How to Improve Faster at Sport Skills
As a rugby player for Texas Tech University, I made more progress as a lifter and player than I have ever made in any athletic endeavor, before or since. My weight room numbers exploded and my playing stats did as well. It was my third year in/around the sport, I was skilled enough to play varsity Sevens and mature enough to attend varsity Fifteens practices, on weekends I introduced my fiance to the rules and techniques of the sport, I taught some other players how to lift, and I had a CrossFit-focused lifting partner.
But what was the real secret to my wild progress?
I’m clearly a genetic freak, that’s what. It isn’t obvious?
There is no new information in the world of sports. Though research emerges every day about nutrition, athlete psychology, coach-team dynamics, force production, strength development, and the impact of aerobic exercise on power athletes (Hint: It’s critical, but jogging still sucks), we don’t really know anything significant that coaches were missing in 1936.
[Aside: In Jesse, a brilliant film, his coach says to take lots of steps to accelerate. This is absolutely true and correct…on a cinder track. Super-responsive modern tracks require different dynamics. Are we really faster or is technology just more helpful?]
What really drove my progress while playing for Tech were the same factors Daniel Coyle laid out in The Talent Code. (My friend Tony Holler says this should be required reading for all coaches. I agree.)
- Practice around people better than you
- Work at the edge of your ability
- Teach the skills you know
- Find mentors and/or coaches
We could end the article right here; that is all you need to know about improving faster at your sport skills. Hang on, though, let’s dig deeper.
What is the impact of surrounding yourself with technically superior examples?
I love when children observe adult sport practices. My daughter attended over half of Texas Showdown’s speed development sessions and some of Cosa Nostra’s technical & conditioning sessions. She stared at every player with rapt attention, during every drill, for the duration of every practice. One day, she jumped into the warmup–skipping is fun for kids, remember–and executed the A-skips, straight-leg runs, and bounds better than some of the players.
“Vision of excellence” is a phrase I once heard from a football coach. Freshman kids finish practice before the JV, then they stick around to watch. JV kids play the day before varsity, then get invited to the sideline Friday nights. You have to see where you’re aiming, from a technical standpoint.
Many athletes sprint poorly. It’s no wonder why! In sports with little access to coaching or long-term development such as American rugby or ultimate, athletes learn their sport from people who were never taught to run. Worse, those who were taught are rarely elite performers from other sports. In American football, though, I was exposed to a live Dallas Cowboys game before I was ten years old. The NFL only attracts the strongest lifters and fastest sprinters and most explosive jumpers–then it rejects 90% of those and keeps the cream of the cream! I grew up in a football town. After our middle school district championship game, my team and our opponents were invited to watch the high school varsity from the sideline.
During a high school offseason, several of us were sent to a linebacker camp hosted on a college campus in east Texas. Every morning after breakfast, we watched the D-II college team drill and condition before we started our training for the day.
In football, we had a vision of excellence at every stage of development. As an awkward twelve year-old, I had high schoolers showing–NOT telling–me how plays should be run. As an inefficient sixteen year-old, I had college players showing–again, NOT telling–me how to tackle effectively. Your brain absorbs images hundreds of times faster than it does words. I was exposed to literally tens of thousands of images of good football. And, by Texas football standards, by which some kids start watching and playing at four, I got a late start!
The impact of being surrounded by better players is that you can learn just by exposure. You can observe what good / great / excellent is in your sport. You can absorb the mental picture of elite performance. Then, when you go practice, you aspire toward that ideal.
So, if you want to make more improvement at your sport skills, step one is to go watch people better than you. Don’t talk. Don’t ask questions. Don’t even mimic, yet. Just watch. With rapt attention. Develop a vision of excellence.
What is the impact of intentionally struggling with a skill and failing?
When discussing motor development–your brain learning to move your body efficiently–physiologists and researchers like to reference this quote: “The body only adapts to an unaccustomed stimulus.” Riddle me this: why does cycling teach young children to sprint better? Now do me one more: why aren’t competitive cyclists even average runners?
