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The value of attention.

Reading Nick Winkleman's book, The Language of Coaching (TLOC), brought my "attentional focus" to many new things around my work. The book provides an incredible insight on coaching science, and I would class it as essential reading for any coach.


Here, I will touch on a tiny detail that was discussed in the book, and the big impact it has made in how I think about the structure of my sessions and activities. This has been one of my biggest mindset shifts over the last few months.

Is there such a thing as over planning?

To give some context to the blog, I will discuss a training program I implemented in August 2019 (see below). Looking back now, there is so much about the program I would change, from the session content to the overall context. This piece will focus on the session content. A brief critique of the overall context is discussed here.


Four-week Speed program (eight sessions) implemented in 2019.


The structure of the program was appropriate - from the order (Warm-Up - Jumps/Hops - Speed - Throws). Each session last a maximum of 45 minutes (ideally between 30-40 minutes), so there was no issue there. Although not the focus of this piece, this program would suit a sprinter from a contextual point of view, as opposed to a Rugby player. As the program was done with the backs of the playing squad, they generally had fun, they enjoyed sprinting and competing against each other.


This is a plan that was created entirely before the start of session one, and changed minimally in week three. I had planned session eight, to the detail of how many metres a player would sprint, and how many throws a player would complete, before even seeing session one. The worst part on reflection, is that I did not deviate from the plan. Essentially, because it was down on paper, I felt I had to do it.


This is what I would call overly prescriptive coaching - creating a plan and sticking to it like it's law. Planning is not a bad thing at all, and it is a useful exercise to do to ensure that a coach has clarity on what they would like to achieve within a session. However, in the same way we want to develop adaptable players who play what's in front of them, coaches must be adaptable to see coach what is in front of them.


Another personal reflection is my "prescriptive coaching" was very "copy cat" like. For example, all of the warm-up exercises were copied from other coaches or other resources available online. I had a vague session objective of working on linear speed (S1) or lateral speed (S2), but if I am being honest with myself, I didn't know what I was doing, or why I was doing it. Sprint technique was relatively new to me (it still is) and this highlighted how much of a beginner I was (and still am).


Is there such a thing as over-planning? Only if it takes away from time you could spend on other important aspects of coaching - critical reflection, relationship building etc. Even if coaches plan to the finest detail, I don't think it is an issue as long as the coach executes the plan in an adaptable way. If the coaches see a technical fault that needs correcting, they must deviate from the plan and attend to what's important.


The concept of saliency and the wandering mind

A salient stimulus can be defined as a stimulus that stands out or is different from others (Uddin, 2015), and there are 4 characteristics of a salient stimulus (Downar et al., 2002):

  1. Context dependent salience: is the stimulus relevant?

  2. Intensity dependent salience: it is unlikely a player's mind would wander in an important game.

  3. Frequency dependent salience: repetition can catch the player's attention.

  4. Novelty dependent salience: simply new stimuli can catch players' attention. As Nick Winkleman says in his book: "..as coaches, one of our greatest tools for capturing attention is to simply change it up."

Looking back on the program above, while the program started off as novel, the novelty quickly wore off as every session was almost identical. The third and fourth point above can be somewhat contradictory, but I think it's important to frequently stress the principles, and mix up the methodologies you use.


This leads on to mind wandering, and this has major implications for coaching. Mind wandering can be defined as a mental shift away from primary task goals towards unrelated goals. Daydreaming, for example, is a form of mind wandering. In TLOC, Nick states:

".. the brain defaults into a mind-wandering, or daydreaming, mode when (a) there is no perceived threat and thus no reason to monitor the external world, (b) no novel or interesting information is present in one's surrounding, or (c) there is no perceived requirement to focus attention on an internal thought or external stimulus." - Nick Winkleman, The Language of Coaching.

As the training program discussed had eight nearly identical sessions back to back, there was no novel information in the player's surrounding, and it was inevitable that players would "switch off" mentally or simply go through the motions. Also, coaching the same thing over and over again can get very boring as a coach, especially if you combine it with a lack of open mindedness and adaptability. This has been a massive reflection for me.


