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Capacity-Skill Continuum

Physical Capacity - Motor Skill

Athletic Development - Skill Development

General - Specific

Overload - Specificity

Development - Performance

All of the above are different ways to frame one of the key spectrums we must navigate as athletic development coaches. The biggest challenge of this spectrum is summarised in this passage by Duncan French:

Taken from High Performance Training for Sports version 2, by David Joyce and Dan Lewindon. Chapter 17 - Translating Athletic Qualities into Sports Performance.



My current understanding of the Capacity-Skill continuum.


I believe the evolution of athletic development (or the evolution of my ability as a practitioner) will come through its amalgamation with skill acquisition. Athletic development is typically about developing capacities. In my opinion, we must also be concerned with skills. Only focusing on one or the other is limiting. We must train along all areas of the capacity-skill continuum. Developing an athletic development profile of 1RM, jump heights, 40m speed and yo-yo scores may provide some use depending on the context, but if that's all an athletic development coach does and "leaves the skills to the coaches", then a lot is being left on the table. If my only action capabilities as an athletic development coach is to develop capacities, I will only see opportunities to develop capacities. As I have also said before, only develop capacities or skills is limiting, a good coach must be able to develop both. Incidently, I would consider agility a "skill" that athletic development coaches are generally tasked with. My take on agility here.


Frans Bosch is a name many athletic development coaches have come across. His work is somewhat controversial, with it causing a lot of discussion. There have been numerous articles and podcasts produced by him and about his work. His book "Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach" is one I have found to be hugely insightful. Within the book, the dynamical systems theory is used to create a link between strength training and motor learning. Sport specific training is coordination training under increased load. Which reminds me of one of my favourite articles of all time from 2014: https://strengthpowerspeed.com/china-meets-west/. In this post, David Joyce writes about his experiences working with Team China in the lead up to the London 2012 games. A quote from the article to sum it up: "The coaching philosophy prevalent in China concentrates on skill development. The emphasis of training is always on technique and not losing this technique under increasing duress. Coaches add the duress by manipulating primarily the variables of volume, speed and fatigue levels. Training is approached from a motor learning, rather than a physiological or mechanical perspective, unlike many Western systems." This article has had a major influence on my thought process and is definitely a factor in my path today. Volume, speed and fatigue levels can be manipulated within strength training, but another key manipulatable variable is external resistance (I will refer to all variables as load). So a key question when trying to develop skills from an athletic development standpoint - how can we manipulate load to develop movement skills/skillful movers?


To move the needle towards the skill end of the capacity-skill contiuum, there are three key principles I would look to include within training:

  • Identifying attractors

  • Incorporating variability

  • Including perception-action coupling within practice tasks

It may be possible to incorporate all three principles within training on some occassions. It may not be suitable to include any of the principles within training on some occassions. It may only be possible to include one of the principles within training. Again: the context drives the content. But It is something worth being aware of to level up the contribution an athletic development coach can make within a multidisciplinary team, or preferably an interdisciplinary team.


Identifying Attractors

Having to improvise and adapt a movement to the ever-changing environment does not mean that all components of the movement must be adapted. Some components are adapted, and some are fixed. The fixed components of movement are called attractors, and the variable components are called fluctuations. Attractors remain consistent when moving in different contexts, when players adapt their movement, they adapt through fluctuations.


Running, or sprinting or agility are all key components of all sports I have been involved in. In his book, Frans Bosch detailed eight attractors for running and agility, but also accepted that these eight had hardly been researched. The eight attractors: 1) lock position of the hip, 2) swing leg traction, 3) foot plant from above, 4) positive running position, 5) keeping head still, 6) upper body first, 7) extending trunk while rotating, and 8) distributing pressure when decelerating. These attractors can be within athletic development sessions in the gym, on the pitch or through warm up exercises. For example:

  • During warm ups, players can perform a walking march with a stick over head and encourage pelvic lock position. This could also be trained in gym sessions through the step-up.

  • Players can develop their deceleration capabilities through a variety of methods - stopping at the end of each repetition during a Maximal Aerobic Speed block, hop and stick during warm ups, or during the catch phase of an Olympic lift. All of these deceleration tasks require athletes to distribute pressure during deceleration.

  • Change of direction training, coaches should encourage athletes to keep their head still. During a COD task, coaches can hold up a cone that the athlete must look at while performing the task to ensure they keep their head still to take in information.

