Skill cards: an alternative approach
Posted by Dean Holden at October 25th, 2013
by Melissa Hopwood, Australian Institute of Sport
Looking for a new way to develop core skills? Looking to personalise your teams training programs? Looking for a way to encourage unsupervised practice outside of team training sessions? Looking for a novel approach to injury rehabilitation? Skill cards could be just what you are looking for!
What are skill cards?
Skill cards provide an alternative method of practicing the key skills of your sport. They provide structured, directed training opportunities for athletes of all skill levels, without the need for a coach to be present. Skill cards can be likened to a strength and conditioning training program. They are basically a structured list of activities, detailing the exercise to be performed, the number and organisation of repetitions to be executed, and the intensity at which to train (see related downloads for a sample skill card from basketball).
What is so good about skill cards?
Skill cards are more than just a list of skills drills. The cards are designed in accordance with sound skill acquisition principles in order to maximise learning. In particular, the principles of variability, specificity, progression and overload can be systematically manipulated to suit the needs of your program. You can design a low variability session that involves repetition of the same or similar skills, or a high variability session that incorporates a number of different activities. The skill cards can focus on general aspects of training such as fitness or generic motor skill development, or they can be tailored to focus on a particular aspect of the game that you are aiming to develop (for example: free throw shooting, defensive screening or footwork patterns). The skill cards can be generalised for the whole team, or they can be personalised based upon an individual’s needs or positional requirements. They can even be developed as part of an injured athlete’s rehabilitation program. The use of an intensity rating scale or colour coding of cards according to different levels of difficulty are useful ways to promote progression and overload, and to ensure maximal skill learning is taking place. More information on how to incorporate these principles of skill acquisition into the design of your skill cards will be detailed in Part 2 of this article in the next issue of Sports Coach.
Due to the skill cards containing the core principles of skill acquisition inherent in their design, coach supervision is not a necessity. The skill cards can be used to develop core skills outside of regular team training sessions, which will leave more time for you to concentrate on team play and tactics during group sessions. A common concern is that unsupervised practice may lead to poor technical habits. However, our experience has been the opposite. Coaches have asked players to perform a particular skill from a recently practiced skill card at the start of a training session, and have found that in most cases, performance has improved. Asking your players to perform a particular skill from a recently practiced skill card is a quick and easy way to monitor each player’s progress and skill development, and highlights the value you place on players completing unsupervised practice.
What can I use skill cards for?
The types of activities that can be incorporated into a skill card training program are limitless. The obvious focus for a skill card training program is core skill development, however, skill cards can also be used to improve many other important aspects of performance. Some examples include proprioception, co-ordination and ball handling activities, interspersed with fitness or agility drills. The skill cards can incorporate cognitive tasks such as drawing team offensive plays on a piece of paper, and they can also provide a good opportunity to direct your athletes to practice psychological skills such as mental rehearsal prior to the execution of an activity. The possibilities and combinations of activities are endless.
How can I incorporate skill cards into my existing training program?
There are many different ways that skill cards can be incorporated into your existing training program. Below are a few examples.
Take-home skill cards
Skill cards can be given to your athletes to take home and perform in their own time. Take-home skill cards provide a great opportunity to develop skills outside of team training sessions, and to create personalised training programs for your athletes.
Warm-up / cool-down skill cards
Skill cards of short duration can serve as effective warm-up or cool-down training tools. These skill cards will allow extra time for you to set up or pack up equipment, to liaise with assistant coaches, or to speak with individual athletes or parents, whilst at the same time being assured that your athletes are warming up and cooling down effectively. They are also useful for the athlete who arrives late to training, or who must leave early.
Injury skill cards
Skill cards can be designed to promote a progressive return to training for the injured athlete. Skill cards as part of a personalised injury rehabilitation program are one of the most effective applications of the skill card training program seen to date. They may include, but should not be limited to, the rehabilitation exercises prescribed to the athlete by their doctor or physiotherapist. No matter what the injury, or what stage of rehabilitation the athlete is in, injury skill cards can be tailored to ensure that the athlete is training to their full capabilities. The injury skill cards can include a variety of seated, stationary or single limb activities, and are easily modified as the athletes condition improves. Injury skill cards provide a good opportunity to develop cognitive skills such as decision making, and can also be beneficial in improving ball control. Where possible, it is a good idea to incorporate partner work into the skill cards in order to increase motivation in the injured athlete, and chase after any stray balls! Injury skill cards are a great way to ensure your injured athlete does not feel ‘left out’ of team training sessions, and importantly, the athlete is likely to return to training more fully prepared than if they were to have completed a more traditional return-to-training rehabilitation approach.