How does viewing training through an ecological dynamics lens fit into this "wandering mind" concept? Looking back on some of the key principles of ecological dynamics, Chow et al. (2019) stated:

These [principles] include the ideas that the coupling of information and movement needs to be maintained, that practices need to be designed to include affordances or invitation for action, that training environments need to represent the demands of performance and that skill acquisition is brought about by effective manipulations of task constraints which channel learners to successfully interact with affordances.

The whole purpose of training in an ecological dynamics framework is to have players monitoring the external world or their surroundings, to identify affordances. Players have to stay engaged and cannot default into mind-wandering or daydreaming. Training is always somewhat contextual (representative learning design), players will get frequent exposure to what is important (information-movement coupling), and due to "repetition without repetition" (Bernstein) - players will get a novel stimulus for every rep they do.


Capturing and holding athletes attention

What have these learnings led to? While I still believe it is important to work on fundamentals at regular intervals, it is important this is supplemented with regular bouts of novel stimuli.


Specifically dealing with the warm-up, for a long time, I have used sprint drills as the basic of my warm-up routines - A drills, B drills, dribbles, hops etc., and I believe these kind of exercises can have a positive effect as part of a thorough athletic development program. While these drills do not directly translate to better sprint technique, they do help an athlete understand and feel positions they should aim to hit during sprinting (e.g. A-frame, full support). A combination of regular exposure to sprint drills and max velocity sprinting can lead to enhanced sprint performance (this is not scratching the surface of contextual speed development).


I am referring to Rugby Union when I speak of my warm-up routines, but if sprint drills and sprinting cannot hold the attention of rugby players, why can they hold the attention of sprinters? Are sprinter more focused? Perhaps they are, but referring back to the first characteristic of salient stimuli - context dependent stimuli - sprinters doing sprint drills are simply practicing their sport, rugby players practicing sprint drills are not.


So what should running mechanics be supplemented with? Games, and lots of them. From an attention point of view, a challenging game can demand focus from an athlete much more so that dynamic stretches for example. Another benefit of games, particularly partner/team games, is that players get used to reading the body shapes and postures of other players, which is a key component of attacking and defending agility (1v1) or making intelligent reads (players are practicing attuning to their environment, to identify affordances). This is one of the most valuable aspects of athletic development - can we make players better movers within their environment.


One resource that has really helped me with warm-up planning is Michael Zweifel's Games Book (IG: bbaperformance), which is available through his Instagram page. This book is a collection of games that include one-person games, partner games and team games, and many which involve various pieces of equipment. Not alone are these games useful in their current format, but they are great for stimulating thought around what type of games I can include, depending on the aim and context.


Summary

Reading TLOC has added another dimension to my thought process when planning training sessions. But as mentioned previously, adaptable coaching must be practised even with a thorough plan. The post touches on two pages of TLOC, in reality, the book offers so much more than what I have written about here. Read it.


Thanks to all players I have worked with over the last 18 months who have been patient with my own personal development as a coach. Thanks also to Nick Winkleman and Michael Zweifel who have stimulated a huge amount of thought and reflection around my own practices.


References

Chow, Jia Yi & Shuttleworth, Richard & Davids, Keith & Araujo, Duarte. (2019). Ecological dynamics and transfer from practice to performance in sport. 10.4324/9781351189750-18.

Downar, J., Crawley, A.P., Mikulis, D.J. and Davis, K.D., 2002. A cortical network sensitive to stimulus salience in a neutral behavioral context across multiple sensory modalities. Journal of neurophysiology, 87(1), pp.615-620.

Smallwood, Jonathan & Schooler, Jonathan. (2006). The Restless Mind. Psychological bulletin. 132. 946-58. 10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.946.

Uddin, L. Salience processing and insular cortical function and dysfunction. Nat Rev Neurosci16, 55–61 (2015).

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