Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Physical Education 101

Reflecting back on some of the important experiences I've had that has made an impact on my coaching, outside of having learned from working with and training under some great coaches, my undergraduate degree in physical education has had an enormous influence on my coaching skills especially with regards to team settings. It's unfortunate that physical education degrees often get a bad rap, where many just think it's roll-out the ball and let them play (which can actually be a good thing). Or Mr. Woodcock style (although I do like his style),

Mr. Woodcock: "Are you going to be a loser?"

Young Farley: [wincing while doing pullup] "No sir..."

Mr. Woodcock: "Rhetorical Farley. I already know the answer. You are a disgrace to fat, gelatinous, out of shape little kids the world over."

However the teaching skills I gained from an excellent P.E. program have been my most used in all the application. In the program we not only had the usual classroom lecture and discussions, but were fortunate to have the opportunity to apply P.E. lessons to classes at a small local private elementary school, who unfortunately did not have a full-time P.E. instructor. This gave us the chance to teach an entire semester of classes ranging from sport education, skill development, and dance.

No real particular order, but ones that stood out and have influenced me:

1. Body orientation. As a teacher it's important to position yourself to be able to see the entire class from where you stand. Having the ability to roam about the environment helping individuals, while with a quick glance, being able to assess the activity of the entire group. This means that even if a student comes up to you with a question or you are giving individual feedback, you still have your eyes and ears facing the entire group. Regardless it is a matter of repositioning yourself or the student, always have your eyes and ears towards the class.

Always be able to see and hear as much as possible.

2. Keep them active. Everytime we taught, our college instructor and one other fellow student would record instruction time and activity time. At the end of the day of teaching, we would tally up the number of minutes giving instruction in which the students sat or stood listening and the minutes the students were engaged in physical activity. Our goal was to have the students active for something like 75% of the time or more where students were moving. Having minimal instruction time, with maximal activity time, maintaining that the lesson was being comprehended. This forced instruction to be precise and concise.

Time is a huge limiting factor, maximize it. But please... don't just do stuff to do stuff... because energy can be just as limiting as time.

3. Specific feedback and correction. We were also recorded for the amount of feedback we gave and the type (along with being video taped). It was okay to give general feedback such as "good job!", or "nice work" but at a minimum. as our professor was really looking for was specific feedback. Whether it was evaluative or corrective, it needed to be specific; "Push the ground away from you", "bring your elbow towards the sky" (corrective); "you're doing a nice job of extending your elbow", or "good step on that throw" (evaluative). One of the main things I remember being emphasized was catching them while they are doing something good, using positive specific feedback (not raving praise, just 'neutral' compliment), while being vocal enough for the rest of the class to hear. If they heard how Johnny was doing a particular thing well, everyone paid attention and tried to be like Johnny doing that same thing he was doing.

Give specific, accurate feedback. Make it positive but don't 'drool' over something or someone.

3 1/2. Along with the specific feedback, another important ability is to be able to adjust back and forth between local and global feedback. Giving instruction/feedback to an individual in close proximity while quickly giving instruction/feedback to an individual at a distance away from you the teacher, and then quickly getting back to the individual closest to you again; easier understood seen done than said. This also relates to voice dynamics which I'll comes up in a later point, but having the ability to communicate effectively both near and far over a large group. All this relates back to body orientation and the ability to see and hear the entire group.

Be able to extend your communication over a large group and area.

4. Group feedback. Playing off number 3, group feedback was important because it often covers many issues that much of the entire group has/had. While maintaining good positioning for yourself to see the entire group, you may begin to see an error show up more than once by multiple students. At times it's important to stop the entire group and bring them together to make some specific points. Instead of spinning your head trying to correct each individual, group feedback allows a teacher to correct many students while only giving the feedback one time... basically just teaching efficiency.

Teach efficiently, cover important points with the entire group.

5. Another opportunity with the individual or group feedback is to check comprehension. Instead of simply just 'spoon feeding' the information, asking the student(s) the question(s) regarding a specific movement, drill, or skill requires them to provide their own feedback on the situation at hand. The student(s) providing the feedback (answer) enhances the potential for the point to be learned affectively, drawing on the emotional specificity of it relating to him or herself, making the association (neural connection) stronger. Cold call if everyone stares with blank looks (this will help enhance engagement).

Strengthen comprehesion through questions.

You obviously don't want to go overboard on the group feedback, as the group will lose interest and motivation from excessive stop of everyones' activity. Only use it at a points where it necessary and will have a collective effect, even reinforcing things for the ones doing things correctly. Use your teaching/coaching sense...

