Notes from a conference (parts 2) – Contemporary Skill Acquisition Research and Innovative practice in Sports Coaching/Teaching and Training

How contemporary Skill Acquisition research can enhance innovative practice in Sports Coaching/Teaching and Training

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I recently presented and took part in a conference at the Rotherham United New York Stadium in England. Coaches and researchers involved in numerous disciplines (Golf, athletics, football, rugby league, rugby union, Olympic weight lifting, S+C) attended. The discussions were broad, challenging and always interesting. Personally, I got some great insights in to other sports, the challenges they face and how they are facing them especially at child-youth level where ideas around pedagogy, participation and personal development particularly caught my interest.

I don’t like to coach people to be stronger or faster, I like to coach people to have healthier happy lives (Dave Hembrough

I wanted to start with this quote from Dave Hembrough who was in attendance at the conference. Dave comes from a multi-sport background (rugby, weight lifting, martial arts) and has coached at multiple levels from professional rugby union, rugby league and golf, worked as an Olympic coach for GB Volleyball in 2012. He has a Sports Science degree and an MSc in Sport therapy and rehab. Dave now runs a Weightlifting club where he coaches students, community folk and has been involved in the development of a few National/International lifters including the British record holder.

The quote above is from Dave’s own personal introduction at the beginning of the conference when those in attendance were asked to give a brief introduction. It stayed with me throughout and I was lucky enough to get him to elaborate on it when we got in touch with each other a few days later.

“I realised that developing and helping people was the enjoyable bit not the strength, fitness or competition. I saw a need in people’s lives for health, fitness, fun and friends. That is what keeps people engaging and coming back. I built my club model around these principles and run programmes for different audiences in line with this, young, old, women only, to be mindfully strong – for mental health and flourishing. My personal interest was always about the individual. As an S&C coach there’s lots of down time to chat. I found the chat as beneficial to my clients as the training. The stuff we’d talk about was often the limiting factor to them improving. From newbie students to world champions” – Dave Hembrough

Dr Joe Stone

Day one started with Dr Joe Stone (@JoeStone26 ) Senior Lecturer in Skill Acquisition and Performance Analysis at Sheffield Hallam). Joe spoke about avoiding problems of early specialisation in sport and why deliberate practice is useful but not as important as we once believed. The flawed message of 10,000 hours of practice leading to expertise (originally done on violinists) was applied to many different situations promoting the idea of the need for early specialisation. The presentation was elegantly rounded off with Joe asking us what affordances the home environment offered i.e. back garden, hallways, garage, alleys between houses where many of today’s top athletes honed their skills.


Professor Keith Davids

Keith Davids, continuing on from Joe Stones talk referring to how early specialisation aligns with the deliberate practise approach and that early diversification is theoretically aligned with an ecological dynamics rationale for skill adaption (see Araujo et al., 2010) and can possibly help us to enrich the learners experience their development both as people and as athletes.

The notion of skill adaptation instead of skill acquisition was an interesting point where Keith defined skill adaption as – discovery and exploration of a wide range of affordances of the environment. Players do this by picking up info and regulating movement – if you do acquire anything it’s a functional relationship with the environment.

Keith proposed that coaches should see themselves as learning designers and what they do in practice is underpinned by a theoretical framework as this will give them principles to guide their practice.

It is about designing (learner-environment) interactions in practice, not just repeating actions or reactions to a stimulus appearing.

In a Q&A Keith referred to the idea of an affordance being a constraint as it shapes behaviour – Invitations as you don’t have to accept them. Using the idea of a continuum Keith said that instead of exploring a narrow part of the affordance landscape, which is often the default setting (isolated practice), coaches need to think more about where the athlete needs to be and why.

Here is an excellent interview with Keith Davids


Ciaran Toner

Ciaran Toner is an ex professional footballer and now coach with Rotherham United U18s. He is investigating the possibility of implementing Virtual Reality as a complimentary part of practice using an Ecological Dynamics rationale. His area of interest is interactive environments for individual development, utilising technology to compliment current practice to enrich learning and potential of an individual human being.

Traditionally VR training has been designed around cognitive psychological models of human behaviour. The evidence not compelling but future research in VR should look at a theoretical framework for application of VR.


Rick Shuttleworth

Rick Shuttleworth (@skillacq ) a world renowned skill acquisition expert and coach started his presentation with a call to engage all stakeholders that are involved in the learning process as the coach is not the gold standard, the player is. WHO are we coaching comes before the WHAT, WHY and HOW. Emphasising Keith Davids earlier point Rick Shuttleworth said that the purpose of the coach is to constrain to self-organise and to work along the landscape of affordances to meet the needs of the players. Coaches should also understand that repetition that emerges from a context is more valuable than repetition that. emerges from a structure.

