Changing ‘weakness’ to focused practice and development all begins with the term Skill Practice: dedicated, targeted training that drives prudent application, yielding accelerated returns.
This just the beginning. Proper implementation of Skill Practice will accomplish two goals:
- Create a Default – (alliteration alert!) automatic actions for athletes
- Self Awareness – develop the ability for them to observe themselves
In my travels, these ‘skills’ have many names: coordination, mind-muscle connection, and the most appropriately, tacit knowledge, or the ability to demonstrate an action that is difficult to verbalize. You want to know why athletes make horrible coaches? They have the tacit knowledge of movement, but lack explicit knowledge.
This explains everything!
-Sincerely, DIII all-star
Tacit knowledge and the connection an athlete has with their body allows them to analyze their weaknesses and limiting factors. A Power Coach must focus on this grander developmental plan of Skill Practice, truly taking athletes where they cannot take themselves.
Skill Practice deserves a dedicated place in a strength and conditioning program. What exactly is “skill”, and how do you implement it for accelerated returns? Read on.
We will first provide essential reading, reference points, and establish a clear definition for skill.
What is a Skill?:
Every movement is skill! Arm Swing Drills, Footwork, even our big lifts like the Squat. It’s that simple. When programming skills, 5 components accelerate returns:
- Low Heart Rate: This is not a met-con for time or reps. This focused, deliberate practice requires keeping the HR in check.
- Sub-Maximal Effort: The skill in itself should be the stress. This is the introduction to, or perfecting of, technique. We are not challenging it with resistance, time, or pre-fatigue.
- Low Stress Training Environment: The athlete must let down their guard for the process. No one’s pressuring them, and mistakes are allowed!
- Compound Movements Broken Down: Take the skills found on Iron Flex and break them up into 2-4 components. This could either be the phases of the movement (set up, initiation, transition, follow through) or positional breakdowns (given the squat: Dead Bug Home Position, See Saw Walk, Spiderman w/ Elbow Drop). Mastery comes from the sum of the parts!
- Improves the Athlete’s Ability to Perform: Skill practice gradually improves an athlete’s ability to train in the weight room (Ex: squats, power cleans, or plyometrics) or their ability to play their sport (quick feet, separation of shoulders and hips, or hand eye coordination).
The Path, But Not the Destination
Let’s talk Skill vs Sport Skill vs Sport-Specific Skills
When programming, there is a difference between skill and sport skill. Skills training improves an athlete’s ability to train in the weight room. Breaking down and improving training skills will allow for more weight or reps only, not necessarily improved sports skills (unless your sport is CrossFit). Therefore, think of these as a means to end, but not the end itself.
Sport skills training improve the athlete’s general ability to play their sport. Examples include the separating shoulders from hips, footwork drills, or sprint starts (push up, lateral push up, kneeling, staggered, rocket, etc.) These are not sport-specific movements. Remember, you are not teaching the athletes how to play their sport. We are not instructing J.J. Watt how to tackle or catch touchdown passes, merely improving his ability to do so.
Athletes will experience more pain from boredom than physical exhaustion. Effective programming must embrace the tedium of the initial stages of skill acquisition and balance volume work and the expansion of other abilities.
For accelerated returns, Skill Practice must have a dedicated place in a strength template. It takes longer for an athlete to recover from Volume than Intensity, so training days following Volume lower body are perfect for Skill and Sport Skill training. This focused practice will aid in recovery while continuing athlete development. Skills can be effectively paired with heavy lower body Primals, while Sport Skills work well with fun, ever-creative Field Work. Constantly varying these will minimize the tedium and keep athletes looking forward to these days.
Sample Micro-cycle with Skill Practice:
Begin with one skill an athlete can master. This is the foundation for acquiring others. Break this skill into 2-4 phases and 2-4 positions, gradually developing competency in each. Phases include: preparatory phase (set up), initiation, force production phase, and recovery. Position mastery comes from primal proficiency. Improve proficiency by using warm up movements to break them down.
The coach uses both tools to locate limiting factors.
Abandon the idea that an athlete can manage learning several skills at once. This single-task approach goes beyond attacking limiting factors and developing a defulat and self-awareness. It teaches focus, a rarity in today’s ADD world. Attempting a multi-skill approach will kill the process. Training variance comes via warm ups, conditioning, and Field Work.
With targeted Skill Practice, a coach must work to keep the session low stress. Athletes may become frustrated with the monotonous tasks or misses, losing their focus (and subsequently, progress) once they hit their boiling point. Moreover, a Power Coach only counts the skill acquisition session if the athlete was able to accomplish the training goal. Without competency in a single component, the full skill will be a limiting factor in performance. Given these parameters, one could have multiple sessions addressing the same skill without moving forward. To the athlete, this could feel like spinning in a small circle forever. Thus, a Power Coach must create opportunities for accelerated returns wherever he can get them.
The Primal movement (Vertical Push, Vertical Pull, Horizontal Push, Horizontal Pull, Squat, Lunge, and Step) involved in the skill are included in the warm ups and stressed in a variety of ways. This is the daily opportunity for low stress, unconscious skill practice. Don’t tell them they’re tying skill components together, just let the athlete solve a problem with their body! If they miss, fall, or perform incorrectly; simply provide coaching. Competency in each component and the process of combining them will accelerate, and the next time a Skill Practice session is programmed, you’ll see the “Oh, shit! I got it” factor play out naturally.
Empower Your Performance – Learn How to Learn
The higher up the food chain an athlete goes, the more pressure there is to succeed. This often creeps training, and athletes begin to fear failure, avoiding any new, difficult skill or task. This kills training time dedicated to weakness training because these athletes only focus on their strengths. Connecting with these athletes will be a challenge, but not impossible. To secure buy-in with true Skill Practice, create a safe training environment, break skills down into chunks, and apply them into programming in which athletes see improvement, one chunk at a time.
Athletes who do not learn new skills will never comprehend their true potential or develop healthy self-criticism. They think they can achieve anything without effort. Implementing Skill Practice into training will give these athletes a dose of reality, making them deeply aware of their inadequacies and, even better, what they can accomplish with more effective training practices.
Power Athlete does not care what you CAN DO, you will never impress us. We focus on finding what you CAN’T DO, because that’s what’s going to lose you games.
EDU: ACL Injury Prevention by Power Athlete Academy
PODCAST: PA Radio Ep 356 – Making Performance a Habit w/ Julie Slowiak
PODCAST: PA Radio Ep 360 – The Language Of Coaching w/ Nick Winkelman
BLOG: Redefining Weakness Training: Approach by Tex McQuilkin
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BLOG: How Isometrics Can Change Your Life by Tex McQuilkin
MS, CSCS, SCCC, CHES
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Former collegiate lacrosse defensive midfielder, 4-year letter winner and 3-year team captain. Coached strength and conditioning collegiately with Georgetown University football, Men's and Women's lacrosse and Women's Crew, as well with the University of Texas at Austin's football program. Apprenticed under Raphael Ruiz of 1-FortyFour-1 studying proper implementation of science based, performance driven training systems. Head coached CrossFit Dupont's program for two years in Washington D.C. Received a Master's in Health Promotion Management from Marymount University in 2010, and has been a coach for Power Athlete since October, 2012.
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