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Letting Go: A Key to Athlete Development

Simply stated, athletes needs to perceive the situation, decide what they’re going to do and execute the action.

How do kids learn to ride a bike? Do we have them pedal 50 times with only their right foot, then 50 times with only their left foot? Do we have them sit stationary and practice turning the handlebars right 25 times, then left 25 times? Do they have personal braking coaches?

The answer to all of these is no. We give them some guidance, hold the seat while they pedal and gain enough speed to balance, then we let go.

There’s a body of international research in motor (movement) skill acquisition and development that is quite interesting and should compel all of us to think differently about athlete development.

The hypothesis is this: The performance of any action (passing, catching, scooping, etc …) to solve a problem is the result of an athlete having to function within the ecological dynamics (context) of the situation.  

Simply stated, athletes need to perceive the situation, decide what they’re going to do and execute the action. 

It has been noted in the academic literature that up to 80 percent of the ability to perform is predicated on the ability to perceive situations (30 percent) and decide (50 percent) what to do about it. That leaves only 20 percent of the performance relegated to the action.

Of further intrigue, consider this … no two movements are EVER the same. Think about that for a second. Every time your athlete works to scoop a ground ball, it is different. The speed at which it is rolling (if at all), the angle and speed the athlete approaches the ball, the amount of pressure (perceived or real) from a defender, the location on the field, and the conditions of the field surface. These are just a few of the variables which neither we, nor the athlete have any control over.

If we can agree on the two previous points, which I don’t believe is too far-fetched, do you think we should reconsider how we develop skills  I do.

Enter Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU) or in layman’s terms, game-based learning. The premise behind this method of instruction is that the athlete learns to use the skill in the context they will use it. In TGFU we expose our athletes to a variety of situations/problems and require perceptions, decision making, and execution of an action. TGFU are the heart of small-sided play in the training environment and the US Lacrosse Youth Rules.

FAQ’s about TGFU:

Q:  “What is an example of a TGFU?”

A:  If we want to work on something like passing/catching in context, we can play a game of 3v2 keep away.  Lots of opportunity to catch and throw, lots of decisions to be made, and plenty of competition should a ball become loose.

For a shooting drill, you could use the velcro drill. The primary purpose is for the offensive player to shoot, but they have a defensive player attempting to match up to them and stick like velcro. How many times will a player run completely free and get to shoot in a game situation? Hardly ever. So our drills should mirror game-type situations.

Q:  “Ok, but when do they learn the fundamental skills?  If they can’t pass and catch, TGFU is a waste of time.” 

A: TGFU is never a waste of time. If our kids can’t pass and catch, then even something like partner passing is just an exercise in ball-chasing, not skill development.  In a TGFU environment, that missed pass, now becomes a competitive ground ball.

Q:  “When do I teach them the fundamental skills?”

A:  During the TGFU. Give your athletes no more than three coaching cues for the skill, then get them active in the TGFU. For example, cues for throwing might be “Palm to the sky, high-five, elbow your brother.” As the athletes are playing, we observe their mechanic and give the appropriate cue as needed. They will adapt the mechanics to the situation.

Q:  “Where can I find more resources?”

A:  US Lacrosse has numerous coaching resources to help you incorporate TGFU into your practices as part of the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model.

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