Unopposed Practice: What Exactly Are They Learning?
Posted by Dean Holden at January 1st, 2016
by Ben Franks, 26 November 2015
Across coaching there has become a huge debate around technical skill practice and game based practice and their appropriateness to the learning of skills. The opaque construct of ‘technique’ and ‘skill’ appears to be different across a vast set of opinions. We often see technique and skill being completely decoupled and separated into technical skill being of the physical, and decisions being the mind, yet rarely adopted as a coupled approach. The question proposed here then, is can skill and technical ability be redefined as ones ability to not execute the skill, but execute the skill through perceptual coupling ability, through actively seeking new behaviors to solve certain problems, not simply passing the ball from A-B. More should be asked of being an expert or being successful of a technique.
We can view this from the perspective of nature, it has become a damning factor of how animals raised from captivity can not be reintegrated into the wild. This is a product of isolation and being directed through routine as they grow up, much like a coach telling their player what they should see and do. If the animal was reintroduced they will have learnt how to eat, but not how to hunt, they have not learnt from the appropriate information, they can not respond to the chaos in front of them because they are so used to the comfort of repetition. You pull this into a youth football session, learning in non-complex, unopposed, blocked practice with limited perceptual variability- training in these environments will not afford the appropriate behaviors that the player will need the next day in their game. By not learning from the game from day 1 they will not be attuned to the correct cues, triggers and contexts of the environment that will direct the players decisions. The player may be able to execute a perfect pass to someone opposite 5 yards away with no pressure, but place this in a game with emotional context, opposition charging down, the player is not used to this variability and how to process it quick enough. You learn from how you practice, if you practice in isolation you will learn to be effective in isolation.
But Practice Makes Perfect?
This ideology has been present in almost all coaches tool boxes, it does hold some meaning, but what is practice!! Whatever you practice will only make you perfect at what you practice, as previously stated, if I learn in a simple way, I’ll have simple solutions limited to single linear directions with little transferable ability. If you practice shooting in an open goal with a pass from the same area every time then yes, you will learn the demands of this, but again, completely untransferable to relative performance environments. If you place a goalkeeper, defenders and more dimensions I begin to recreate performance solutions, if I fail, I learn and adopt new behaviors until I find my most suitable outcome. There has been a surge of critical coaching literature (see below) as to how no 2 performances, be it macro (game) or micro (single passing action) are exactly the same, they all have a number of interacting cultural, environmental, organismic or task constraints. It is therefore reasonable to suggest that training should suit the complexity, chaotic and variable nature of a game? If we play through high pressure and constant interaction based games then surely we should play that way in training. It is not merely an exploration of ones physical quantities but a mental process of constantly exploring and pick up of information cues to guide and direct our decisions and actions in the game.
“They’ve Got Natural Talent, You Can’t Teach That”
This is a phrase I’ve heard constantly throughout my life in football when discussing top class players. But there lies huge flaws in this . At some point, somewhere, Messi had adapted to a problem in a game which he overcame with a certain movement solution constructed by his interactions with his environment (it’s discussed constantly how Messi fell in love with football by playing in the streets, controlled by nothing but the boundaries of the game). When he goes 1-on-1 with his defender, he has constructed a perceptual knowledge through game exploration, a set of cues that he will read to determine his next action, the defender is off balance with his legs too wide, Messi knows that he can play through his opens legs to beat him, it becomes a much used movement pattern for Messi as he has had the time to explore games and pick up the slight visual cues, he didn’t learn the purpose of this skill by dribbling unopposed through a set of cones 10 times. It has allowed him to reorganise his body parameters to execute an action attuned to himself. Correct, a young Messi wasn’t taught this, but he was allowed the time to fail, make mistakes and separate the good cues to the bad ones, this is technical superiority, the ability to perform a solution, an answer, under pressure and under many external factors.
We must however remain grounded in context, we’re not suggesting throwing a 5 year old novice into an 11 v 11 game, a 5 v 2 overload in a large area will have relevant perceptual information, but with reduced complexity and enough time on the ball to have to think quickly, but still with time constraints afforded by the 2 outnumbered defenders.
Yes football is messy, emotional and can be influenced by any number of external characteristics, but this is fine, it can not and should not be controlled, let behaviors emerge and respond off of these, the aim of development is to play in a World Cup final, set young players up early, identify them with emotions and how they can control these whilst also controlling the demands of technical skill execution. As humans we will find the quickest and most efficient answer to problems, it’s a naturally occurring characteristic, so let players explore and make the appropriate action don’t give them an answer and not challenge this with what the game demands, it may be wrong, it may take months, but it will occur and with more purpose, meaning and context than anything they have been told to do by a coach or done without purpose or pressure. As a baby we learn to walk, crawl and eat without adult instruction, without isolated environments, we were allowed to naturally emerge as humans, yes it took time, but it built the foundations of which we live our lives, as cliche as it sounds, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Kretchmar, S. (2005). Teaching games for understanding and the delights of human activity. In teaching games for understanding: theory, research and practice, ed. Windsor:Human Kinetics, 199-212.
Light , R., Harvey, S., and Mouchet, A. (2014). Improving ‘at action’ decision making in team sports through a holistic coaching approach. Sport, Education and Society, 19(3), 258-275.
Oslin, J., and Mitchell, S. (2006). Game-Centred Approaches to Teaching Physical education. Handbook of physical education. 627-651. London:sage.
Harvey, S., and Jarret, K. (2014). A review of the game-centred approaches to teaching and coaching literature since 2006. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 19(3), 278-300.