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Challenges of practice design

Following on from my recent post on practice design, I felt a good follow up would be to discuss some of the challenges that are involved in practice design and potentially some solutions. This post was very much inspired by a video Rob Mulcahy (@robmulcahy3) shared on twitter around his work over the last 2 years with Clare GAA. This inspired a lot of thought around how bio-banding can be so beneficial for coaches when designing their sessions, and subsequently for players with their skill development. I will discuss this aspect below. But first, it is important to outline some of the challenges that come with effective practice design. Much of my work currently is in youth sport. Within any youth sport setting, there will be challenges with recruitment of players, coaches, referees, admin staff, pitches etc. However, this post will discuss the challenges that exist for coaches when designing practice to develop skilled athletes.


Behaviour emerges because of the interaction of various constraints acting on an individual. These can be environmental constraints, like weather or pitch surface; task constraints, like game rules; or individual constraints like strength or size (Davids et al., 2003).


Challenge 1 – wide variety of shapes, sizes, and skill levels.

Specifically in relation to the design of practice the challenges that exist are more along the lines of the disparity of skill levels, body shapes and body sizes. To illustrate how this can be problematic, we can view the emergence of player behaviour though the constraints-led approach (CLA) (Davids et al., 2003), something which I have discussed many times (here, here, here, and here). When in a game format, players will look for ways to evade opponents, create space, or work a scoring opportunity to win the game. They will look for ways to do this in ways that puts them at an advantage (i.e. makes the most of their action capabilities). A faster player will look to out-sprint a slower player, a bigger player will look to out-muscle a smaller player, a more evasive player will look to side-step a less evasive player. This player who is more physically developed than their opponents cannot possibly be blamed for utilising their strengths, whatever their strengths may be (and honestly, I don’t think anyone would blame them). In fact, I would say this is indicative of skilled behaviour – perceiving key information around them that guides their actions to achieve a task goal.

However, a key consideration for coaches must be the long-term development of a player. What happens when a player meets their match, and they can no longer use their preferred movement strategy? For example:

  • A 10-year-old rugby player, an early maturing player who is bigger than everyone else, bulldozes his way to a championship for 5 years in a row. He finds it a bit tougher at U16, but his team still wins the championship. When he reaches U18, he is no longer simply able to dominate other teams like he has done in the past, as the late maturing players have caught up, and there are numerous players able to match his strength and power. But because the only skill he developed over the previous 6 years was running through people, when he can no longer run through teams, he is unable to pass and offload the ball to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.

  • A 13-year-old football player excels at his age group because he can take advantage of his key action capability (his speed) when playing on a full-sized pitch at that age group. Because of this, he never learns to dribble with in tight spaces. When he reaches adult level, and opposition teams are more tactically astute, combined with opposition players being more physically developed, his speed is no longer such a glaring advantage. This means he struggles to positively impact games like he did at underage level.

These two examples highlight the need for coaches to have a long-term view on athletic development. By being results driven, development coaches are doing their players a disservice as they are not preparing them for the demands down the track. A major risk with this strategy is drop out, when players get so much success so easy at a young age, they might just withdraw from the sport when they have to work harder for arguably less success (in a more competitive adult competition). This may not happen of course, but the point remains that development coaches should be focused on development of players. The reality is, in youth sport, a player’s preferred movement strategy at 13 will possibly bring them great success during their underage years, but when it comes to adult level, they will likely need many more tools in the bag. How can coaches ensure that every player is developing a wide range of skills throughout their youth to set them up for long-term success?


Challenge 2 – coaching constraints.

We have discussed how player behaviour in a game emerges from the interacting constraints, but this can also be said of coaches and their behaviours (their designing of practice) (Wood et al., 2022). I have touched on this previously, and how there are numerous similarities between athlete and coach development (see here).


From an individual perspective, coaches are heavily influenced by their own experiences. “When under pressure, coaches coach how they were coached.” Coaches who experienced instruction heavy coaching will likely be very instructional in their delivery. To move away from their experiences, coaches must engage in a lot of reflection and education, to understand how they currently behave and how they want to behave moving forward. The other key aspect from an individual viewpoint is understanding the coaches motivations. Are coaches coaching for their own ego and the short-term success of the team or for the long-term development of the players. Both approaches can lead to different choices in how a coach designs their session.

