Tell me and I will forget. Teach me and I will remember. Involve me and I will learn.”
As I get closer to 10 years of personal training and coaching experience I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with more than 300 clients and more than 1000 athletes. We see close to 100 athletes each week here at XIP. All of these individuals presented me with a totally different opportunity to learn about the body's ability to perform and adapt to varying training protocol. Not to mention the minds’ ability to learn new skills both good and bad, and the opportunity to operate in a hands on performance laboratory in which I get to make the rules and people pay me to make them better on a daily basis. Pretty freakin' cool! So as I look back at all that I have learned in the last decade there are many things that have helped to make me a better trainer and coach, however there is one thing that sticks out more than anything else...Keep it simple, and practice perfect.
In the last 2 years I have dedicated a considerable amount of time to researching what it takes to “make” people great. By “make” I mean to actually help create a new skill, in the brain, that allows them to perform at a higher level. Skills as we know from Part 1 of this article, are grown not born, and as a coach/trainer I am the one facilitating the incubation of these new skills so that clients and athletes can reap the benefits as they progress through their training and reach their goals. What I have found is that the age old saying “baby steps” could not be more right when it comes to coaching. Breaking skills down into small fragments and teaching them one at a time, piece by piece and practicing the new skill over and over again until it is refined and seamless is the most effective way to excel at anything.
It took me a long while to realize the effectiveness of this type of coaching. For years I was always so wrapped up in the final product that I would forget to focus on what it was that would get us there. Being aware and excited about the process and the journey is more important than we think. I wanted so badly to see the excitement on a client or athletes face when they got it right, or set a PR, and there were many times when I forgot to lay all of the groundwork needed for a solid foundation in any new skill before diving into the meat and potatoes so to speak. You can't always be looking for instant gratification, and as I always tell my clients and athletes, nothing great happens without an equally great amount of effort put in to achieve it.
I am going to list off my checklist for coaches, trainers, teachers, parents, athletes, etc. to utilize when teaching a new skill.
Show the new skill correctly and effectively in it's entirety first. You need to give the athlete a visual representation that they can reflect on as they progress through the learning process. Without this up front it will make any audible cues tough for athletes to make a connection with. If the brain has seen the skill it is much easier to create the proper motor patterns needed to perform it. When you show the skill break it down into pieces, preferably in the same manner you are going to coach it later on. For example if you are teaching a 10 yr old little leaguer to hit a pitched ball it's important that you show every phase of the swing as you would want them to learn it. This chronological connection is vital in putting the pieces together in the end.
Use short, effective bursts of information when coaching the skill. Going on and on with too much detail will lead to an overload in the brain and make it tough for the individual(s) to hear what you want them to hear. Give them what you want them to hear, and do it in as few words as possible. The late John Wooden, longtime UCLA basketball coach, regarded by some as the most influential coach in the history of sport, was a 10 time NCAA championship winner, and 6 time NCAA coach of the year recipient. His teams at UCLA won 88 consecutive games during that time span. Coach Wooden was a master of these short bursts of coaching info, so much so that some researchers refer to them as “Woodens”. Coach delivered these Woodens with a lot of energy and enthusiasm throughout his practices and games, but he also knew when to shut up and let them play. He was a firm believer in spending more time practicing and less time talking, so when his athletes needed coaching he did so quickly and effectively, and then back to work. With our interns I make it clear that most of our athletes do not understand what we as coaches understand when it comes to the science of movement, so be careful not to give them too much of it. We must educate the athlete in order to create intent and truly inspire the movement, but the coach must find a way to do this fast and effectively, with just the right amount of intensity and the right amount of information otherwise nothing is heard. Rarely is screaming and yelling when teaching a new skill effective. When teaching a skill and perfection in each step you must use enough intensity to be heard but not so much that they are blocking you out. If you are too “vanilla” nobody hears you, if you are too intense they shut you out, find the place that your athletes hear the most and spend your time there.
