Tips for Coaches – A Motor Learning Perspective

As a golf professional I’ve spent thousands of hours trying to perfect my own ability to hit a golf ball and countless hours trying to coach others. 11 years ago I decided to head back to university to learn more about how we control and learn movements. I’ve spent the past 10 years lecturing in motor control and related areas.

I still don’t have all the answers or a secret sauce for coaching, but below are some useful lessons and ideas I’ve learned along the way for coaching sport-related movements and actions.

Hopefully, they help you think about your own coaching or skill development.

Intention before mechanics

As coaches we are very good at spotting faulty mechanics, but how often do you ask your athlete what they are trying to do before fixing the technical fault?

All modern motor learning theories begin with a goal – what is the athlete trying to achieve – this goal drives the movement (technique) that follows. From my experience, the root cause of many mechanical faults lay in an incorrect intention or understanding.

In golf coaching a classic example is a beginner who struggles to hit the golf ball up into the air with their irons – which counterintuitively requires them to strike down on the golf ball. Their technique is a smorgasbord of technical faults to be corrected, but if you ask the player a simple question:

Are you trying to:

  1. Hit down on the ball.
  2. Sweep the ball level off the ground.
  3. Hit up on the ball

You find 99% of beginners are trying to help the ball up in the air. This is the incorrect intention and results in all manner of technical faults. However, by simply explaining to the player that the goal is to hit down on the golf ball most of the technical errors magically disappear within a few more attempts.

Tip 1: Ask your athletes what they are trying to do, before correcting their technique. Questions can often be more powerful than instruction.

Practice performance does not equal learning

Motor learning is defined as a relatively permanent change in performance. Meaning we don’t know how much learning has occurred until well after our practice sessions have finished. In motor learning experiments we measure learning in two ways:

  1. Retention: performing the same skill 1 hour, 1 day or a week after practice.
  2. Transfer: Performing an adapted, but similar task after practice.

If we think about this in a sports performance context, we’ll quickly see why retention and transfer are important. As a football (soccer) coach which do you care more about when coaching penalties:

  1. Penalty conversion rate in practice this week (practice)
  2. Penalty conversion rate in next weeks training (retention)
  3. Penalty conversion rate in a cup final in front of a crowd (transfer)

As we’ll see below practice performance does not always reflect retention and transfer.

Below is a hypothetical graph outlining the classic learning effect. Via practice, performance increases quickly, to begin with, then continues to improve but at a slower rate as the performer attains a higher level of performance (blue zone).

If we test an athlete a day or a week after we’ll see they have retained most of their skill, but rarely retain all of their skill level from practice. This is our first true measure of learning (red zone).

We are also interested in how well an athlete can transfer their skill – performing the skill in a different setting or adapting the skill is a key attribute required in most sports. We call this a transfer test, as the graph above shows, the athlete will often perform well, but often not as well as in practice or in retention tests.

Why is this important for coaches?

As we’ll see in the following section, practice performance is not always indicative of how much learning has occurred.

Often more challenging practices, that lead to more errors in practice, result in better retention and transfer (increased learning). Check out this article on the challenge point hypothesis for more around practice difficulty.

Tip 2: Care less about practice performance and try to optimise for retention and transfer.

Practice variability is a useful tool, but should be used thoughtfully

One long-standing finding in motor learning is the contextual interference effect. This area of research explores the effect of practice structure on learning: i) blocked – random practice & ii) constant – varied practice:

contextual interference effect header
  1. Blocked practice: performing one skill over and over again.
  2. Random practice: performing two or more skills in a random order.
  3. Constant practice performing one skill is a stable way.
  4. Varied practice: performing one still but varying parameters.

What the research shows is that using random or varied practice often results in worse performance in practice, but increased learning (retention and transfer). With beginners it appears best to start with block practice, then to systematically increase the amount of variability over the course of a session or several sessions.

This concept can be applied to any sort of coaching, by simply varying one parameter of a movement your coaching (varied practice), or by practising two skills together in a random order. This could be two new skills or coaching a new skill alongside a pre-learned skill.