PhD researcher Ben Stafford (@bwstrafford) suggested that within the debate of Deliberate Practice v Deliberate Play, the Athletic skills model (link) may provide a happy medium. Ben, has done some work on the idea of donor sports, a sport you practice to become good at another sport. He has been researching the notion of Parkour as a donor sport for football where he suggests that there is skill transfer through an overlap of affordances. This overlap in basic athletic skills may bring about confidence in movement exploration.

The Round table discussions were open reflective interactions. Here are some of the main points that emerged.

  • Coaching around affordances
  • Co-design: Engaging the learner. Involving the learner in task design.
  • Not rehearsing a process but coming up with one.
  • Mixed ability groups. How do I engage them?
  • What does success look like? Success might be for them turning up twice a week.
  • Reduce fear- increase commitment
  • Mental health problems associated with lack of movement and opportunities/invitations to move offered to us in our environment.

Day two

Danny Newcombe

Danny Newcombe (@dannynewcombe ) is the Welsh national senior Hockey coach and a PhD student and also lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Picking up on Keith Davids idea that coaches are learning designers, Danny put forward the notion that as a coach you are an environment architect.

Danny is clear to point out that Constraints Led Approach (CLA) is not a ‘magic bullet’ and that most coaches don’t understand what it is. Wherever there is a task, individual in an environment there is a CLA organising a solution. As I referred to recently on twitter ( ) one of the biggest misconceptions is that CLA is SSG’s or game based designs. Danny took up this point saying that while the game is the teacher is a well-meaning mantra, it could lead to practitioners developing an overly passive and hands-off approach. A game based approach doesn’t mean just play a game.

Referring to session design Danny took up a topic that I have also been questioning in my role as coach educator. The notion of theme based sessions. Theme based session give the solution in the theme. Emergent behaviours can be observed and worked on if the session is defined by principles of play. As learning is characterised by the development of effective perception-action coupling this approach sets great demands on the coach. The coach can be viewed as a problem setter and therefore must be careful must be careful not to over constrain or under constrain the task. So how much should the coach let the player know about the intention of the session?

Danny gave an interesting example of a pro club that trains at 10.00am but most of their games are under floodlights and asked the question can we ever truly represent the performance environment in training?

Tim Robinson

Tim Robinson – Head Coach at Scunthorpe Rugby Football Union Club. a staff member and PhD student at Sheffield Hallam opened with the question – What are the landscape of affordances for your sport? Tim challenged us with further questions. What do players see. Can we understand what they see? How they interpret what they see? If Nonlinear Pedagogy is based off a player centred environment then we must think about the idea of ‘ownership’ in the pull between coach and player. The final part of the presentation dealt with designing in real game scenarios i.e. 12-7 down 3-minute time constraint. Must try and convert after try.

Martyn Rothwell

Martyn Rothwell (@martyn_rothwell ) also a Rugby league coach and staff member and PhD student at Sheffield Hallam opened his presentation with the statement -Why every sports organisation needs a department of methodology

Borrowing the notion of form of life from Ludvig Wittgenstein, Martyn suggested that form of life in Rugby League and other sports is driven by social cultural and historical influences and that this has an effect in learning.

Form of Life: The behaviours, skills, capacities, attitudes, values, beliefs, practices and customs that shape the culture, philosophy and climate of societies, institutions and organisations (Rietveld & Kiverstein, 2014).

Martyn referred to the Victorian age- Taylorism with regard to instructions and highly repetitious activities at the centre of the work culture and how these have spilled over to organised sports and giving rise to different types of attitudes that drive practice. These reductionist approaches have lead to a form of life in sports organisations promoting:

  • A ‘we have always done it this way’ philosophy that has influenced coaching manuals
  • Silos within the organisation where different departments don’t support or communicate with each other (coach and S+C not supporting movement development).

Martyn presented his new research paper where he used Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model to understand the data (micro, meso, macro) to help him find answers to the question – How does the form of life influence task design? In the paper based on Rugby league he traced back form of life back to the macro – replication/ repetition (industrial era)- masculinity, and how these may influence task designs that limited the landscape of affordances thus reducing opportunities for action.

Martyn finished off with how uncovering the theory behind dynamic systems, coupled with exposure to Constraints Led Approach pedagogy and the skill acquisition literature has helped him to rationalise his preferred coaching methodology. Here we end where we started – Why every sports organisation needs a department of methodology.

  • Use a model of learning to drive what you are doing
  • Basic learning principles to guide practice
  • Open and adaptable so that we can check challenges against the model of learning

Martyn’s presentation reflected the work we are doing at the Research and Development department at AIK and throughout the club which was part of my presentation at the conference- for more information see here:


Conference in December

I would like to draw your attention to another conference coming up soon on Thursday 13th December at Sheffield Hallam University. For more information:

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