In this blog post, I’d like to take a deep look at one of the key “talent tips” from Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent. Coyle is the author of both the in-depth book The Talent Code and the summary of tips known as The Little Book of Talent. Both books have a lot of valuable information for those interested in skill development, but they require context, explanation and perspective. They don’t tell the whole story.

Let’s start with Coyle’s thesis, the basis for all of his talent tips: “Skill is insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows according to certain signals.” That insulation is known as myelin, and it grows best in response to deep practice. The basic equation is as follows…deeper practice = more myelin = faster signals = better skills. The question, then, is how can we practice deeper? How do we eliminate disengaged, shallow practice and get into the zone of engaged, deep, performance-improving practice? …In short, how do we grow more myelin?

In this article, however, I want to dive deeper into some new thinking and research in the world of motor learning and skill acquisition concerning the relationship between the performer, the task and the environment. Myelination is important, but I would also like you to consider the following quote (with a different definition of “skill”):

“Skilled behavior can be considered as the coordination of a functional movement solution to achieve an intended task goal, and not as the rehearsal of a specific movement pattern to be able to perform it identically from trial to trial.” – Non-Linear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition

This thinking (and much of the research that backs it) has important implications for practitioners (IE, coaches) who seek to design training programs that improve the performance of the players they serve. It goes beyond the sometimes robotic training prescriptions suggested in Coyle’s books and encourages coaches to start with the training environment rather than worrying about the specific technique. This isn’t opposed to the “myelination model,” it’s just a different way of understanding those “certain signals” that produce the changes in the brain that, in turn, result in skilled performance. How can we, as coaches, create a training environment that gives our athletes the right kinds of signals?

“Talent Tip #7: Before You Start, Figure Out If It’s a Hard Skill or a Soft Skill”

Hockey is more about “soft skills” than most would think. Skillful players are those who can adapt to a dynamic game environment by applying “movement solutions” to fluid and ever-changing problems. Skillful players are not necessarily those who can reproduce a rigid and mechanically identical motor pattern from trial to trial. If coaches accept this as true, it should fundamentally change our approach to and definition of “practice.”

Let’s start by summarizing Coyle’s thesis in this chapter. Coyle asserts that there are two primary forms of skill, those characterized by the ability to reliably reproduce a mechanically similar movement pattern over and over again. Essentially, a skill that could be performed by a robot (and might be BEST performed by a robot) would qualify as a “hard skill.” Coyle includes such skills as a golf swing, finger position when playing the violin, basic math skills and free throw shooting in basketball. These type of skills usually occur in environments where there is one best solution to the problem and few variables in the environment. Coyle contrasts this with such “soft skills” as a soccer player manipulating the opposition defense to create an opening or a novelist shaping a plot. These type of skills usually occur in environments where there are multiple solutions to the problem and a great deal of variables for the performer to deal with.

Coyle goes on to argue that these two major categories of skill are not just skill expressed in different ways, they are literally regulated by different structures of brain circuitry. He concludes by saying that these two different types of skill should be developed with different kinds of deep practice. To summarize his conclusion (and give away the next two tips), he states that hard skills should be developed by “building like a carpenter” (IE, breaking the skill into its component chunks and perfecting each one before putting them back together into a meaningful sequence) and soft skills should be developed by “playing like a skateboarder” (IE, interacting, experimenting, and exploring inside of “challenging, ever-changing environments”).

Boy, there’s a lot to deal with here. But if you’re as interested in motor learning and skill acquisition as I am, it’s a rabbit hole worth going down.

I cannot speak to whether or not the research backs up the different neuro-physiological bases for hard skills and soft skills. Let’s assume that there is some evidence to support this claim (in my opinion, however, there is something problematic about the “robotic” teaching methods implied by Coyle’s idea of “hard skills”; just because a certain skill could be “best” performed by a robot is irrelevant as human beings are not robots and do not learn like robots; this is something I’ll deal with in future articles on how human beings learn best).