Why does this work?

There are still a few theoretical debates, check the following link for one prominent idea called the elaboration hypothesis, but what we can be sure of is that all movements require some level of planning and decision making. This is largely implicit, but still an important aspect of what we see as skilful performance.

Blocked practice is like asking a student what is 2+2 ten times in a row. Once they’ve reached the answer, the next time there is little decision making required. Whereas, random practice is the equivalent of asking what is 2+2, 3 x 4, 3+3…

Practice viability isn’t a magic bullet for learning skills quicker, but when you wish to challenge the planning and decision making of an athlete adding variability can be very useful.

Tip 3: When an athlete can perform a skill well 70% of the time consider adding in some variability. You’ll see their practice performance decrease, but this should lead to improved retention and transfer of the skill.

Learning is highly specific & expensive

To learn a new skill the body has to carry out all manner of cognitive, neural and physiological adaptations. Coaches and players correctly assume that more practice will improve performance, but often we see players hit plateaus.

When this happens it is good to stand back and take a long hard look at the practice you have in place. Ask yourself why should this practice make a player better?

We are all familiar with the overload principle in strength training. Whereby a given stimulus will result in specific gains over a period of time until the body’s adaptations catch up. At which point a new stimulus is required.

Well, the same is true for skill development – the body will make very specific adaptations based on the task at hand.

  • Smaller target = greater accuracy
  • Further target = more distance
  • Less time = quicker response
  • Complex environments = better decision making

After a period of time, the body will catch up and stop adapting. At which point you need to tweak your practice structure again.

Tip 4: Ask yourself, how is the practice challenging my athletes? Is it providing the stimulus needed to create the adaptions I want to see as a coach?

Coaching approaches: Deterministic versus self-organising

As coaches, we want to help athletes perform better, this often requires changing or tweaking their technique. Most movements can be explained in a deterministic way (see this link for more on deterministic modelling). meaning we have a mental model of what the optimal technique looks like.

However, explicitly breaking down an athlete’s technique is not the best way for them to learn. Think about how we learned to run, jump and walk – we explored and developed a solution that worked – no detailed analysis.

There are two broad approaches we can use as coaches:

  1. Direct instruction – talking/demonstrating movement
  2. Setting practice tasks – here is the task, now solve this problem

Both these shape learning and technique. I’m not here to tell you direct instruction isn’t important, because it is. However, I would urge all coaches to become a master both approaches within their domain.

If you want an athlete to adapt the way they move, deeply consider how you could create practice structures to encourage the correct movement patterns alongside your direct instruction. Below are some simple examples I’ve been exposed to over the years.

Technical changeTask given
Shift weight to use the edge of skis when turningLift top leg when performing each turn
Extend up and through tennis forehandPlace 6ft obstacle at the net to hit over
Keep clubhead low to the ground when chipping in golfHit ball under golf bag placed 5ft in front of the golf ball
Deepen back squat and keep centre of mass from shifting forwardPlace box behind athlete to dip and touch with this bum

From my experience as a student, these simple tasks help with learning, but also make practice more fun. As a coach you will be the expert within your domain – developing a wide range of tasks to help encourage great movements is a skill set that will serve you well for many years to come.

Tip 5: Create a toolbox of practice structures to reinforce coaching instruction.

Summary

Learning fascinates me, I still don’t understand how we learn and control movement, but I love the journey of better understanding how we can coach effectively. I hope these tips have given you some food for thought – you certainly don’t have to agree with them all, but I hope they give you some new lens to use when reflecting on your own sport and coaching practices.

Further reading

  1. Buszard et al (2017) Quantifying Contextual Interference and Its Effect on Skill Transfer in Skilled Youth Tennis Players
  2. Chow & Duane V. Knudson (2011) Use of deterministic models in sports and exercise biomechanics research
  3. Porter & Magill (2010) Systematically increasing contextual interference is beneficial for learning sport skills

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Shaw, W. (2021) Tips for Coaches – A Motor Learning Perspective. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/tip-for-coaches-learning/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy]

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Golf Insider UK | Website | + posts

Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.