Socio-culturally, every team is part of a wider club, which is part of a wider competition/district/county. The decisions a coach makes will be influenced on some level by the ethos of the club, the support they receive from their club, interactions with officials and other coaches in the competition, and interactions with parents. If the club advocate for a long-term approach to player development, but at the coal face parents are putting pressure on coaches (and players) to win, then there is misalignment within the entire socio-cultural ecosystem. This in particular can make a coaches job very difficult and really cloud their judgement when designing practice.

Practice task design can take on many aspects, as discussed before (see here). And task constraints is possibly the most easily modifiable aspect of the CLA for coaches. However, not all aspects are as easily modifiable as they may seem. For example, the manipulation of space is the first principle of the STEP model. Often, space is a premium for many youth teams as so many teams training on the same field at the same time. So space may well be very limited. Equipment is another potential issue for youth coaches, as they may not have access to many footballs/sliothars for their group. Taking these two aspects combined – limited space and equipment, this can severely inhibit the variety of training tasks a coach can implement with their team, especially if the coach is a novice.


Solution 1 - Individual challenges.

One potential solution is to set individual challenges within group training. This could look like:

  • Constraining a player so they cannot use a particular movement solution (less representative).

  • Rewarding a player to use a particular movement solution (more representative).

A useful tool in this scenario is the use of matchplay cards. I have written previously about how they can be useful for me to overcome my own hearing constraints (see here). One recommendation I have about the matchplay cards is to be intentional about the cards that you offer players. If you want a player to develop their passing skills, but then they pick a card that encourages them to dribble, then the task is not aligned with the session intention. I have touched on this point previously here and here.


Solution 2 - Biobanding.

The video I discussed earlier is central to this whole post. One of the challenges in youth sport in particular is the range of shapes, sizes and skill levels that a coach has, particularly in a team-sport. Bio-banding can somewhat reduce this variety within a team session, making it easier for coaches to design appropriately challenging tasks for all individuals. As I have said previously, coaching is complex, and following the Goldilocks principle of session design (see below) can be quite challenging. The use of bio-banding does not eliminate the disparity in shapes and sizes completely, but it makes it much more manageable.


As can be seen in the video, there has been an enormous amount of work put into bio-banding in Clare GAA. The 15 minute video is representative of 2 years of work. The biggest challenge for any club or organisation is to invest in the education of key stakeholders on the value of bio-banding to ensure that everyone is on the same page around its benefits and uses. As can be seen from the video, both players and coaches can see the rewards. It gives players a chance to play at their own (physical) level, the smaller players can express themselves more through their skills, and the bigger players are forced to express their skills more as they cannot just use their physical advantage to win individual battles. It gives coaches an opportunity to fairly assess a player’s strengths and weaknesses and can better guide the training session content. The outcome of all the work that has been put in over the last 2 years is great to see, and hopefully the start of bigger things to come.


While individual challenges can be implemented instantaneously, bio-banding is more of a long-term project. It takes time to collect the necessary data, time to educate key stakeholders (coaches and parents in particular) and it takes time to implement the findings to a decent standard. It will also take time for surrounding teams and clubs to follow suit, so it may take a while before meaningful competition can take place. Bio-banding is challenging, which is why Rob Mulcahy and the people of Clare GAA deserve so much credit. But it is worthwhile in the long run, as it gives players the best chance to develop their skills in the long run, for early- AND late-maturing players.


Summary

As a skill-acquisition specialist working with coaches, it is important that I take the time to understand the challenges that coaches face in their own context. Only once this has happened can appropriate solutions be created. Bio-banding would be an incredible asset for any youth organisation for player and coach development, provided the expertise and personnel were in place to accurately collect and utilise the data.


References

Davids, K., Araujo, D., Shuttleworth, R., & Button, C. (2003). Acquiring skill in sport: A constraints-led perspective. International Journal of Computer Science in Sport, 2, 31-39.

Wood, M. A., Mellalieu, S. D., Araújo, D., Woods, C. T., & Davids, K. (2022). Learning to coach: An ecological dynamics perspective. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 17479541221138680. https://doi.org/10.1177/17479541221138680

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