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Intentions for impact as a skill acquisition specialist

I have written before about the utilisation of different strategies I, as a skill acquisition specialist have used when supporting coaches. Namely, I could be a critical friend, or a guide by the side. Here, I want to explore more (primarily for my own growth and development) around how and why. Obviously, this is a blog post, so detail will be minimal, but hopefully enough to stimulate thought.

The notion came to me recently when supporting a coach during a training session. Typically, I had been supporting as a critical friend, where I would note my observations in training, and engage in a reflective discussion with the coach afterwards (either immediately after or the following day. This support would also extend to session or activity design. While we had some good conversations, I was not seeing much (or any) progress in their coach practice, and it provoked some thought around how changes in coaching knowledge is not the same as changes in coaching practice (Stodter & Cushion, 2019).

I adapted my strategy to become more of a guide on the side in one session. It was me almost being an assistant, following the coach around the field, listening to his interactions with players and other staff, asking questions to clarify his intentions, as well as making suggestions for change. This is a difficult balance – leaving enough space for the coach to still coach but trying to improve the learning experience for players. But it provides some good food for thought around how I see my role.

What guides practice?

"the ability to decide on what skill acquisition tool to use, and in what context, becomes a core skill for the skill acquisition specialist, operationalising the Professional judgment and Decision-Making (PJDM) approach to optimise skill acquisition impact." - adapted from Collins et al. (2022), p.2

"the wise practitioner, while taking account of evidence, will also rely on other factors, including her own judgement, as well as on her client’s perspectives, regarding the appropriate goal to reach, the acceptable means to employ and the ways these could be adjusted as intervention proceeds." - Nevo and Slonim-Nevo (2011), p. 1185

“It is the interaction between these preexisting practitioner and client variables along with the contextual variables of support that the applied skill acquisition specialist is required to conceptualize, make sense of, and make decisions about in order to determine the nature of the goal constructed.” adapted from Martindale and Collins (2005), p. 306

I have written before around pragmatism, specifically how I feel it relates to skill acquisition (read here). With a pragmatic hat on, the context plays a key role in determining the appropriateness of any intervention (skill acquisition can be seen as a decision-making process). When I talk about context, I include factors like competition level, athlete skill level, the sport, the individual coach (and all their unique qualities), the stage of the season, and sociocultural constraints. Specifically on sociocultural constraints, the impact the club culture, and surrounding coaches have on a coach cannot be understated. Is there epistemological alignment between the club, the skill acquisition specialist, and the coach? (Nash et al., 2023)

And as demonstrated by the PJDM and evidence-informed practice extracts above, practitioners (coaches, coach developers, skill acquisition specialists) have a lot to consider. It is in the interaction of these factors that lead to the decision that a practitioner makes. The specific reason for altering my approach was because of the lack of change in coaching practice, practices which I considered to be overly impoverished, and not stimulating (any) learning for the playing group.

Guide on the side - reality

I did not pre plan my “guide on the side” support, it more so “emerged”. As the coach was leading a task, the purpose was around the defence “folding” around the breakdown. On the whistle, the defence fold around the breakdown (from a static start). Once the defenders had folded, the coach would shout “go” and the attacking scrum half would feed the ball from the breakdown and play would continue for 3 phases.

When each group had a debrief with an assistant coach, I said to the head coach:

“The aim is to challenge the fold, but there is no pressure to fold around the corner, because you don’t allow the pass to go until the players have folded and the defense are set.”

  • To his credit, he adapted – he removed the second call and the scrumhalf could pass on the second whistle, before the defence was set. This challenged the folding players a) to fold quickly, and b) scan and make decisions as they fold.

  • To further increase challenge, we held one of the 4 folding defenders back for the first phase. This meant that the defenders had to defend the same area with less numbers.

  • A final adaptation was to make the playing area wider, to challenge the defence more. With this change, the folding players had a greater distance to fold because the attacking team stretched the defence more, so they had to make decision while folding at a higher speed.

All of these changes would likely not have happened if I did not act as a guide on the side (perhaps a “guide” should be reframed simply as “an assistant”, as I mentioned).

Guide on the side – reflections

While normally I would stand on the side and simply observe and have a discussion post-session, I had been doing that for the previous 3 months and I did not feel it was worthwhile. I pivoted, and I tried to support the coach’s practice in real time. This may have been down to a lack of procedural knowledge around how to implement realistic, challenging tasks. It may have been down to a lack of declarative understanding around why optimally challenging tasks (Hodges & Lohse, 2020; Hodges & Lohse, 2022; Yan et al., 2019) and/or suitably representative tasks (Cassidy et al., 2023; Farrow & Robertson, 2017; Gorman & Maloney, 2016; Williams & Hodges, 2023) were important. The declarative understanding is something we had been working to try and develop through reflective conversations, but we were repeating discussions, and the coach was still struggling to apply what we had discussed to new practice activities. It was either he needed more support on the declarative side to stimulate thinking, or the procedural side to stimulate change in coaching practice (likely both).

