CHAPTER 3

SPORT LEARNING

 

Processes involve not only what the sprinter/hurdler learns, but also how they adapt the highly coordinated skills of their event. Psycho-motor stress previously mentioned is closely tied into this concept of sport learning.

What we learn and how we learn to perform skillful activities lies in the athlete’s ability to adapt to a new way of doing things. Adaptation requires the learner to conceptualize a new method of performing the skill in their chosen event (such as improving the lead arm action in the sprint hurdlers).

Training the athlete through numerous drills and competition rehearsals improve and enhance the quality of the athlete’s learning curve.

The next step to sport learning requires the stabilization of the new learned skill or technique. Often a coach makes technical changes in the way the athlete performs in order to elicit the next step in the athlete’s performance development. They seem to accept and take to the new technique through workouts that give the impression they are ready to actualize the new performance skill.

But when the gun goes off, the sprinter seems to forget all they learned and actually runs worse than they did before the new skill was introduced.

Sport learning at the highest level requires the coach and athlete to blend the perfect balance of knowledge (the coach) and physical talent (the athlete) into an outstanding athletic effort. The concept of “Transfer Appropriate Learning” sends the message that the coach and athlete must work together toward the performance goal.

Transfer appropriate learning means that training must incorporate workouts that when performed at practice, will yield the desired performance at the appointed competition.

But far too often we send our lambs to the slaughter due to training cycles that leave them ill-equipped to perform on the level we thought they were ready for.

Learning versus performance is the understanding that since the sprints and hurdles are events that require numerous “part-part -whole” elements, merely training to run a time is not sufficient preparation for the rigors of competition.

Training that puts the athlete’s mind on execution of the various movements necessary to achieve the time is what we should be expressing in our workout phases.

Of course the time is the thing since our sport is time/performance oriented. High quality simulations are also needed to push the athlete to levels of performance stress needed in order to execute the movements and get the time. Learning can be enhanced by these high quality simulations that so closely mimic the race stressors that the athlete experiences the critical zone of the meet day.

By making the hurdler run a full flight of hurdles a few centimeters lower and closer than the actual hurdle parameters, allows the hurdler to feel at practice what the race will require of their skill development.

I had a young man drop his 2003 high hurdle seasonal best from 14.03 to 13.69 in the first outdoor meet of the 2004 season. After the race, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “now what do I do?” He thought he had run too fast too soon, and he was already generating the psycho-motor (heavy on the psycho) stresses that would doom the rest of his season.

But by sitting him down and showing him where we could have gotten another 0.33 seconds, his confidence was re-energized when the race was broken down into bits and pieces we could conquer together. He was given the task of learning how to be more aggressive on his take-off step into the hurdle with our low and close drills.

He learned not to float the middle three hurdles because of a loss in his focus. We worked on maintaining a certain rhythmic unit (hurdle touchdown time) over consecutive groups of hurdles that took his mind off the time, and allowed him to focus on the process of the great hurdle run.

These were but a few of a myriad of hurdle simulations we worked on that never allowed him to think of the performance time only. He was given transfer appropriate lessons each day at the track, which, when performed properly, would lead to a time under 13.69.

We did not get the 1.33 we thought was still out there, but the 15 we did get left him with a sense of accomplishment, and gave him less self-imposed pressure, and great anticipation of the next season.

Another area of sport learning is in Systematic retrieval. Systematic retrieval is the orderly recovery of learned skills and abilities that are painstakingly acquired over a specific period of time.

Coaches need to examine the drills and skills they attempt to teach their athletes, and realize that input is not nearly as important as the ability to draw on that data and actualize it in competition. How many drills, workouts, and gimmicks do you have in your arsenal of training?

Rapid or short term learning can occur with little quality of what is learned. It’s like cramming for a test and as soon as you see the test, you draw a blank.

Long term retention of sport learning is the key to real learning. The human organism learns best when periods of adaptation, stabilization, and actualization are allowed to encode to the athlete’s physical and mental blackboard over extended periods of time.

