How we design learning experiences in a club coaching environment is worth some consideration. Research focused on what works best for skill acquisition definitely points in the direction of what we call Direct Instruction. Direct instruction refers to an instructional model typically described as follows:
1. stating/describing the skill
2. demonstrating the skill
3. opportunities for guided practice
4. providing feedback about how the athlete performs the skill
If this sounds familiar, its because this model has been around forever. In fact educational research, such as found in John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analysis research http://visible-learning.org/ supports the idea that direct instruction is a significant teaching and learning influence on achievement. Hattie would point out that when learners have a clear picture of the intended learning outcome in mind they are much more successful in their acquisition of skill and knowledge. We shouldn't be making kids guess about skilled performance looks like. I have seen 5 year olds skate ski better than most adults because that child's coach, was successfully able to create a clear idea in the child's mind about what the skill should look like. Granted, sometimes these 5 year olds are also the type of kid that picks up motor skills very quickly.
Is direct instruction the only learning platform we can use as coaches? Definitely not. This past year, I worked at deliberately trying different instructional design ideas with the coaching work i did with adolescent cross country skiers. Cross country skiing is classified as an open skill sport meaning that the athletes technique/choices changes in response to changing stimuli or terrain.
Putting a skill in the context of terrain is important to success as a ski racer. Teaching Games for Understanding is an approach that I learned about when I was a grad student at University of Calgary. This approach to skill development, starts first with a tactical situation and asks students to think through what does the situation require in terms of skill performance. The skill is performed in response to a situation, not in isolation.
Experiential learning is a great learning platform to build relevance and understandings for young skiers. Several times a season, I would plan a practice, where we took a skill and performed it in various ways to experiment with what worked best. For example, I might have planned three downhill time trials during the same practice - the first time I'd have kids do the downhill run in a high tuck, the second time in a medium tuck, and the third time in a squat. I'd time each run and before showing kids their time, I'd ask them to reflect on which one they thought felt fastest. Then we'd look at their times and sometimes go back to the top of the downhill section of trail and try it again to try to beat their best time by refining the performance of their skill through some feedback I'd have given them based on my observation of their best run.
Integrating learning in a cross disciplinary manner is also something I've done numerous times per season. Introducing kids to physics concepts such as 'drag forces' or 'propulsive forces' and asking them to think about how they can reduce drag or increase propulsion gets kids thinking about what they are doing in a more meaningful way than simply asking them to perform a skill and receive feedback and try it again (like we might do with a direct instruction model).
There are lots of important things we can be doing as coaches to design instruction to optimize learning. Using direct instruction, tactical instruction, experiential learning, and integrated learning are just a start to expanding your repetoire as a coach of developing athletes.
Summer is wrapping up and fall training season is just around the corner. This winter, I plan to volunteer as an assistant coach with my youngest daughter's biathlon group (she's had enough of me as a cross country coach - poor girl, having to put up with her dad as a coach for so many years). I am going to try something new - put myself in a learning place. I hope you do the same