How to learn a sport

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5 Steps to Mastering Any New Skill in Sport

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By Syd Schulz, CTS Athlete

One of the most important skills I’ve learned as a professional mountain biker is how to learn. Why? Because I used to be bad at it, and now I’m not. In order to grow as an athlete, progress in a career, or build a successful relationship, learning to learn is as important as any particular fact or skill you pick up along the way.

In the past, my learning process was a certified disaster. If I didn’t pick something up in the first session, I immediately assumed I would never figure it out. I was hampered by a series of (mostly imaginary) limitations — “I don’t hit drops”, “I suck at riding wet roots”, “I’m not strong” — and I would frequently melt down after a bad workout or skill sessions.

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It took a while, but I slowly developed a process for learning new skills that was actually effective — in fact, far more effective than I ever would have imagined in my previous headspace. I’ve learned to corner my bike properly, to hit large drops, to slackline, and most recently, to FINALLY do a pull-up. The best part is that this process works for bike skills, and pretty much everything else.

Step One: Start where you are, not where you think you should be.

This was a big one for me. For the first two years I raced mountain bikes I was hampered by feeling I was constantly playing catch up with racers who were ahead of me in every way (I’m not going to lie, I still feel like that way occasionally). This meant anytime I went to practice my jumping skills, my point of reference would always be that massive drop so-and-so hit and posted a picture of on Instagram. (Social media can be evil in this regard). With a reference point so far from where I was at that time, I was setting myself up to fail. There was literally no way to succeed.

Lofty goals are great, but not if they drive you nuts, and not if they’re based on what someone else is doing. To truly learn something, you have to accept your starting point, even if it is far from your end goal. Can’t do a push-up? Start on your knees. Can’t run a mile? Run for one minute, walk for two, and then repeat. Can’t ride a drop on your mountain bike? Start by popping off a curb. It is smarter and more courageous to swallow your ego and start small than to fall for the “go big, or go home” trap.

As the wise philosopher Drake once said, “Started at the bottom, NOW WE HERE.”

Step Two: Develop a growth mindset and ditch your limits.

I’ve written about growth mindset and the importance of replacing negative phrases with positive ones. All those “I can’t” statements are unhelpful, and untrue. If you believe you can change, you can. If you believe you can improve, you can. Serious physical or health limitations aside, our minds are almost always our biggest limiting factor. Given enough time, patience, and direction, you will be able to do things you now see as impossible.

Step Three: Practice. Practice. Practice. Patience. Patience. Patience.

We’ve all heard of the 10,000-hour rule and a million renditions of “practice makes perfect.” And yet, many people – including me – have an inner narrative that goes something like this: “It’s not that I’m not willing to put in the practice, it’s that I don’t get it. I’m not making any progress, I’m just making the same mistake over and over again.

The truth is, incremental improvement is sometimes hard to see, and sometimes you have to fail for days on end before it clicks and your body and mind start working together. If you want to learn something new, do it every day, but not for too long. For skills work in sports, for instance, you want to attempt or repeat the skill several times, but not for so long that you become too fatigued or frustrated to make additional progress. I find 15 to 30 minutes per day of working on a new skill is ideal, as I don’t get too tired and frustrated to feel positive about the session when I’m done. Be honest, how many times in your life have you practiced the same skill every day for a week? For a month? If the answer is never, you aren’t fully tapping into your potential to learn.

Step Four: Get to know your learning process.

I find I go through a pretty similar cycle every time I try to learn a new skill. The first few sessions are great. I start to see improvement as I pick off the low hanging fruit and grasp the theory of the skill. Then, once I understand the theory, I expect myself to immediately be able to execute it. After all, I can see myself doing it in my head, I understand what I’m supposed to be doing, so why is it so hard?

This phase is the hardest and it can go on for days, weeks, or even months. It can be frustrating and infuriating. I usually hit a point where I get angry and want to give up. And then, just when I’ve relegated myself to never being able to do it, something clicks. Now that I’ve gone through this cycle a few times I can recognize the signs, and while I still get frustrated, I embrace it as part of the process. I now know I have to push through a lot of rough practice sessions to get where I’m trying to go.