Blocks of training that allow the athlete to see and experience the same movements over and over yield the highest level of learning and, under stress, will allow systematic retrieval of the training demands.

Three weeks of low and close hurdling allows the hurdler time to adapt to what it feels like to manage a big race effort. But if every week is a series of new drills or a new gimmick, the level of skill acquisition is greatly diminished.

Another area of sport learning deals with the function of feedback intervals during and after practices and competitions.

Some workouts are fertile ground for those teachable moments where the light bulb suddenly turns on over the athlete’s head. However, the tendency for some coaches is to attend to every possible training element known to man.

Numerous learning studies have indicated when subjects were given reinforcement after a skill was taught and then commented on in 1 – 5 – 10 - 15 intervals, the reinforcement that followed the 10th or 15th attempt had the greatest retention.

Now why would you allow your hurdler to bang away for 10 to 15 reps before giving them feedback during practice?

This is an exaggeration of course, but giving your sprinter and hurdler feedback after every rep gives them something new to think about after every repetition.

Remember how we previous]y spoke of “block training,” and how consistency and regularity aids learning? Well, pick certain skills to focus on at practice, and stick to them while you go through the training day.

Do not let your major training themes for the day get derailed by something you see at practice unless it is so disruptive it could ruin their feel for the race or result in an injury.

Coaches also tend to respond to the first repetition with feedback, correcting the sprinter’s start or the hurdler’s first run over two hurdles, before the athlete has had the opportunity to warm up to high quality reps.

The very technical problem the coach sees early in the workout may not even exist at the end of the workout (so commenting on everything you see them do is not an effective method for increasing learning and retention). Low feedback intervals allows the athlete to run a few reps and work out the kinks before the highest repetitions that come later in the workout, and keeps the static from the coach’s constant suggestions to a minimum.

So even though you may not let your sprinters go 10 starts without feedback, you will resist the urge to make comments based on everything you see while they are training. This process can also assist in individual video sessions with your athletes by keeping your comments to a minimum.

Watching slow motion video of one of your hurdlers can prompt you to address every little thing they do wrong, and leave your hurdler feeling as if they can’t do anything right. Pick one or two technical nuisances during the session, and stick to making corrections concerning those nuisances only.

Watch the video carefully before the session, and select the technical corrections you know will make the best improvements. If they try to focus on another technical issue during the session, lead them back to your original feedback areas and tell them that by making your corrections, the other areas will get smoothed out.

Sport Learning can be enhanced when the coach programs into the training a series of “desirable difficulties” that place the athlete under conditions that mimic the real deal as closely as possible. Real race stressors need to be injected into training so after the athlete adapts and stabilizes the skill, they can actualize the movements on the day of competition.

Often hurdle coaches set up their workouts so that the teammate in the opposite lane does not use the same lead leg, which can cause trail arms to bump or even hook each other. A desired difficulty is one where you look for the race stressors, and inject them for the purpose of stabilizing technical competency under real duress.

Better performances come from varying the conditions of learning in situations that do not upset the ability to continue block training (training blocks that have built in interferences increase skill). Making the sprinter or hurdle run under stressors beyond those encountered during the real deal will ensure learning.

For example:

 

  1. Running with a partner starting slightly ahead.
  2. Running over hurdles 10% closer.
  3. Running over hurdles 20% closer, while still hitting regular hurdle take-off
  4. Running hurdles low and close with a strong wind at your
  5. Running hurdles with two to four steps added to the acceleration to force adaptation to real deal

By training outside the practice “safe zone,” you prepare for parameters that are seldom experienced until the actual race day. Desirable difficulty workouts allow the athlete to practice what will be experienced, rather than what should be corrected.

This style of practice gives the athlete the ability to self monitor and execute adjustments that must be made within split seconds of them occurring. Competing on the “fly” is a skill that most athletes must be able to adjust to, but how can you adjust to inevitabilities that you never practice?