Imagine you’ve taken your first two or three piano lessons, during which you learned a simple C major scale. The first step toward mastering that scale is to play it forward slowly, exaggerating your finger movements, owning your timing, making the notes sing. Once you can do this hyper-slow, then play it backward. You will struggle and stumble and grow frustrated. It seems silly. How can this scale be so difficult if all I have done is reverse the sequence?!
After a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks, depending on your aptitude for piano, that will no longer be difficult. The next task, then, would be to play the scale forward with a metronome. Own the scale at 60bpm, then bump up to 65bpm. On to 70bpm. And so on until your fingers feel like disobedient hyperactive children.
Why so much work? Why not just play the scale at the same even tempo in the same order forever?
“The body only adapts to an unaccustomed stimulus.”
In the beginning, when a motor pattern is new, your brain is stimulated, challenged, disturbed. You practice, you succeed for the most part, and you make a few small mistakes. You learn very quickly when you practice this way. We call these “growing pains” when discussing learning a skill.
But once the skill is proficient–roughly correct–most athletes stop there. Sure, you keep practicing, but if you don’t vary the conditions, the difficulty, the stimulation for your brain, your skill development stagnates. You might be good enough to play, good enough to toss a side pass in a clear lane, good enough to throw a flat flick in a pickup game, good enough to make layups in the first half. Yet, when it matters most, you find yourself throwing hospital passes against strong defense, grounding discs into headwinds, and blowing balls off the backboard in the last five minutes of a game. You haven’t generalized your skill set.
To keep disrupting the skill you have learned, to obsessively seek the very edge of your control and precision, to relentlessly pursue perfection in the worst operating conditions…that is the path to true skills mastery. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced this concept when discussing a learner’s Zone of Proximal Development: the most learning occurs at the very edge of what you can do entirely on your own, the leading edge of what you could accomplish with help. (Help still, well, helps, but you have to practice on your own too!) K. Anders Ericsson, PhD, calls this act deliberate practice.
“An elite athlete is simply better at the basics than a beginner.”
And elite athletes get that way by seeking out mistakes, difficulties, and failures in training, then slowly, patiently, deliberately conquering them. So, if you want to make more improvement at your sport skills, step two is to deliberately court failure.
What is the impact of teaching your skill set to someone else?
While training to become a high school math teacher, I was taught to deliver every key piece of information three times. I was taught to speak different languages–what the information is, what the information is like, what the information does. That way, I effectively communicate with students who learn by hearing, students who learn by seeing/imagining, and students who learn by doing.
It’s a great practice for any coach and presenter. By making my point three different ways, each individual receives knowledge via their preferred path. But the real impact is that I have just learned my information three different ways, as well. Every example I offer, every time I open my mouth, is a time I am declaring to my brain, “I believe [this fact] is true about Thing X. [This fact] looks like, sounds like, and is applied like this.”
“The teacher is commonly who does all the learning.”
There are dozens of theories about why teaching increases your own learning, but let me offer a simple explanation: students effectively only “receive” the information I share ONE time but I “receive” that information THREE times. If you teach something, inevitably, you will repeat yourself. You will seek new examples. You will fight to find references that stick for the student. The process of searching for connections, of painting mental images, of describing applications, of offering definitions–that is the reinforcement of a fact. That is learning.
Once you have a vision of excellence and have learned a skill, in addition to challenging its resilience with bad weather, distractions, super-slow movements, and stressful conditions, challenge it further by trying to teach it to a raw beginner. The best thing I ever did when I struggled in Calculus II my freshman year of college was to tutor other freshman in College Algebra and Trigonometry. With every tutoring session, I could see how the algebra skills set up trigonometry skills, which set up calculus skills.