To go beyond Coyle’s summary, however, I would like you to consider first that not only are certain skills hard/soft, but individual sports themselves fall somewhere on a continuum from “hard skill dominant” to “soft skill dominant.” It’s my thesis that hockey is one of the most soft skill dominant sports in the world. If that’s the case, we need to give hockey players the right kind of “certain signals” (IE, training stimuli) so that we are developing the right kind of skills (IE, soft skills). If we give them lots of signals that develop only “hard skills,” their training will be unlikely to result in improved in-game performance. Let’s discuss.

Sports as a Continuum: Soft-Skill Sports, Hard Skill Sports and Those In-Between

Hard-Skill Dominant Sports

 

Examples:

  • Figure Skating
  • Golf
  • Gymnastics
  • Track and Field

Categories:

  • Individual Sports
  • Aesthetic Sports
  • Indirect Competition Sports

Characteristics:

  • Competition is not usually direct (IE, golfers, figure skaters, gymnasts, etc. compete against each other’s scores, they do not actively try to stop their opponents from performing).
  • Performance may be pre-determined, choreographed and based primarily on: aesthetics (gymnastics or figure skating), physical strength and fitness (track and field) or repeatable mechanics (golf).
  • There is a limit on who can touch the implement (IE, ball or puck) or there is no implement at all.
  • The variables are highly predictable. The figure skating routine is performed as it was practiced, the 100M dash is performed the same each time. Golf is somewhat less predictable due to environmental differences from hole-to-hole/course-to-course and due to the fact that the player may play the ball to an undesired lie. However, golfers are given considerable time in which to make decisions about what to do. Their performance is determined more by repeatable movements from swing to swing rather than split-second decision-making skills.
  • There is lots of time to make decisions or there are no decisions at all.
  • Performance takes place in a relatively “tranquil” environment.

Moderate Soft-Skill/Hard-Skill Sports

 

Examples:

  • Baseball
  • American Football
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball

Categories:

  • Court-Divided Sports
  • Fielding & Striking Sports
  • American Football (Technically, this falls into the “rugby codes” category, but the American version is much more rigid and the players’ roles more strictly defined than is the case in Australian Rules Football or Rugby. Therefore it really is its own category).

Characteristics:

  • Some direct competition between players
  • Restrictions on movement (IE, tennis players have to stay on their side of the net, baseball players remain in relatively predictable positions and run around the bases in a predictable pattern)
  • Restrictions on who can touch the implement (IE, only the pitcher can deliver a pitch in baseball, the ball is thrown by the quarterback in football and only designated receivers can catch it) and how the implement can be moved (IE, no forward passes are allowed in American Football once the ball has passed the line of scrimmage)
  • Variables are more random than those in “hard-skill sports” but still more predictable than those in “soft-skill sports.”
  • Some moments with lots of time to make decisions (play calls in football or pitch calls in baseball) and some moments with very little time to make decisions (once the ball is in play)
  • Lots of relatively lengthy stoppages
  • Performance takes place in an environment that alternates between moments of tranquility and moments of chaos.

Soft-Skill Dominant Sports

 

Examples:

  • Basketball
  • Hockey (Ice and Field)
  • Lacrosse
  • Soccer

Categories:

  • Invasion Sports

Characteristics:

  • Usually team sports in which a group of people try to invade an opponent’s territory and put an implement (ball, puck, etc.) into an apparatus (basket, net, etc.) with another group of people (the opponent) trying to stop them.
  • Large number of players in direct competition
  • Freedom of movement for most players. Usually involve some restrictions such as offsides rules and limitations on goalkeeper movement, but most players are allowed to move into most areas of the playing surface.
  • Most players can touch the implement (IE, ball or puck) at any given moment and have wide latitude in how to move the implement (forward passes are generally allowed).
  • Variables are highly unpredictable. Both the implement and the other players can move (almost) anywhere at any time.
  • Very little time to make decisions. Very few moments for pre-planning.
  • Lengthy periods of “free play” with only short stoppages.
  • No two games are exactly the same. Impossible to reproduce the same performance from game-to-game, shift-to-shift or even moment-to-moment because so many external factors are constantly changing.
  • Performance takes place in an environment that is very chaotic.

Why does this matter?