6. Teacher enthusiasm, voice dynamics, and nonverbal behavior. Teaching enthusiasm affecting performance and learning goes without saying; a teacher excited about what he/she is teaching tends to care more and work harder to get the lessons across, while making the students feel that what they are doing is worthwhile. Along with enthusiasm comes voice dynamics and the ability to change loudness, pitch/tone, and timing of delivery. Included with the voice dynamics are nonverbal behaviors of the teacher, utilizing hand and body movements when presenting information. Having the uncanny ability to adapt the communication to different learners and situations is the most artistic ability in teaching/coaching. This takes continued practice and experience. This is as important of a skill a teacher/coach can possess and practice, there just isn't any substitute.

Present dynamically.

7. Demonstration. One of the best and most obvious ways to communicate in a physical setting is through the use of demonstration. A demonstration needs to be accurate and when possible it's important to use a student to demonstrate. Using a student to demonstrate, frees up the teacher to direct the students focus to specific aspects of the movement. Another possibility here is the use of media, which again leaves the teacher free to guide attention to particular points about what is being observed. It's vitally important for the teacher to guide the students observations of the demonstrations. The demonstrations need to be repeated multiple times, and it is thereafter, that more traditional verbal communication can be used because now words will have more relevance to students who now understand better what's being discussed. At this point a teacher can stress how and why a particular skill is performed a certain way.

Good demonstration breeds good demonstrators.

8. Cueing. Make cueing simple and precise; short phrases that are consistent and easily remembered (rhymes help a lot). Take the time to explain in greater detail the specific cues early, and from then on use the short, quick, and accurate phrases only when necessary.

Short and simple cues.*

This last one I did not learn in about in my undergrad but I think has some pretty strong effects and is important to think about...

9. Teacher expectancy. This one's important and is a maybe a little less tangible, but the teachers expectation of the students really has a strong impact on achievement. Having belief in your students goes a long way with their success. The teacher is strong in their influence on the culture of the group and building a strong group culture is paramount in creating an achieving environment. An area of expectation that a coach or teacher might be well advised in looking into is the work of psychologist Claude Steele of Stanford University. His "stereotype threat" research is pretty interesting regarding performance and a coach might well invest the time to try to inflict a positive stereotype with his or her athletes within the culture of the team.

Again, this is just a few of the many concepts I gained from my physical education degree. I continue to practice and work on refining these concepts daily, but the fact that I had the opportunity to begin this practice over 10 years ago in my undergraduate education has allowed me to make some of these skills become more unconscious, freeing up conscious 'space' for other information/skills to hone. With that, my honest (albeit biased) suggestion for someone wondering what they should major in if they want to become a sport or performance coach is physical education.

*One of the things I am working on with regards to instruction and feedback is attentional focus. I am trying to come up with cues utilizing more of an external focus vs. internal focus. An obvious example is with a basketball player shooting; attentional focus on the rim and spin on the ball (external) vs. focus on the positioning of the shoulders and extension of the elbow and flexion of the wrist (internal).

Backed on research, external attentional focus wins 'hands down' in improving performance and decreasing muscle activity vs. internal attentional focus, making an athlete more accurate and efficient.

A specific example is, in the past I've struggled with teaching athletes how to bound well, even using good demonstration. Basically I had the athletes use their imagination about crossing a rapid river full of the deadly crocodiles and hungry hippos, and that stones were spaced apart across the river. Their objective: cross as quickly as possible leaping stone to stone avoiding the crocodiles and hippos... magically they bound pretty well. Cheesy I know, and athletes think I'm weird but its been effective. For shorter bounds, stones are closer together; long bounds, they're further apart. Another way to do this with an external focus, would be setting up mini-hurdles or objects at specific spacing to get the effect. The important aspect is to just learn the movement, once this is down the specifics can be adjusted and refined later. Another example of using external attentional focus is teaching tuck jumps and the athletes playing the role of Mario having to jump over barrels coming at them.

Obviously these things can be done with hurdles or other objects, but in large group settings and with minimal time, imagination can work pretty well.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's upon us!

The apocalypse is fast approaching...

Hilarious! I think Mister Rogers enjoys this device for other reasons too (1:49 mark).


