Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!

Sport Learning – Coaching Styles & Methods

by Brian Grasso, YCS, CMT

Developing a young athlete is not based solely on a given conditioning coach's understanding of scientifically valid measures of motor stimulus, strength training or flexibility exercises. In fact, it could be argued that given all of the critical information contained in this textbook on exercise selection, methodology and sensitive period development, successful coaches will be the ones who can teach and relay information to young athletes well, more so than the coach who merely reads and digests the scientific information offered via clinical research. The science of developing an athlete, then, is centered in the particular technical information associated with pediatric exercise science whereas the art of developing a young athlete is based on a coach's ability to teach.

There are several styles of coaching that do not adequately serve to aid in a young athlete developing skill, yet are none-the-less common amongst North American coaches and trainers. An example of this would be the 'Command Coach'. Command coaches presume that the young athlete is a submissive receiver of instruction. The instructions given and information offered moves in one direction only: from the coach to the athlete. Coaches who display this habit believe that coaching success is based on how well the athlete can reproduce the skills as taught or demonstrated by the coach.

There are also various misappropriations relating to how young athletes actually learn –

1. Mirrors – Many coaches believe that young athletes will learn by merely reflecting the actions and nature of their coach. In this example, the coach or trainer is the most important figure in the relationship in that the athlete is a reflection of him or her.

2. Empty Buckets – Many coaches make the mistake of assuming that young athletes are akin to an empty bucket in that their heads will fill up with the information the coach or trainer offers.

3. Sponges – Much like the 'Empty Bucket' notion, very often a coach or trainer will make the assumption that as they deliver information, a given young athlete will soak it up unreservedly.

Unfortunately, optimal learning does not occur in any of these ways. These aforementioned theories fail on several levels:

Individual differences among athletes' learning styles are not addressed.

• Varying levels of physical maturity and prior athletic experiences are not considered.
• Does not account for the needs or interests of each individual athlete.
• Fails to recognize that "cognitive processes are important in learning physical skills."[1]

Recently, researchers have underscored the significance of both perception and decision-making as it relates to information processing and skill development. The focus has been on "how individuals learn to interpret information in the environment and use this to make effective decisions about movement execution"[2]. There appears to be three chronological phases in performance or execution – (a) Perceiving, (b) Deciding and (c) Acting.

The Perceiving Phase

During this phase, an athlete is attempting to establish what is happening and distinguish what information is applicable or valid. For example, a basketball player just received the ball and must now decipher a series of factors including the position of both teammates and opponents on the court, the player's own position as it relates to the rest of the players as well as the basket and the stage of the game in relation to the score. Proficient players are able to sort through the key information quickly and separate it from other stimulus.

The Deciding Phase

This phase involves the athlete deducing the most appropriate path of action to take. In the case of our basketball player, that would include the decision to pass, dribble or shoot and which pass, dribble or shooting action would be the most suitable given the situation. Clearly, proficient athletes are more effective and decisive decision-makers.

The Acting Phase

Neural signals are sent which enlist muscles to carry out the desired task with suitable timing and adroitness. Although this execution phase is clearly important to sporting success, it must be understood that it alone is not responsible for on-field accomplishment. The two preceding phases serve essentially to set up this final stage, a fact that is often ignored by coaches and trainers who maintain misappropriated beliefs regarding how athletes learn.

These three phases are co-dependent and take place in a rapid sequential manner.

Teaching Tactics

A great deal of teaching and coaching within youth sports currently focuses on developing techniques and skills within practice time or structured lessons. This custom very often leaves little time to actually play the game – during which the application of technical lessons becomes a vehicle through which young athletes will most optimally learn. A solution to this was developed from the research of Rod Thorpe and David Bunker at Loughborough University, which sought to create "an alternative approach to games teaching and coaching that assisted players to learn the tactics and strategies of game play in tandem with technique development"[3]. The crux of their system is based on incorporating modified games into the practice times of young athletes. Within their approach, "games are modified to suit the developmental level of the player. Modifications are made to rules, playing area and equipment"[4]. These modifications are based on items such as physical maturity, cognitive capacity and experience. As a young athletes gain proficiency, this 'game form' of instruction changes in order to challenge the players' tactical awareness, decision-making ability and technique implementation capacity. Essentially, technical skills are taught and eventually perfected within the margins of modified sport play rather than via drills and lessons. This methodology allows the young athlete to learn appropriate sporting skills while incorporating the critical perceiving and deciding phases of functional learning as outlined above.

Individual sports can be broken down into sub-groups and categorized by their key characteristics. Many sports, for example, share common qualities even though they seem to have no relation.

Football, Soccer, Hockey, Basketball:

• Tactical trait of entering the opposition's territory
• Contained defensive tactics that serve to limit offensive movement
• The use of a goal or object on which to score

Tennis, Volleyball, Badminton:

• The notion of offering the ball so that opponents cannot return it effectively
• Similar technical skills including ball (item) positioning and trajectory
• A commonality amongst all the players on the floor from a technical perspective (i.e. they all must serve and receive the ball)

Baseball, Softball, Cricket:

• Ability to make contact with the ball and drive it into open areas
• Fielders lining up tactically in order to prevent scoring

Coaches could create and employ modified alternatives to their respective sports with the main characteristics associated with the technical and tactical aspects of the game kept in mind. This is a much different methodology than merely progressing athletes through various drills during practice time, but has been shown to be more effective at developing the cognitive and physical relationship that exists in developing sporting proficiency.


• [1] The Game Sense Approach: rationale, description & a brief overview of research - Institute of Youth Sport p. 6
• [2] The Game Sense Approach: rationale, description & a brief overview of research - Institute of Youth Sport p. 7
• [3] The Game Sense Approach: rationale, description & a brief overview of research - Institute of Youth Sport p. 9
• [4] The Game Sense Approach: rationale, description & a brief overview of research - Institute of Youth Sport p. 9