With the pivot, I tried to focus on providing more support on the procedural side of practice. Bringing principles and concepts we discussed to like. One such principle we discussed was the role of errors. How can we challenge players enough to make errors, which inevitably provide learning opportunities (provided the challenge is optimised).

However, while the strategy worked well in this particular situation, it is important to critically reflect on 1) why I chose to behave like I did, 2) why it may have worked, and 3) how it can continue. It must be stressed, what I have presented here took place over a 10-minute period of one training session, which is a very small period of time. I think it is unsuitable and undesirable to ALWAYS behave as a guide on the side, for both coach and coach support. But it can be suitable in appropriate doses, with appropriate being different for everyone.

  1. I chose this strategy because I wanted to illustrate to the coach what the activity COULD look like, how it could (in my opinion) be advanced – I had a clear intention for impact. Observational learning is a potent tool for anyone, and as mentioned, a coach can be influenced (positively or negatively) by the surrounding coaches or the culture in the club. For this particular coach, I do not think he was observing high quality practices elsewhere – for more on quality versus quantity practice, see Williams and Hodges (2023). I wanted to illustrate to the coach that small changes can be made to a task to support learning and transfer to the game.

  2. I think it may have worked for two reasons, which come from the same action – I had spent a lot of time with the coach over the previous 3 months. Firstly, this meant we had a good relationship, we supported each other to better understand situations – I provided some skill acquisition perspectives while he discussed some technical and tactical nuances to help me understand the game a bit better.

  3. I think it can continue to work, provided it is implemented in appropriate doses. For example, if I spent every session following the coach around, it would become very irritable, especially if I questioned every decision he made. Rather, tactically and intentionally providing some real-time critical feedback can maximise the learning opportunity for the coach and players. Crucially, this must be done sensitively, so that I do not undermine the coach at all, but especially in front of the players and other support staff. I am there to support, not sabotage.

Final thoughts

While I have discussed the coach support strategy of guide on the side (my terminology) versus a critical friend, these are two strategies out of many more. I think the spectrum of teaching styles (Pill et al., 2024) can really support coaches and coach developers make sense of when various styles of practice may be suitable. As always, would love to hear the experiences of other coaches and coach developers.

Thanks to Philip Carson for supporting my sense-making journey over the last week.


  • Cassidy, J., Young, W., Gorman, A., & Kelly, V. (2023). Merging Athletic Development With Skill Acquisition: Developing Agility Using an Ecological Dynamics Approach. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000791.

  • Collins, D., Taylor, J., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2022). It depends coaching – The most fundamental, simple and complex principle or a mere copout? Sports Coaching Review, 1-21.

  • Farrow, D., & Robertson, S. (2017). Development of a Skill Acquisition Periodisation Framework for High-Performance Sport. Sports Med, 47(6), 1043-1054.

  • Gorman, A. D., & Maloney, M. A. (2016). Representative design: Does the addition of a defender change the execution of a basketball shot? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 27, 112-119.

  • Hodges, N., & Lohse, K. (2020). Difficulty is a Real Challenge: A Perspective on the Role of Cognitive Effort in Motor Skill Learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9, 455-460.

  • Hodges, N. J., & Lohse, K. R. (2022). An extended challenge-based framework for practice design in sports coaching. J Sports Sci, 40(7), 754-768.

  • Martindale, A., & Collins, D. J. (2005). Professional Judgment and Decision Making: The Role of Intention for Impact. Sport Psychologist, 19, 303-317.

  • Nash, C., Ashford, M., & Collins, L. (2023). Expertise in Coach Development: The Need for Clarity. Behavioral Sciences, 13(11), 924.

  • Nevo, I., & Slonim-Nevo, V. (2011). The Myth of Evidence-Based Practice: Towards Evidence-Informed Practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 41(6), 1176-1197.

  • Pill, S., SueSee, B., & Davies, M. (2024). The Spectrum of Teaching Styles and models-based practice for physical education. European Physical Education Review, 30(1), 142-155.

  • Stodter, A., & Cushion, C. J. (2019). Evidencing the impact of coaches’ learning: Changes in coaching knowledge and practice over time. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(18), 2086-2093.

  • Williams, A. M., & Hodges, N. J. (2023). Effective practice and instruction: A skill acquisition framework for excellence. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-17.

  • Yan, V. X., Guadagnoli, M. A., & Haycocks, N. (2019). Appropriate Failure to Create Effective Learning: Optimizing Challenge. In N. J. Hodges & A. M. Williams (Eds.), Skill Acquisition in Sport. Routledge.


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