“You can’t adapt to an environment you don’t inhabit.” – Prof. Keith Davids 

It matters, because if your practice environment isn’t like the game environment, the skills you develop in practice won’t transfer to the game. Furthermore, in order to make practice environments align with game environments, we have to actually understand what the game environment (and skilled performance within it) looks like. 

IF: Hockey is a soft-skill sport in which skillfull play is largely determined by decision-making in a chaotic environment. 
IF: Physical execution of skills changes when done in the presence of opponents. 
IF: We live in a world in which ice, time and energy are all limited and coaches have to prioritize the most important skills to develop when planning practices. 
THEN: The vast majority of training to improve hockey performance should involve game-like, chaotic environments in which players have to make decisions in response to teammates and opponents. Mindless, choreographed and pre-determined drills should be discarded as a waste of our two most precious resources: time and energy. 

This matters because it fundamentally changes how you should approach practice (whether you are a coach planning for your team or a player working on your skills at home). Practice is not about developing players who can repeat mechanically identical motor patterns over and over. Practice is about developing players who can cooperate with teammates, compete against opponents and solve the problems presented to them by a dynamic game environment. If you take one thing away from this article, take that. 

Aside from certain highlight reel goals, most of what we see NHL players do in a game (stop, start, crossover, tight turn, basic stickhandle, snap shot, etc.) are the same skills that could be executed proficiently by the average bantam player. What separates them is the ability to use these skills adaptively based on current game conditions, their ability to manipulate the game environment and the opponent to accomplish a task. It is not their ability to repeat a “cirque du soleil” stickhandling move or a complicated edge drill that never occurs in a real game but, rather, their ability to use the right skill at the right time. 

In order to create representative and rich learning environments we should look to satisfy the following criteria with every practice experience (heads up, I stole this list from USA Hockey):

  • Fun
  • Challenging
  • Looks like the game
    • When was the last time you saw a player do a single leg inside-edge circle in a game? When was the last time you saw a player skate in a straight line from end to end with no opposition while stickhandling the puck?
    • On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a player forced to protect the puck in a tight space, skate evasively around an opponent and make a decision about which teammate to pass to? I’m watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs and I’m seeing it right now. 
  • Involve decision making
  • Involve lots of game-realistic repetitions
    • This is better termed “repetition without repetition” or “repetition of variation.” Not all “reps” are created equal. Lots of isolated and out-of-context reps (think traditional edge drills, figure-8 stickhandling or powerskating) have little transfer to real hockey games. By allowing players to solve problems within the context of a small area game, we satisfy all of the criteria above. Players have fun, they are challenged, they are playing a real game (rather than repeating mindless drills), they are making decisions and they are repeating skills more often than they would on the full-ice, but in ways that are still highly similar to how those skills are executed in a real game. 

Drills and Coaching Styles to Discard (or Limit)

  • Flow Drills
  • Edge Drills
  • Unopposed stickhandling drills
  • Unopposed skating drills
  • Repetitive passing drills that do not require players to make a decision when executing the pass
  • “Cone” drills in which players skate through cones in a pre-determined pattern with no pressure. 
  • Choreographed and pre-determined drills that do not involve decision making 

