Talent I.D. or talent development part 3 – creating athletes who understand

This is the third blog in a series looking at talent ID and development. The first blog I set the scene around Talent ID. The second I detailed what I believe should be the number one priority of every Talent ID programme and academy in New Zealand: developing the growth mindset in athletes. (to see the example scenario used to set the scene, read blog 1 Talent I.D. – Are we getting it right? and 2 Talent I.D. – The Growth Mindset). This blog will focus on the reasons why I believe academies/talent ID programmes need to spend more time creating players who understand the game and their performance within it.

Athletes and coaches spend hours perfecting technical and tactical skills. It’s obvious to see why, as these skills are vital to a quality performance. You need to be able to pass, catch, tackle, sprint, shoot, hit to be successful in your chosen sport. In my mind, these skills are only being coached in halves. Skills have two parts; the first is decision-making and the second is how you execute the skill based on the decision. Because of this, it is my belief that decision-making is the most common skill in all of sport.

Whether an athlete is playing professional or amateur sport, team or individual sport, they are required to make frequent decisions throughout their performance because they are continually performing skills. You can’t have decision-making without execution and vice versa. Yet many coaches, in training, isolate the execution from the decision. For example, a rugby coach may coach a player to tackle by using a tackle bag or a player standing still, even though this never happens in a game of rugby. To make a tackle in rugby, a player needs to consider, at the very least, field position, how fast the attacker is running, how they are holding the ball, if they have another defender close to them and when to time their tackle on the attacker. To me, that is coaching a technique rather than a skill.

Wayne Goldsmith, an international coaching expert, defines skill as “the ability to perform a sporting skill consistently well at speed, under fatigue and pressure conditions in a competition environment”. A skill is coached when the decision on when, why, and how to execute that technique is coached, as well as the what. By using a tackle bag, this ‘skill’ isn’t being practised, only the execution of the technique. There is no thought to placing the athletes under pressure, or in a competitive environment which replicates what these athletes will face in their competitive games.

I have coached a number of representative age grade sides over the last three years and have had the privilege to coach some very promising players. These players have been through or are part of academies of some description. For my liking though, the majority of these players could have a better understanding of two skills: decision making and game understanding. This scenario is backwards. These players were the best of their age group in their region; they obviously have shown good technique and skills. The next step should be to introduce them to decision-making and game understanding. My guess is that in these academies they were given more of the same: isolated technique development, physical training and being taught to conform to a tactical understanding created by their coaches, rather than having an overall understanding of the game so they can fit in to any game plan used.

The reason for this, as Nick Grantham and Wayne Goldsmith explain, is that this approach often brings immediate success, and it is easy to use. These types of trainings and practices are more appealing to many coaches and athletes. The problems with this form of coaching begin when we start to look at long-term improvements, particularly when athletes are faced with challenging conditions. Long-term performance declines, especially when difficult and stressful conditions are encountered (see figure 1 at http://nickgrantham.com/decision-training/).

Brian McCormick travelled with a Basketball academy in the US and has seen a similar problem. He believes the common response when obviously talented players struggle in game environments is “the blame naturally turns to athleticism: if the players were quicker or bigger or stronger, then they would be able to utilise their skills better”. However, he argues that this is down to a different problem: their techniques are not transferring to a game environment. Going back to the tackle bag example above, these static or ‘straight line drills’ do not prepare players to anticipate and read defenders, change directions and adapt to what they see unfolding in front of them. So when these techniques are put under pressure, they fall apart. As a coach, I’m sure you have seen numerous examples of this occur: a player who has great technique in isolated situations that just can’t reproduce skilled performances under pressure.

It is easy to fall into the trap of producing athletes and players who are great at set plays and running ‘patterns’ and ‘drills’ but who can’t deliver where it counts. I’m sure all coaches would want their players to take a gap, or run into a hole even if it ‘breaks’ or goes against the play that has been communicated. However, I would question how many athletes who have been through academies have been encouraged to take those opportunities. These athletes seem to lack the confidence or ability to make those positive decisions.

So how can academies and high performance groups – and, for that matter, any coach – improve the transfer of skill from training to games? Firstly, to quote Bo Hansen, former Olympic Gold medallist, “Like all skills, decision making takes time to develop”.

Academies need to place decision-making at the forefront of their programmes to start the development of decision-making in their prospective athletes as early as possible. Manchester United’s academy based at Carrington is one high profile example that has changed their structure to enhance the game understanding and skill execution of their players. They only play 4 v 4 games up to under 11, rather than the 8 v 8 imposed by the Premier League, so their players get more opportunities to make decisions with the ball at their feet in a real game situation. The beauty of this small-sided games approach is the players are frequently practising these skills (because they are practising the execution of a technique based on a decision they make) in the context of a game, so there will be less of an issue for players to transfer these skills into bigger games.

The ultimate goal of academies is to take athletes that have potential and hone that potential to give that athlete the best chance of making it to the next level. What an athlete needs to be successful at that next level is an extensive list, but fundamental to that list is the ability to make decisions. This is the most common skill in all of sport and needs to be practiced if an athlete is going to become better at it. Decision making is also the first part of a skill, with the second part the execution of that skill. Athletes need to develop decision-making in conjunction with execution, so the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of that skill is understood as well as the ‘what’. The best way to do this is to place the athletes in situations that allow them to do this. This means no more isolated drills (like static tackling of a tackle bag), but more games and activities that are applicable to the sport, that force athletes to make a decision and then execute. If more academies, high performance groups, even community coaches start to address this issue we will soon start to see an even higher number of athletes being produced that could go on to become high performance.

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