Don't Learn What You Don't Need

I've been spending more and more time thinking about Technical Excellence. How important it is, how hard it is to achieve, what is really is and what it isn't.

There are two points of clarification to start with:

  1. I am not talking about Motor Development, or the gradual progression of technical abilities. I'm talking about Technical Excellence, specific to whatever stage of the development the athlete is at.
  2. I'm not talking about Technical Perfection or Competence. Excellence fits into a scale of technical development.
If you look at the development of technical ability as a scale, Technical Limitations and Technical Perfection are at opposite ends of the scale. Both are pretty obvious. Athletes often develop technical limitations that prevent them from succeeding at an elite level (as always on this blog, we are talking about elite as athletes who win medals at World or Olympic level). Athletes occasionally develop technical perfection, which is great, but I'm more focussed on excellence. Technical excellence is achieved when an athlete can build on what they have, without having to correct/change anything. It might not be 'perfect' but it is not in any way limiting.

Technical Excellence enables linear Skill development. That is, a coach or athlete never have to double back and fix something, slowing down the development process, because the building blocks are already in place for the next step.

So lets look at how athletes learn things they don't need:
  • Physical limitations, either strength or flexibility. Coaches must be acutely aware of their athletes' limitations and fix these before they impact the development of a technical limitation which will need to be corrected later.
  • Mimicking their peers/environment. Athletes mimic what they see around them. If they see their peers performing skills with limitations, then they will mimic this rather than what the coach is teaching them. Particularly if the peer is successful in the short term using this technique.
I remember hearing the story of a coach who was teaching a squad of athletes a particularly complex skill. His assistant wanted to provide feedback, but the coach didn't allow it. He explained that babies learn to walk all the time without someone giving them feedback, so these athletes will be able to learn this technique without feedback. But this isn't really true, is it? All around them, babies are constant provided examples of technical excellence in walking, and they can mimic this as soon as they have the required physical development. They nothing but technical excellence surrounding them. This is in contrast to the squad of developing athletes, for whom there were no role models to mimic. It simply doesn't make sense to expect athletes to learn through trial and error when there is either a time or resource dependence. Very few coaches have unlimited time or unlimited athletes to wait for someone with technical excellence to eventually arrive. The job of the coach is to find a way to achieve the required outcome with whatever means are required. Coaches need to teach athletes technical excellence. If they are not doing it, then they need to stop and work out how to do it.

When learning through from their environment, an athlete not only needs to see what they are learning performed with excellence, they need to ensure they are not seeing what they are learning performed poorly. They need not just to see what they should be doing but not to see what they shouldn't be doing.

(Photo Credit)

PS - the picture at the top of the blog is Roger Federer performing a backhand. It is something I had in my mind when I was thinking of technical excellence. When googling 'Federer hitting backhand' and doing an image search, the number of almost identical pictures from obviously different matches.


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