, the coach can also be interested in the player’s feelings. Panchuk’s ideal model is that of a coach who spends more time observing than speaking, carefully measures what they are going to say, invites players to interact with questions, and does not limit himself to giving verbal instructions; they also provide examples.
In this regard, technology today plays a key role. The possibilities of showing how actions are executed have never been more precise and objective. The risk, however, is to develop a dependence on technology. Work for the data, not for the game.
The coach as collaborator
In the end, the goal is always to empower the player, but it is a very delicate matter for coaches because it is sometimes confused with acting on the player’s free will. What it is about is that athletes don’t have someone by their side telling them what they are doing wrong, but someone who provides alternatives and solutions so that the actions go well. In other words, they want a collaborator. This specialist recommends four steps to establish that relationship:
- Involve athletes in the learning process. That is, they identify for themselves what they need help with.
- When offering solutions, present several alternatives so that they can choose the most appropriate to their conditions. Do not uniquely confine their actions.
- Allow them to speak. After each exercise, have players take the initiative or leadership to comment on it.
- Before making evaluative comments, ask and probe the player’s feelings during the action.
All this is in a context where the information from the training exercises is the same as in the game. Practices that do not reflect natural game actions should be avoided whenever it is possible. For example, if a player moves away from the ball, it should not be due to actions that would not exist in a game but rather to losing his/her marker. Although we must consider that to enhance creativity or the development of motor actions, it is sometimes convenient to create difficulties outside the game.
For continuous and long-term learning, the player must also complete the sensation-action cycle whenever possible during training. If you perceive that you can do something within the game’s rules, you must be able to carry it out. In this sense, interruptions such as stopping an exercise in ball recoveries are harmful.
Therefore, the training must be based on the practice of cooperation-opposition within a shared space. This model is the most representative possible. When it is necessary to optimize the player’s self-knowledge in specific actions, the introduced changes will make the training less representative. However, it is essential to understand that the representativeness of a training session and its proximity to the game’s reality is not the same. There are no foolproof recipes to modulate these parameters, but finding the right balance will create a favorable context for the players’ training.
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