Belief or technique? Which is the most important factor controlling performance in intermediate and elite athletes?
The majority of athletes find that their performance in practice is better and more consistent than their performance when under stress in competition. In this article I want to share with you some of the thinking behind how athletes should structure their practice in order to get the most out of it. I have included the references to allow those of you who wish to read around this subject the opportunity to do so.
There are many potential methods of addressing this fundamental problem in sport including optimising the use of practice time. There are several methods of practice, one of which follows a “traditional” practice regimen involving standard drills with emphasis on technical ability. Another follows a practice regimen emphasising performance under pressure and making practice comparable to competitive conditions with the message to these athletes that their technical ability is already good enough. The results from these two regimens have been studied to look at the most effective practice regimens for experienced, technically profficent archers preparing for events and also has possibilities for use in “slump busting” amongst experienced archers
Slump busting, is methods by which athletes can deal with the natural dips in performance that are experienced during a season.
Within many sports the current perceived wisdom when dealing with technically proficient athletes is that drill work and technical style is the area to be most focussed upon. These individuals have a technical proficiency, which is far superior to their ability to perform under stress in competition. Present studies show that a greater overt emphasis upon performance as opposed to sterile practising of technique will narrow the gap between performances in practice and competition and provide the most efficient use of practice time. Two questions must be asked about the strategy behind a training regime:
Although a balance must be formed in a functional training regimen which is more valuable to an experienced/elite athlete; concentrating their practice time on technique or belief
Does a structured practice regimen, which mirrors all aspects of the competition theatre, give better results in high stress situations than one that concentrates upon the technicalities of style?
Aims of performance based training techniques:
To show that the competitors who are prepared in a performance orientated way will out perform the athletes who concentrate purely on style and technical ability.
To trial varied training techniques to be used with higher level athletes and in developing strategies of “slump busting”.
To attempt to quantify the emphasis that should be placed on performance as opposed to technique within any competitive athletic scenario, without over emphasis on specific accepted coping skills such as the use of imagery.
The psychological processes and literature:
Abernethy, Thomas & Thomas (1993) found that the components of motor expertise include knowledge, skill, experience and motivation and hypothesised that these components change in relative importance over an individuals’ career. Knowledge is most important in the early acquisition phase but once the motor skill is acquired experience increases in significance while motivation may decrease or reflect changing priorities.
As individuals become expert in a motor skill there is not as much need for constant monitoring of sensory information. Starkes (1993) showed that people switch from a ‘closed-loop system’ using sensory feedback and perform intermittent modifications, to an ‘open-looped system’, where movement becomes primarily pre-programmed and no longer draws on feedback. This is relevant to more emphasis being placed upon the “performance” side of practice as all the individuals taking part have reached a stage of automatic execution in this closed motor skill.
Abernethy (1991) states that feedback should always be given during the practice session and practice should “provide the opportunity for the greatest number of practice-trials-with-feedback possible”. If practice is based on large quantity of repetitions in a sterile atmosphere there is no opportunity for external feedback that is a necessary part in competition. Schmidt points out that the goal of learning is for the individual to interpret intrinsic sources of feedback such as vision and proprioception which will be present in every situation in which the individual has to perform. The implication being that during practice the individual should receive information that is pertinent to and will be available to them in competition.
The connectionist theory of practice involves a neural network of processing units or nodes connected by links. Each node is connected to other nodes, sending signals back and forth between them and these nodes would represent different aspects of a practice regimen. According to Starkes (1993) the strength of these links between nodes is known as ‘weight’. A higher weight means that a stronger signal was received along a neural link with minimal interference. According to the connectionist position, the properties of nodes are regarded as being fixed, but the weights may be affected by practice. “Connectionist systems are capable of learning and becoming expert is essentially ‘getting your weights changed’.” (Starkes, 1993). This supports the idea that in order to succeed in a competitive scenario more “weight” must be given to performance characteristics as opposed to technical ability while recognising the importance of both.
According to the dynamical – ecological perspective perception and action are interwoven to a degree that perception influences action, and action gives deeper perceptual information to the motor expert through various practice methods. Allard (1993) states, “The perception-action link is so direct that no cognitive activity intervenes between them.” Therefore an intermediate competitor does not need to concentrate on the technicalities of skill execution but rather needs to structure their practice to allow better access to their skill when under pressure.
The old model for practice regimens is best demonstrated in team sports and was characterised by a series of highly structured lessons or sessions (Brooker, Kirk, Braiuka, & Bransgrove, 2001; Kirk & McPhail, 2002) and is largely based upon a strategy that emphasises the mastery of motor skills prior to game involvement (Grehaigne & Godbout, 1995). However,common complaints from teachers and coaches are that techniques often break down in game play, and there is, what appears to be a theory-practice gap (Brooker, Kirk Braiuka, & Bransgrove, 2001), that is, the ability of players to verbalize is present, but they then perform the skill exactly as they had before. Practice activities would seem to be of questionable value if they cannot be justified on the grounds of direct relevance and transfer potential to competitive tasks and conditions (Abernethy, 1991). A more functional approach to practice concentrates on integrating technical abilities and skill acquisition with tactical awareness. Obviously it is impossible to separate out a purely skill-drill based regimen from a more tactical or performance based approach as the learning process is far more complex than this and both elements are required (Holt et al, 2002).
In his research Abernethy (1991) identified six concepts that should govern practice structure these were: allowing for the greatest number of practice trials with feedback, spaced practice with recovery opportunities rather than massed practice leading to fatigue, varied practice, practice specific to competitive settings and demands, breaking down new skills into component parts for learning (not for continuous skills) and use of mental practice if applicable. Implementing a, performance based, regime of practice should develop a capacity for adaptation to varying competitive demands and conditions. Magil (1989) found that varied or “mixed” practice was better for long term skill retention and more transferable to another context such as a performance setting.
I hope that the above will help you to see the need for a practice regime that mirrors competition in as many ways as possible. This includes scoring, timing and setting of scoring goals for practice at the most basic of level, this then leads to “in-training” competitions and other strategies to increase pressure that mirrors competition.