If you are struggling with a new skill or process, examine whether the way you’re trying to learn it has been a successful learning process for you in the past. If the answer is no, then see if there’s a way to address this new skill or process that fits your preferred learning style.

Step Five: Seek expert advice and be open to it.

Many people are willing to seek expert advice, but far fewer are ready to take advantage of it. Being truly open to advice isn’t possible until you’ve embraced Steps One – Four. For example, if you refuse to accept your starting point, you probably won’t like the advice you get. Coaches have an uncanny ability to see through your BS and discern your actual ability level. Unless you’ve accepted where you are, you might chafe at being told to work on your core strength instead of doing heavy deadlifts. (Everyone hates planks. Yet, nearly everyone needs to do more of them.). Likewise, if you have a lot of self-imposed limits, you will drive your coach up the wall with “I can’t” statements. And if you don’t practice, you’re wasting everyone’s time. However, once you master the first four steps you will find yourself more open to expert advice, which helps you make more significant changes and make greater progress.

Syd Schulz is a professional mountain bike racer, focusing on enduro events. She is also a writer, blogger and lifestyle athlete. Currently based in Taos, NM, she grew up in Ohio and started riding bikes as a kid in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Over the past three years, she has raced her bike on four different continents and traveled all over the United States in a dirt-bag van (see the van profiled in Outside Magazine here!). Her blog focuses on inspirational content and stories of her own personal development. Her goal is to inspire others to tackle their biggest hurdles in life (and on the bike).
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Sports Skills: The 7 Sports Skills Steps You Must Master in Every Sport.

Coaching Sports Skills is a the very heart of coaching in every sport

Every coach, every athlete, every media commentator and every fan will tell you that the fundamental element of all sports is skill.

Kicking and passing in football.
Throwing and catching in cricket and baseball.
Diving, turning and finishing in swimming.
Tackling and passing in rugby and rugby league.
Passing and shooting in basketball and netball.

Learning, practicing and mastering the basic skills of sport is one of the foundations of coaching, sports performance and athletic training.

However, just learning a sports skill is only the first step in the process. Only fools believe that “Practice Makes Perfect” if  the goal is to win in competition.

Athletes do not fail because their skill level is poor: they faibecause their ability to perform the skill in competition conditions is poor and that’s a coaching issue.

There are 7 Skills Steps You Must Master in Every Sport to be successful.

So what is Sports Skill?

There’s always a “definition” nut out there: someone who has to read a definition of something before they will engage with it.

So to keep all you definition devotees happy, “skill” for the purpose of this article, is defined as:

“The ability to perform a sporting skill consistently well at speed, under fatigue and pressure conditions in a competition environment“.

People drone on and on and on about skills in sport. “It’s all about the fundamentals” some say. Others insist, “Skills are everything”.

Hard to disagree but……there is a huge difference between learning a skill and learning to perform the skill consistently well at speed, when you are fatigued, under pressure and trying to execute the skill in front of thousands of people.


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The Technically Perfect Sports Skills Myth.

One of the greatest myths in sport is the “Technically Perfect Skill” myth. You know the myth you learnt from a biomechanics professor or you heard from a coach at a course or you read about in a textbook that said something like “you must coach the athlete until they have mastered every element of technique X perfectly”.

Whilst you should pursue excellence in technique and strive to continuously improve an athletes skills, it is ridiculous to try to coach every athlete you coach to achieve the myth of technical perfection.

“Textbook” perfect is just that – perfect for still images in textbooks. When your athletes can win medals and win football games by looking good on page 147 of a text-book then by all means try to make them look textbook perfect.

But if you want them to win in the real word – coaching sports skills is so much more than looking perfect. Your athletes need to be able to execute sports skills in performance situations – and that means a re-think of the way you coach skills.

Performance Practice: Train the Way You Want to Perform.

Want to learn and master a basic sports skill? Find a coach, learn how to do it then practice, practice, practice.

Want to learn and master a basic sports skill so that you can enhance your performance under competitions conditions….then practice, practice, practice will not cut it: you need Performance Practice.

Performance Practice is a logical, systematic 7 Step process that takes athletes from the execution of the basic skill to being able to perform it under competition conditions.

