Journey to learning skills in sport has three main stages


COACHES CORNER LONG-TERM DEVELOPMENT:Coaching experts Jim Kilty and Liam Hennessy discuss coaching style and the stages of learning a new skill

HAVE YOU ever wondered why a skill might break down in competition? Well it could well be that the skill was not actually well learned in the first place. The player may only have completed the first two stages of development in the skill and when pressure was applied (in the form of anxiety and nerves) it was not engrained sufficiently well to hold up under pressure.

Time, practice, and above all, patience is required if the skill is to arrive at the automatic or mature stage. Researchers tell us thousands of hours are needed for all skills of a game to be ingrained at the automatic stage. In practical terms this means hours of practice – however for the coach, knowing what stage the player is at is also very important if the journey is to be successful.

The stages of learning are very important to appreciate. This journey of learning skills in sport has three main stages: a preparatory stage, a practice stage and an automatic stage.

The Preparation stage:When an athlete is first introduced to a skill he or she will be required to understand how to perform the skill correctly. A great deal of thinking and concentration will be required by the athlete at this stage if he or she is to understand the skill. It is important therefore not to over-coach the athlete at this stage. Coaches must not overload the athlete with several tasks at the one time.

Coaches must however, above all, be positive and supportive. The coach should also understand mistakes can be useful in the learning process. They can be positive experiences in recognising what is not an efficient movement. In this way athletes can actually learn from their mistakes.

The Practice stage:The emphasis during this stage is on quality practice. There will still be a high degree of concentration required during this stage but this will shift from an emphasis on learning the proper sequencing of the movements involved in the skill to precision of timing and coordination. Mistakes will now start to reduce. This is how the coach and athlete will know more learning is now taking place. Feedback that progress is being made is very important. However, when progress is not being made, or seemingly is not being made, the role of the coach may change. This is where the coach needs to understand the many factors that impact on the development of the athlete and so there may be times when the learning process takes a secondary importance.

The Automatic stage:The skill now seems to be easier to perform under different conditions. Less time is needed on thinking or concentrating with only small changes in the skill’s technique now required. The skill is becoming more consistent and reliable. If an error is made the athlete tends to know what to do to correct it. Under pressure the skill is holding up better.

For the coach and athlete it is now important not to over-analyse or over-complicate the skill. Yes refining it is now perhaps a goal and this can be done in a variety of ways. Again the guide here is it should not be a major reconstruction job rather a fine-tuning. The phrase coined by a popular sports clothing and footwear company is appropriate here, “Just do it!’’ This is the stage when mental rehearsal is very effective so as to ensure the brain’s “picture” of the technique is ingrained. Indeed such mental imagery techniques have been shown to add to the performance.

These notes are contributed by Dr Liam Hennessy and Jim Kilty of Setanta College, the Institute of Strength and Conditioning Studies (