Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Skilled Performance - ideas on the architecture of motor skill acquisition

Getting to Skilled Performance

Skilled performance can be defined as getting from point A to point B in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of energy expenditure.  This isn't my idea, nor is it a new or novel idea - but instead, as is much of my skill set as a coach, I've borrowed ideas I like and ideas that work from other coaches.  The above definition of skilled performance comes from some university course I took in motor learning a number of years ago.  It has stuck with me because it describes the goal of instruction - to help learners to ski more efficiently.

In the coach training work I do with novice and beginning coaches I work to create a picture of our role as coaches as being the architects of skilled performance.  Defining skilled performance by 'minimum amount of time' and 'minimum energy expenditure' creates an outcome that in some ways could be measured.  But in a sport like cross country skiing, is skilled performance something that is measured relative to other same age skiers?  Are the most skilled 12 or 13 year olds athletes, the ones who win races? 

When I was younger I was a track and field athlete through the spring and summer months.  My favourite event was the 1500m.  I liked it for lots of reasons - it was predictable - I felt in control of my results.  I knew what a 60 second 400m felt like.  I could feel the difference between a 62 second 400 and a 58 second 400.  I could predict my finish time based on signals that my body gave me.  I also liked it because a 400 m track was always 400m; it was always flat, most always rubberized.  Skilled performance was about getting from point A to point B in a minimum amount of time, with the least amount of energy expenditure.  If my fitness was great, I could engage with the athletes around me and really race.  I knew that I had improved because my 1500m time decreased as I increased the specificity of my training.  I could guage the level of my skilled performance compared to city, provincial, national, or world times.  In the big picture, I was never that great a 1500m runner - but a pretty good high school runner and certainly good enough to know what it feels like to be an athlete.  I came to understand that the most skilled performers were most often those people who were the fastest.

Ultimately, we set about to help young skiers become skilled performers.  The question is - how do we bring kids along to get them to skilled performance?  What steps do you take to layer levels of skill upon itself?  These are the sorts of questions that we talk about in the coaching courses that I lead.  Is it necessary to teach a 'walking step' diagonal stride before teaching a more advanced form of that skill?  Does it matter if the novice or beginner performer is 6 years old or 12 years old?   I recently read Daniel Coyle's book, The Talent Code.  In there he talks about 'whole-part-whole' learning and 'chunking' as a couple of strategies to advance motor learning. Whole-part-whole learning happens when a coach describes or shows a whole skill, then breaks it up into smaller pieces, then puts it back together again.  It might be, 'here is what a diagonal stride looks like', then breaking it up into 'diagonal striding includes gliding on one ski, then the other ski', plus 'push your foot down into the snow to connect your wax pocket with the snow'; then at the end, 'lets take a look at that skill again, this time look for those two skill components and try to notice something else going on'.  Chunking refers to being able to break a skill up into its component parts and being able to prioritize the components to lead to faster skill acquisition.  This work is pretty deliberate and intentional.  It doesn't just happen by taking kids out on the trail - or maybe it does.  Skill acqusition happens in lots of ways - if you're lucky to have some high level performers in your club, having them ski with younger skiers can really help.  Visual learners mimic what they see.  Have a guy like Gerard ski with your young athletes and pretty soon you have a bunch of kids who really know how to classic ski well.  The key piece here is having someone, like a Gerard, who is a phenomenal skier, who has really worked on the minutest of details of skilled performance.  If you don't have someone like Gerard, then I would suggest being deliberate and intentional about structuring learning.

I have never met a cross country ski coach who doesn't want kids to enjoy cross country skiing.  I mean really, why would you bother doing something if you didn't really like it.  The fact is that when you learn to do something well, you enjoy it more.  When you learn to be a skilled cross country skier you don't get fatigued as easily, you can ski on more challenging terrain, you can travel faster on your skis - in short, you can get from point A to point B in less time and feeling less tired than you did when you weren't as skilled a performer.  Sometimes folks feel a need to distinguish between recreational and competitive skiing and where they sit as a coach on that continuum.  Does skilled performance look any different if you are a recreational versus a competitive cross country skier - I would say no.  Skilled performers travel more quickly and more efficiently.  In a sport like cross country skiing efficiency is extremely important - we all have a finite amount of stored energy in our bodies - eliminating wasted movment from our ski technique is critical if we want to build positive dispositions to cross country skiing - really, why would we want young skiers to do a sport that is more work than pleasure?  In North America we already live in a culture where  'making life easy' is a dominant force in our consumption driven world.  Word on the street is that cross country skiers are some of the fittest atheltes out there - its not the easiet sport in the world.  When you've got to make your way to the top of a climb called 'the wall', it helps alot if you move your body as efficiently as possible to get yourself up the climb.  For many of us folks who love cross country skiing, it is exactly this sort of challenge that appeals to us.  Creating learning experiences that help kids to become efficient performers of skill will go a long way in helping to foster a lifelong love of moving and being active.  It is important to remember that all of this takes time - a different amount of time for each young skier.

I'll be the first one to say I don't have all of the answers.  I don't know many people who do.  Most of us who are involved as coaches have had some positive experience in our past with sport.  We don't need to know it all to get started or even to take on coaching adolescents.  It is possible I think to be a great coach without having ever competed in the world championships.  You'll know you're doing a great job if the adolescents you're working with are skilled performers - you'll know because they will be able to get from point A to point B in a minimum amount of time with the least amount of energy expenditure - you'll know because they can ski fast.  For me that is big piece of what its all about.


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