The 7 Skills Steps of Performance Practice:

Sports Skills Step 1:

Perform the Skill. This is the first, and unfortunately for most athletes, the last step in their skills learning program. Coaches come up with a drill, athletes copy it, try it, learn it.

Sports Skills Step 2:

Perform the Skill very well. Skills mastery comes from regular practice combined with quality feedback from coaches and may incorporate the use of video and other performance analysis technologies – including the best one of all…the coach’s eye!

It is about here that most coaches stop coaching the skill, believing that if the athlete can perform the skill really well, and it looks like it does in the coaching textbooks then they have done their job.

Wrong.

The job is not even 30% complete.

Sports Skills Step 3:

Perform the Skill very well and at speed. Name one sport where the ability to perform sports skills really slow is a winning strategy! Technical perfection at slow speed may look great for the text books, but unless the skill can withstand competition level speed (and included in that is competition accelerations, competition agility requirements and competition explosiveness) then it is not competition ready.

Looking technically perfect at slow speed is great for the cameras but it is even better for your opposition who will have run around you and scored while you are receiving accolades for winning the “best-skills execution” competition.

Sports Skills Step 4:

Perform the Skill very well, at speed and under fatigue. Think of the “danger zones” in all competition sport. The last 20 metres of a 100 metres freestyle. The last 5 minutes before half time in football. The last play in the game. Many, many competitions come down to the quality of skills execution during the last 5% of time and being able to perform fundamental skills when tired, dehydrated, glycogen depleted and suffering from neuro-muscular fatigue is a winning edge in all sports.

Sports Skills Step 5:

Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure. How many times do you see athletes miss simple targets or drop balls or make errors at critical moments – “danger-zones” in competitions? There is no doubt that emotional stress and mental pressure impact on the ability of athletes to perform skills with quality and accuracy  – (read more about the emerging field of “psycho-physiology!!”). But….this is a coaching issue. Incorporate the element of pressure in skills practices in training and ensure that training is more challenging and more demanding than the competition environment you are preparing for.

Sports Skills Step 6:

Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently. Being able to perform the skill under competition conditions once could be luck, but being able to do it consistently under competition conditions is the sign of a real champion. Consistency in skills execution in competition comes from consistency of training standards. Adopting a “no-compromise” approach to the quality of skills execution at training is a sure way to develop a consistent quality of skills execution in competition conditions. Unfortunately many athletes have two brains:

  • Training brain– the “brain” they use in training and preparation. This “brain” accepts laziness, inaccuracy, sloppiness and poor skills execution believing that “it will be OK on the day” and everything will somehow magically be right at the competition;
  • Competition brain – the “brain” they use in competition.

The secret to competition success is to use “competition brain” in every training session.

Sports Skills Step 7:

Perform the Skill very well, at speed, under fatigue and under pressure consistently in competition conditions. This is what it is all about. The real factor in what makes a champion athlete is their capacity to perform consistently in competition conditions.

Performing a basic skill well is not difficult. But add the fatigue of 75 minutes of competition, the pressure of knowing the whole season is on the line with one kick, the expectations of the Board, the coach, the management, team-mates and tens of thousands of fans and all of sudden that basic skill is not so basic: it becomes the equivalent of juggling six sticks of dynamite.


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Practice does not make Perfect:

In the old days, people would say, “Practice Makes Perfect”. We now know that is rubbish.

Some people moved on and said, “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”. That philosophy is only true if the goal is to perform skills well for the textbooks.

The real issue now is “Performance Practice Makes for Perfect Performance”.

Practice consistently under the conditions to be experienced in competition and success will follow.

The Performance Practice Model – Copyright Wayne Goldsmith 2014.

 Summary:

  1. Just learning and mastering sports skills is not enough: it is no longer “Practice Makes Perfect” or “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect”;
  2. Coaches and athletes must spend as much time, energy and effort learning to perform the fundamental skills of their sport in competition conditions as they do to learning and mastering the basic skill;
  3. Coaches should progress athletes systematically through the 7 skills steps to ensure they can perform fundamental sports skills in competition conditions: to do less is to rely on luck, the bounce of the ball and some good fortune – none of which are strategies for consistent success

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