Designing a skill card
Skill cards are not just a list of skills drills. The innovation of skill cards is more in the structure and design of the skill card session than in the physical activities themselves. When designing a skill card, you must manipulate the principles of skill acquisition outlined below, in various ways in order to promote maximal skill learning.
Focus refers to the overall goal of the skill card session. It is important to be clear on what the skill card is aiming to develop before you begin to design the structure of the session and add activities. Additionally, the focus of the skill card should compliment the goals of the current training program. The focus of the skill card could be narrow, focussing on development of a single type of skill e.g. shooting, or it could be wide, aiming to cover a variety of different skills e.g. shooting, dribbling and ball handling.
Duration refers to the total length of the skill card session. Some skill cards will be short lasting only 10-15 minutes, and other skill cards will take 60 minutes to complete. Duration will depend on what type of skill card you are designing, and the focus of the skill card.
Intensity refers to the work rate of the skill card session, and is related to physical exertion. A high intensity session will include exercises involving maximal or near maximal efforts, with little or no rest periods, whilst a low intensity session will be less taxing on the body. Intensity can be manipulated via work by altering speed, number of repetitions, resistance, and/or time. Likewise, intensity can be manipulated via rest by altering the frequency and/or duration of rest periods. At times a low intensity skill card may be beneficial, for example during periods of recovery, or when learning new skills. At other times, practice under high intensity conditions that induce fatigue might also be of benefit, for example when aiming to improve fitness, or to replicate game-like conditions.
Complexity refers to the difficulty of the skill card session. Complexity is different to intensity in that it is associated with cognitive demands and co-ordination requirements, as opposed to work rate and physical exertion. You can manipulate complexity through the selection of skills, drills, and activities that are included in the skill card. A low complexity skill card will involve mostly basic activities, for example closed skills or activities with low co-ordination requirements. A high complexity skill card will include more advanced skills and drills that are more difficult to perform, for example open skills where the athlete has to interact with other players, equipment or the environment.
Variability refers to the level of variety within the skill card session. Variability can be manipulated by altering the number of different types of activities included in the skill card and/or by altering the frequency at which the skill card changes from one activity to the next. When manipulating this component within a skill card, it is important to remember that whilst low variability (or blocked practice) involving many successive repetitions of the one activity will improve performance during the current session, random practice involving high variability and frequent switching between different activities, is more effective for long term skill learning and retention. It is also important to consider that an increase in variability is likely to increase the complexity of the skill card because switching from one activity to the next will increase the cognitive demands of the session.
When selecting activities to include in a skill card, it is important to continually refer back to the framework of the skill card in order to ensure that the activities you select are meeting the goals of the session. Classifying each component (focus, duration, intensity, complexity, variability) prior to the selection of activities will make choosing which activities to include, how many activities to include, and how long to perform each activity for, an easier task. Don’t forget to specify how long to perform each activity for or how many repetitions to complete before moving on, and remember to include drinks breaks and rest periods where appropriate.
Developing a skill card program
There are many ways in which you can incorporate skill cards into a formalised training program.
A progressive program
In this approach, skill cards are designed in such a way that Skill Card 1 is to be completed before Skill Card 2 and so on. This type of skill card training program provides a great opportunity for both skill progression and overload, with each skill card in the sequence becoming increasingly more challenging. Skill cards can also be graded according to intensity, variation and/or complexity, and allocated a corresponding level or colour. An advantage of a graded or progressive training program is that it allows you to select the skill card that an athlete is to perform based on their total training load, the stage of training they are at within the competition cycle, their physical fitness, or their particular training needs. A matrix such as the one shown in Figure 1 may assist you in selecting which skill card to complete.
This approach also works well with Injury Skill Cards because it promotes a progressive return to training as physical capabilities improve.
Figure 1: A sample graded program skill card matrix.
|Low||Grey 1||Grey 2||Yellow 3|
|Variability||Medium||Grey 2||Gold 2||Orange 2|
|High||Gold 1||Orange 1||Orange 3|
A self-selection approach
An interesting way to incorporate a skill card training program is to design a variety of different skill cards, and let your athletes self-select the card they wish to perform. By monitoring which skill cards are selected, you will gain an insight into each athlete’s personal training behaviours and motivation. Do they always select the ‘easy option’, or do they continually challenge themselves? Do they choose similar cards, or do they mix it up? Do they work to their strengths, or to their weaknesses?
As a training tool, skill cards are flexible and adaptable. The methods and examples that have been given in both this article are suggestions on how you can design and implement a skill card training program. The framework that has been discussed can be used as is, or as a platform from which to build your own ideas and innovations. By manipulating the focus, the structure, the activities and the program, and you will never run out of ways to keep your athletes active, motivated, and on top of skill development.