Simple Ways to Create Rich Learning/Practice Environments

  • Steal small area (or “small-sided”) games from other invasion sports. Coaches in other invasion sports such as basketball and (especially) soccer have come up with tons of great small area games that can be easily modified to take place on a hockey rink. Rondo (a category of keep away games developed for soccer in which one team always has a numerical advantage) is a great example.
    • Futsal, essentially the soccer equivalent of a condensed-space 3v3 hockey game is a key element in the developmental path of some of the best soccer players in the world. Emilio Miranda, a professor of soccer at Sao Paulo University calls futsal Brazil’s “laboratory of soccer improvisation.” To mimic this skill development accelerator, try spray-painting a cross-ice space (approximately 85’x70′) with a real red line, blue lines and goal lines and play a condensed 3v3 “full-ice” game with icing, faceoffs, penalties and offsides all enforced. 
  • Always include a task or objective. (IE, “Can you keep the puck away from those players?” “Can you pass to everyone on your team before shooting?”) Don’t just tell players to mimic a movement, give them a task-goal and let them try to accomplish it. Not only does this result in more meaningful learning, tasks with real outcomes provide feedback for the players (they either accomplished the task-goal or not) without you having to say a word about their “technique.”
    • An easy way to shape the task is to change how points are scored (try making any goal worth the number of passes that preceded the shot; 4 passes before the shot means the goal is worth 4 points while 1 pass means the shot is worth only 1 point). 
  • Shape the environment. Limit space or expand the space depending on the needs of your players. Use markers or spray paint to create a grid which determines how players can and cannot move.
  • Manipulate the amount of players to create odd-number situations or even number situations depending on your goal. You can also change how players enter or exit the game environment (are they activated with a pass or sent in randomly? Do they always enter from the same location?)
  • Ensure that players interact, cooperate and/or compete. Do not let players work in isolation and out of context.
    • This is not just about decision making. It has a direct impact on physical execution of skill. Adding defensive pressure makes players do things like widen their stance and bend their knees without the coach having to provide any technical instruction. Conversely, if you want your players to keep their heads up, why would you provide them with visual stimuli (cones) that are at their feet? Rather than yelling, “bend your knees!” or “keep your head up!” try shaping the environment to influence the technique and you won’t have to say a word. 
  • Start with the game, not with the drill. Next time you plan a training session for yourself or others, don’t go look up drills to do. Sit down and watch a real game critically. What are the “high percentage” skills and situations that you see happen over and over again? Create practice environments that put players in these situations. 
  • In short, whatever you want to work on, ask yourself how can you do it in a way that does not have pre-determined outcomes, forces players to make decisions and has a definite measure of whether or not players succeeded at their task.  

The ice hockey version of futsal. By painting the full-ice markings on the ice, playing 3v3 and using a coach or ref to enforce the rules, we create a highly game-realistic learning environment in which players get more reps and have less time to make decisions than they would have during a 5v5 full-ice scrimmage. 

Because these reps take place in a realistic game context, they are much more likely to transfer to real game performance compared to isolated skill work. If you want your players to “work on their edges” or improve their passing, shooting or stickhandling, you can bet they will be doing all of those things in the above environment. 

Ecological Dynamics, Non-Linear Pedagogy & The Constraints-Led Approach: New Methods of Teaching and Understanding Skill 

Games-Based Approach to Practice Design

What is the best way to teach the skills that actually transfer to playing better in hockey games?

We’ll be diving into some of the above concepts in future weeks. For now, the article is long enough and needs to come to an end. Let’s finish with this teaser:

Forget about coaching technique. Forget about coaching mechanics. Forget about telling players “how.” Focus on the environment and how it can be shaped to encourage specific kinds of behaviors and adaptations. Give players an environment and a task to accomplish within it and let them come up with their own solutions. Good coaching should not take a “technique-out” approach but, rather an “environment-in” approach. 

I’ve listed a few videos below for anyone who wants to dig in ahead of time. 

More to come…

Basic Explanation of Non-Linear Pedagogy in Sport 

The video above does a good job of showing practical differences between a “constraints-led approach” to learning and an “isolated practice approach.”

Representative practice design using an ecological dynamics perspective. 

Brandon Reich-Sweet

Brandon Reich-Sweet

Brandon Reich-Sweet is a former AAA hockey player from Colorado, currently a coach for the historic Littleton Hockey Association south of Denver, a lead instructor with the Ice Ranch’s Learn to Play Hockey Program and a private instructor offering lessons and small group camps. He is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Level 4 USA Hockey Certified Coach, a Level 1 USA Weightlifting Certified Coach and a strength & conditioning coach with the Colorado Rampage AAA Hockey Club. He is the founder of BRS High Performance Hockey, a hockey skills and training company dedicated to comprehensive and long-term player development through the 4-pillar approach of fundamental skills coaching, game-representative problem solving training, strength & conditioning, and athletic development. Brandon is currently pursuing an M.S. degree in Applied Exercise Science (Sports Performance Concentration) at Concordia University Chicago.