Saturday, December 19, 2009

Skill development in football: an open and shut case - By Ken Mannie

Ken Mannie is the Head Strength/Conditioning Coach at Michigan State University. email:

Skill development remains the most critical physical element in coaching. A strong, well-conditioned athlete with a poor skill level is akin to a high-performance race car with flat tires.

Nobody is going to disagree with that observation. The problem lies in determining the best way to achieve the optimum level of skill. And that has to begin with a clear understanding of the different classification of skills and the steps involved in their teaching progression.

Every athletic skill is actually a motor skill, which can be defined as a properly executed voluntary body or limb movement. Unfortunately, the terms skill and ability are often used interchangeably.

Motor abilities (i.e., static and dynamic balance, response time, speed of limb movement, eye-hand/foot coordination, etc.) can be viewed as the fundamental components of motor skill development, but are not skills by definition. Most motor-behavior researchers maintain that abilities are determined more by genetics than by experience.


Skills, on the other hand, are learned over time in three specific and progressive stages:

The cognitive stage:

This is the beginning stage of skill learning, one in which the learner has many unanswered questions: What stance should I use? What are my steps on a lead, trap, or pass block? What position should my hands be in when catching a ball at various heights? What techniques should I use in man-to-man pass coverage?

As you can see, this stage is marked by numerous errors, variability in performance, and a great deal of needed quality repetition.

During this stage, the learner requires specific information to help him make correct adjustments. You will know that the athlete is still in this stage when he professes an awareness of "doing something wrong," but has no idea of how to correct it.

The associative stage:

As the athlete enters this stage, he knows many of the basic mechanics of the skill. His mistakes are fewer, less serious, and, more importantly, he is capable of recognizing many of his errors and is aware of how to take the proper steps to correct them. The goal now is to refine the skill.

It is paramount for the coach to continue to provide the athlete with useful, specific information and constructive feedback throughout this stage.

The autonomous stage:

This final stage of learning is realized only after much practice, quality repetition, and experience with the specific task. The skill has now become habitual or automatic. Obviously, this stage is not achieved overnight; it may take years, depending on the complexity of the skill.

The athlete is now able to recognize his errors and is cognizant of the process needed to correct them. Optimal performance is impossible until the athlete is operating in the autonomous mode.

Mistakes will still be made, even when this level of learning has been achieved. However, the individual will be able to tell the coach what he did wrong, why he did it, what should have been done, and describe the proper techniques for doing it.

As a coach, the only way to truly discern whether the athlete has achieved this higher level of learning is by quizzing him rather than lecturing him.

Questions like, "What did you see?" or "Why did you make that decision?" and "What should have been done in that situation?" will give the coach a better handle on where the player is in the learning progression. It will also motivate the player to learn by challenging his recall capabilities.


Sport skills can be placed on a continuum having "closed" and "open" categories.

Closed skills are at the low end of the continuum and take place under fixed, unchanging environmental conditions. They are predictable and have clearly defined beginning and ending points.

Feedback plays a minor role once the skill is initiated, and the skills are usually "self-paced" in the sense that the performer begins movement when he is ready. Bowling, golf, archery, and competitive weight-lifting are consummate closed-skill sports.

Closed skills can also be an integral part of more complex activities (e.g., the free throw in basketball, the center/QB exchange in football, etc.), even though most of the skills in these sports involve much more detail. Open skills, which are at the high end of the continuum, usually take place under the conditions of a temporarily or spatially changing environment. Decisions and adjustments have to be made while "on the run."

An example of this would be an offensive lineman having to man-block a defender with an initial lead step and is subsequently forced to adjust on the second or third step due to an angle move.

A more intricate example would involve a quarterback on a pass play called at the LOS. The pre-snap alignment of the defense will dictate a certain play call. However, once the ball is snapped, the defensive secondary may rotate to a different coverage or a blitz may occur. The receivers must now change their patterns and the QB must now adjust his primary/secondary receiver progression. All of this must be done while on the run in a few short seconds.

A major difference between closed and open skills is the reliance on feedback in the decision-making process. It may be visual feedback, as in the QB example, or it may involve another cue. Defensive linemen, for instance, are taught to utilize both visual cues and "pressure" cues (i.e., the type, angle, and direction of the block they are facing). These are known as "forced-pace" skills and are extremely complex due to the fact that the athlete must make quick decisions and get his body to react with precision in a very short period of time.

Due to the variability, dependence on feedback, and the mental pressure to make quick decisions under duress, it is evident that open skills require a higher level of learning than closed skills.


A common problem of coaches is whether to teach the skill as a whole and allow the athlete to get a better feel for the flow and timing of all of the elements involved, or practice the skill in parts in order to emphasize each important detail.

Before making this decision, the coach must analyze both the complexity and organizational requirements of the skill. Complexity refers to how many parts or components are involved in the skill along with the information-processing demands it carries.

The act of throwing a ball is rather low on the complexity scale. However, the example of the QB adjusting the pattern progression due to a post-snap coverage change-up and throwing on the run is highly complex.

The organizational requirements refer to how the components of a skill are interrelated. If the parts of the skill are rather independent, it would be considered low in organization.

Researchers tell us that if a skill is low in complexity and high in organization, practice as a whole is a better choice. In other words a simple skill with highly related component parts can be most efficiently learned through the whole practice approach.

If the skill is high in complexity and low in organization, the part method would be the better choice. This would involve a skill that has many components, but these components are independent.

What if the skill ranks high in both complexity and organization? A progressive-part method would be a wise choice in this case - organizing all of the parts in the order in which they occur in performing the skill, then progressively linking these parts one by one.

In other words, after part one is learned, part two is practiced independently. Then parts one and two are practiced together. Part three is then practiced independently before being combined with parts one two, and so on.

Example of highly effective progressive-part teaching: Teaching pass protection (their most difficult assignment(to offensive linemen. From the stance, pass set, timing of the punch, reactions to various types of pass-rush techniques, etc., this skill ranks very high in both complexity and organization.


Once you have decided on your teaching approach, remember to remain true to the principle of specificity. The encoding principle of specificity states that the more the practice context resembles the test (game) context, the better the performance will be.

Simply put, whether you use part, whole, or progressive-part in your teaching approach, be sure to maintain the element of exactness - teach them what you expect to be repeated under game conditions.

Suggested Reading

R. Magill, Motor Learning: Concepts and Applications, 4th edition, by, Wm. C. Brown, publishers, Madison, WI, 1993
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