For about a year I’ve been trying out a technique for coaching that, on the surface, seems counter-intuitive and not like coaching at all.
It involves not saying anything.
Not being so fast to give verbal feedback if skaters don’t instantly do something ‘right’ (or how I imagine it should be done when we start the drill).
It’s pretty rare that skaters (myself included) will ‘get’ how to do something on the very first try. (And if they do, then it’s my opinion that they already knew it and need to get working on something more difficult.) It is so tempting as a coach to offer feedback and adjustments to skaters from attempt number one. A stream of words like ‘more weight here, adjust this here, drop your shoulder there, slower, faster, more left…’ when actually what this can end up doing, is increase the delay between the brain instructions and the body reactions. In my experience, when you are learning new physical skills, you want to keep the brain out of the loop as much as possible. The cognitive part of the brain just slows the whole process down. Like those robots that needed fifty-squillion lines of code to walk around barefoot*, even though we mostly walk around just fine. I’m not sure that was entirely the right analogy but you get the idea. If you were to think through in sequence all the tiny muscle contractions involved in a hockey stop you’d be incapable of doing a hockey stop- it would all happen too slowly. Yet if you let your body ‘feel’ what it’s like to do a hockey stop, even if it’s wrong at first, and then repeat the movement, allowing your body to adjust itself with each repetition, you’re building up muscle memory and your body will have a much easier time of recalling it in the future.
So, let’s pretend that you’re learning Hockey Stops for the first time, let’s walk through the coaching process that I like best.
1.Explain what we are doing in words. These may not be particularly eloquent or witty, but in my experience, some skaters like the words first. These are the instructions. There is a difference between instructions and feedback.
2. Demo. This is probably THE most important part to allowing your body to learn something new. It’s surprising how much information you are capable of taking in when you see the move. Ideally, repeating this 3 times as a minimum to allow everyone to take in more information. Ever wonder why something that is seemingly impossible, becomes totally possible when you’ve seen someone else do it for the first time? Those skaters that land a new trick that no-one has ever done before have either well developed imaginations/visualisation skills and so can visualise something in their mind’s eye and not need to see it done by anyone else first, or they landed something new by happy accident the first time.
3.Practice. Everyone practices over and over without feedback (unless they do it perfectly- then you can praise all you like). This goes on for a couple of minutes or so.
4. Judgement. If there is something that the majority of the group are all doing that is hindering their success, or if the drill needs refinement, then this is where we do it. See ‘Positive v Negative’ section below.
5. Repeat. Give people more time to repeat the skill with any new information from part 4.
6. Sleep on it! How many times have I really struggled at a new skill at one practice session, only to land it first time at the next. Sometimes your body and brain just need time to build up the correct neural pathways and physical muscles.
7. Try it again at your next opportunity.
Positive v Negative Feedback
So what happens if a skater just doesn’t ‘get’ the skill after 25 tries on their own? Sometimes it is really difficult to translate what you see in the demo, to what your own body is doing and you’ll need a coach to help you work out why it’s not working the way it should. In the imaginary world in my head, we’d all have video filming us at all times when learning a new skill and a double screen area showing footage of what we are trying to do and what we are actually doing side by side, and a pony made of gold and a dragon that operates a candyfloss machine… Failing that, feedback in the form of words will have to suffice.
You need to know the difference between positive and negative feedback. When I say ‘negative’ I don’t mean that as a coach you’d say ‘you suck! You can’t even do a hockey stop’. I mean it in terms of your instructions being based on what a skater ‘shouldn’t‘ do. Now this doesn’t work for learning AT ALL. If you say ‘don’t put your weight on your front foot’ the skater is going to have those words whizzing through their head and it’s not going to help them do the right thing, if you are lucky it’s just going to reduce them doing the wrong thing, however sometimes the brain dumps the ‘not‘ (or n’t) altogether and you end up doing the ‘don’t’ action more than before! Instead, be mindful of using positive feedback like ‘put your weight on your back foot’. Now that’s an instruction that the brain can follow. As the skater, you can just run the little mantra of ‘back foot’ through your head as you carry on practicing, which is much easier to process than long instructions, or instructions of what not to do. If I’ve paused to have a conversation with a skater about why they are finding a skill difficult, I’ll happily discuss that it is that they are doing wrong at the beginning, but then make sure we end with instructions of how to do it right, the Positive ones. As the skater I’ll use any instructions of where I’m going wrong to adjust my mental image of my execution of the skill, but then I’ll retain the positive action instructions as self-talk words.
And that brings me onto the next point. Don’t try to fix too much at once. Sometimes there might be 4 things that need adjusting before a skater will secure a skill. You don’t need to fix all 4 at once. In fact, if you try to by using verbal instructions, then it’ll reduce the effectiveness of those instructions. Remember the story about the robot and its foot? How is your brain going to remember to have ‘more weight on the back foot, drop your left shoulder, pivot on your front axle and finish with a somersault’? I bet you can’t even read that sentence in the time it would take to complete your hockey stop. As a coach I’d pick one of those things, say it, then get the skater to practice some more. If you are lucky, that one small adjustment will kickstart the body into fixing itself again. If not, then after some more practice, we can add another thing. As long, of course, as the first instruction has been followed.
The final point I want to make about saying nothing is that it could help to encourage experimentation within your training sessions. This may sound ridiculous but if whenever anyone tries something for the first time they receive criticism, no matter how constructive, it can take a little dink out of their self-confidence. Especially if you mention something that they were just about to adjust themselves. I don’t know if that is something specific to female athletes, or just female athletes that I know, or maybe even just what goes on in my head, or even whether it is true of most people in the world. When you are learning something new you know before you start that you are going to fail at it in the beginning. If you feel like you are then being judged for those initial failures, and that feeling is a negative one, it’s going to put you off pushing yourself and you’ll start to stick to what you know you can do. It kind of doesn’t matter how kind and generous and wonderful your coach is either- in fact that can make it even worse for some people that don’t want to look like an idiot in front of their kind and generous and wonderful coach. Letting skaters try that new thing out a bunch of times first, so that they can do as much learning without outside input should really help them to build an attitude of experimentation, followed by concise positive instructions to help them progress beyond any sticking points.
Allow skaters to learn how to learn. Allow them to fail repeatedly, until they succeed.
*This fact might be made up.