By Carl Normandin
Is there a difference between coaching technical skills to play a sport and coaching technical skills to win a contest?
Coaching technical skills should be about the athlete's ability to learn and execute the fundamental skills of his or her sport. Many coaches do a great job of teaching the fundamentals of their respective sports, but neglect to properly transition their athletes from the general practice mode to the "game-ready" performance mode. When this disconnect happens between what is expected and what actually occurs in a contest, both the coach and athlete become frustrated with the outcome of the performance.
Athletes should be coached through several different planned levels of skill development to be "game ready."
Level 1: Fundamental Learning – Athletes learn the basic sport-specific skills; coaching is structured to maximize athletes’ ability to learn and execute these skills.
Level 2: Proficiency Learning – Athletes perform the skills regularly and can make their own adjustment repeatedly in "game-like drills" and scenarios. Coaches must create a learning environment where athletes are actively engaged and committed to the learning and practicing process to a point where they can see a marked improvement and consistency in their performances.
Level 3: Adding "game-like" situations:
- Pace/tempo – As athletes master execution of the technical skills, coaches should increase the pace/tempo of the activity to simulate the game/competition level. It is crucial for the athletes to make the necessary technical adjustments in their own performance for winning to be an appropriate goal.
- Physical fatigue – Athletes need to be trained to overcome – or at least mentally handle – the impact of fatigue on the accuracy and quality of their technical skills execution. Coaches should create practice situations that demand a high level of skills execution with the onset of fatigue because athletes need to be able to overcome and adapt their performances in the later stages of contests.
- Mental pressure – One of the most important variables for athletes is to execute technical skills at a "contest pace" while feeling the effects of fatigue. This is also true for athletes to perform under the mental pressure of the contest. It is imperative for coaches to create and/or simulate controlled "game-like" scenarios in practices. Coaches should force athletes to demonstrate technical and tactical proficiency under "pressure."
“You cannot expect what you not achieved in practice." – John Underwood-American Athletic Institute.
Level 4: Tactical variables (Make the right decisions) – Coaching technical excellence and correct tactical executions go hand in hand when it comes to training to win and the development of your athletes. Many coaches have learned over time that every sport requires athletes to take responsibility for decision-making and problem-solving in competition. A coach who does not allow his or her athletes to make decisions in "game-like" practice situations is potentially setting up his or her team for failure. Coaching at this level in these types of situations should be about creating independent thinkers – not dependent players.
- A good question to ask while you are in this phase of coaching is "am I teaching my athletes to execute the skill or am I coaching them to execute the technical skills in a game-like environment."
Coaching technical skills is performance collaboration. The more faith and responsibility that coaches place in their athletes, the more everyone grows and improves. By empowering athletes to make and experience technical skill errors and to solve problems, the closer they come to performing and being "game ready."
About the Author: Carl Normandin, CAA, is director of interscholastic athletics and executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Section 10 office in Canton, New York. He previously was a teacher, coach and athletic director. Normandin is a member of the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee.