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Errors in Training for Technique in Sports and Martial Arts

by Thomas Kurz

This article is about errors made learning and teaching techniques. I list only the most commonly made errors. You can witness these errors at most martial arts classes and sports practices (especially in schools).

1. Error: Not using pictures.
Seeing pictures that highlight the key points of correct and incorrect performance helps to form correct mental representations of the proper technique and thus leads to better performance (Lavisse, Deviterne, and Perrin 2000).

2. Error: Not explaining the skill.
An important part of teaching technique is giving clear and vivid descriptions for phases of the technique, explaining the rationale behind them, and making sure that athletes understand the difference between similar techniques and the advantages of different versions of the technique. Accurate description and proper nomenclature (using names that convey essence of techniques) help athletes perceive and understand what they do when learning the technique.

Although some mistakes result from not having the movement pattern ingrained well, some others result from misconceptions about the movement skill (Hare and Graber 2000). Explaining the skill and then asking the athletes to describe it and give the rationale for each element should prevent that (Nawrocka 1968).

Explanations should deal with the body position, movements, points of aim, and feedback in the form of kinesthetic, visual, or aural sensations.

3. Error: Not using learning cues.
Every skill has elements that determine the outcome. These can be summed up as cues, such as “knees bent, back straight,” “chin down,” and so on, depending on the particular technique. Cues help to narrow attention to the crucial elements of the skill. Without them, an athlete, and particularly a beginner, would get overwhelmed by all the details. Tying the learning cues to the mechanics of the skill helps athletes understand what makes the skill work and thus prevents errors resulting from misconceptions.

At different stages of learning, different cues are emphasized as different elements of the technique are perfected and automatized. For beginners, use cues that force the correctness of the rough form of movement.

Only one or two cues can be effectively acted on at one time, and this points to the importance of understanding the learning process and planning the teaching. Skills should be taught in a sequence so they build upon each other, the elements of the previously learned skills being part of the new ones.

4. Error: Not practicing the weaker side.
Learning the skill on the “other” or weaker side increases an athlete’s awareness of what makes the technique work and increases the total number of repetitions possible—when one side is tired, the athlete may drill with the other. Switching sides prevents overstrain injuries and asymmetry of build and function. Finally, mastering the skill on both sides doubles the athlete’s technical arsenal.

How often to switch (for example, every other repetition or every 10 repetitions) depends on the complexity of the skill, the athlete’s coordination, the degree to which the athlete has mastered the skill, the current training goal, and the amount of workout time (Darden 1999). For example, a skilled grappler may practice fit-ins by switching sides every repetition if the goal is to learn quickly changing from, say, a right shoulder throw to a left shoulder throw. At other times or with more difficult techniques, one can switch sides when feeling fatigued.

Demonstrations, explanations, and cues must be given for both sides. It is not enough to order the athlete to switch and “do the same thing with the other side” (Darden 1999). Further, because of possible asymmetry of strength, flexibility, and control, the other side may initially require different size or weight of equipment and easier tasks (Darden 1999).

5. Error: Learning or teaching many skills in one workout.
In a single workout only one new technical skill should be taught.

Until recently the reasons for doing so were only the practical experience of coaches and guesses about what happens in an athlete’s mind during and after a workout in the course of learning.

Many of these reasons are explained by Józef Drabik (1996), in Children and Sports Training. This book has a lot of information on methods of technical and tactical training because laying a good foundation of essential skills must happen at the beginning of a sports career. Here are some reasons for teaching one skill per workout:

  • It allows for arranging warm-up exercises so the athletes warm up just right for this one skill.
  • It gives athletes time to grasp the skill and digest the information and then apply the results of their deliberations in their next workout.
  • It keeps the athletes practicing rather than standing and listening.

Apart from these obvious reasons, recent neurological research reveals one more: It takes several hours after learning a new skill for the neurological changes needed to move it to permanent memory. If during that time another new skill is taught, then the first skill might be erased.

Limiting instruction to one new technique or variation at a time helps retain the skill. Although it may seem to slow down the pace of learning, this measured rate of instruction actually facilitates progress because each skill is learned more reliably.

Once the essential points of the skill are grasped, learning may be enhanced by practicing several variants of the skill or several similar skills per workout (Hebert, Landin, and Solmon 1996; Landin and Hebert 1997). Requiring athletes to do different variants of the skill every few repetitions improves retention of the skill over practicing only one variant of the skill. This happens because every time athletes change the skill they have to recall the skill’s image and important cues. The downside is that changing the skill often may not allow enough repetitions to “smooth out the kinks” and to “own” the skill.

Practically, the changes should be introduced after as many repetitions as it takes to find “the groove” and get the feel of the skill.

6. Error: Practicing only in ideal conditions.
Practicing only in ideal conditions makes your technique unreliable when the conditions change (different surface, light, noise, equipment) or under mental stress.

Training always in the same conditions leads to failure in case of even a small change of these conditions during the contest. For example, a long jumper who practiced on a perfect track, covered from wind, and in good weather, had good results only if competition was held in such perfect conditions. Any changes from training conditions caused deterioration of the technique. This observation has been made in other events of track and field and in other sports.

7. Error: Delaying feedback.
Do not delay receiving information on the quality of practiced technique.

Knowledge of the outcome—whether the target was hit or a jump was high enough—is not enough to learn well. Immediate feedback should be given on what caused the good or bad outcome—that is, on the correctness of the technique (Janelle et al. 1997). Feedback should also be relevant, corresponding to the cues given (Sherman 1999).

Accurate and readily available information about a performed exercise permits correction or improvement before the less-than-perfect form of this exercise is permanently recorded in memory. “The sooner you discover your faults, the sooner you can correct them” (Ulatowski 1979). An athlete who is getting immediate information about the parameters of a just-completed movement can compare it to fresh sensations of the movement and immediately correct the movement. Even greater in importance is the information received during the movement because it allows for corrections to be made as the movement is performed and enforces correct form.

Set up your practice drills so with each repetition you know what you did right or wrong. For example, kick over a chair to check your chamber. To see if you strike straight into a target hang two small targets in line so when you hit the front one straight it will hit the one behind.

There is much more to technical training than avoiding these common errors. You will find more information on learning techniques or movement skills, as well as lists of references quoted in this article, in the article “Tips on Teaching and Learning the Movement Skills,” and in the book Science of Sports Training.

This article is based on Stadion books Science of Sports Training and Children and Sports Training. Get them now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs!

Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit and Happy
Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance

If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum

Tips on Teaching and Learning the Movement Skills

by Thomas Kurz

Know the skill

Learning is faster when people consciously verbalize the actions just demonstrated and explained before they perform them. In addition, both the retention and consistency of correct performance are higher (Nawrocka 1967).

Although some mistakes result from not having the movement pattern ingrained well, some others result from misconceptions about the movement skill (Hare and Graber 2000). Explaining the skill and then asking the athletes to describe it and give the rationale for each element should prevent that (Nawrocka 1968).

Explanations should not include information on how to take advantage of the regularities inherent in the movement if these regularities can be sensed after a few tries (Wulf and Weigelt 1997). For example, telling someone about the principles of physics involved in timing a takeoff on a trampoline may interfere with jumping well. Instead, instructions should deal with the body position, movements, points of aim, and feedback in the form of kinesthetic, visual, or aural sensations.

Use learning cues

Every skill has elements that determine the outcome. These can be summed up as cues, such as “knees bent, back straight,” “chin down,” and so on, depending on the particular technique. Cues help to narrow attention to the crucial elements of the skill. Without them, an athlete, and particularly a beginner, would get overwhelmed by all the details. Tying the learning cues to the mechanics of the skill helps athletes understand what makes the skill work and thus prevents errors resulting from misconceptions.

At different stages of learning, different cues are emphasized as different elements of the technique are perfected and automatized. For beginners, use cues that force the correctness of the rough form of movement.

Only one or two cues can be effectively acted on at one time, and this points to the importance of understanding the learning process and planning the teaching. Skills should be taught in a sequence so they build upon each other, the elements of the previously learned skills being part of the new ones.

Because of the distractions that occur during a workout, athletes need to be reminded of the cues (Sherman 1999).

Pictures and learning

Seeing pictures that highlight the key points of correct and incorrect performance helps to form correct mental representations of the proper technique and thus leads to better performance (Lavisse, Deviterne, and Perrin 2000). In Lavisse, Deviterne, and Perrin’s experiment, an archery technique was learned, and a more correct technique resulted in greater accuracy. In other sports, correct techniques translate into different aspects of performance, for example, proper high-jump technique permits clearing the bar at a greater height.

Give feedback

Knowledge of the outcome (whether the target was hit or a jump was high enough) is not enough to learn well. Feedback should be given on what caused the good or bad outcome–that is, on the correctness of the technique (Janelle et al. 1997). Feedback should also be relevant, corresponding to the cues given (Sherman 1999).

Feedback is most effective if given when requested by the athlete (Janelle et al. 1997).

Teach to perform the skill with both sides of the body

Learning the skill on the “other” side increases an athlete’s awareness of what makes the technique work and increases the total number of repetitions possible–when one side is tired, the athlete may drill with the other. Switching sides prevents overstrain injuries and asymmetry of build and function. Finally, mastering the skill on both sides doubles the athlete’s technical arsenal.

How often to switch (for example, every other repetition or every 10 repetitions) depends on the complexity of the skill, the athlete’s coordination, the degree to which the athlete has mastered the skill, the current training goal, and the amount of workout time (Darden 1999). For example, a skilled grappler may practice fit-ins by switching sides every repetition if the goal is to learn quickly changing from, say, a right shoulder throw to a left shoulder throw. At other times or with more difficult techniques, one can switch sides when feeling fatigued.

Research shows that switching sides, even at an initial level, will not hurt learning (Darden 1999).

Demonstrations, explanations, and cues must be given for both sides. It is not enough to order the athlete to switch and “do the same thing with the other side” (Darden 1999). Further, because of possible asymmetry of strength, flexibility, and control, the other side may require different size or weight of equipment and easier tasks (Darden 1999).

How many skills per workout?

New skills should be taught and learned one at a time, preferably one per workout. The rationale, research, and practical advice for doing so is given in the book Science of Sports Training.

Once the essential points of the skill are grasped, learning may be enhanced by practicing several variants of the skill or several similar skills per workout (Hebert, Landin, and Solmon 1996; Landin and Hebert 1997). (A new skill should be practiced without changes so the athlete can get the idea of the movement and test minor adjustments from trial to trial.) Requiring athletes to do different variants of the skill every few repetitions improves retention of the skill over practicing only one variant of the skill (Sekiya, Magill, and Anderson 1996). This happens because every time athletes change the skill they have to recall the skill’s image and important cues. The downside is that changing the skill often may not allow enough repetitions to “smooth out the kinks” and to “own” the skill.

Practically, the changes should be introduced after as many repetitions as it takes to find “the groove” and get the feel of the skill. Landin and Hebert (1997) conducted an experiment in which basketball players practiced 30 set shots from five positions. The players who shot three times from each spot and visited each spot twice during the practice learned to perform better than players who shot six times from each position, visiting it only once, and players who shot only one time from each position, visiting each six times.

References

Darden, G. 1999. Building the switch-hitter (Part I): Tips for developing sport skills on both sides of the body. The Clipboard vol. 2, no. 1 (Summer 1999), pp. 2-3.

Hare, M. K., and K. C. Graber. 2000. Student misconceptions during two invasion games units in physical education: A qualitative investigation of student thought processing. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education vol. 20, pp. 55-77. In What Are Students Thinking? Physical Activity Today vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 1-2.

Hebert, E. P., D. Landin, and M. A. Solmon. 1996. Practice schedule effects on the performance and learning of low- and high-skilled students: an applied study. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 67, no. 1, pp. 52-58.

Janelle, C. M., D. A. Barba, S. G. Frehlich, L. K. Tennant, and J. H. Cauraugh. 1997. Maximizing performance feedback effectiveness through videotape replay and self-controlled learning environment. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 68, no. 4 (December), pp. 269-279.

Landin, D., and E. P. Hebert. 1997. A comparison of three practice schedules along the contextual interference continuum. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 68, no. 4, pp. 357-361.

Lavisse, D., D. Deviterne, and P. Perrin. 2000. Mental processing in motor skill acquisition by young subjects. International Journal of Sport Psychology vol. 31, pp. 364-375. In Physical Activity Today vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 1-2.

Nawrocka, W. 1967. Werbalizacja w treningu sportowym. Sport Wyczynowy no. 9/47, pp. 11-16.

Nawrocka, W. 1968. Intelectualizacja nauczania czynnosci ruchowych w sporcie mlodziezowym. Sport Wyczynowy no. 2-3/50-51, pp. 69-71.

Sekiya, H., R. A. Magill, and D. I. Anderson. 1996. The Contextual Interference Effect in Parameter Modifications of the Same Generalized Motor Program. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 67, no. 1 (March), pp. 59-68.

Sherman, C. 1999. Can we integrate the right moves with the right thoughts? The Right Moves A newsletter of the Council of Physical Education for Children (COPEC) Winter 1999. pp. 1-2.

Wulf, G., and C. Weigelt. 1997. Instructions about physical principles in learning a complex motor skill: to tell or not to tell . . . . Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 68, no. 4 (December), pp. 362-367.