Athletic development training can be suitable to support the learning process in relation to attractors. However, it is severely limited when supporting the learning process for contextual performance of full movement. For example, COD training can strengthen attractors, but it will not enhance agility performance in a game situation.


Incorporating Variability

If variety is the spice of life, variability is the spice of training! I have previously discussed variability in the context of repetition without repetition, and how we may repeat movement outcomes, but not through repeating the movement that produced it. Variability makes training more interesting for athlete and coach, and moves the training task slightly along the continuum towards skill. Some examples of incorporating variability:

  • When working on jumping/landing, asking the athlete: "how many different ways can you land?" Single leg, double leg, split stance, quarter turn, half turn, three quarters turn, full turn etc. There are endless possibilites and this helps an athlete adapt their movement strategy while still performing the given exercise. *It is important for coaches to use common sense however, loaded barbell squat jumps may not be the most suitable exercise to encourage athletes to adapt their movement strategy in.

  • When working on speed, or more specifically acceleration, variability can be incorporated into training with different starting positions such as 2-point, 3-point, lying prone, lying supnie, on knees (or on one knee), rolling starts (walk in, jog in, skip in, backpedal in, side shuffle in). The purpose of this variability is to force the athlete to self organise to optimal acceleration mechanics. This variability is somewhat representative of a team sport game, but it is still very different from gamespeed. I have discussed acceleration training previously in both an isolated fashion and an ecological/gamespeed fashion.

  • Variability is something that should be regualarly incorporated into youth athletic development especially, and people like Ben Pullen, Craig Harrison and Jeremy Frisch do an excellent job at this. Creating different movement challenges for kids can bring about different movement solutions. Alternatively, challenging kids to complete the same movement task in different ways (similar to the jumpong/landing above). Sports like gymnastics, parkour and rock climbing are sports that can be hugely beneficial for youth athletic development because of the movement variability they bring.


Including Perception-Action

When the information that an athlete perceives to guide their action is representative of the information within the competition environment, then the task is at the skill end of the capacity-skill continuum. And with a strong and relevant perception-action link, variability will incorporated and attractors will be trained at a wide range of speeds and intensities. Players have to learn to make decisions based on the information in front of them. As players become more skillful, they develop a stronger link between the information present in the environment and actions. Thus, training this performer-environment relationship is essential for enhanced performance in sport. Including perception-action is very difficult in a gym setting. To truly enhance skills, practitioners need to get comfortable with their boots on the grass, as including relevant perception-action couplings within training tasks carries the strongest carry over to the competitive arena.


I have detailed incorporating perception-action into the training of various athletic qualities: agility, conditioning, and acceleration. Designing training tasks that contain relavant information-movement couplings can be difficult if a coach has never played or worked in their sport previously. But this is not an excuse to just focus on capacities, or just include variability into training from time to time, this is an opportunity to work collaboratively and build strong relationships with the sport specific coaches. Working with coaches and designing training tasks, sessions or weekly plans is my favourite part of the role of an athletic development coach. A framework I have used before to design ecologically valid tasks within training contains three key elements:

  1. There must be perception-action: players must make decisions.

  2. The task must be representative. A task in which players can pass forward is not representative of the game of rugby (although there may be a place for a game like that).

  3. Training must be at the optimal challenge point of the player(s). A 1v1 task might provide a suitable challenge for a front row player who rarely tries to evade opposition players. For a group of backs in rugby, a 3v4 (att v def) might be a more suitable challenge.


A simple 1v1 task, which contained perception-action coupling and representative information. The challenge point could have been higher for the athlete in question.


A more complex 4 v 2 task that contains perception-action, but lacks strong representative information. May be suitable for a warm-up.


The second point, representative learning design (which I have discussed previously), is the point that athletic development coaches may need assistance on. And there are two options: co-design with the sport coaches or co-design with the players. Players see the challenges they face weekly, so they are well aware of the important pieces of information they must be attunded to.


Conclusion

Training exists on a capacity-skill continuum. In a similar way to the Force-Velocity curve (surf the curve), or the repetition-representative continuum, training must cover all areas of the continuum - capacity development through strength/power training etc., skill training through representative tasks, and everything in between. Both capacities and skills must be developed, only enhancing one or the other is limiting. It is important that athletic development coaches can develop skills, as skills pay the bills.

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