You have probably seen both types of teams. Team A: players who are evenly spaced, calling out plays, staying in their positions only to watch them dribble the ball out of bounds, lose the pass, or shoot wildly at the goal. Team B: amazing ball control, skillful shooting and superior quickness, speed and agility but each player is a “do-it-yourselfer” since no one can remember a formation, strategy or position responsibility.
Team A knows WHAT to do, but can’t execute. Team B knows HOW to do it, but struggles with making good team play decisions. This is part of the ongoing balancing act of a coach. At the youth level, teaching technique first has been the tradition, followed by tactical training later and separately. More recently, there has been research on the efficiency of learning in sports and whether there is a third “mixed” option that yields better performance.
Dr. Markus Raab of the Institute of Psychology, German Sport University in Cologne, took a look at the four major models of teaching sports skills that agree that technical and tactical skills need to be combined for more effective long-term learning. Each of the four models vary in their treatment of learning along two different dimensions; implicit vs. explicit learning and domain-specific vs. domain-general environments.
Types of Learning
Imagine two groups of boys playing baseball. The first group has gathered at the local ball diamond at the park with their bats, balls and gloves. No coaches, no parents, no umpires; just a group of friends playing an informal “pick-up” game of baseball. They may play by strict baseball rules, or they may improvise and make their own “home” rules, (no called strikes, no stealing, etc.). In the past, they may have had more formal coaching, but today is unstructured.
The second group is what we see much more often today. A team of players, wearing their practice uniforms are driven by their parents to team practice at a specific location and time to be handed off to the team coaches. The coaches have planned a 90 minute session that includes structured infield practice, then fly ball practice, then batting practice and finally some situational scrimmages. Rules are followed and coaching feedback is high. Both groups learn technical and tactical skills during their afternoon of baseball. They differ in the type of learning they experience.
The first group uses “implicit” learning while the second group uses “explicit” learning. Implicit learning is simply the lack of explicit teaching. It is “accidental” or “incidental” learning that soaks in during the course of our play. There is no coach teaching the first group, but they learn by their own trial and error and internalize the many if-then rules of technical and tactical skills. Explicit learning, on the other hand, is directed instruction from an expert who demonstrates proper technique or explains the tactic and the logic behind it.
An interesting test of whether a specific skill or piece of knowledge has been learned with implicit or explicit methods is to ask the athlete to describe or verbalize the details of the skill or sub-skill. If they cannot verbalize how they know what they know, it was most likely learned through implicit learning. However, if they can explain the team’s attacking strategy for this game, for example, that most likely came from an explicit learning session with their coach.
Types of Domains
The other dimension that coaches could use in choosing the best teaching method is along the domain continuum. Some teaching methods work best to teach a skill that is specific to that sport’s domain and the level of transferability to another sport is low. These methods are known as domain-specific. For more general skills that can be useful in several related sports, a method can be used known as domain-general.
Why would any coach choose a method that is not specific to their sport? There has been evidence that teaching at a more abstract level, using both implicit and explicit “play” can enhance future, more specific coaching. Based on these two dimensions, Dr. Raab looked at and summarized these four teaching models:
- Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU)
- Decision Training (DT)
- Ball School (Ball)
- Situation Model of Anticipated Response consequences of Tactical training (SMART)
The TGFU approach is known for involving the athlete early in the “cognition” part of the game and combining it with the technical aspect of the game. Rather than learn “how-to” skills in a vacuum, TGFU argues that an athlete can tie the technical skill with the appropriate time and place to use it and in the context of a real game or a portion of the game.
This method falls into the explicit category of learning, as the purpose of the exercise is explained. However, the exercises themselves stress a more domain-general approach of more generic skills that can be transferred between related sports such as “invasion games” (soccer, football, rugby), “net games” (tennis, volleyball), “striking/fielding games” (baseball, cricket) and “target games” (golf, target shooting).
The Decision Training method, developed by Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary, uses an explicit learning style but with a domain-specific approach. There are three major steps to Decision-Training:
- Identify a decision the athlete has to make in a game, using one of the seven cognitive skills (anticipation, attention, focus/concentration, pattern recognition, memory, problem solving and decision making)
- Create a drill(s) that trains that decision using one of the seven cognitive triggers (object cues, location cues, Quiet Eye, reaction-time cues, memory cues, kinesthetic cues, self-coaching cues)
- Use one or more of the seven decision tools in the design of the drill (variable practice, random practice, bandwidth feedback, questioning, video feedback, hard-first instruction, external focus of instruction)
The Ball School approach starts on the other end of both spectrums, in that it teaches generic domain-general skills using implicit learning. It emphasizes that training must be based on ability, playfullness, and skill-based. Matching the games to the group’s abilities, while maintaining an unstructured “play” atmosphere will help teach generic skills like “hitting a target” or “avoiding defenders”.
Dr. Raab’s own SMART model blends implicit and explicit learning within a domain-specific environment. The idea is that different sports’ environmental complexity may demand either an implicit or explicit learning method. Raab had previously shown that skills learned implicitly work best in sport enviroments with low complexity. Skills learned explicitly will work best in highly complex environments. Complexity is measured by the number of variables in the sport. So, a soccer field has many moving parts, each with its own variables. So, the bottom line is to use the learning strategy that fits the sport’s inherent difficulty. So, learning how to choose from many different skill and tactical options would work best if matched with the right domain-specific environment.
Bottom-Line for Coaches
What does all of this mean for the coach? That there are several different models of instruction and that one size does not fit all situations. Coaches need an arsenal of tools to use based on the specific goals of the training session. In reality, most sports demand both implicit and explicit learning, as well as skills that are specific to one domain, and some that can transfer across several sport domains. Keeping an open mind about coaching methods and options will produce better prepared athletes.