Illusions of Comprehension represent the final stage of sport learning that has been the coach’s Achilles heel since there has been coach-athlete relations.

The sprints and hurdles represent two of track and field’s highly technical events. But technique training can bite you in the backside when the understanding of the athlete does not match the dissemination of information from the coach.

What you say versus what they hear can be just as harmful to your sprint/hurdler’s development as mismatching high intensity training with loads of endurance based workouts. It is not critically important that the athlete knows all that you know, or has a vast knowledge of the energy systems present in a 12.55 100 meter hurdle run.

A basic understanding of track and field principles can be helpful, but it is far more important for the athlete to “feel” what the coach “knows.” As coaches, we live in a “knowledge based, problem solving world.” This coach’s world is full of countless hours of video review, daily and weekly workout assessments, phone calls to mentors when faced with performance road blocks, and pouring endlessly over reams of journals and training publications.

The athlete, on the other hand, lives in a “sensual-response” world. This world is a flood of sensations that must be felt and responded without the benefit of being able to think things through. While running at nine meters per second and negotiating ten forty-two inch hurdles leaves little time but to react to ones surroundings with a high level of technical competency.

These two worlds sometimes conflict with one another when they fail to read into the others point of reference. Both the athlete and coach need to know where the other comes from, but the athlete is the one that must go to war, so the coach must learn to speak their language.

I had two coaches as a teenager growing up in Los Angeles. Coach number one did all of the work, while coach number two took all the credit.

On one particular Saturday afternoon, facing the toughest meet of my young career, coach number two decided that prior to my race I needed some “tinkering” before I went to start my warm up. It was a soul stirring 10 minutes of race tactics in which he told me to keep “my toes tucked in,” “keep my head at zero degrees,” and that when I started my kick (I ran the 800 meters), “my thigh had to be at 90 degrees in relation to my stomach.”

Needless to say, I nodded in agreement with everything he said and proceeded to start my warm-up certain that I was doomed! Now, coach number one always watched my warm-up because my body language communicated much to him about what my state of mind was prior to a competition.

What he saw was a confused and uncertain teenager jogging slowly around a soccer field with his head down. He noticed that I was very disjointed in my warm up drills, and that I performed some technique drills he had never seen before (I was trying to run with my head at zero degrees while keeping my toes tucked in). His first thought, he told me after the race was, he’s doomed!

Coach number one called me over to the side of the warm up field and asked me what was wrong. I repeatedly told him nothing was wrong, and that I was just very nervous. Seeing that he was not going to get a straight answer from me, he wished me luck, and walked away.

In a panic I yelled, “Coach, what’s zero degrees?" He looked at me and said, “Coach gave you a race plan didn’t he?" I proceeded to apologize for not understanding what the man was talking about and feared that I had blown the race before even lacing up my spikes (I was 30 minutes from race time).

Coach number one grabbed my face, looked me in the eye and said, “Tony, there are eight guys in the race, beat seven”, and he walked away. A rush of relief washed over me because that was a race plan I could relate to. I proceeded to crush the field with a time that took over the national lead and helped secure a full track scholarship.

Coach number two congratulated me and spent 15 minutes telling me how well I followed his race blueprint. Coach number one just smiled at me and said, “See you on Monday.”

One of the best examples I can come up with concerns coaching a youngster to run the 400 meters.

After an aggressive start, most coaches will tell their sprinter to relax down the backstretch, only to watch with horror as their sprinter shuts down and falls completely out of contention. In the post-race butt-chewing, you ask them what happened, and they will tell you with no uncertainty and using your exact words, “You told me to relax!” I have since then used (I take it you’ve discovered the coach was me) the expression, “float fast,” which gave him the impression of continued speed with little effort.

As coaching communicators, we have to make certain that what they hear us say is what we want them to do. And the only way to do that is to meet them where they live, in the world they live in.

So the key to the coach and athlete relationship is to become bi-lingual, and acquire the other’s powers of comprehension and expression.

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