EMPHASES FOR TRAINING: PART II
2. Skill Focus
As has been mentioned above, the execution of correct skills and technique features is possibly the most significant factor involved with performance improvement through training. However, not all skill executions at practice can be at 100 percent of competition-specific intensity. Often, fatigue makes it impossible to continually act at the highest level of effort. Also, there may be competition performances, such as a world-record in weight lifting, that cannot be executed in training (the competition atmosphere "lift" is often needed to produce the effect added to training performances to perform the record).
Skill execution is a critical factor for performance excellence and is a preoccupation of champions (Rushall, 1987, 1995). Although the Principle of Specificity (Rushall & Pyke, 1990) would seem to be all pervading for maximum use of skill practice time, it may be impractical to demand it all the time. What seems to be a realistic expectation of athletes is to perform skills and technique characteristics precisely according to defined parameters on each trial. Those skills may or may not be exactly competition-specific. Concentration on excellence for a variety of skill execution intensities produces a repertoire of activities that exceeds that required for contests. That variety is not likely to be harmful as long as the conditioned strength of competition-specific skills remains greater than that of any other skill of non-competition intensity. Conditioned strength is a product of an athlete's concentration intensity and the number of correct trials.
Practice skill attempts should feature a large proportion of trials being performed with skill excellence as a major goal. Those trials will include both competition-specific and non-specific intensities. It is essential that every competition-specific trial is performed with the cognitive control that leads to performance excellence. Every occasion to do competition-specific work should be treated as an opportunity to improve competitive performance. Thus, for every competition-specific practice trial, the skill focus should be maximized to ensure the conditioned strength of competition movement patterns.
However, even on a significant proportion of non-specific trials, there should be an expectation of athletes to apply themselves fully to achieve technical performance excellence. That will not be a wasted practice because it will establish the following.
When new competition-specific skills are being learned or old ones modified, it is useful to perform some trials at less than competition intensity/speed (Rushall, 1991). The slower execution allows for cognitive control over skill elements to be obtained. Within less than competition-specific skill trials, there is the possibility that cognitive control will be reactivated which could serve the purpose of relearning the skill. That is particularly important for establishing basic movement elements. Thus, when skills are not of competition-specific intensity, the concentration at practice should be more on basic movement elements involved in the skill (e.g., body position, prime-mover muscle activities) than on the refined movement elements that are essential for the highest level of performance.
From this discussion, two principles of skill focused practice emerge.
It is this writer's impression that the amount of skill/technique focus that should be expected of athletes at practice is less than that required of the psychological focus described above. Since there is no research that quantifies this factor, it is recommended that half the time allotted to psychological focus should involve skill focus. It should be remembered that there will be great variability between athletes for what is a reasonable expectation for this form of focus. Skill level, age, history in the sport, the proximity of competitions, the phase of training, plus other factors, will moderate the amount of time that this form of practice concentration should occur. It is believed that it would be better to err on the side of over-emphasizing this training demand than to under-emphasize it.
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