(Thanks to Erwan Le Corre for pointing this out... on second thought... maybe not... Ignorance is bliss... until shit hits the fan.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Be wary of absolutes

(After thinking over the previous title of this post, I realized that "There are NO absolutes" is a paradoxical statement, as "There are NO absolutes" is an absolute.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been experimenting with some trunk flexion exercises; floor sit-up movements (working on quality spinal flexion), some hanging curl-ups. These supposed death sentence movements have played out nicely for me personally. After a solid set of a specific trunk flexion exercise, I've taken a little shoulder pain and erased it from my senses. Along with improving overhead ROM and pressing technique, these trunk flexion exercises have also helped cleaned-up my overhead squat pattern and lunge movements... and I've felt better the last couple weeks than I have in a while. I know simple trunk movements won't directly improve certain athletic measures, but improving the coordination, flexibility, and neuromuscular and fiber strength of my trunk will impact, and has, the real work that does lead to better performance in these measures.

So, what does this mean to the anti-flexion ideology with regards to training the torso? It's not simply one or the other. With that being said, there are many athletes that I work with, that I would no way in hell have perform these movements; while there are some that I have and will.

Will repeated flexion cause some sort of disc/spine damage? Sure, as any REPEATED movement can. It doesn't mean some may not benefit.

The important thing as coaches is the ability to decipher what's necessary. Understanding movement, but be able to look, listen, and ultimately learn from each and every athlete. Each athlete is going to bring a unique difference outside of the usual 2 arms, 2 legs, a torso, head... you get the point. The idiosyncrasies of movement patterns, postures, and mindsets have to be considered. I agree with most coaches that an understanding of some sort of ideal is important, but not all shapes fit into perfectly round holes. Athletes have been adapting since birth and sometimes I think we have to accept there will be differences that we may not be able to change or may take years (structural and connective tissue adaptations). I've seen athletes with foot and ankle structures and motions, for example, that don't match for perfect ROM and scores on a squat or lunge test, yet are some of the best athletes I've seen with no injury. Not saying it won't happen, and maybe they can improve, but I am always questioning what's right. I've also seen athletes with exceptional "weightroom" movements who have chronic muscle pulls and joint issues.

Anyway, trunk flexion movements have been helping me lately. Some will say that scratching a scab feels good too, but doesn't make things better... but I feel pretty confident with what I am doing and I've gotten plenty of reasons/theories as to why this has been beneficial for me and I'd be more than happy to discuss.

Regardless, I just wanted to share these thoughts...


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Getting Fit or Fit

I've blogged this in the past, but quite simply, conditioning is vital. I am reminded of this daily. It's so much more than just energy systems. Specificity of movements (or non-specific a la "cross training"/variation), velocities, sensory stimuli, nutrition and hydration levels, sleep, and pyschological states.

I am not going to advocate the idea of old school aerobic base (actually I am, just different methods), but I will say a conditioning base. It comes down to being fit and it doesn't just start in the first few weeks (or last few) of the off-season or pre-season; it's year round. There are adaptations that have to take place throughout the body that needs time, just as building strength, speed and power do.

There's nothing magic or secret about it, just that very fit athletes tend to fare better than those that take many minutes to regain their breath (and composure) following a simple warm-up or agility drill... and a de-conditioned athlete, I would argue, is more likely to get hurt than one that is well-tuned.

Can you run/sprint well, change direction over and over, move your body in a multitude of ways with a quick tempo, all while being able to get the heart and breathing rate to fall quickly back into a comfortable zone upon completion?

Everybody lifts hard. Everyone does some plyos. Everyone sprints and does some agility work. Not everyone conditions (year round). It can be specific conditioning sessions or just sequencing and pacing of the movements, lifts, and/or drills one is already doing. Athletes can look very impressive in the weightroom or run fast or jump high on precise performance tests but once the real game starts, is the tank empty after the first few minutes. Speaking of the beginning of a competition, pre-contest anxiety can really compound this, making conditioning, again, very important from an ability to recover from this, but also the familiarity of having actually gasped real hard for air before and the confidence to know we are in shape for the entire duration.

But remember that there's balance that needs to be applied, because while conditioning is critical, it cannot destroy ones ability to develop more speed and power... but being more fit (in the correct domain) should enhance this. And, considering the current state of things, I am not too concerned that many are really conditioning too hard... outside of some endurance athletes. (That seems to be a common thread; endurance athletes need less conditioning, while other intermittent sprint sports need more... )

Survival of the fittest... and not just who falls off the wagon; get fit and stay fit so everyone stays on. It comes down to the most highly trained and physically energetic, and the symbiotic relationship between those two traits.

I've mentioned Walter Payton before; another that comes to mind is Jerry Rice... who was influenced by his then teammate Roger Craig. These guys made Montana's job easy. Ahhh the good old days...


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"American Idle"

I read "American Idle" by Mary Collins back in February. It's a well written, inspiring, and extremely important book. If we want 'better' in any domain, this is where it starts. I highly recommend you, and everyone you know, check it out... it affects us all.