Designing success

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The USOC holds many conferences and symposiums annually to assist athletes & coaches reach their potential

This paper will summarize the theories plus evidence for attaining skill acquisition presented at the inaugural Development, Enhancement, and Sustainability of Expert Performance in Sport Conference (Sport Conference) held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. This Sport Conference was held over a 2-day period after the Beijing Olympic Games in China.

Much of the Sport Conference dealt with attaining, measuring instructional methods for experts and expert performance of skill acquisition.  The presenters (Ph.D’s in their respective fields of psychology, motor behaviour,  and biomechanics) Anders Ericsson, Dick Schmidt, Peter Vint, Jim Bauman, and Mark Williams, overwhelming suggest that concrete evidence may be the way to measure if your instructional methods are effective for expert performances in competition.  This begs this question “What should we measure?”.  To be certain, there are many things instructional methods for expertise in sport could be measured on and the next several paragraphs will look into this matter.

Dr. Anders Ericsson,  a Swedish psychologist, Conradi Eminent Scholar, and professor of psychology at Florida State University,  used many measurement examples from experts in other domains like ballet, chess, and music to show how expertise can be measured with optimal instructional methods.  Ericsson suggests that each domain is different and may have its own rules with becoming an expert.  For instance, in music, his evidence shows it takes about 25 years, in an optimal instructional environment, before a person is capable of winning a world championship.  According to Ericsson, music competitions have been going on for about 300 years and one must study and compete for about 25 years if the goal is to become a world champion in music.  In music,  measurement of expertise has been standardized similar to the education system in the USA.  In other words, there are certain check points, bench marks, and evaluations prior to an aspiring world champion musician ‘graduating’ to the next level of instruction.  And, when these points of emphasis are mastered, the next level of development must  be given by the instructor.

Ericsson also used chess in his measurement of expertise examples and suggested that many chess players become chess masters by a similar progression as above, plus, individual study on their own.  In addition to learning how to play chess and playing games, aspiring chess masters study published games of the best chess masters and try to anticipate each move prior to looking at the next move.  Based on Ericsson’s research, it appears that experts spend time doing homework that the instructor has given them and perhaps create their own homework (once they understand how to improve) to learn from to become experts.  Homework, studying alone, or self study was also used by expert musicians according to Ericsson and may shed some light for aspiring experts in any domain, sport, or field.

The 10,000 hour rule (approximately 10 years and/or 10,000 hours of training) explains how long it takes for mastery or expert level of any particular domain and the presenters have varying theories, about this rule, based on their evidence.  Professor of motor behaviour at Liverpool John Moores University in England, Mark Williams,  believes that this 10,000 hour rule is dependent on what type of sport or domain that is being mastered.  In regards to the 10,000 hours of training for expertise or mastery of sport, he says some sports that are highly technical/complex require more training (perhaps similar to music) and less technical sports require less training to become experts.  The example of a highly technical sport like soccer was used versus a relatively low technical sport like sprinting.  In soccer, many more skills may need to be mastered in addition to sprinting i.e. dribbling the ball, running backwards/sideways, & kicking the ball.  Sprinting, as a sport, may take less time to master because there may be less variables to train i.e. less skills to learn or master.  So, if you are fast and get the right specific, optimal instruction, you may start at a later age and become an expert sooner in sprinting versus soccer.  Williams emphasized specificity of training will also effect the 10,000 hour rule and is required for the most effective instructional methods e.g. soccer training for soccer games versus sprint training only for soccer games.  Or, if the wrong instruction, methods, or skills are learned, the length of time to expertise or mastery of sport may increase the 10,000 hour rule.

In England, many elite soccer academies only accept applicants that have been studying at other soccer sport-schools since 6 years of age according to Williams.  Elite English soccer academy directors believe new 9 year old soccer students have too much development to make up (if they started playing soccer at 9) versus the 6 year old soccer academy student.  It may be similar to a 9 year old trying to complete the academic school course work of a fourth grader – accept this 9 year old has had no home schooling, formal school education, nor instruction of any kind – ever.  Certainly, this 9 year old can learn/be taught and may be at least 3 years behind academically.  And, it may take longer for this 9 year old to catch up academically to the 10 year olds in one year – provided this child is motivated to learn and the instruction this 9 year old receives is structured optimally.

Blocked and random instruction are two forms of teaching methodologies that can be measured and have an effect on expertise and mastery of game time application according to senior sport scientist with the United States Olympic Committee Peter Vint and professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA Dick Schmidt.  Blocked instruction is the type where coaches instruct one skill, then athletes practice the same exact or precise skill over and over again; an example is teaching snap downs and spin behinds, then practicing snap downs & spin behinds 100 times in a row.  An example of random instruction is teaching snap downs with various (random) finishes i.e. go behinds, double legs, re-snap, fake. Schmidt and Vint agree that it takes longer for students to master material with random instruction because students must reproduce different skills versus the same skills each execution.  In other words, students must think about what is going on, read the situation correctly, and reconstruct the right movements based on the opponents reactions/counters.  It seems like random instruction is better for game time application because it better prepares students to anticipate what the opponent may do.  Blocked instruction appears better for learning a new movement but may not necessarily prepare learners for an opponents different counter or reaction because they are practicing/learning only one specific movement versus random movements, reactions, or counters.

