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Teaching vs. Training: When to do What

Last week, I wrote about the difference between learning/teaching (changing a motor pattern) and training (refining a motor pattern). Understanding the textbook definitions is only the first step, however. I believe it's just as important to know when to teach and train, and furthermore, to understand the role of the coach and player in each of these situations.

To decide what to do, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves.

Where is the skill on the skill acquisition pathway?

As mentioned last week, teaching is reserved for when a skill is in its infancy – when the athlete is at the “conscious incompetent” stage. Conversely, training should take place when the skill has been acquired and is on its way to mastery – the “unconscious competent” stage.

This is particularly important because not doing so can have multiple detrimental effects. If a skill is trained when it hasn’t been acquired, a few things can happen. For one, it may break down, as training involves pushing the limits of the skill. If it has not yet been acquired, it may not withstand the pressure. This breaking down can then affect the athlete’s confidence. Second, even if the skill can withstand the training, the athlete will be refining a motor pattern that is presumably inefficient if it were an efficient pattern, it wouldn’t be at the “incompetent” stage. In that case, the end result is that the player’s long-term potential is limited by technical inefficiencies.

On the other hand, if a coach is always breaking down and re-teaching skills that have already been mastered, they may cause other side effects. First, the player may never trust those skills. Repetition breeds confidence, and if you’re always making changes, you don’t get that consistent repetition. Second, the player may struggle in competition, since the skill will not be automatic. When a skill is trained, it automatizes. This means that execution and perception improve, and the brain is freed up to compete and make decisions. Lastly, re-teaching an acquired skill may actually slow the athlete’s progress. Teaching almost always takes more time than training – the skill has to be broken down, taught, and eventually reintegrated. If the gain in performance from this teaching is small, it makes more sense to save time by just training the skill, seeing a similar gain, and then refocusing on areas with greater potential for improvement.

What is your goal?

Let’s imagine I’m coaching a 9 year old boy. His backhand is a mess, and he really wants to improve in the hopes of achieving his long-term goals. In this case, I’ll probably break the shot down, establish some fundamentals, and invest the time in teaching it properly so that he is eventually no longer limited by any technical flaws. This approach will take more time, and the athlete will suffer a period of uncertainty, but the investment is worthwhile given the size of the goal.

On the other hand, let’s imagine a 52 year-old man who comes to me with a similar problem – his backhand is inconsistent. In his case, however, he just wants to get a bit better so that he can compete with his friends in his weekly doubles match. If I were to break the skill down and teach it, it would take a lot of time and probably affect his confidence for a while – all for a relatively small goal: competing in a friendly doubles match. In this case, I would simply make a few tweaks, maybe raise his awareness of the ball and the racket, and see if I couldn’t refine the technique a bit without actually changing the motor pattern.

How much time do you have?

In a similar vein, let’s imagine I’m coaching a 15 year-old who’s competing internationally. She’s in between competitive blocks – she just got home and we’ve got two weeks before the next tournament starts. She’s been struggling with her serve. Am I going to break it down and make changes? Of course not. As with the 52 year-old, I may make a few tweaks, but my focus will mainly be on getting repetitions, raising awareness of key elements, and building confidence. She goes away, competes for a few weeks, then comes back, and we’ve got two months before her next block. Then I’ll make any changes that need to be made – when there isn’t the stress of imminent competition.

Not only is it important to know in which blocks we should teach and in which ones we should train, but we also have to schedule appropriately within the blocks. In my two-week block, I still want to make some tweaks at the start, because I don’t want my player to peak too early and then come off that peak at the end of the second week when she’s heading into competition. Conversely, in my teaching block, I still need to make sure that the skills are mastered and solidified by the end of it so that she’s confident and prepared for the tournaments ahead. It’s all shades of grey, and planning is everything.

What age/stage of development is the athlete at?

This line of questioning is similar to the one above, but with a few additional notes. At a young age, breadth is more important than depth. In other words, kids should be exposed to lots of different skills which they can later go on to master. As they say, tennis is an early-initiation, late-specialization sport. Players should be introduced to the sport and its many complexities at an early age, but should benefit from a multi-sport (and multi-skill) experience before specializing (once again, in both sport and skills) when they’re older. We also have to consider athletes’ bodies – younger athletes should not be exposed to as many repetitions of the same motor pattern for risk of injury – and athletes of any age may not be able to perform certain motor patterns due to physical limitations.

At an older age, when the importance of competition and results rises, it’s often logical to take existing skills and refine them (along with making tactical, physical, and mental improvements) rather than teach new skills. The evidence of this approach is all over the pro tours. While there are far more “all-around players” today than there were, say, 30 years ago, careful observers will note that nearly every player in the top 100 ATP or WTA has a weakness (if not a few), and technical inefficiencies can be found in a good percentage of them. This is not to diminish their results – in fact, it is a testament to their work ethic that they have done exactly what any intelligent player should do – maximize what they have for the greatest possible gain. These players have realized that the greater improvements at their level come from getting better at what they already do well, rather than investing a lot of time to work on an area of their game they’ve already learned to protect.

Next week: our conclusion – the different roles that the player and coach play when teaching or training.


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