7 Things We Don't Know!

Coaching challenges in Sport Psychology and Skill Acquisition

First things first, what’s the significance of the book title? Simply we are bemused by the number of self-help books out there, that all seemingly come up with the magic number of 7 rules for a more successful life, business or whatever – golf game! In this text you will find 8 rules, but for marketing purposes we have decided to leave the title as is.

This section overviews the key theoretical and practical issues that will be examined in greater detail in later chapters. Importantly, it provides a framework that the reader can continually refer to when evaluating the value of a particular strategy. This will be achieved by distinguishing between performance and learning. One aspect of athlete development that leaves all coaches uneasy is whether their player has genuinely learned the skill (psychological or physical) being coached, implying a permanent change in the player’s capacity, or whether they have simply made a transient improvement that will disappear before the next practice session. This can be referred to as the performance or learning issue and understanding the difference between these closely related terms and, in turn, how they interact with different psychological and skill practice approaches is critical to creating and evaluating the approaches presented in the text.

Sport Psychology

Dream and reality – How to use mental imagery?

The key for using mental imagery is rather simple. Our studies have shown that the content of the images used by elite athletes varies with the goal sought. When working on a new skill, the images may be slow or filmed from the outside to understand. So, if you want to learn a move, it can be done in your head, with the same rules described in the skill acquisition chapters. If you want to reproduce a given move, the imagery speed should be similar to the real speed, the sensations should be similar to the real sensations. It’s the same for the rhythm, the sounds. But if you are not trying to learn a move, nor to reproduce it to make it the same every time you perform it, then other contents are relevant. For example, when training strategy, the mental images can be modelled after real video in order to create different scenarios of attack or defence. If you want to learn how to cope with the audience, you may imagine the stands full of angry supporters clapping their hands, in order to plan your behaviours. To each function there is a mental movie.

Mindfulness: Here and Now.

Mindfulness is defined as “a state of consciousness in which one attends to present experience in all its sensorial, mental, cognitive and emotional aspects, without judging”. Mindfulness enables one to focus on the present moment and employ an open, accepting attitude so as to help athletes handle their thoughts, sensations and emotions while performing, without judging. It has been demonstrated that this mental approach can lead to performance advantages as thoughts are dealt with in a manner that don’t allow them to become disruptive to performance. This chapter will provide an overview of the three stage process to developing mindfulness skills drawing on some applied interventions used in the sports of golf and figure skating.

Focus: What Are You Thinking About?

In sport psychology, researchers have examined the effectiveness of different types of attentional focus and how they impact the skilled performance both positively and negatively. Descriptors such as internal and external, broad and narrow, proximal and distal or associative and dissociative have been used to describe an athlete’s focus of attention when either learning a skill or during performance. With such a range of descriptions and definitions within the sport psychology literature it is not surprising that there is much confusion in the applied setting concerning what is an appropriate focus of attention for an athlete. Does one’s focus of attention need to change when learning a skill as opposed to performing during competition? Does it differ if the skill is self-paced like a golf swing as compared with an externally-paced skill such as having to make a rugby tackle? These issues will be discussed and some guidelines provided to coaches.

Routines: How to Use Them?

What are the routine patterns of thoughts and behaviours that athletes engage in prior to executing their skill? Are their preferred thought patterns prior to a performance? The previous chapters have addressed the above issues in a variety of specific ways. This chapter seeks to consolidate this information and provide coaches and athletes with some practical directions of how to prepare for a performance. A variety of issues will be discussed and recommendation provided including: whether the overall length of the routine is important; what components make up a successful routine; how well practiced should a routine be and is there a need to change established routines?

Skill Acquisition

Skill Practice: Why Messy Practice Provides a Neat Performance?

The organisation of practice is perhaps the most influential tool a coach has to shape their athlete’s skill development. There are a number of key factors a coach needs to consider when designing a practice session. Each factor can have a significant impact on how effectively an athlete will learn a new skill or reinforce an existing skill and most importantly how well their skills will stand up under the pressure of competition. The most fundamental issue that underlies all the factors that will be discussed is that skill practice does not have to look neat, well-drilled, efficient, and mistake free to be effective. In fact the most effective skill practice is the opposite, that is, it’s messy, contains errors and the player’s might look and feel like they are far from well drilled. This chapter discusses this issue and provides examples of how to get more from less (volume) in a skill practice session.

Developing Anticipation: How to Create All the Time in the World?

An often neglected component of fast-paced interceptive sports performance (e.g. tennis, football, combat sports) that is central to successful performance is anticipation, or the capability that enables players to commence their response to an opponent’s action in advance. Both anecdotal observations and research findings have demonstrated elite athletes superiority over lesser skilled performers at predicting quickly and accurately what is about to occur. In particular the ability to `read' the opponents movement pattern before they strike, has been identified as an information source elite players use to anticipate the likely ball or kick direction after impact. This chapter discusses recent research findings that highlight the importance of identifying the visual-perceptual characteristics of a player that may allow them to anticipate what is about to occur. Training applications are discussed for coaches of all sports who have to deal with decision-making under high time-stress.

Coaching Implicitly: Saying Less Often Means More!

A major conundrum faced by coaches concerns what is the most effective method of conveying information to learners. Traditionally, the use of instruction to augment demonstrations and practice opportunities has been at the forefront of most sports coaching programs. However a growing amount of experimental evidence investigating the role of explicit and implicit learning processes suggests that the use of instructions may be unnecessary, and in some instances lead to performance degradation rather than enhancement. This chapter will review the logic behind the implicit learning approach and then provide coaches with a number of approaches they can readily adopt and trial within their training setting.

Providing Effective Feedback: Is Real-Time Precision Really Required?

The use of feedback is another powerful tool at the disposal of a coach concerned with skill acquisition. Attention to detail in the usage of this medium is generally poor and often can be counterproductive to skill learning despite the coach’s best intentions. In recent times new technologies capable of providing feedback appear in the coaching landscape almost weekly. For instance, many coaches would be able to point to first-hand experience in either using or having a sports scientist support their program with the use of GPS units, heart-rate monitors, accelerometers, skill analysis and feedback software, video applications, force plates, gaze tracking technology and the list goes on. This chapter will discuss the adoption of a bandwidth feedback approach as an underlying feedback methodology that is able to provide coaches with some clarity about how to implement feedback whether they are in possession of the latest technological gadget or are relying on more traditional verbal approaches.