Practice with a purpose. After you have identified the skill to be learned you must now set up the venue for which to learn it. You must find a way to allow for concentrated and effective completion of the drill, or whichever piece of the skill you are learning. We refer to this as “deep practice”. So often I watch practices of youth sports and see young athletes simply going through the motions and never really grasping the skill that is being taught. Coaches have identified the skill but most times dive in headlong into the final product instead of breaking it down into pieces that must be perfected first before putting it all together. Again the Little League scenario pops into my head. As every year coaches hit the field with their teams on day one and immediately start throwing batting practice from the mound. Most of these kids have not swung a bat in 8-9 months, and if it was the same start to last season then they most likely have some bad habits to fix. Start them with holding the bat correctly, then perfecting the stance, then moving to the pitch, the hips, then finally it's time to hit the ball off from a tee! The MLB guys take this same approach, without the foundation everything else is bound to come crashing down. As we learned in Part one these scenarios are building a bad road, and it’s going to take a lot longer to reverse and perfect later in their career. So break the skill into pieces and practice them deeply but separately. You build the road to a new skill one drill at a time. Remember that every little leaguer wants to be a big leaguer someday, so every coach must understand their place in the development process and stay the course. Skill development is most vital at a young age, not hitting home runs or striking people out. Practice with a purpose and be sure the athlete understands the process involved to being great. No college scout cares how many HR you hit in Little League, they want the total package as a high school senior…
Reward the effort. As a teacher or coach our job is to provide knowledge to others and allow them a venue from which to be successful. It is also our job to inspire, motivate, and reward our pupils for a job well done. The reality is that perfection isn't going to happen all of the time, and the other part of our job is to effectively criticize less than best performances. It is imperative that we reward the effort in completing a skill correctly. “Great work on identifying that curve ball and keeping your weight back”. “Nice job on keeping those legs driving into the endzone”. “Great job hustling up the court to put yourself in position for that easy lay-up”. “Way to stay focused even when you are tired and finish those last 2 reps”. These are just a few examples, but if you look at all of them I'm sure you could decipher the end result from each and reward that instead. “Nice hit”. “Touchdown baby!”. “Nice lay-up!” “Good lift, you're so strong." All of these accomplish a positive reward, however the first 4 reward the effort in getting there while the second set reward the end result. Which athlete would you want?? The one who loves to practice and understands that practicing deeply will yield greater performance? Or someone who is never happy unless there is a good result??? Reward the effort always!
Positive first, criticize after. This one is so simple and the results are instantaneous. When your pupil completes a piece of the skill and its’ time for feedback always start with something positive before you criticize. When you start with the criticism many individuals immediately shut down and never hear anything. Start with a piece that they did right and then lead into the criticism. “Great drive and lean in your start, man that looked good. Now let's keep those knees linear, they were really crossing the mid-line”. “Hey your stance looked great, but you dropped that back shoulder as you started the swing”. “Great job keeping your eyes on the QB, but you stood tall in your backpedal and that's why he beat you”. People, especially young athletes and students respond very well to this. It will amaze you how many will go back out and perfect that weak piece immediately after the criticism that you disguised with positive reinforcement. If you just give the negative they are apt to shut down completely. I've found this works really well with the athlete who has parents that tell them they are perfect every day. Yes this is a flaw parents!! Nobody is perfect, and by teaching a kid that they cannot do wrong or that it's never their fault is an absolute tragedy in the world of skill acquisition! They are simply not open to criticism as they are perfect little angels, and if the coach is telling them they are wrong then they just think the coach must be wrong. Some of my toughest athletes to train are the ones that only want to hear when they do something right, even if in reality it is all wrong. Parents must raise coachable athletes and human beings for that matter, because guess what “un-coachable kids become un-employable adults!” Which brings me to my last and most important tip.
Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child. I have the luxury of coaching athletes on a day to day basis, and I am grateful for that. Myself and our training team trains more than 150-200 different athletes each year. As I have stated not one of these athletes is the same as the next, and we as coaches must find a way to teach regardless of what sort of roadblocks they might present us with, both physical and emotional. Without question the saddest factor in youth sports is that society, parents, coaches, teachers, etc. are washing out the importance of hard work by portraying this perfect world where you are never wrong, there's no accountability, no work ethic, and a freakin blue ribbon for everybody! There will always be a first and last, and just because you finished last doesn't mean you can't someday finish first. But there's no one else to blame, just more work to do. Most of the time the guy who finished first got there for a reason. If you don't show up for practice, don't put in the effort, and don't truly want to succeed you won't. Teach your kids, students and young athletes this, and teach them to enjoy the work and the importance of deep practice. Practice with a purpose each and every time and take pride in the product. If they work hard good things will come, if they don't then expect to be disappointed. Build them up but don't make them feel as though they can do no wrong, as we all make mistakes and it's how we respond to them that is the true description of success. We have a quote on the wall at XIP that reads;
“Practice isn't something you do once you're good, it's what you do that makes you good”
Be sure to teach this whenever you are given the opportunity, as these are without a doubt words to live by...