Teaching Sports Skills

Have you ever coached one of those motor-gifted athletes who can pull off a perfect left-hand layup or synchronize a dolphin kick, or send a golf ball into orbit on just the first or second try? In fact, if someone can perform all three of these sports skills with a short learning curve, this person is in very select company.

For most of us mortals, mastering a complex sports skill can be a long process peppered with setbacks. Many beginning skiers search for the courage to leave the bunny slope and expend more energy getting up from a fall than actually skiing down the slope. A prolonged process of graduating from the novice level can be discouraging, especially when there are those natural athletes who can jump into rental skis and head to the intermediate slopes after their first lesson.

One of the great joys of a teacher or coach is helping a beginner overcome the seeming inability to learn a new sports skill. The sheer satisfaction of someone finally getting it right can be experienced by both student and instructor. Also, mastering that skill can be a springboard for a lifetime of enjoyment, physical fitness and a boost in self-esteem. Mastering sports skills can even enhance cognitive development and increase academic achievement.

By taking advantage of the latest motor-learning science, you can help your students experience success, early and often!

New Research Leads The Way

Motor-learning researchers have recently discovered that teaching people to focus their attention on the external effects of their effort is the fastest way for them to learn. By asking a novice golfer to keep the clubface in a square position through the first three feet of the backswing is an example of using an external focus of attention. There is overwhelming evidence from over 100 motor-learning research studies that, by focusing attention on the effects of one’s movement (external focus), rather than focusing on the body’s actions (internal focus), it is easier to learn and retain the correct performance of a sports skill. To appreciate the effectiveness of this external focus of attention, it might help to review how the brain and muscles work together to perform a sports movement.

A One-Minute Lesson In Motor Learning

Whether you teach complicated skills, like vaulting off a gymnastics horse to execute a Kasamatsu stretch (complete with multiple twists) or “simply” sinking a four-foot golf putt, the performer’s brain must send signals through individual nerves to tell specific bundles of muscle fibers when to contract in order to perform successfully. As athletes practice a complex motor skill, like spiking a volleyball, the brain develops a motor program that will eventually have efficient messages that dictate when the muscle fibers should contract.

An accurate and well-learned motor program enables the performer to execute a split-second skill, like an ice hockey slap shot … literally on automatic pilot. The timing and sequence of the muscle contractions will require no conscious thinking about body mechanics. The brain’s motor program that provides the automatic control of a movement is what many athletes and coaches mean when they refer to “muscle memory.” Gabriele Wulf gives more detail and great examples of these teaching strategies in her textbook, Attention and Motor Skill Learning (2007).

Repetitive Rhythm

Learning a sports skill with an external focus of attention, e.g., “giving backspin to the basketball when shooting a foul shot,” is extremely effective because it promotes the use of automatic muscle contraction. Conversely, research has shown that teaching with cues that promote an internal focus of attention, e.g., “flex the wrist to release the basketball during a shot,” promotes controlling the muscle contractions in a conscious, deliberate mode. By taking advantage of the automatic mode with an external focus of attention, the movement is not only smoother, more accurate and less fatiguing, but it also allows more of the performer’s attention to process what is happening in the competitive environment.

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