Mark Williams, also a chartered psychologist,  presented evidence that suggests pattern recognition and anticipation effect expertise and mastery of sport. Based on his findings,  masters of sport (experts) do not have any better vision (with their eyes) than novice athletes. But, many experts have much better pattern recognition and perceive upcoming movements better than novice athletes. In other words, many masters of sport are able to read the situation much better than novice or newer athletes (likely due to experience, optimal instructional methods – or both). Williams also said this is not the case for all experts and believes some experts usually compensate for what they are not good at. So, if the expert does not read situations well, she may be faster, stronger, smarter, or have less fear. He suggests that masters of sport use what ever skill set they have, then make it better by continuing to strengthen areas that are weak either via self study or deliberate practice. Training and or accumulated training has an impact on skill acquisition and experts appear to understand what they are good at and where they need to improve – and then they get to smart work.

Jim Bauman, sports psychologist at the University of Virginia, focused on fear, anxiety, and competition stress that athletes have.  He suggested that fear is a major component of success and that the Navy Seals productively channel fear quickly and focus on their tasks in order to stay alive and accomplish their goals.  The Navy Seal example suggests positively dealing with fear can be learned and taught.  Bauman went on to say that many athletes’ hands, feet get cold or the muscles become very tight when fear is present (negative, unproductive processing of fear) and that the competition may be over by the time the athletes’ channel the energy of fear or are non-fearful.  Fear for athletes can be self imposed or can come from pressure to win by parents, coaches, National Governing Body’s, or sponsors according to Bauman.  He suggests that athletes will either freeze because of fear or have great performances because of how the fear was processed i.e. the energy of fear is quickly processed/channeled into courage or confidence similar to how the Navy Seals process fear.  Expert athletes process fear and channel fear into positive, productive energy quickly.  All athletes can be taught to process fear and channel fear into positive, productive energy quickly.

There are several layers to optimal instructional methodology for expertise and feedback to students is another example. Feedback can be described as the communication between student and teacher or coach and athlete after a skill has been executed. How much feedback is needed? or What feedback should be conveyed and when? are important questions that have been studied. According to Schmidt, Vint, and Williams, giving feedback after every repetition may actually interfere with students ever processing what they just did – which may inhibit learning. Thus, these experts all agreed that delayed feedback should be given after several repetitions so that the students can process what is going on and likely make adjustments based on what they learned themselves.

Also, when students practice skills a number of times before the instructor gives delayed feedback, the instructor will have observed the students on average technical execution and what needs to be corrected (before mastery of a skill, many students can not repeat the same skill execution correctly). If feedback is given after every repetition, the instructor may not see on average technical executions (the instructor may see only 1 variation of the students skill executions) and may over teach or instruct which may not allow the student time to make self corrections (nor learn) according to Vint, William, and Schmidt.  Learning/teaching is a 2-way process and students must be able to figure out what needs to be done after the initial instruction, practicing, and when delayed feedback has been given.  In this way, students become an optimal part of the teaching/learning process and can self-correct when needed.

Two-time Olympic volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon (coached USA volleyball men’s Olympic Gold & women’s Olympic Silver medal winning teams of 2008, 2012), who was also present at the Sport Conference, believes that the athletes must buy in or believe in the coach or the coach’s methods for success to be achieved.  McCutcheon also explained if the coach does not believe in the methods being taught, those methods should not be used.  He went on to say the methods presented in this Sport Conference were valid and re-emphasized coaches should only use them if they believe in them.  McCutcheon’s experience suggests that if coaches and athletes buy in or believe in the coaching philosophy, methodology, there is a higher opportunity for success.  Coaches and athletes who believe in the coaching philosophy and methodology will work smarter, more effectively & efficiently perhaps because they can envision their collective success.

Tying this Sport Conference in with my professional experience, about 9 years ago, I started coaching at the United States Olympic Education Center and was on a quest to learn as much as I could to help my athletes.  Partially because my lack of experience with coaching females and partially because improvement has driven me my whole life.  At this point, you may be saying “so what…”  All that is to say this: because of Sport Conferences like this one and many others, coaches and athletes have the opportunity to learn from some of the best coaches and sport scientists in the world and increase their chances for success.  There certainly is no magic pill or remedy for success and smart work, research, & persistence will increase your chances for success.

 Copyright © by Coach Shannyn, All rights reserved

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