Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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Exploring sport coaching and psychology

2.1 You learn to play by playing the game

Richard Bailey’s (2014a) first coaching commandment is not universally used, despite seeming obvious. In the next activity, you will hear Olympic coaching advisor Simon Timson (at the time from UK Sport) talking with Matthew Syed (journalist and former elite athlete) about the absence of stimulating and stretching sessions in some coaching they have watched.

Activity 3 Stimulating and stretching sessions

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Listen to the discussion and consider the four recommendations about practice sessions that emerge.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Simon Timson and Matthew Syed
Skip transcript: Simon Timson and Matthew Syed

Transcript: Simon Timson and Matthew Syed

Simon Timson
What we've learned to do is create what we would describe as highly contextual, decision rich training environment. So it’s moving away from the traditions of just doing drills and creating competitive environments in training that challenge young players, young athletes to make decisions all the time and trial and error, get things wrong, safe environment – that’s fine. Learn from those mistakes. But critically review them in a really structured, systematic way. Review them with your coaches and the other support staff and ensure you learn and then practise those techniques again and again.
Matthew Syed
I mean this goes right back to the issue we were discussing in the last half hour when it comes to football because often it’s easy to think we need to coach this one skill at a time. So if we are teaching dribbling, we get a player to run with the ball and dribble. If we’re teaching to have a look up and find the right pass we do that. But you look at the great players. They're able to run with the ball with their head up and they're looking for the patterns around them. And if you have a training environment which is decision rich – in other words where they are having to integrate the perception, the motor skills and all the other things that are significant in an actual game - they're learning far, far faster than if you divide it down into specific skills and just drill them relentlessly. And I think there needs to be – I don’t know what you think – but just a bit more sophistication in the way we think about football in particular because you're getting this right in the Olympic context.
Simon Timson
I saw a wonderful example of the kind of former way of doing it in action last year. I was out with a NFL franchise and I was just stood watching practise and the head coach said you know what do you think? And I said well, you’ve been talking to me about your players have got all the skills but they made bad decisions on game day and I'm watching your punt returner here practise and the ball’s coming out of the machine. He’s catching it unopposed and jogging through a bunch of stationery defenders. He’s got guys running full pelt at him trying to knock his head off on game days - why are you surprised he struggles?
Matthew Syed
By the way – also when you get it coming out of the machine you're not reading the movement of the player who might be throwing it to you.
That’s exactly – look. You're so right. I see this all the time in sport where they're getting that bit completely wrong.
End transcript: Simon Timson and Matthew Syed
Simon Timson and Matthew Syed
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A summary of the recommendations made were for coaches to make use of:

  • highly contextual ‘decision-rich environments’
  • competitive practices
  • feedback including allowing a trial and error approach
  • coaches and athletes reviewing their training afterwards.

This throws more light on Bailey’s commandment ‘you learn to play by playing the game’.

A highly contextual environment refers to skills being developed in the context of the competitive situation, rather than in isolation, for example, in repetitive drills. Would you teach someone to play golf solely on a golf driving range or teach netball unopposed? These ideas are similar to a model called Teaching Games for Understanding [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Kirk and MacPhail, 2002).

One of the aims of this section is to draw attention to coaching creativity, but you may wonder ‘what is creative about game-like practice sessions?’ Alex Danson’s hockey coach explains his innovation in the next section.


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