When Texas Showdown players insisted I learn to throw–I don’t play ultimate, friends–the first thing I went off to do was teach one of my high school athletes how to throw a flick. I could throw a flat one ten meters in dead wind. He had no idea how to hold the disc. So teaching him the ultra-basics gave me ideas about improving my throw. I accelerated my learning by teaching someone else.
You don’t need to be a master in order to teach. You simply have to be a little better than your student. So, if you want to make more improvement at your sport skills, step three is to teach a beginner what you know.
What is the impact of a mentor or coach?
(And why is this point last??)
As a professional coach, it probably works against my own financial interests to put this point last. That said, I believe you should watch, you should struggle, and you should think (ie, teach) before you seek help. This runs counter to most advice.
When I decided to return to track and field seven years after running in high school, it was entirely on a whim. A friend told me about an all-comers meet that weekend, I showed up and sucked mightily in a 200 meters, then ran every other week for two months. I got a lot better at every meet. I remembered some things from high school. I went out and practiced on a local track. It just worked.
The biggest mistake I made going into that meet series the following year was to research “good sprinting.” Everyone on the internet has an opinion about training for the sprints! I read everything I could find, I wrote complicated training plans, I made promises to myself about the work I would do, I tried to fix my own technique based on some coach’s words. That year, I ran slower at every meet. No joke.
My practices were so inconsistent, so ineffective, so “research-backed” that I forgot to run fast, run hard, and run often. And my meet results showed it.
Instead of observing the best sprinters in training, struggling through some hard work, or applying what I teach athletes (“I’m more advanced than that!”), I put the cart before the horse.
Should have just watched this guy more…
A coach can stop that from happening. They tell you what to do. No more.
But the magic of “what to do” from a great coach is it represents exactly what you need in the very moment that you need it. Beyond that, a great coach can point out what and how you should practice on your own. A great coach can create an environment of enthusiasm which attracts other talented athletes. A great coach knows how to group people, how to direct them, and how to guide them so they are almost always at the edge of their abilities, which accelerates learning.
A great coach can tell you what to expect, how to deal with inevitable failures, and lead you down a well-defined path. By following the first three steps above, you will improve much faster at your sport skills. But combine watching more advanced athletes, courting failure, and teaching novices your skills with the precision of an experienced, effective coach…then you’re jumping into a rocket ship toward skill mastery.
So, if you want to make more improvement at your sport skills, step four is to find a coach–but don’t do it until you have struggled on your own a bit.
“No one ever learned to cook by reading a recipe book.”
“A poor program executed faithfully and with full effort will produce better results than the perfect program poorly applied.”
If you want to improve faster at your sport skills, don’t spend your time reading about them. (Though you should absolutely read The Talent Code or The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle.) Don’t think your way through them. Don’t second-guess your teacher.
Find someone who is better than you, then watch them execute.
Cultivate your vision of excellence.
Take the skills you have and create situations in which you fail at them 1 in 5 attempts.
Practice at the edge of your ability.
When a beginner asks for help, be the first to show them the basics (if you know them!).
Reinforce your own learning by teaching.
After you have watched, struggled, and processed your sport skills, find a coach.
Accelerate your development with the help of an experienced eye.
I became a pretty good rugby player that year at Texas Tech. While teaching others to lift, I discovered that I could potentially be a great strength coach. In the years since, I have watched, listened to, and/or traveled to meet every successful strength coach to whom I could get access. I test every idea on myself and the better ideas on several dozen athletes each year–and I continuously question everything I say about becoming faster, stronger, and more resilient. I have developed presentations and workshops for new personal trainers and young coaches to improve their communication, their programming skill, their organizational ability. And I have several mentors who kick me in the pants to attack my weaknesses.
If you want to improve faster at your sport skills, you know what to do on your own. If you have tried on your own, feel stuck, and are seeking expert coaching about running faster, jumping higher, playing harder, and preventing injuries, come see me. Let’s accelerate your development.
Then, you, too, can say what a genetic freak you are.